Part Three: A Tale of Two Armies
By Padraig Colman
The main purpose and outcome of war is injuring.
- Elaine Scarry
A man called Johnny Mercer was the subject of many headlines in the UK press recently. This is not the Johnny Mercer who brought us such wonderful songs as Moon River, Autumn Leaves and Come Rain or Come Shine. This Johnny Mercer is a Conservative MP and was a government minister. He made a bit of a splash and some might have seen him as a hero for saying that Boris Johnson’s Government was a “cesspit,” adding it was the “most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in.” He was going to resign from his ministerial post on a point of principle, but the man with no principles got his retaliation in first and sacked him. Man with no principles versus a man with principles. One might think that Mercer was the good guy but, hold on. Let us look at what Mercer’s point of principle was.
The Quality of Mercer
Mercer was keen to prevent British soldiers from being prosecuted for war crimes. In previous articles, I have discussed a book which is extremely critical of the British Army and its operations in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Johnny Mercer gets a lot of attention in The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam. Mercer was an Army man who completed three tours of Afghanistan and retired from service in December 2013 with the rank of captain. He was born in Dartford on 17 August 1981 and is the son of a banker and a nurse. Mercer worked briefly in the City of London before joining the Royal Artillery after graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He became a Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View in May 2015. On 28 July 2019, Mercer was appointed as Minister for Defence People and Veterans. His responsibility included Armed Forces personnel and veterans’ welfare. In June 2017, Mercer published We Were Warriors: One Soldier’s Story of Brutal Combat, a memoir of his service and time in Afghanistan.
In a previous article I wrote about The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003. Simon Akam writes that Johnny Mercer was a key force in getting IHAT closed down. In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, he set his stall out to concentrate on two main areas, mental health and provision for veterans. The speech had an impact and Mercer started receiving letters complaining about IHAT. Mercer got the impression that junior ranks were being targeted as scapegoats while more senior, well-connected former officers were being ignored. As Nick Cohen put it in the London Observer, “In Johnny Mercer, the Conservatives had a political entrepreneur ready to turn legitimate complaint into political capital.”
Another person who has been in the news lately is former Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been accused of corruption. According to the London Observer: “The exposure of Cameron’s links to the fallen financier Lex Greensill have dragged a man once regarded as too privileged to think about earning serious money into the cesspit of financial sleaze which he had said he was determined to root out of public life.”
This is the David Cameron who visited Sri Lanka in November 2013 and told the Sri Lankan Government he would join calls for an international inquiry into human rights abuses during the Nation’s war. In January 2016, Cameron asked the National Security Council to produce a plan to stop “spurious claims” against British troops. Mercer was the Chair of a select committee investigating solicitors who were pursuing cases against former soldiers. He was leaking material to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
On 23 March 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This is designed to prevent soldiers accused of war crimes from being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.
Mercer claimed that his point of principle was about treatment of soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland. Did he not notice the name of the bill referred to “Overseas Operations”? Northern Ireland is a part of the UK.
To be fair, the legislation got stuck in the Lords as every retired general, admiral and military Judge you can name warned the Conservatives they risked bringing “the UK Armed Forces into disrepute.” Former Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, said the bill “would increase the danger to British soldiers if Britain is perceived as reluctant to act in accordance with long-established international law.”
Rules for SLA
Much of the propaganda against the SLA stems from falsehoods propagated by Gordon Weiss. However, in his book The Cage, even Weiss has good things to say about the SLA. “It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire.”
Killing for one’s Country
In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “the soldier’s primary goal is not, as is so often wrongly implied, the protection or ‘defence’ of his comrades (if it were this, he would have led those comrades to another geography): his primary purpose is the injuring of enemy soldiers; to preserve his own forces has the important but only secondary and ‘negative’ purpose of frustrating and exhausting the opponent’s achievement of his goal.” Bertrand Russell calls attention to the morally problematic statement, “I am going off to die for my country” rather than acknowledging that “I am going off to kill for my country.”
Scarry writes: “war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all Nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’”. She continues, “consenting to kill, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the Nation.”
“War kills; that is all it does,” writes Michael Walzer in the midst of a complex analysis of just and unjust wars. Walzer reveals that Allied planes during World War II were incapable of targeting their bombs with any more precision than a five-mile radius, yet the misleading term “strategic bombing” was habitually used, and the massive, wide-of-the-mark damage was then designated “unintentional,” even though it was in all instances “foreseeable.” “Being shelled is the main work of the infantry soldier,” writes American poet Louis Simpson about his experience in World War II.
Led by Donkeys
A few from the lower ranks had their knuckles rapped for individual acts of brutality but no one who created the mess was punished in any way. Indeed, as Akam notes they were rewarded for their incompetence. “All those who ran that blighted campaign continue to move up the promotional system unimpeded.” As a result of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, “Britain developed a globally unprecedented web of accountability measures for individual malfeasance on the battlefield. Yet, it did so while establishing almost zero accountability for the high-level decision-making that led to the prosecution of two deeply troubled campaigns.”
Akam explains why he wrote his book. “I thought that perhaps this idea that there was glory in the profession of arms was not just an inevitability of adolescence, but a violent trick, the revenge of old men upon the young. There is little redemption through violence to be had in foreign fields, and legs blown off are gone for good.
It was then that I knew I needed to write this.”