HOW long have we been learning of such atrocities? Since I was a child in the 1970s? Since my parents were children in the 1950s? Since my grandparents were children in the 1900s?

Britain’s armed forces have a long, shameful and rarely-discussed history of perpetrating war crimes with impunity. Let’s limit our time-frame, and go back only as far as Britain’s Boer War concentration camps, where thousands of women and children perished. But that was the 19th century, surely, the flag-waving uniform-worshipping exceptionalists cry.

Okay, let’s start in the 1920s with Britain’s state-sanctioned brutality during the Irish War of Independence. There’s the original Bloody Sunday, where armed forces, including the infamous Black and Tans, opened fire on civilians during a Gaelic football match at Dublin’s Croke Park, killing 14 people. Later in 1920, soldiers and Black and Tans burned Cork in a barbarous act of reprisal.


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Maybe that’s still too far back for some. Let’s move to the 1950s and Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion, where British soldiers routinely tortured and sexual assaulted prisoners. Victims had their ears sliced off, holes bored in their eardrums; they were flogged to death, set alight. Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney-general of the British administration in Kenya, described the treatment of detainees as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany”.

Still too far back? Then head over to Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s. Nobody, surely, needs reminded about the other ‘Bloody Sunday’ where paratroopers shot innocent people in the streets of Derry. There was internment without trial, torture, and perhaps most appallingly of all, the use of terrorist death squads as proxy assassins for the British state. The list goes on, but the stomach weakens at recording such acts of inhumanity by uniformed representatives of the British people, who disgrace the very notion of democracy and freedom.

Yet today there’s surprise and disbelief that British special forces are accused of running murder gangs in Afghanistan. The claims are horribly familiar to anyone with a grasp of history. SAS soldiers repeatedly killed detainees and unarmed civilians during security operations – that’s the long and short of the allegations.

One unit may have ‘unlawfully killed’ 54 people in just six months. There are claims that the former head of special forces, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, was briefed about allegations but didn’t pass evidence to the Royal Military Police – even after murder investigations began. Carleton-Smith went on to become head of the army. He stepped down last month.

Individuals who served with the SAS unit say they witnessed unarmed people being killed. They also claim that “drop weapons” were used. That’s AK-47s planted to justify killings. The BBC’s investigation ‘SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime?’ raises fundamental questions about the nature of our democracy.

How can we call ourselves a democracy if our military carries out atrocities? Aren’t we committed to human rights, liberty and the rule of law? Apparently not if some of our most elite soldiers are a hallmark of Britain. And the armed forces do represent the nation. We’re told repeatedly the military represents the “best” of Britain; well the military clearly, and often, also represents the worst of Britain.

The former head of the British armed forces, General Lord Richards, says if he were still in charge he’d “order a thorough investigation”. The Ministry of Defence, however, says no new evidence has been presented, and accuses the BBC of jumping to “unjustified conclusions”. Sir Howard Morrison, a former judge at the International Criminal Court, says: “at the very least a judge-led inquiry should be established”. A judge-led inquiry investigated similar allegations against Australian special forces.

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If allegations against the SAS are proven, the only just course of action must be the instant disbandment of the regiment, and life sentences for anyone found guilty of war crimes. Any other organisation found responsible for such offences would cease to exist, so the same goes for the SAS.

Like police officers, soldiers carry ultimate power and authority. To breach that is to debase the nation. In truth, the army – like police officers, politicians and the judiciary – must be held to higher account than the rest of us. If ordinary civilians carry out grave crimes, we don’t do so while representing the British state, we don’t do so with the power of the British state behind us.

However, the British government has been trying its damnedest to make sure that the armed forces are, indeed, held to a lesser standard of accountability than ordinary civilians. There was fury in Northern Ireland when it emerged Boris Johnson’s government wanted to ban prosecutions of British army veterans for crimes committed during “The Troubles”. And isn’t “The Troubles” a very British understated way of describing an ethnic civil war in which the UK played such a gruesome, dark role?

The Johnson government also wanted to exempt British soldiers from prosecution for crimes including torture and genocide. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, an ex-soldier, said the bill would end “vexatious hounding of veterans and our armed forces by ambulance-chasing lawyers motivated not by the search for justice but by their own crude financial enrichment”. The assault on decency and justice is profound.

Amnesty described the British government’s “Troubles” legacy bill as giving “murderers and those responsible for torture a free pass”.

A uniform isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Those who put on a uniform to represent this country must, like police officers, be of the highest calibre; they must be the best amongst us. But, like the police, the army is disgraced by too many who serve within its ranks.

For generations, the army and its government masters have sought to sweep crime after crime under the carpet – all the while pushing false narratives, riddled with glib and ugly patriotism, that the military is beyond reproach and above criticism.

That’s a lie. If there’s anything decent left to be salvaged from the wreckage of Britain today, then let’s start with our sense of justice and ensure those in uniform are held publicly to account.

No more cover-up for the boys in camouflage.


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