Bruce Anderson

The silence of the generals

Bruce Anderson on the scandalous case of Trooper Williams, who has been charged with murder in Iraq

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It sometimes seems as if we no longer know how to think about our soldiers, or how to treat them. Last week, three men of the Black Watch fell in battle in Iraq. A sad event certainly, but it was hardly a reason for national mourning. Yet much of the media became hysterical. Some of the men’s relatives, who could hardly be expected to reason clearly in such circumstances, were interviewed as if their grief had turned them into experts on military deployment and the Middle East. At the same time, a brave soldier was being gravely maltreated, and no one seemed to notice.

Last week, Trooper Kevin Williams of the Royal Tank Regiment stood in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murder. On 2 August last year, Trooper Williams was helping to man a checkpoint near Basra. It was a dangerous moment. For some days, there had been a number of ‘contacts’, the Army’s euphemism for exchanges of gunfire. The previous night, the local police station had come under fire.

According to Trooper Williams, he and a comrade stopped a man pushing a handcart, with the intention of searching it. The man ran off. They chased him; in most other armies, he would have been pursued not by soldiers, but by bullets. The British soldiers fired a warning shot. The man ignored it and ran into a house. The soldiers followed, even though he could have been leading them to an ambush. They caught up with him in the house’s courtyard. He tried to grab Trooper Williams’s comrade’s rifle. Trooper Williams shot him.

No one in the British Army is suggesting that soldiers should be allowed to fire their weapons recklessly. Trooper Williams’s actions were thoroughly investigated by two commanding officers, who took advice from the Army’s legal services. Although parts of Trooper Williams’s account were disputed by the dead man’s family, the commanding officers decided that the trooper had no case to answer. It seems to me that this is the only possible judgment.

But the COs’ verdict was not allowed to stand. The Crown Prosecution Service has intervened, to charge the trooper with murder. By all accounts, he is a good soldier. His treatment is a disgrace. What is even more disgraceful is the failure of any senior serving officer to agitate on his behalf.

Compare and contrast the case of Harry Stanley, the man who was shot dead while carrying a table leg. That case ought to arouse disquiet. The streets of London are not a war zone. Local police stations do not come under fire. Men should not be shot for carrying table legs. Unlike Trooper Williams, the police officers involved in the shooting of Mr Stanley were not in life-threatening peril. Without in any way seeking to victimise the police officers concerned, anyone who cares about law and order in London should want a full investigation and a tightening of procedure. Yet when it was proposed to re-open the inquest on Mr Stanley, a large number of officers licensed to carry firearms virtually threatened to go on strike. Their action was tacitly defended by the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair. The Home Secretary has also weighed in on the policemen’s behalf. The men of the British Army will have noted all this.

Today, Tommy Atkins is a thinking soldier and a reading one, especially on subject matters that touch his own safety. He is prepared to take risks; he is aware that when he joined the colours, he signed up to unlimited liability. But he does expect fair treatment from those in authority over him. No one could claim that Trooper Kevin Williams is receiving fair treatment.

Young officers are still taught that their priority must be kit, men and only then self. When coming off exercise, they must first satisfy themselves that all the men’s kit is in perfect condition, so that it could be re-used at a moment’s notice, as it might have to be in a real battle. The officers must then ensure that the men are in good condition; fed and watered, with any blisters or minor ailments attended to. However exhausted the officer may be, it is only then that he can relax.

That is as it should be. But it will be of no avail if very senior officers’ priorities are seen to be promotion, political correctness and pensions. Some of the old and bold are rallying round Trooper Williams. General Sir Antony Walker, a former colonel commandant of the Tank Regiment, is leading a vigorous campaign on his behalf. When Trooper Williams once asked him dolefully what prison would be like, Tony Walker’s reply was: ‘Don’t even think about going to prison. If you did, I would be in the next cell.’

But where are the generals who are still in post? There are persistent rumours that gagging mechanisms are being employed throughout the MoD, with serving officers forbidden to say anything which might contradict Geoff Hoon’s line. As no one can ever decide what Geoff Hoon’s line is, that edict creates difficulties. Until recently, the head of the Army’s public relations was always a rising brigadier; over the years, the post has been held by many distinguished soldiers. Recently, it has been downgraded, in a deliberate attempt by politicians to prevent the Army from making its case to the press. But why have the current generals acquiesced in all this? No one I have spoken to believes that Bramall, Bagnall, Inge or Guthrie would have allowed themselves to be gagged.

No army can function without loyalty. The British Army teaches its officers that they should never take loyalty for granted. It always has to be earned and re-earned. It will only be there if the men trust their officers, so that even if they do not understand the reason for a particular order, they take it for granted that the officer does. They also take it for granted that within the exigencies of military duty, their officers will be 100 per cent committed to their welfare. All this helps to explain why we have the best army in the world.

That will not change overnight because of Trooper Kevin Williams. But a case like that gnaws away at the bond of loyalty. It sows mistrust among our soldiers. It may even make it harder for them to do their duty. No one wants irresponsibility on the battlefield, but nor do we want soldiers who are afraid that if they protect their comrades they might end up on a murder charge.

The death of three soldiers in the Black Watch was not a national tragedy. The case of Kevin Williams is a national scandal.