After Chilcot: Bereaved Military Families and the Other

In 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that with the last troops coming home from Iraq (discounting the many who stayed for security reasons) the time was right to establish an investigation to ‘enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years.’ On 6 July 2016, the Chilcot Report was released in Britain. The conclusions of the Report were damning. In a prodigious 2.6 million words, it outlines a litany of failures by state officials and institutions, ranging from the run up to the war to the subsequent invasion and occupation. As well as reconsidering the special relationship with the US, the Report offers a multitude of lessons in regards to security strategy, parliamentary process, and operational effectiveness during conflict. After successive controversial delays in its publication, fears of a ‘white-wash’ were allayed and most critics of the Iraq War felt they were vindicated by its conclusions.

It is important, however, that after the release of the Chilcot Report we should also not forget the underlying social forces that are usually regarded as trivial or inconsequential on the larger stage of international politics. Here, lie powerful social forces that are central to the politics of war.

Among these social forces, the bereaved families of 179 British soldiers who died in the Iraq War have played an important role. Since 2004, when it was officially concluded that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), thus undermining the main justification for the invasion, the bereaved relatives engaged in numerous commemorative, political, and democratic activities in opposition to the conflict. This shift from private to public loss was antithetical to the way in which bereaved military families are expected to act in militarised settings. Rather than lending their emotional legitimacy to the war effort, the bereaved military families articulated their grief in public opposition to the conflict. This was made easier in the context of one of the most unpopular wars in history.

Fabio Venni

Image courtesy of Fabio Venni, © 2007, some rights reserved.

The families’ anger was fuelled by the knowledge that British combatants were not adequately equipped and protected in the war-zone. The Chilcot Report highlighted how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was unable to keep up with the demands of the government’s mobilisation timetable and commitment to fighting two wars at once in Iraq and Afghanistan. In many cases, these failures were fatal. The controversial ‘Red Caps’ case in 2003 saw the massacre of six British soldiers without body armour, with too little ammunition, and without the Iridium satellite phones that would have enabled them to call for help. Reg Keys, whose son Tom was one of the six Royal Military Police killed in Majar al-Kabir in 2003, solemnly declared after Chilcot that his son ‘had died in vain.’ Throughout the Iraq War, Keys was very active on the political scene, causing unease for the government and the war effort abroad. He spoke at anti-war rallies, staged protests near army bases and stood for election to the British Parliament against Tony Blair in 2005. In his speech at the election event, Keys made an emotional speech directly in front of Tony Blair, lambasting the illegality of the war and honouring the sacrifice of the 88 soldiers who had died so far. These political efforts were acknowledged in a BBC dramatization released just one month before the release of Chilcot, which shed light on the struggle of bereaved military families in coming to terms with loss and the politics of war.

After the release of Chilcot, the bereaved families created the Iraq War Families Campaign Group (IWFCG) who, in their own words, ‘are seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the War and the deaths of our loved ones.’ For them, Tony Blair has come to embody all the failure, deceit, and calamity of Iraq. In light of the fact that Blair is immune from prosecution in the International Criminal Court, the IWFCG publicly crowd sourced a legal fund of £150,000 to investigate whether Blair, and others they hold responsible for the war, can be prosecuted in private civil proceedings. Ignoring the unlikelihood of these private civil proceedings ever taking place, the numerous political activities of these families are still significant. These grassroots activities demonstrate how seismic the decision to invade Iraq was for British politics. They also show the power of grief in the politics of war.

There is, however, an uneasy tension inherent in the anti-war voice of grieving military families. This tension derives from the military-families’ inextricable ties and affinity with the military and its institutions. In order to successfully criticise the war effort, the families had to detach the honour and valiance of the soldiers’ sacrifice from the illegal and inadequately supported war. This decoupling of the soldier from his/her mission allowed the families to honour the sacrifice of their loved ones and treat him/her as a victim of the war, rather than as integral to its conduct.

This inherent tension between the families’ anti-war activities and their military ties has become visible in regards to the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT). This team is investigating allegations of abuse, murder, torture, rape and other atrocities by British personnel in Iraq from 2003 to July 2009. Some of these allegations are potentially war crimes and have been admitted to the International Criminal Court for further investigation.

In response, the families have reacted angrily and denied the right for these investigations to take place. In attempting to justify their dismissal of the investigations, the families have pointed to the unjustness of how Tony Blair, or any culpable state officials, has been shielded from being tried in court. Roger Bacon, whose son Matt Bacon, a major in the Intelligence Corps, was killed in a roadside bomb in 2005, said: ‘It is outrageous. It is double standards. These soldiers have gone out to do their best for us and here they are being hounded and yet the guy who took them there is not being looked at. That is completely wrong and disgusting.’ Concurrently, Reg Keys said: ‘The ICC should be using the Chilcot report as a basis for a legal action against Tony Blair not as ammunition against British soldiers for alleged abuse.’

Notwithstanding Reg Keys mistaken view of the Chilcot Report, which explicitly ruled out looking into any allegations of British war crimes, the sentiment is clear. The families, with unshakeable imaginings of soldiers as both heroes and victims, are unable to conceive of them as criminal; especially in the context of a war that they believe should not have been fought in the first place.

In Carol Acton’s book, Grief in Wartime, she explores the political and gendered experiences of the bereaved through different conflicts. Acton argues that the families’ discourse of protest was so powerful during the Iraq War because it deconstructed the dichotomy of war and the ‘homefront’ that is central to the logic of militarisation which helps ‘make war possible.’ However, as an extension to her conclusion, she also warns of a different form of silencing and othering that can take place through grief that is pertinent in light of the IHAT investigations:

‘The impossibility of intruding on the intense grief stands in the way of questions surrounding the dead soldier’s part in the war. These questions become even more difficult to pose when the language accompanying a soldier’s death unequivocally upholds abstractions of honour, duty, sacrifice and freedom that not only erase the terrible nature of his death, but also erase the death and injury he has inflicted.’

For the military families, their grief articulated in opposition to the war rests on the construction of the British soldier as a victim and hero. Grief, in this context, serves to obscure the soldiers’ violence and criminality and ignores other forms of grief and suffering on the opposite side of the conflict. Through the fixation with the British experience of the Iraq War, as prioritised by the Chilcot Report and the families of British soldiers, the Iraqi civilians who were abused, tortured or murdered by British personnel are forgotten and cast as undeserving of justice. The uncomfortable issue here is that, for the actively anti-war families, it is this very process of othering in which they collude that is central to making war possible in the first place.