‘Shame on you.’ These three words addressed to Tony Blair and George Bush at the funeral of Rose Gentle’s 19 year old son Gordon announced the beginning of the Military Families campaign. Reverend Mann pointed the finger at those ultimately responsible for Gordon Gentle’s death in Basra. Rose Gentle had encouraged Mann to tell the truth about her son’s death.
Within weeks Rose had been joined by Reg Keys and together they founded Military Families Against the War (MFAW). This campaign is unique in British political history – it bears comparison with the Military Families Speak Out campaign in the US, with which it is linked. The campaign exposed very quickly the fragility of the army and the resonance of the anti-war movement throughout the population.
MFAW discovered that many soldiers and their families had been present on the 15 February demonstration. They had opposed the war and knew all the arguments that had been central to the Stop the War campaign. There was also an embryonic network of internet chatrooms and support groups on army bases already set up by army wives. These echoed the support groups set up by the miners’ wives in the 1984-85 strike.
As the arguments for the war began to unravel others joined these military families, including many families and soldiers who had initially supported the war because they believed the case made by the government over weapons of mass destruction.
The ‘families group’ of those whose sons and husbands have been killed in Iraq started by Reg and Rose has grown to include 16 families and each week more families are coming forward. The Ministry of Defence is desperate to stop families contacting each other because it realises that the majority of them now want many questions answered.
All these families, now joined by a number of soldiers wounded in Iraq, are united around a central demand – for an effective public and independent inquiry into the legality of the war. It is almost unprecedented that any family of a soldier killed in battle would speak out. The fact that close to 20 percent now do so reflects the deep opposition to the war within the army itself. Anti-war protesters have leafleted army recruitment centres, barracks and even the Save our Regiments marches and on each occasion have received a positive response. ‘We shouldn’t be in Iraq,’ is the most heard expression.
Soldiers themselves have come forward from the reserves, the Territorial Army and the regular army. All testify to the unpopularity of the Iraq war stretching through all ranks. Many hundreds of young soldiers are now absent without leave (Awol) and recruitment among teenagers is at an all time low. As one general put it, ‘Soldiers feel there’s no point in busting themselves to do a dirty job in Iraq, if back home people are saying the commitment is wrong, maybe even illegal.’
So far the army has ignored the Awol crisis but there has also been a 35 percent drop in recruitment meaning that many regiments will be unable to operate in Iraq. This echoes the situation that developed in Vietnam but over a much shorter period and in more concentrated form in Iraq.
In Vietnam the war was lost because the army refused to fight. The army refused to fight both because of the resistance in Vietnam and because a mass anti-war movement was built in the US. In the Armed Forces Journal in June 1971 Col Robert Heinl wrote, ‘Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or refusing combat, murdering their officers, drug riddled and dispirited where not near mutinous. These are indicators of the worst kind of military trouble… exceeded only in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle Mutinies and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.’
In Iraq today over 40 percent of US soldiers are from the national guard – part time volunteers. The national guard used to be the path to avoiding combat. Today it is the opposite. Already soldiers are pursuing court cases objecting to extensions in their tours of duty. This stop-loss policy pursued by the US military is the reintroduction of the draft through the back door.
Some military units in Iraq have refused orders that they consider too risky. This dissent initially takes the form of complaints about the poor state of their equipment but could increasingly question the whole war project. The US army has lost over 1,600 troops to date, with a further 16,000 injured. The military families campaign which began in the US in 2003 with two members now has over 2,000. Recruitment has slumped and more than 5,000 soldiers are Awol.
In Britain part time Territorial Army soldiers are increasingly drawn into front line service to try and overcome the recruitment problem here. They are also a cheap option for the army. The army has little responsibility for these soldiers who can be discharged as soon as they’ve been wounded and sent to receive their medical care through the NHS. Many TA soldiers have returned suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but have received little psychiatric help. Mental illness among those who have served in Iraq is common.
The recruitment crisis is based on poor pay and endemic bullying, particularly of very young recruits. The British army is the only one in Europe that still recruits child soldiers – you can sign on for 22 years on your sixteenth birthday. The campaign of the parents of the soldiers killed at the Deepcut barracks has highlighted the bullying but it is the agitation of Rose Gentle and others against the Iraq war that has been mostly responsible for the drop in recruitment and fed the general dissatisfaction within the army itself. Rose has also exposed the way unemployed youngsters are enticed into the army, often recruited when they go to sign on. As Rose puts it, ‘Gordon wanted to travel and get a trade. When he signed up that is what he was told his future was. They didn’t mention their war in Iraq.’
The ripples from the 15 February movement have reached into previously untouched sections of the population. The depth and breadth of the anti-war movement meant that the left had to organise new ways of working politically. We were forced to respond to the fact that the ‘war on terror’ was radicalising whole communities with whom we previously had little contact. This is the case with the Military Families campaign, who are doing some of the most effective work against the war.
George Solomou, who resigned from the TA because of his opposition to the war, has just returned from a tour of Scandinavia where he spoke at a series of anti-war rallies. Ray Hewitt, a reservist who fought in the first Gulf war, received a standing ovation when he addressed delegates at the recent NUT conference. Rose Gentle and Reg Keys are national political figures. Reg Keys’ speech at the count in Sedgefield was, apart from George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, the defining moment of the 2005 election.
Blair may believe that he is over the worst with Iraq but he underestimates the depth of anger of the military families towards his war. As one mother said, ‘I asked Hoon, why did my son die? He was silent and turned away from me.’ Blair has refused to meet these families but their day will come.
They are taking legal action to force a public inquiry into the war and its legality. This will be accompanied by a national petitioning campaign. The families are linking up with wounded and serving soldiers to hold this government to account. The crisis for the Blair administration rests in this – it is now impossible to conceive of the army being able to fight another war on the same basis as the invasion of Iraq. Nor is it even possible for the British army to deploy in support of US forces in Iraq. When the Black Watch were re-deployed to the so called triangle of death in order to support the attack on Fallujah last November there was a public outcry. Relatives of Black Watch soldiers accompanied others from MFAW to protests in central London. British troops are largely confined to barracks in southern Iraq or are, at most, detailed to protect oil exports.
Every soldier now killed in Iraq undermines any residual support for the war and shortens Blair’s tenure in Downing Street. This is not just Blair’s problem though – the whole cabinet, with the exception of Robin Cook, went along with this war. The whole cabinet asked not one question of the attorney general nor did a single member ask to see his written legal advice. The Labour Party might feel they have a get out of jail free card with Gordon Brown, but there is a crisis of legitimacy that spreads through the whole system. The Iraq war will haunt Labour’s third term just as it did the second.
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