British Veterans Need to Speak Up About Lockdowns
Misused in Iraq and Afghanistan, British veterans shouldn't stand for government abuse at home.
In 2009 I found myself in Afghanistan accused of aiding and abetting our enemy, the Taliban. I had become so shocked and disillusioned by what I saw during my tour with the British Army in Helmand province that I wrote an anonymous account from the front line that got published in a major British newspaper.
It didn’t take the battle group headquarters long to deduce from details in the article that the likely author was one of three officers. When I was summoned before my commanding officer, I answered his question as to whether I had written it in the affirmative. Not surprisingly, I got in a whole lot of trouble, with the full weight of the chain of command, up to the brigade commander, coming down on me, including that accusation of giving succor to our foes.
In subsequent years, I came to regret my action and couldn’t even really explain or rationalize my behavior to myself. But despite embarrassment and guilt over what I did, the idea of my assisting the Taliban always rankled, especially when inept British military strategy was helping them far more effectively.
“Let it go, dude”—an obvious response—“that was more than 10 years ago, time to move on!” Well, yes, I tend to agree with the sentiment, added to which it has long seemed that our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were all but lost to British public consciousness; so, what is the point of stewing over it all? But of late there has been an uptick in public renderings of our military misadventures.
On the literary side, the release of Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard has provided a scolding and damning account of the British Army’s actions since 9/11. Everything I feared at the time of my 2009 tour has now finally been meticulously detailed in Akam’s book: the hubris and cynical careerism of officers chasing medals and promotion; the policy of six-month rotations for units, promoting discontinuity and rivalry, in particular grandstanding signature brigade ops during each deployment to tout about afterwards.
Akam has little that is good to say about the brigade operation launched during my tour, Operation Panther’s Claw, a “misconceived disaster,” which was ongoing when I wrote my illegal article and even then proving an utter fiasco, like almost everything else during the tour. During the operation, my battle group commanding officer—one of the genuine good guys, at odds with the cold careerists who returned from tours to praise and promotion—got torn in half by an improvised explosive devise. He had accompanied a convoy to visit troops whose morale was in a death spiral due to the disasters attending the operation.
Akam recounts how in Iraq during 2007 the British Army retreated ignominiously from Basra, where I did a tour in 2006 and witnessed us gradually losing control. It was left to the Iraqis and Americans in the so-called “Charge of the Knights” to retake Basra from the militias. Some say it was the most embarrassing episode for the British military since the loss of Singapore during World War II. In Akam’s book, David Petraeus, the U.S. army general who headed multinational forces in Iraq at the time, is recounted as commenting that it will take longer than a generation for the U.S. military to be able to forget how bad the Brits did in Basra.
As with the release of the trove of documents now called the Afghanistan Papers by the Washington Post at the end of 2019, it’s hard not to feel somewhat vindicated regarding my illicit action in Afghanistan, as well as less ashamed about what I did. But there’s much more to it than that for all of us who fought with the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan when faced with the past year of COVID-19 and the reaction of the British government. I dare say also that much of the following applies to some U.S. veterans in relation to the U.S. government’s behavior now, too.
After a year of the civil liberties and ideals that I and my peers joined the British Army to protect being crushed, it’s time for British veterans to speak out and be less recalcitrant, as is our wont. Those liberties remain under increasing threat from our own government, evidenced by growing momentum for some form of vaccine passport or biosecurity card coupled with further crackdowns on international travel amid an ongoing and fundamental shift in the understanding of the role of the state and the rights of the individual. The government is even starting to hint that vaccines and a successful rollout still won’t be enough, which will of course be used to justify continuing restrictions.
“There has been a trajectory of our fears from the huge nuclear weapons of far-away countries in the Cold War, to weapons concealed on the body smuggled over borders in the War on Terror, to invisible weapons stowed away on our breath in the War on Viruses,” says Laura Dodsworth, a photographer and writer who has emerged as a prominent lockdown critic in the U.K. and has a book coming out called A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised our fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have become walking biohazards and the geo-political borders in need of ‘protection’ have shrunk from the national to the personal.”
If you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, in which the British author compares the modernising world of 1957 with his prophetic dystopian fantasy, my advice would be not to. You will get agitated, quickly, especially if while reading the book you sporadically check the news, thereby seeing Huxley’s prophesies and warnings happening right now in real time.
“Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government,” Huxley wrote. “Where the republican or limited monarchical tradition is weak, the best of constitutions will not prevent ambitious politicians from succumbing with glee and gusto to the temptation of power.”
What to do? U.K. veterans have the activism and energy of U.S. veterans to offer a guiding light. America has long displayed a very different type of veteran behavior—as I observed and have been influenced by during my years in the States—that is much bolder compared to that of their British counterparts, who are expected to keep a stiff upper lip and regress into the shadows and have no voice.
It was little surprise when I pitched this story to numerous British media organizations and the overwhelming reply was something along the lines of, “fascinating idea, but it’s just not quite right at the moment.” One editor did deign to say he would keep my details for the future—presumably to approach me to roll something out come November 11 and Armistice Day, the one day of the year when veterans in the U.K. are given a moment.
The U.S. is well ahead of the U.K. on all veterans’ issues, particularly in trying to understand and tackle the likes of PTSD and moral injury. Of course, it has to be, really, given the size of its military and the corresponding fallout for its human capital. But the U.K. could still be more active in studying and tackling veteran-related issues. Unlike in the U.S., figures for U.K. veteran suicides are not known, though there is a growing recognition of the scale of the problem. In 2019, General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, spoke out to highlight how little is known about the number of veterans committing suicide and not enough is being done to prevent it.
It seems always to take something like Akam’s book to generate real momentum. In addition to more media discussion, I’m noticing increasing numbers of U.K. veterans commenting about the book on the likes of Twitter.
“Currently reading The Changing of the Guard by @simonakam with a curious mixture of deep nostalgia for a hugely significant period of my life, coupled with a growing sense of incredulity and disappointment in the institution to which I belonged,” says one Tweet from ex-army officer, now barrister Gareth Evans. “Essential reading.”
Another veteran told me that Akam has “done us all a great service” by getting his book out (the establishment reportedly closed ranks to impede its publication). I agree, but does one leave it there—especially given the spectacular scale of the failures by politicians and generals that Akam highlights—simply with a “Thanks, Simon”? When the British wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, the big public inquiries received suitable attention, but there was almost no serious scrutiny of or sanction for senior officers. All the while, families of the British soldiers killed during the rash and bungled deployments, along with the injured or traumatized, have had to continue in the shadows, trying not to let anger at the mixture of blind stupidity, arrogance, opportunism, and muddled crusading intentions by the politicians responsible consume the lives we have been trying to rebuild. And now we have to contend with COVID-19 and the government’s response reshaping our world.
Veterans have been here before. Both asymmetric warfare and viral behavior—which is asymmetric by default—is not defeated by rigid unwieldly tactics, and certainly not by trying the same thing repeatedly. We’ve seen what happens when the goal posts keep moving; we know all about mission creep. It does not end well; it never does.
The past year of actions by the British government has been a case study in how British totalitarianism, if it comes to that, will have a particularly polite and inconspicuous feel to it: those initially reasonable-sounding entreaties to stay at home to protect the hallowed institution of the state that is the National Health Service; now a patriotic, flag-waving national vaccine push and rollout, involving the army, which while certainly impressive in terms of numbers and rate of delivery, gains a sinister edge as taking the vaccine becomes all but mandatory if you want to have your previous life and freedoms restored to you.
“When I heard that the British army would be involved in delivering mass vaccinations, I could instantly see how it would bring efficiency to a vast and complex process,” Dodsworth says. She goes on:
But when I heard it might help in schools, I had a different reaction. As a mother I had a visceral reaction. I don’t think soldiers should be giving a medical treatment to children in schools. Medical consent and bodily autonomy are crucial, and how would that be affected by people in military uniform delivering vaccines to children? Would it feel scary?
I share the concerns of Dodsworth, because there is a slippery slope risk when utilizing the army in the civilian realm under the current febrile circumstances. As she notes, there is “something about the use of the army in this context that suggests part of a worrying trend towards a biosecurity state.”
After being shafted by the British government over Iraq and Afghanistan, British veterans shouldn’t take a second shafting, especially not in their own country. We’ve experienced the military covenant being defiled; we now face the social contract being similarly desecrated, as the dignity, stature, and rights of our fellow countrymen that we once sought to protect are degraded. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, as the saying goes. It’s time for Brit vets to get our Ron Kovic Born on the Fourth of July game face on.
James Jeffrey spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, before attending journalism school in Austin, Texas. Since 2012 he has freelanced in America and the Horn of Africa, writing for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.