A Culture of Complicity: The Iraq War investigations

Connor Woodman breaks down the mainstream British intellectual culture incapable of coming to terms with the UK’s role in the Iraq War.

Image: Jasn.

A scandal is being whipped up by the establishment and corporate media over investigations into alleged war crimes and abuse by British soldiers in Iraq. Described as “vexatious” by Theresa May, the ringmaster of the British invasion – Tony Blair – has called for the “witch hunt” to be called off. David Cameron reportedly even tried to quash the investigations. Melanie Phillips, writing in the Times the other week, argues that, “The law itself has now turned into an enemy of national security.” The investigations, she claims, are “having a lethal impact on the country’s ability to defend itself.”

From what, precisely, must the UK defend itself? There is no country waiting across the Channel to invade. Britain still clings to the nine-strong nuclear family, in violation of its international legal obligations.1 It has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. The evidence that the Iraq invasion was built on lies and deception is so overwhelming that it needn’t be reviewed; but as we know – as media commentators should have known at the time, and as decision-makers did know – Iraq didn’t have any WMD in 2003.2 Any serious analyst knows that the Iraq War had nothing to do with “defence” or “national security”; in reality, it almost certainly increased the threat of terrorism within the borders of those nations which carried it out. Blair even concedes that it facilitated the rise of ISIS. The mantra of “national security” is wheeled out by apparatchiks to discredit literally every threat to the status quo: from Corbyn to investigative journalists, local council boycotts to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Whenever anyone uses the words “national security”, mental sirens should be whirring.

Image: US Navy.

Image: US Navy.

Why is the establishment closing ranks on the investigations? The principle that we ought to be held accountable for our crimes is a dangerous one for the powerful. If we actually take the time to reflect on our crimes in the Global South – even sticking merely to the so-called post-colonial era – then we may be forced to radically reconsider our role in the world. Rather, for the establishment, the reality of the British state’s actions overseas must be suppressed and obfuscated in a barrage of irrational patriotism.

The crimes which are being investigated are of a systematic and horrific nature. As one of the few sober commentators on the events, Warwick’s Andrew Williams, details, the evidence suggests that abuse, torture and disregard for civilian life were routine and systemic during Britain’s occupation of Iraq. In stark contrast to the blinkered nationalism of our most high-profile, frothing-at-the-mouth media commentators, Williams describes what he calls a case of “wilful political blindness” with respect to British abuse during the war. Suspected looters were drowned following the disintegration of Iraq, children as young as ten were held in rat-infested torture camps in Basra, and detainees mysteriously died during aerial transport. Last year, Williams asked whether the mounting evidence was “enough to pierce the conscience of a nation?” Now we have the answer.

The most vivid public face of torture during the Iraq War. Abu Ghraib, 2003.

The most vivid public face of torture during the Iraq War. Abu Ghraib, 2003.

In the media frenzy, little concern is shown for Iraqis whose country was wrecked, or for those who suffered greatly at the hands of the invading British army. In 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility carried out a careful review of available mortality studies in Iraq since the commencement of the ‘War on Terror’. PSR faced a shortage of reviewable studies because, as they note, “virtually nobody” is willing to finance them. Nonetheless, they concluded with a high degree of certainty that around 1 million people died from all war- and occupation-related causes in Iraq. The Costs of War project at Brown University estimates that around 7.6 million people were displaced by the conflicts of the ‘War on Terror’. Such findings are of little concern to the pampered elite who propagated these aggressive wars.

The public, unsurprisingly, has little idea of the depth of destruction wrought by the British and Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. One poll showed that 66% of the British public think that less than 20,000 civilians died in the Iraq War. That’s out by, at the least, a factor of 50. The UK’s recent history of military aggression does not end with Iraq: diplomatic historian Mark Curtis estimates that the UK has caused or been complicit in the deaths of between 8 and 13 million people since 1945, nearly entirely in the Global South.3 This is before quantifying the misery and death caused by the global economic system propagated by the Anglosphere in the post-War era. Findings like this are ignored almost uniformly, across all intellectual platforms – not just the media. As Eric Herring writes, “British [international relations] academics engage in very little research exposing the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by the British state to deny its responsibility for … human misery, and directed towards contributing to education and activism which challenges the right of the British political-corporate elite to act in these ways”.4

Up to 1 million people march against the Iraq War in the UK. xrichx.

Up to 1 million people march against the Iraq War in the UK in 2003. Image: xrichx.

This, then, is the state of British intellectual and political culture in 2016: invade and destroy a country on the basis of a lies and distortion, hide the consequent chaos from the public, and when the victims have the audacity to litigate for compensation, deride them as money-driven liars. Not only that, but pledge that, when we launch our next devastating invasion, we will suspend human rights law. One would be hard-pressed to conjure up a more backward and disgraceful culture in the pages of dystopian novels. Jeremy Corbyn, to his great credit, has a long record of violating the bipartisan imperial consensus – one reason for the overwhelmingly hostile reaction to him by the media and political elite.

Since Britain’s rulers have shown little willingness to learn from their past crimes, expect more of the same moving forward. Just a few weeks ago, a parliamentary foreign affairs committee report into Cameron’s war in Libya found that the intervention undermined viable diplomatic options, sent the country – once again – into a spiral of instability and ruin, was based – once again – on a central justification of dubious veracity,5 and – once again – contributed to the the rise of ISIS. As I write this, British-made weapons are pummeling Yemen into ruin as our close ally Saudi Arabia sets out to destroy the entire agricultural infrastructure of the country. The RAF is currently bombing Iraq and Syria once more –6 how much longer until we embark on our next noble intervention to wreck a foreign country and immiserate its people?

Expect little soul-searching by the media on this point; they would rather bemoan the fact that “our boys” are being questioned about allegations of rape, torture and murder. The culture which sustains delusion and irrationality on such an industrial scale would be a curious object of puzzlement, if it weren’t accompanied by horrifying material effects. As Noam Chomsky wrote recently, “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lay ahead”.7

Connor Woodman is the Warwick Globalist’s World of Warwick Editor and former Editor-in-Chief. He is in his fifth year at Warwick, currently undertaking an MA in Modern History. 


  1. The International Court of Justice advisory judgement of 1996 unanimously decided that, “There exists an obligation [for nuclear powers] to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects”. This renders Britain’s absurd renewal of the multi-billion pound Trident missile system most probably illegal.
  2. Aside from a small amount of pre-1991 chemical weapons that the regime didn’t even know about.
  3. Curtis, M. (2004), Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage: London, pp.310-17.
  4. Herring, E. (2006), ‘Remaking the mainstream: the case for activist IR scholarship’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 35(1), p.105.
  5. The report concludes that, “Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence” (House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options; Third report of session 2016-17’, p.14, available here). This “proposition” was the primary justification for the UN Security Council resolution which led to the intervention, and was promptly used as a cover for regime change by Britain and France.
  6. See Young, J. C. R. (2003), Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press: Oxford, for more on the long history of RAF bombing in Iraq.
  7. Chomsky, N. (2016), Who Rules the World?, Hamish Hamilton, p.43.

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