Baha Mousa inquiry: MoD still failing to come clean about bad behaviour
After the death of Baha Mousa and the abuse of other Iraqi detainees became known, army wags started coming out with disparaging jokes about the 1st Battalion The Queen's Lancashire Regiment. It was a way of reinforcing the suggestion that the incident was the result of a few rotten apples. The and army chiefs have, understandably, persistently argued that a small fraction of the total number of British troops deployed in Iraq were involved in abusing detainees.
However, more and more evidence is emerging about other incidents. For the first time, Liam Fox, the defence secretary, has indicated that more is on the way. It was too early to say what would happen, he said, but investigations being undertaken by the Historic Allegations Team, set up as a kind of "early warning" unit for ministers, were "revealing evidence of some concern".
The MoD is often its own worst enemy, trying to cover up bad behaviour as it has so often succeeded in doing in the past.
Times have changed, but hearing high court judges lambast MoD lawyers over the past few years for not coming clean, it seems the ministry has learned little, assuming that it can get away with ignoring such obligations now placed on it – by the Human Rights Act, for example.
This act obliges a government to set up an independent inquiry when faced with allegations of wrongdoing by agents of the state.
The MoD did not do so. The inquiry was the result. Another inquiry into allegations that British troops murdered and abused Iraqis after a fierce battle at Danny Boy, a checkpoint near Majar al-Kabir north of Basra in May 2004, is on its way.
Another, probably relevant, factor is that the army was not ready and was badly trained for Iraq. General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the army, admitted as much in his statement following the publication of Sir William Gage's report.
"It is clear from the inquiry report that we were ill-prepared in 2003 for the task of handling civilian detainees", he said, adding that the army had "made strenuous efforts since then to transform the way we train for and conduct detention operations".
The soldiers' commanders and the MoD's senior lawyers were uncertain and divided about the law and how it should apply to the treatment of civilian detainees.
General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, has suggested that many members of the armed forces lacked moral values when they joined up.
"I think you've got to look at the proportion of people who come into the armed forces from chaotic backgrounds," he said.
Respect for others was "almost the most important" of all the values soldiers were taught. Without it, he warned, "that's when you're into bullying or abusing Iraqi citizens".
Soldiers are fiercely loyal – to their comrades, not necessarily to Queen and country or to "the truth".
When it became clear that the allegations of abuse were not going away, the MoD commissioned Brigadier Robert Aitken, the army's director of army personnel strategy, to investigate what went wrong.
British troops were given scant information on how to treat civilian detainees and needed "a better understanding between right and wrong", he concluded.
Aitken spoke of the army's "core values": selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others. Soldiers must be taught that loyalty "is not just to your mates but to a higher positive integrity, to tell the truth", he said.
Responsibility – telling those under you what is lawful as well as moral – starts at the top. In his report, Gage may have let senior officers and MoD officials – and ministers – off the hook.