LONDON — Around the world, the British military has been hailed as a force for good in Iraq - as a level-headed army whose peacekeeping experience in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere has enabled it to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Yet here in the United Kingdom, British soldiers stand accused of committing war crimes against Iraqi civilians and POWs.
Allegations of misconduct have dominated much of the postwar debate. A little over six weeks since the war ended, war crimes accusations have hit the headlines and shaken the British military - even though, by all accounts, British troops don't appear to have committed any particularly heinous acts in Iraq. What gives?
The British have no one to blame but themselves for the war crimes whirlwind. In the run-up to the war, coalition forces promised to "tread lightly" in Iraq, to respect and liberate rather than degrade and conquer. Having failed to live up to such exacting - some might argue, impossible - standards, British forces now find themselves lambasted for doing what armies do - bad things. In the war-crimes debate, British forces have been hoist with their own prewar petard.
The finger-pointing started in mid-May, when Lt. Col. Tim Collins - who until then had been the British media's hero of the war - was accused of pistol-whipping an Iraqi civic leader, kicking POWs, and "issuing threats" to Iraqi townspeople. It later transpired that Colonel Collins was accused, not by aggrieved Iraqis, but by Maj. Re Biastre, an American Army reservist apparently unhappy with the way Collins had spoken to him during the conflict. Yet Major Biastre's allegations were enough to raise headline questions about whether Collins was a "war hero or war criminal."
At the end of May, a British soldier was arrested for allegedly taking degrading photos of Iraqi POWs. One photo showed a half-naked Iraqi suspended by rope from a forklift truck; another showed two naked Iraqis lying on a stone floor. On May 30 - the day the world media reported Tony Blair's "historic" visit to Basra, where he praised his forces' "huge, mighty, and momentous" contribution - The Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid, ran with the front-page headline: "Squaddie Held Over 'Torture' Snaps of Iraqi POW."
Now, more seriously, Britain's Royal Military Police are investigating events in southern Iraq, where two Iraqis died after being arrested and allegedly manhandled by Brits. According to the Daily Telegraph, the investigation has "cast a shadow over the reputation of British occupation forces in southern Iraq."
These instances of British bad behavior in Iraq may be unsavory - but they hardly rank up there with America's My Lai massacre in Vietnam or Britain's own Bloody Sunday killings in Ireland. Yet from Tim Collins "issuing threats" to local Iraqis, to the alleged maltreatment of POWs, all have been lumped together as potential evidence of British "war crimes" in Iraq.
This seems to be more a consequence of the coalition's own uncertainty than of any attempt by Iraqis to label their invaders criminals. It was the coalition camp that first made war crimes into a central issue in the Iraq war. In their bid to convince us that the invasion was to liberate, not to conquer, coalition forces promised that they would "tread lightly," avoid civilian casualties, treat Iraqis with respect, and commit no crime against their POWs.
These pre-war assurances pointed to a certain defensiveness in the coalition's campaign. They were determined not to come across as an imperial army, but as disinterested liberators. Yet bad things happen in the heat of war - and now these bad things are coming back to haunt those who promised to respect Iraqis.
Consider the case of Collins. There was a palpable sense of shock when he was accused of "war crimes." Yet it was Collins, in his famous speech on the eve of the Iraqi war (March 19), who said coalition forces would "tread lightly."
"We go to liberate, not to conquer.... We are entering Iraq to free a people.... Show respect for them," he said.
The things that Collins was accused of doing - pistol-whipping one Iraqi, shouting orders at others - may not sound like war crimes as we know and despise them. Yet it seems that when you depict yourself as a respectful liberator who will be on his best behavior at all times, even shouting and lashing out can be considered a war crime.
Which raises the question: How long before war itself becomes a war crime?
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of www.spiked-online.