Colonel David Benest reviews ‘The Death of Baha Mousa’

Colonel David Benest, now retired, is an expert on British counter-insurgency (COIN) and atrocities committed during COIN operations. His review of A.T. Williams’ shocking account of the killing of Baha Mousa in Iraq is relevant in many ways to the Scots Guards’ actions in Batang Kali in December 1948. 

The essay was written originally for the British Army Review (BAR) but was rejected. I am pleased to be able to publish it here with David’s permission.

On 14 September 2003 Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist, was arrested in Basra by soldiers of The  Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (1 QLR) and taken to Battalion Main HQ for interrogation in connection with the murder of six RMP officers. Less than forty-eight hours later he was dead. This account is of how and why this death took place and its aftermath at a court martial in Bulford, Wiltshire.
The author is a professor of law and Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick. His account covers three parts – the events in Iraq of 2003 (148 pages), investigations within Britain (45 pages) and the eventual court martial (76 pages). It is probably the most detailed exposition available regarding the conduct of this battalion and is told with a degree of exactitude that is remarkable, occasionally intertwined with understandable sardonic and sarcastic remarks regarding the entire episode and its investigation by the Royal Military Police (RMP).
Neither the Commanding Officer, his officer chain of command, his WO’s and Sergeants’ Mess, nor his junior ranks, can rejoice in the telling of this tragedy. In particular, the battalion padre and doctor are notable in their complicity in all that took place in the detention centre. If there is one omission in this appalling story, it would in my eyes be the action or inactions of the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) and the WOs, who more or less emerge unscathed, yet are, in all battalions of the British Army, most responsible for the maintenance of good morale and discipline, which so spectacularly failed in Iraq. Yet the CO was awarded the DSO for his tour of duty in Iraq and but one individual, Corporal Donald Payne, admitted to inhuman behaviour and sentenced accordingly. All other suspects suffered form ‘collective amnesia’.

Needless to say, there were those such as General the Lord Dannatt and our Prime Minister, amongst others, who would claim that this was a ‘new’ form of warfare and that today’s soldiers lack, in some instances, the ethical ‘compass’ to guide them through these troubled waters – a product of a ‘broken society’ and thus in some sense, excusable. This argument is usually linked to the decline of Christianity on these shores. As I have made clear elsewhere, this is naïve and deceptive of historical realities, given the actual record of British military atrocities over the past century and the usual inaction of the chain of command, especially the chaplaincy, in these circumstances. Williams makes the same point, whether regarding a similar investigation by Roderic Bowen into atrocities in Aden or those of 1972 in Northern Ireland. In all, Williams, quoting the report by Sir William Gage,  cites eight officers, two senior ranks and eighteen soldiers as being culpable.
There are doubtless some RUSI readers who would much prefer that this book was never written and that reviews such as this one should not appear. I would suggest otherwise, that this account is essential reading for those about to embark upon ‘wars among the people’ to use Rupert Smith’s somewhat hackneyed phrase.  As I have pointed out to a recent ICSC(L) audience, there is no higher duty placed upon commissioned officers in the British Army than that the events of 2003 within 1 QLR should never have been allowed and that those most responsible, which must begin and end with the CO and RSM, are always held to account. This book demonstrated unequivocally that the ‘buck’ did not stop at this level but instead was passed, ‘like shit downhill’ to use the commentary of one of the accused, to the lowest brutal level of a psychopathic corporal.

A Very British Killing – The Death of Baha Mousa, A.T. Williams, VINTAGE BOOKS, pbk, 2013, pp 298, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-099—57511-5

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