Thursday, 7 July 2016

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain.
But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since I was fretting about Chilcot four years ago when I was writing Stumbling Over Truth.
There was the chance then that Chilcot would crash into my more modest volume.
But that didn't happen. And I've wondered ever since whether Chilcot would answer the only question about Tony Blair and the Iraq war that we didn't have an answer to.
Why?
We've known the what ... and the how ... and, obviously, the when for a long time.
But not the 'why'.
Answers?
Has Chilcot answered that?
Sort-of. Though in truth, Tony Blair's lengthy and emotional news conference on Wednesday 7 July and his interview on BBC Today on Thursday 9 July did more to answer the question 'why' than the report itself.
In both of those, but especially in his penitential news conference, the former Prime Minister showed with more clarity and emotional commentary what was in his mind as he strode to war.
And reassuringly - for me, at least - confirmed something I'd concluded in my book.
Creating the 'truth'
I've always rejected the simple formula that Tony Blair 'lied' to take the country to war - I explain it at length in the book.
Put simply, you don't have to spend too long with all the evidence to realise that he didn't lie about Iraq in the strict sense of saying what he knew to be untrue with what lawyers call a mens rea - a guilty mind.
No, it was something worse. The striking thing is that he sincerely believed that whatever it was he was thinking or saying at the time he was thinking or saying it was true.
Worse still, he was - is still - adept at holding several contradictory truths at one and the same time.
Constrained
That's worrying enough.
But Sir John also confirms that No10 - not just the former Prime Minister but those within his inner circle, too - narrowed their range of policy options beyond what was wise and did so almost immediately after 9/11.
He confirms, too, that as time went on, that range became ever more constrained. Which was why neither Tony Blair nor those close to him thought to challenge the meagre, patchy and suspect intelligence they had in front of them.
And why they couldn't or wouldn't see the significance of Hans Blix's report in the winter of 2003, for example.
As it happens, that narrow focus was even further straitened by the energetic No10 operation to 'create the truth' to get over key bumps in the political road - including the mendacious September 2002 dossier and the risible - aka 'dodgy' - January/February 2003 confection.
Putting a misleading script in front of a man who sincerely believes what he is saying at any one time is not a recipe for serious and considered policymaking.
Especially if that man has already secretly sub-let British foreign and security policy to the White House.
Apologists 
And the 'truth creation goes on even now.
In the 24 hours or so after Sir John reported, we saw a few nips and tucks intended to re-frame what he actually said.
His report says the decision to go to war in Iraq was "based on flawed intelligence and assessments" (my italics).
Listen carefully to the apologists for No10's conduct in 2002/3. And note how they tend to drop the words "and assessments".
In other words ... "it was all MI6's fault - the intelligence was crap."
Now, that's true - but then, intelligence often is crap. Or at best a bit smelly. That's why - as Lord Butler pointed out in his 2004 report - no sane policymaker should ever take raw intelligence at face value.
It's the assessment that matters - and that was done, effectively, in house; in No10.
Flawed assessment of flawed intelligence isn't a great thing to put in front of a Prime Minister who believes whatever he is thinking and saying at any one time is the truth.
The head of MI6 at the time, Richard Dearlove, met regularly with the Prime Minister and apparently scared him witless with raw intelligence. Intelligence the spy chief knew had multiple limitations.
And the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett - the man who nominally 'owned' the intelligence - was more or less a lodger in Downing Street. Even the otherwise blandishing Hutton Inquiry found that No10 had "subconsciously influenced" him in his assessments.
Trusted voices
The problem for the No10 apologists is that there were, as we know, trusted voices inside the intelligence community screaming that the intelligence was flawed. That it needed surrounding with - some thought suffocating with - trucksfull of caveats and cautions.
Not just in publications such as the September dossier but in policymaking too.
Those voices offered the very challenge that Sir John found lacking in Downing Street. But they weren't saying what Downing Street wanted to believe. And so, weren't so much ignored as not heard.
So ...
Do we now know why?
Probably.
In his confessional news conference, Tony Blair more or less begged for our understanding and, perhaps, absolution.
'I truly believed at the time what I was thinking and saying ... and though I was wrong, isn't the world a better place now, anyway' ... was the top and bottom of it.
It's as mundane as that.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Saturday 25 September 1915

This is an extract from 'Dust'. It is taken from the chapter entitled 'Saturday 25 September 1915'. 
'Dust' is the story of one young working class man, almost invisible to history, who died on the first morning of the Battle of Loos. Nothing of him was ever found. 
One photograph and three hastily scribbled postcards written a few days before the battle are all we have to begin to tell his life.
***  
It is 5 am. 
The rain of the past two days, at times torrential, has eased to a thick drizzle. The earth is sodden. Water lies in pools in the pocks and tracks in the open land. It covers the bottom of the trenches. It is ankle deep. There is barely any wind. 
There is no silence. For almost 100 hours, British guns have tossed tons of high explosives and shrapnel onto German lines. Those lines are no more than 400 yards from where Lance Corporal James Airton is standing. Sitting. Leaning. Talking. Waiting.  

It is 5 am and no-one knows what is to happen next. 
Perhaps the first plan. Perhaps they will release thousands of tons of chlorine gas into the still, damp air. The ‘utility’. The ‘accessory’. Perhaps a five mile line of 60,000 men will rise as one out of the trenches to charge and slide and slip and fall in the dense clay. 
Perhaps the other plan. There are two plans. Perhaps they will not let the gas go. Perhaps just 20,000 men will do what they can along a shortened line of two miles or so. Their flanks naked to the German machine gunners. Knowing they cannot do what their orders say they must.     
It is 5 am and the biggest infantry battle in the history of Europe is perhaps an hour and a half away. Or perhaps it is not. Perhaps it will not happen at all. 
Lance Corporal James Airton,
6th King's Own Scottish Borderers
Jim and the rest of the 6th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers have been back in the front line trenches for less than 24 hours. 

It is 5 am. Now they are in the front line. Waiting. If they are to go, theirs will be the hardest task in this unwanted battle.
Jim and his battalion hold the section of trench that cuts the road from Vermelles to Auchy Les Mines. Or what remains of them. A man foolish enough to peer over the parapet would look north east. Some 400 yards away, the German front line trench. The Madagascar Trench. 
Straight ahead, the battalion’s first obstacle and objective. ‘Mad Point’. A machine gun post that controls the Vermelles-Auchy road and stands in front of the remnants of Madagascar village, the Corons de Maroc and Corons de Pekin. Their exotic names belie their drab reality. Smashed shells of what were once rows of miners’ terraced houses. 
To their right, one of the strongest strongpoints  of the German front. The Hohenzollern Redoubt. It bulges 600 yards from the German line. Its nose no more than 250 yards from the British line. It is a fortress with innards of steel and concrete driven onto and into a low slagheap that for all its modest height dominates the low, flat, sodden land around. Its surface a bristling skin of half buried machine guns. They have an uninterrupted, 270 degree field of fire. Behind them, a rash of trenches speed ammunition and reserves to the front. No-man’s land here is “as nasty a bit of ground as any on the battlefield”.
***
It is 5 am and no-one knows what is to happen next. It depends on the wind. Partly on the wind. 
Gas is a gamble. A grim game. An aetherial game of chance. Gas  debilitates, demoralises and destroys. It destroys, burns and corrodes men and machines. But it can not be aimed. It is the caprice of nature that decides whether it kills, blinds or burns your own men or the enemy. The strength and direction of the wind. The only moment of human control is the moment of decision.  Whether to open the taps or not. 
It is 5 am. Jim waits. Waits for that decision and all that will follow.
Gas can not do all that artillery can. It can not uproot and cut the tangles of barbed wire that slow or halt an advancing soldier. That force each man into a high-stepping, macabre dance. That turn him into a standing target. Nor can it excavate the booby traps, the pits lined with spikes.
***
It is 5.40. Haig persuades himself the wind is stronger. The leaves of a poplar tree whisper in the lightest of breezes. It is, he decides, ‘satisfactory’:
“ … but what a risk I must run of gas blowing back upon our dense mass of troops” 
At the northern end of the line, next to the La Bassée canal, facing Auchy les Mines, the air is still. 
One of the men whose job it is to release the gas hesitates. Another man, a senior officer, hesitates, too. He wants to stop the release. He calls Divisional HQ. He tells General Horne:
“The wind is unfavourable and I don’t think I should release”, 
Horne is firm:
“The order is to turn on the gas”
The officer tells General Horne that the man whose job it is to turn on the tap is refusing to do it.
Hornes’ final words are curt: 

“Then shoot the bastard”.
*** 
It is 6.30 am. The noise is unbearable. However much we try we can not imagine it or anything like it today. The closest is an intense spell of sheet lightning but that is a pale, temporary imitation.
There is the smell of wet earth. Of shit and rot and death. Of burnt explosives. Of smoke and gas. 
It is 6.30 am. Whistles blow. Along the five miles of the line. Their shrill soprano cuts through the basso profundo of both sides’ bombardments . The first of 60,000 men heave themselves, their half hundredweight packs, their rifles, wire cutters, spades and other kit over the parapets and out into no-man’s-land. 
It is 6.30 am. Pipe Major Robert Mackenzie hears the whistles. He waits in the centre of the Borderers’ trench. He is 60 years old. At least 60 years old. Perhaps more. No-one knows for sure. He is a legend. He breathes deeply and blows hard into his chanter. Once, Twice. Again. The drones wake. He rises with the first men. Steps over parapet and into the open. His fingers pick out the tune. Men pass him and stride towards Mad Point. He is hit. He plays. He is hit. He plays and walks until bullet after bullet smashes his legs from under him. The German machine gunners are aiming at his pipes.  He stops. He can go no further. He is dragged back.
Pipe Major McKenzie’s wounds will kill him. He will be awarded the Victoria Cross.
***
The laconic battalion diary records those first moments like this:
“Battalion assaulted German trenches at MAD POINT & SE of MADAGASCAR trench at 6.30 am. The position was reached and at some points entered. Severe machine gun fire chiefly from flanks, undestroyed obstacles and uncertain effects of gas caused severe losses and prevented the attack from succeeding.”
*** 
The wire and the booby trap are holding up the men. Those behind, those in the second wave, catch up. They are bunched now, close to the wire. The German machine guns at Strong Point open up. Conan Doyle described it like this:
“Every accumulation of evil which can appall the stoutest heart was heaped upon this brigade … the gas hung thickly about the trenches, and all the troops … suffered from it … The chief cause of the slaughter, however, was the uncut wire, which held up the brigade while the German rifle and machine-gun fire shot them down in heaps.”
Some struggle back to their trenches. A handful. Nine officers remain of the 29 who began the day. Of the men, some 300 still stand of the 924 who stood-to just before dawn. Lance Corporal James Airton is not among those still standing. He is one of the 630 men killed, wounded, gassed or missing.
It begins to rain. Heavy rain.
***
There are no words. Or if there are, they are few.
Captain Stair Gillon, an officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had these a dozen years after that morning’s slaughter. 
“It was all over in a few minutes. The wonderful product of months of zeal, energy, and patriotism was ‘knocked out’ without opportunity of doing more than set an example to posterity by their bravery.”

Friday, 16 May 2014

Are we nearly there yet ...?

Four years late - that's quite an achievement.
But that's how long overdue the Chilcot report is according to Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.
And the thing that's holding it up is the only thing that matters now. The answer to the question 'why?'
We've known 'what' and 'how' for a long time. And the Chilcot panel's often idiosyncratic questioning hasn't, in all truth, added very much to either. Partly because when you read the witnesses' testimony, you find yourself marvelling at the patina that betrays years of burnishing between events and inquiry.
Two years ago, I was fretting over Chilcot. I was writing Stumbling Over Truth. As the cover helpfully tells you, 'the inside story of the sexed-up dossier, Hutton and the BBC'.
And there was the strong expectation then that Chilcot would report a few weeks after my book was due to be published on the 10th anniversary of the September dossier.
That could have been bad news. Not because it would undermine the book but because it would - might - answer the question neither I or anyone else could at that time. 'Why?'
For all the mountain range of evidence that was out there thanks to leaks and the FOI Act, no-one on the outside knew what Tony Blair and George Bush had said or written to each other in private. What, if any, secret understandings or agreements they'd come to.
And the risk to the book was that I'd made it clear that I didn't believe the evidence was there to do what many did. Call Tony Blair a "liar".
Guilty mind
I couldn't see any evidence of what lawyers call a mens rea - for the simple reason that I concluded he truly believed whatever he was saying at the time he was saying it. Even if that meant holding incompatible or even contradictory views at one and the same time.
That doesn't let the former Prime Minister off the hook, however. We know the lengths he and Downing Street went to to 'create the truth'. How those around him nipped and tucked intelligence to make it fit the policy. And how any warning - however authoritative - that he was wrong about Saddam's WMD went into the bin.
New inferences
Two years on and its hard not to make new inferences.
As reported, it's those private messages and, possibly, agreements between PM and President that's holding up Chilcot and has been for some time.
And that's the thing. The longer Chilcot is delayed - and yet again today, we're promised he'll report 'by the end of the year' aka 'not until the end of the year' - the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that those private messages tend to suggest Tony Blair's mens might have been rea after all.
That the 2002/3 exercise in 'creating the truth' wasn't just another example of the cynical and contemptuous way New Labour did its politics day in, day out for a decade. That it was something much more sinister.  
Another seven months of mandarinisation will only persuade us that Chilcot, when he finally reports, has hidden more than he's revealed.
And the test is whether he produces an answer to that question, 'why?'