Let me list all the people we are not particularly proud of in Britain at the moment. First off, are the politicians. Nothing new there, you might say. Whoever could be proud of politicians? Still, they seem to have messed up the aftermath of the Iranian hostage-taking and release in a particularly noxious fashion, not least because of their pusillanimity with regards to the boys in uniform. No, I don’t mean the Iranian Revolutionary Guard but our own boys in uniform, specifically the First and Second Sea Lords.
We hear a lot about the problem that few, if any, of our politicians have served in the forces and what a problem that is in time of war. Actually, that is not true. For most of Britain’s history politicians had not spent any time in the forces, these being professional ones. For all of that, it has always been assumed that ultimately the military are responsible to the politicians, which happens to be the sign of democracy. The boys in uniform do not rule.
It so happens that for a good part of the twentieth century a larger proportion of the British population did serve in the forces and, therefore, for some decades a sizeable number of politicians had seen some service. This is no longer true and has not been for some time.
Is this a problem? Well, yes, but not in the way it is usually described. The idea that you have to have been on a ship, in a tank, in a fighter aeroplane in order to make decisions is nonsensical because politicians do not make operational decisions. Those are left to the professionals and a right mess they have made of it, too. (More of that later.) The problem has been the exact opposite: the politicians have been unable to stand up to the military or, in this case, the senior naval officers, even when the latter were making disastrous decisions.
When I say we are not proud of our politicians, I mean both members of the Government and the Opposition. Faced with a shambolic performance by everybody the Conservatives refused to act “negatively”. Instead they managed to make themselves irrelevant while the hostages were in captivity and have now become involved in the ridiculous question of who made the decision to let the sailors and marines sell their story. Actually, we know the answer to that. It was the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns, acting within his remit as defined by the Queen’s Regulations. We also know why Des Browne the Secretary of State for Defence chickened out of countermanding the instructions when he was presented with a fait accompli. Because, as I said above, politicians are incapable of standing up to the experts, particularly if those experts wear a uniform.
(When I showed this paper to my colleague Richard North, he said that I was a little hard on Des Browne. For a politician to countermand a done-and-dusted operational decision by one of the most senior officers is no easy matter. It can be done only if the reasons are superlatively good and they did not seem to be at the time.)
Altogether everyone involved in that decision wilfully ignored the possible fall-out or assumed that the media and the public would simply go along with feel-good personal stories and abandon any idea of a Board of Inquiry, routine in such cases but, for some reason, discarded in this one. To some extent the media did but, as they were interested only in the officers who finally took the hint and disappeared, the woman Leading Seaman and the youngest, Able Seaman Arthur Batchelor, known as Mr Bean by the Iranian captors, there was an inevitable scramble and some lost out. Those that did, such as the Daily Mail and the BBC immediately started a campaign of either vilifying those who had sold their stories or elaborately ignoring them by giving more attention than one would think was possible to the four victims of the Iranian-made bomb, killed the day the “frightened fifteen” came home. As luck would have it, two women were killed as well, so it was easy to show up the difference between them and L/S Turney.
Another thing neither the senior naval commanders, nor the Ministry of Defence nor the Secretary of State took into account was public attitude. The behaviour of the fifteen in captivity, their grovelling good-byes to Ahmadinejad and their swift attempt to sell their stories nauseated servicemen, ex-servicemen, families thereof and just about everybody who cares about the good name of our military.
So the plan collapsed and Des Browne was forced to countermand Admiral Johns’s orders (not that it did him any good) while the Tories, one and all, stayed with the cover-up, as more and more people have been demanding a proper inquiry. In fact, we shall almost certainly get a far wider inquiry than a Navy Board would have been. As on other occasions, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Cameron, Hague, Fox and all, will be left behind.
We are not proud of our media, which covered the story in the most superficial way possible, did not bother to get anything right either in terms of chain of command or military equipment, then leapt at the chance of publishing or broadcasting stories of the blubbing babies.
We are not proud of the British blogosphere. Most of the time it looked like the American blogs were paying more attention to what was going on and what it meant for Britain’s standing in the world than the British ones did. These largely contented themselves with rehashing feeble newspaper stories and throwing their hands up in horror before going back to the gossipy politics they largely prefer.
It is easy for me to say this because our blog, EUReferendum, followed the story in great detail and analyzed all available information. This was, almost entirely the work of my colleague Richard North with a little help from me. But we are not proud of some of the people on our forum (or on other forums such as the ConservativeHome blog) who have been so imbued with Blair Derangement Syndrome that they would rather ignore what is a national crisis and would much rather not know anything about it or try to deal with it than to accept that, for once, this was not primarily Blair’s fault.
We are not proud of the Ministry of Defence that has been unable to control events or even ensure that the media did not get any stupid and embarrassing stories or pictures (particularly the one of AB Batchelor holding his mummy’s and his auntie’s hands).
Sadly, we are not proud of the Royal Navy. It is heartbreaking to have to say this but the Senior Service is clearly riven with problems that go from the very top, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band to Able Seaman Batchelor, who lost his iPod to the Iranian kidnappers. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is clearly well up on the tackier parts of Western culture since they obviously knew about the egregious Mr Bean.)
It seems the Royal Navy, as a whole, preferred to ignore the existence of Iran as a problem, despite the fact that Iranian boats had been seen in the area and not with friendly intent. As Admiral Band put it, Iran was not in the picture. I bet the army just loved that.
It is still unclear what the Rules of Engagement were and who decided on them, so I shall leave that aside. But there was no need for Admiral Band to announce as soon as the “frightened fifteen” arrived home that they had behaved with remarkable courage and dignity, when we had all just watched, appalled, their behaviour on the tarmac of Tehran airport.
Admiral Band also made a couple of quite remarkable decisions. What everyone had confidently expected was that the fifteen hostages, once returned home, will see their families briefly and will, then, be sequestered for a lengthy de-briefing. Simultaneously the Admiral will announce a Board of Inquiry, which is called whenever an operation fails, put the matter sub judice and in the fullness of time inform the country of the findings on what went wrong.
Instead, the First Sea Lord decided that there would be merely a “lessons learnt” inquiry, which is code for cover-up and white-wash. He then abandoned, to all intents and purposes, the idea of debriefing the fifteen returnees. Instead he lined them up for an embarrassing press conference, which may have confirmed what we knew already, that they were kidnapped from Iraqi waters but also told the world that they had collaborated under minimal pressure. Among other questions raised was one of the sailors’ and marines’ training for dealing with capture and easy mind games on the part of the captors. It seems that the sailors had had none and the marines had had only very little. Or, maybe, this bunch had not paid any attention.
Then the fifteen returnees were sent off to their families to be photographed by a somewhat frenzied media (see above for why we are not proud of our media). Apparently, there were no MoD minders about and some of the stories and pictures that were published made a bad situation considerably worse.
Enter Second Sea Lord, Admiral Johns, who decided (and he was absolutely within his rights) that the frightened fifteen could, unusually, sell their stories to the media. The minister was presented with a fait accompli and decided, at first, not to go against it. Well, we know what happened afterwards. A justifiable outrage and a ministerial decision that the little cry-babies could no longer whimper to journalists. In the short interval between the two decisions we were given a fascinating insight into what happened in that captivity. I shall come to it later because I want to deal with the Royal Navy in hierarchical order.
The question is why did the Second Sea Lord, no doubt in consultation with the First one, make this decision and rush out an announcement. The almost inevitable answer, I am afraid, is that the two admirals and other very senior officers are afraid of an inquiry, which proposes the next inevitable question of what is it they are hiding. Just how bad are things in the navy?
Moving down the chain of command and omitting several attention-seeking Admirals and senior officers, we come to Commodore Nick Lambert, who is very fond of having journalists around and being photographed in his natty uniform. Sadly, we have far too many senior officers at the moment.
Commodore Lambert was in charge of a coalition fleet in the area, a fact that seems to have escaped his attention, for he seems not to have called on American or Iraqi help although certainly the first was available and ready to go. Could the good Commodore be one of those “we are so much better at it than the dumb Yanks” officers? Rumour has it that he has been relieved of that particular command at the insistent request of the Americans. I should like to believe that rumour.
It would seem that the whole shambolic operation was put together by the Commodore though we do need that Inquiry to find out what really happened. Why was the frigate so far away from the freighter the dinghies were going to? Why did the helicopter return to the Cornwall half-way through the operation, apparently to the boarding party’s intense surprise?
Then there is Commander Wood, captain of the Cornwall (this is beginning to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song). One wonders about the discipline on the ship if at least one Able Seaman went off on a boarding expedition with his iPod in hand and, no doubt, the earplugs in his ears. What else did they have with them that the Iranians simply helped themselves to?
Captain Air RM, in charge of the green team that provides the security, appears to have made an extremely silly and fateful decision. As the helicopter started back to the frigate (or so we think, though we don’t know for sure, as there have been at least four different stories) the Iranian boats moved in, watched by at least one local fisherman who got in touch with someone he knew, who, in turn, knew someone who knew the local Reuters stringer. That is how the story broke, while the officers on the Cornwall debated what to do and tried to sit on it.
Sighting the Iranian boats, Captain Air did not do the obvious thing: stay on the ship, which gives you an advantage, challenge the Iranians who were in Iraqi waters and demand that they leave. Instead he ordered the fifteen into their dinghies where they were confronted by the Iranians with somewhat superior firing power. Of course, we do not know what his orders had been before and we still do not know exactly what the Rules of Engagement are. Nevertheless, putting his people into the dinghies in the circumstances was, shall we say, unwise.
So we come to the actual captivity and the cringe-making photographs and films of L/S Turney, Captain Air and Lieutenant Scarman explaining how they were, indeed, in Iranian waters and apologizing to the Iranian people. Many of us refused to condemn their behaviour while this was going on as we did not know what sort of threats and pressures they were under though, even then, there were mutterings that the officers should have made some sign to the audience that they were speaking under duress. Now we know that the pressures were minimal.
That makes one wonder why the two officers did not put an end to all that group-hugging and whimpering and impose proper discipline. It is their job to do so, as we know from countless accounts of POW camps. Could Lt Scarman not have made sure that in the last few minutes the sailors stood straight, refused the goodie bags, and did not grin and wave like demented clowns? Could Captain Air not have done the same for the marines, who, at least did not smile or wave but scowl in the background? That scene should have shown the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines at their best. Instead … well, instead, we are not very proud of them. Somehow, I do not think either of the officers has a long career ahead of him.
Then there are the goodie bags, so eagerly examined on TV by the fifteen. Even people who had defended their behaviour in captivity felt a little nauseous. If they thought they had to take those bags (and there seems no reason for it), would it have been absolutely impossible to auction them for some charity to do with families of those killed in combat? Instead, we had AB Batchelor, a.k.a Mr Bean whining about the low quality of the goodies. Actually, I was somewhat amused by the fact that the Iranians felt impelled to put into the bags several texts about morals and morality.
If there is an inquiry, as I said at the beginning, it will be a more far-ranging one than the one the First Sea Lord refused to have. My guess is that there are some very uneasy heads at senior level in the Royal Navy. In the meantime, all I can say is that we are very proud of many of our servicemen and women. Anyone who doubts their abilities should read Michael Yon’s recent account of Basra. But there are many, at all levels, we are not proud of. Strangely enough, they are always the people who talk long and loud about the absolute superiority of British forces as compared to everyone, especially the dumb Yanks.