The Iraq 'abuse' squaddies, at some conscious or subconscious level, must surely have asked themselves the following question:
Beating people up, stripping them naked, sexually abusing them and tying them to fork-lift trucks. Is this:
A) A normal part of soldiering; or
B) A bit weird, and maybe 'wrong'?
Unfortunately, the soldiers' answer was 'A'.
This isn't just brutality, it's idiocy. The three men facing a court martial don't even have the excuse that they were young and impressionable (and many squaddies are young and impressionable) - the defendants are 33, 25 and 30. And like idiots the world over, they did what any good idiot does after they've done something reprehensible: they take photos of it and get them developed at the chemist's.
Equally idiotically, did it never cross their minds that the army can't ignore this sort of thing when it's under enormous pressure from the government to be a liberating/ peacekeeping force? You can practically hear Geoff Hoon pleading with the army chiefs of staff:
'We're in enough trouble as it is. Don't let any of your lot fuck things up by raping some Iraqi woman. Can you put something in their tea?'
What Hoon couldn't have guessed was that squaddies would get their kicks by getting Iraqi men to simulate bumming and blow jobs. And who can blame him? Homo-photo-erotic abuse seems to be a fairly new development for the military. The Red Army didn't bother faffing around with cameras on the Eastern Front, they just hammered empty cartridge cases through people's knees then shot them. But maybe they didn't have disposable cameras in WW2. Antony Beevor should investigate.
The abuse in Iraq prompted Tony Blair to comment that the pictures 'shouldn't be allowed to tarnish the good name, fully deserved, of our British armed forces.' What he *should* have said was that the pictures 'inevitably will affirm the weird reputation, somewhat deserved, of our British armed forces.'
It's not a good time for 'the good name' of the army. The media has reminded us repeatedly that, years down the line, we still don't know exactly what has been happening at Deepcut Barracks, except that it involved severe bullying, sexual harassment, suicide and instances of self-harm.
Meanwhile five members of the Household Cavalry were recently arrested over an attack in which an Arab student lost an eye after being hit with a bottle. The victim, Adnan Said, commented: 'I was speaking Arabic. That is the only reason I think they started swearing at us. They were saying things like "You dirty fucking foreigner".'
And finally there was Lance Corporal David Atkinson who murdered the student Sally Geeson and who may well be responsible for other attacks and murders.
It would be wrong to extrapolate anything from this last example, since every profession appears to have its serial killers. (Just watch out for GPs who moonlight as lorry drivers, is all we can say.) But perhaps it's time to stop romanticising the army.
There's a certain fundamental dishonesty about the army. Adverts for the army tout it as a career in everything except fighting wars. You can be a driver, a mechanic, a computer operator - anything so long as it's not 'hardened killer'.
And let's be frank about who the army recruits. Ignoring the officer class, many of whom have shrewdly worked out that the army is a good way to get paid for going on extreme adventure holidays or joining a free polo club, the vast majority of ordinary recruits are working class lads. They're often none-too-bright and often from slightly grim areas. And let's stick with this frankness theme: some of them are yobs.
Thus it's not surprising that the army is a macho organisation - sometimes in good ways, sometimes in very bad ones. The army is also deeply insular. The upside of these things is camaraderie, which soldiers genuinely love, but the downside is bullying, sexism, racism and homophobia. When soldiers behave badly in Iraq, or for that matter Catterick town centre, is it really that surprising?
Of course, we should keep the Iraq abuse in perspective. With 65,000 British troops out in Iraq at one time or another, there are bound to be some bad apples in the proverbial barrel (although more brutality cases are pending in the same apple barrel). It's also worth noting that the Iraqis were probably looters who were roughed up and humiliated, not exactly tortured.
Not the greatest of mitigating circumstances for the abusers, but there you go.
But it doesn't change the fact that it should never have happened, for oh-so-many reasons. The abuse pictures have gone global, and Iraqis aren't going to be quite as understanding as we Brits are about apples and barrels. And if Al Quaeda exists, they're probably cracking open the non-alcoholic champagne even as we speak.
When you pretend, as the government and sections of the press seem to, that the army is a model of good behaviour, staffed entirely by thoroughly decent chaps with an interest in multi-culturalism who might have stepped out of a 'plucky Tommies' war film from 1942, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Maybe if we stopped romanticising the army, politicians would be less keen to deploy troops in situations where they're not going to be much use, eg. winning the hearts and minds of a justifiably aggrieved nation.
But we still think Hoon couldn't have predicted they'd be so keen on taking pictures of men in the nuddie.