The Iranian kidnappings: pragmatism versus romantic heroics

Reactions to the criminal kidnapping of the fifteen British sailors and marines by the Iranians in Iraqi waters of the Gulf have produced interestingly varied reactions here on the part of both personal friends and the media commentators.  These have been divided roughly into two groups: the romantics, hungry for glory and heroism — dulce et decorum est pro patria mori;  and the more down-to-earth, the pragmatists, who are simply happy that the 14 men and one woman were released fairly quickly, and that no-one got hurt.  Many of us feel strongly that we have no business to be deploying our naval or military forces in and around Iraq and that those who illegally attacked and occupied Iraq in the first place should be the last people on earth to be acting now under UN resolutions and at the request of the Iraqi government as peacekeepers, naval patrollers or Customs officers.  But the fact is that we're there, legally, and doing a legal and necessary job.  Those who tell us to understand why the Iraqis hate us because of the century of British oppression and intervention against them, as well as because of 2003, come dangerously close to condoning the action of a deeply unpleasant Iranian régime in kidnapping a group of young Britons going about their lawful business:  taking them prisoner and grievously mistreating them:  and repeatedly lying to justify the crime they committed.  Implicitly condoning all that reveals real moral bankruptcy.  

It was only to be expected that the cavalry charge of the romantics would be led by Andrew Roberts, the right-wing historian, brandishing his sabre in the Sunday Times of April 8, 2007:

Few of us can guess at the terror involved in being handcuffed, blindfolded, put in solitary confinement and told that confession would mean "liberty" whereas refusal would entail seven years in an Iranian jail. "I really felt we were goingto die," said one marine,though his officer realised that instead of a mock execution the Iranians were only playing with their weapons. Yet it all comes down to training.  With proper preparation for such hardships – in what is, after all, the most dangerous theatre of operations on the globe – the captives ought never to have given the Iranians what they wanted in the way of propaganda. … why have our troops not been trained properly in how to resist tough interrogation techniques?

And what on earth does the great historian imagine training would have achieved?  Heroic deaths under torture, posthumous medals for gallantry, proud bereaved parents and widows (one widower)?  Chuck it, Roberts!  And what's all that about "the most dangerous theatre of operations"?  Does Mr Roberts think we are at war with Iran, or with anyone else on or near the Gulf, or indeed with anyone else at all?  The 'war on terror' is not a war but a badly misleading metaphor.

Max Hastings in the Daily Mail also gets carried away by his soldierly enthusiasm for pointless displays of heroism:

"The prisoners' public demeanour was pitiful, and sorely damaging to the image of Britain's armed forces."

What rubbish!  Disappointing, too, coming from the usually perceptive and informative Sir Max.

The pragmatists are represented, among others, by Andrew Sullivan, also in the Sunday Times:

"The captives — subjected to physical threats — had little choice but to cooperate minimally with their captors. …. I don't feel of a mood to condemn sailors and marines held captive by the Revolutionary Guards of an unstable theocracy…. According to them, they were subjected to blindfolding, mock executions, stripped and told they were in line for up to seven years in an Iranian jail.  I don't know what I'd do in those circumstances. [Well, I know what I would do!  — BLB]   And yes, a lone boat of lightly armed sailors deciding to precipitate a full-scale war between the West and Iran might not have seemed the best idea at the time.  In my book, they get a pass.

In mine, too.  Thank goodness they weren't heavily armed!  If so they might have been tempted to start shooting at the kidnappers.  Much good that would have done.

Will Hutton in the Observer, also sensible:

Soft power can be a match for hard men
The Prime Minister's exemplary handling of the Iran hostage crisis marks the way to finding peaceful solutions in the Middle East

After a little bit of predictable grand-standing and muscleman talk, Blair was evidently persuaded to pipe down and let the diplomats handle it, which they duly did, without blood being spilled.

Unfortunately our Ministry of Defence has idiotically spoiled an otherwise good record on all this by announcing that the Fifteen will be allowed to sell their stories to the media (and apparently also to keep the resulting loot), a decision they will come to regret as future generations of servicemen and servicewomen who suffer disagreeable experiences in the line of duty, but who live to tell the tale, demand the same freedom to get rich quick by selling  their 'stories'.  It's easy to imagine the feelings on this subject of the families of the four British servicemen (two men and two women) killed by a bomb in Basra last week,around the time when the Fifteen were being released.

Just to be clear about the key facts and non-facts:

The Fifteeen Brits1. There can be no serious doubt that the Fifteen were in Iraqi waters (and therefore doing nothing wrong) when they were kidnapped.  This was actually corroborated by the co-ordinates originally handed over by the Iranians themselves, until they realised that they didn't exactly help their case, and invented some better ones.

2.  Kidnapping the citizens of another country, whether naval, military or civilian, without cause is a serious breach of international law, tantamount to piracy.  In another age — or if the Fifteen had not behaved so sensibly — it would have been an unquestionable casus belli

3.  Even if the Fifteen had been in Iranian waters (which they pretty clearly weren't), there would have been no excuse for the Iranians' action in kidnapping them and taking them as prisoners to Iran.  The only proper course would have been to escort them back into Iraqi waters with a severe reprimand and a subsequent diplomatic protest to the British government.

4.  After being kidnapped the Fifteen were not in any sense prisoners of war: there is no war in the area to be a prisoner of.  The old rubric about giving no more than one's name, rank and serial number doesn't apply.

5.  At least one of the Fifteen has confirmed that their Rules of Engagement would have permitted them to resist capture with military force; but they decided, fortunately for all of us, that this would be pointless, that it wouldn't affect the outcome, and that causing bloodshed would only have made a bad situation infinitely worse.  Rabbiting on about how they should have been more heavily armed — and should have used their arms against  the Iranians — betrays a sad inability to grasp the realities that they had to deal with.

6.  Even if the mother ship's single helicopter had been giving the Fifteen air cover, it seems unlikely that matters would have turned out any differently.  The Fifteen might possibly have had somewhat earlier warning from the helicopter of the approach of the Iranian patrol boats, which could conceivably have given them time to run away back to HMS Cornwall (hardly the act of gallantry yearned for by the romantics, incidentally):  but given the much greater speed of the Iranians' boats, it seems most unlikely that our people would have got away.  

7.  The treatment of the Fifteen by the Iranians was outrageous.  The blindfolding as part of what seemed like a mock execution; the isolation in tiny cramped individual cells; the mental torture inflicted on the sole servicewoman by telling her falsely on the first day that all the rest had been released and had gone home, leaving her alone in captivity; the threats of seven years' imprisonment as penalty for refusing to 'confess'; the parading in front of television cameras — all this was inexcusable.  Those who seek to condone it by observing that Guantanamo is worse should be ashamed of themselves.  

8.  The episode has prompted the usual British media festival of  finger-pointing:  someone must be to blame.  One favoured culprit is the commander of HMS Cornwall and his superiors in London for exposing the Fifteen to such danger.  But this was not a wartime operation: the task was to check ships entering Iraqi waters for smuggled arms, drugs or other contraband, on behalf of and at the request of the elected Iraqi government.  True, the Iraqis had kidnapped some of our service people back in 2004 — but not since then.  Only the most pathetically risk-averse would seriously argue that no routine naval patrol should ever go out, in peacetime, in national coastal waters, without the substantial military protection that would be required to guarantee it against a random and unpredictable act of piracy by a nearby rogue state.  But will ministers have the guts to resist the demands of the media lynch mob?

Two points of possible interest.  

(i)  Who is the fifteenth man?  Why has he not been named, nor his service identified?  

(ii)  Those, 'ardent for some desperate glory', who are seduced by the romantic notion that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (that it is sweet and proper to die for one's country), and who have the nerve to blame the Fifteen for not having been willing to act accordingly, would do well to remember the verdict on that proposition pronounced by a soldier, Wilfred Owen, who was himself about to die for his country (and must have known as he wrote that this would almost certainly be his fate):

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


16 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Thanks, Brian, for more or less echoing my sentiments!  The Iranis behaved very badly and our people did the right thing in not resisting and in saying what their captors wanted – their ‘confessions’ will have struck all the world outside the Middle East, and many within it, as phoney.   But the event that sparked the crisis, the capture of the Fifteen (or XV?) by the crews of fast Irani boats is still partly mysterious.  It is not clear to me from what little has been published how close the point of capture was to the coast of Iran or whether the coast was even visible from that point (maps in newspapers never give a scale) but it looks to me as if the Iranis were ready and waiting and had been for some time, and that the dhow may have been a decoy.  Could the approacing Irani boats not have been detected on Cornwall‘s radar as soon as they came over the horizon, whether or not the ship’s helicopter was in the air, and a message passed on the radio link?   Clearly, too, not all our people in an unfriendly area are briefed and trained on how to behave, and what to say, in the event of capture (my immediate feeling is that they should be allowed to admit the most lurid crimes and implicate everyone including Her Gracious Majesty and the very Pope himself, but on reflection it wouldn’t do pull the interrogators’ legs in case they caught on).   It’s typical of the Navy; here is a ship with an enormously expensive weapons system, capable of resisting anything short of atomic attack and sorting out anything her own size, yet they get taken by surprise by a few speed boats.  Moreover they are presumably aware of the possibility of losing ships, as at the Falklands, but not that in certain events crew members might be captured while the ship still floats.

  2. Ed Davies says:

    Agree with everything except There can be no serious doubt that the Fifteen were in Iraqi waters…

    See particularly the links to Craig Murray's blog, as well, and the comments on that.  Some people who sound like they know about this sort of thing think the boundary is not that well defined.

    Brian writes:  Actually, a careful reading of the website which you helpfully quote seems to me to strengthen, rather than casting doubt on, the UK position.  So does the apparently authoritative account of the legal and historical position at , which (on a slightly different point) also includes the interesting and relevant point that —

    The territorial sea is part of the sovereign territory of the state, although ships of all states have the right of innocent passage through the territorial seas of other states. Warships which do not comply with the laws and regulations of the coastal state concerning passage through the territorial sea can be ordered to leave the territorial sea immediately.  

    That seems worth pondering by those who are congenitally unable to accept the British government's well documented statements that the boat was in Iraqi, not Iranian, waters at the relevant time, whatever might be the uncertainties surrounding the precise line, what with shifting mudbanks and all. 

  3. Baralbion says:

    All well said. The decision to allow them to profit by selling their stories is indeed extraordinary. The MOD haven’t really explained their decision. One commentator compared the whole incident to a TV reality show. Is it an example of life imitating art?

  4. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    Somewhat to my suprise I, too, find myself agreeing almost entirely with your assessment of events. However I wonder whether the Iranians did mistreat the captives quite as badly as they would like us to believe. Whilst the former stiff upper lip, name rank and number approach may in today’s world be behaviour beyond the call of duty and common sense, I cannot help wondering at the readiness of the group to allow the Iranians to score the propaganda coup that they were desperate to achieve. Like you I find the MOD’s decision to allow serving members of the armed forces to sell their stories for personal gain inexplicable.Unfortunately we have a government with absolutely no firsr- hand militart experience of any kind.

    Without claiming any specialist knowledge I also suspect that as delineation of the boundary between Iraqi and Iranian waters has long been contested the precise territorial position of our forces could also have been in a degree of doubt. Whether we should have anticipated , and so attempted to guard against, such an Iranian seizure I do not know but, unlike you, I regard it as a fair question. 

  5. Gerry Ratzin says:

    I find myself agreeing with, of all people, ex-Sun Editor, Kelvin McKenzie, who said on R4 yesterday that the MOD was just acting to try to ensure a PR victory for Tony Blair. That the stories got into the papers so quickly suggests to me that the MOD took the initiative, had already briefed editors and that it was not a request from the 15 (or given your comment, Brian, about the unnamed one 14?). They are pawns in a sordid game between the British and Iranian governments. (As I type this, I've just heard on the radio that the MOD has just issued a statement saying the outcome had not been satisfactory and that  the ban on servicemen talking to the media would be restored until a review had taken place.)

    From then on, we have the expected tacky stories with headlines about knickers and fears of being raped, turning the whole sorry mess into Celebrity TV. Even the lieutenant who said he would not accept money added that he did not blame those who did. As for the woman trying to justify her position by saying money would go to HMS Cornwall, does that mean the Navy is so hard-up it needs charitable donations? How about a door-to-door collection? What do they need on HMS Cornwall? A few armchairs?

    The Iranian action was unpardonable. Putting "prisoners" on TV is a relatively new phenomenon and I would not dream of criticising what the 15 did while in Iran as I do not know how I would have reacted in those circumstances. But pawns or not, those who have sold their stories should be ashamed of themselves. Those who encouraged them should be even more ashamed.

    Others more articulate than I have pointed to the damaging precedents that have been set.

    Brian writes:  Hear, hear, passim!  

  6. The Iranian government has a high paranoia quotient. Hardy surprising with 180,000 US soldiers just next door in Iraq, and another 80,000 across their border in Afghanistan. It does help to diminish their concerns with a couple of US aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf.
    In an interview with SKY, one of the 15 admitted that part of their duties was to gather "int" on the Iranians.
    In that context, the Iranian behaviour is more understandable.

    Brian writes: Et tu, Tony?  Why are so many chaps out there so anxious to think up excuses for utterly unacceptable behaviour by the Iranians?   Why should you describe as an 'admission' a statement of the obvious fact that one of the functions of the fifteen's mission was to gather what intelligence they could as part of their duties?  'Intelligence' in this context is exactly the same thing as 'information':  it's politically illiterate (which I know you are not) to confuse 'intelligence' in this context with 'secret intelligence obtained by covert and sometimes illegal means'.  Failure to collect information about everything they observed in the course of their perfectly legitimate mission would have represented a surprising dereliction on the part of the fifteen, and no, it doesn't make the Iranians' behaviour one bit more 'understandable'.  Incidentally I am becoming ever so slightly nauseous at the repeated tendency of bien pensant commentators to talk about 'understanding' the Iranians' reasons for their criminal and cruel behaviour when what is all too often unmistakeably implied is that it was therefore justified.  Not, I'm sure, in your case, though….

  7. Bob says:

    I don't think I come into either of your categories, Brian. I'm certainly not with the glory boys – proud of our dead 15 for 'putting up a good show with their pea-shooters against heavy machine-guns, etc'….But I'm not an admiring pragmatist either. I'm a sceptic.

    First of all, I'm surprised at your full-frontal support for all things British on this occasion. In fact I lament the absence of your usual circumspection. For example: You reckon The Fifteen 'pretty clearly weren't in Iranian waters'. What makes you so sure? I know the Iranians issued two sets of coordinates – the second being more convincing for their case. But do we know the first set didn't also put our boat in their waters, the 2nd set being just that bit more accurate? The watery border is not clear. (Which brings into question  the intelligence of searching the Indian boat before it had got comfortably and indisputably into Iraqi waters. But that's another issue.) Then you say that their treatment by the Iranians was ' outrageous.' Was it? One (the) officer has already said there weren't any mock executions. Was he breaking ranks with the trained purveyors of the Blairite/MOD story? Or was he just the lucky one spared the charade? Who is telling the truth? OK, none of us would want a gun clicked at our blindfolded head;  but was there really systematic mental torture of this type? Or just the odd sadistic Iranian squaddy doing his thing….like various British ones have (to our credit) recently been put on trial for (and exculpated…)  in Iraq? Surely the 15 were captured purely to provide an eventual propaganda coup for the supreme Mullah and his gang – to be returned in good condition 'to prove the humanity of the great Iranian people, etc.' So what would have been the point in torturing them so that they broke down in public, looked beaten up and generally maltreated? No international Brownie points there…..You're right to condemn Roberts, but mainly because the situation he envisages was never realistic. If the Iranians were laying in wait , as seems almost certain, they would surely have intended a propaganda event all along, not the serious arrest and investigation of a nest of  nautical British spies. Hence serious torture was surely never on the cards.

    And this may sound callously unpatriotic, but I look at those 15 smiling faces on telly, especially Faye Tureny appearing with Sir Trevor McDonald – looking as embarrassed today at her sudden 6-figure wealth as she looked frightened a week ago – and I try to compare their normal, healthy appearances with the state of Terry Waite, Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and other civilians who had been subjected to horrors of this sort over periods of years, and I try to weigh weigh it all up. I try to think how much the 15 really suffered compared with how much the Blair government wants the world to believe they suffered…..I'm sorry to say it, but I seem to have reached such a state of mistrust of the Blair government's lies and spin that I now can't trust their word above that of a bunch of propaganda- seeking Iranian fanatics. (And am I alone?) We were caught out by a bunch of thugs, and by heck, we need a good story!

    As for the MOD's statement that permitting the Fifteen's stories to be published in the press would 'help the truth to be known,  redress the balance' etc, this defies credibility. (So we need The Sun to out-spin the fanatics?! ) But – surprise surprise – I see this permission has now been put on temporary hold. (Can Des Browne survive this far from triumphant episode?)

    The final sad detail for me was the way in which Faye Turney said 'the Cornwall would get a percentage of her fee.' 50%? 10%? How much? And her colleagues in captivity? No wonder spouses and relatives of forces killed in Iraq are sickened by the whole thing.

    Brian replies:  I think you need to be close to paranoia to believe that the accounts of their experiences by almost all the Fifteen (and the absence of denials by any of them[1]) have all been fabricated by these mysterious "trained purveyors of the Blairite/MOD story".   It's fine to be suitably sceptical about anything put out by a government that has not been famously careful with the truth on other matters in the past, but in this case their account seems to me to be overwhelmingly likely to be correct, as indeed the great majority of governments around the world have agreed (please see my reply to the comment by John Miles, below).  I don't think the demarcation of the boundary between Iraqi and Iranian waters is nearly as doubtful or uncertain as you (and others including my good friend Craig Murray) have suggested: neither the UK nor the Iranian lawyers and diplomats have suggested, so far as I'm aware, that there's any room for dispute over that border, since the UK case is that our boat was clearly well inside Iraqi waters and the Iranian case, after an original semi-admission that this was so, was that it was in Iranian waters, an assertion quite unsupported by any evidence.  Some Arab and other Muslim governments in the area were reportedly and rightly embarrassed and humiliated by Iran's reckless and criminal behaviour and that reaction seems to have been almost universal.  It seems almost perverse to adopt any other conclusion.  Deep objections to many aspects of the Blair government's record can't justify automatically assuming that everything they say is a lie.  So I fear, Bob, that we'll just have to agree to differ on this one.

    [1]  There's little or no point in drawing a distinction between one the one hand mounting a full-scale mock execution (which everyone agrees didn't happen), and on the other hand blindfolding fifteen captives, standing them up against and facing a wall, and then cocking weapons, which everyone agrees did happen.  The officer who denied that there had been a 'mock execution' nevertheless confirmed that he and others of the fifteen thought they were about to be executed, to the point that one of them was reportedly vomiting and another called out something like "Lads, I think we're going to be executed."  Are you sure that if British or American soldiers had behaved in an identical manner with Iraqi or Afghan prisoners, you would hesitate to call it mental torture or 'outrageous' treatment?    The Iranians behaved disgracefully and heartlessly, and to devise excuses for them inevitably suggests an application of double standards.  The argument that this kind of behaviour was more or less OK because Terry Waite and McCarthy and Keenan were treated even more cruelly hardly needs to be rebutted.

    On the question of the boundary between Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters and the position of the British boat when attacked and captured, please now see my postscript to Ed Davies's comment

  8. John Miles says:

    I agree, with most of your important, practical conclusions, but not with all your reasoning.

    In particular, we moral bankrupts really do think it important to try and see things from the opposition's point of view, and we're inclined to believe that never-ending confrontation is pretty well inevitable otherwise.

    The Poet of the People puts it very nicely:

    O, wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as others see us!

    So how do you suppose a reasonable middle-eastener actually does see us?

    What would he say, for example, to your pious assertion that we're there quite legally, doing whatever it is we're doing with the authority of the United Nations?

    Probably something like:


    "America and its stooges only play the UN card when it suits their self-seeking book.

    "Have you already forgotten how they invaded Iraq?

    "What price the United Nations then?"

    I'm not saying you're 100% wrong.

    But doesn't he have a point?

    You make our flesh creep by talking about "the mental torture inflicted on the sole servicewoman by telling her falsely on the first day that all the rest had been released and had gone home, leaving her alone in captivity."   Isn't this one of the oldest tricks in the book? Doesn't the Royal Navy tell its crews it's more or less standard routine? 

    Obviously it's not specially nice, but it's something professional warriors need to come to terms with.

    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

    I'm not sure I've got right, but Wilfrid Owen doesn't seem to me to say one shouldn't be ready to die for one's country, just that it can be a pretty nasty experience.

    I'm even less sure about what Horace is trying to say.

    Brian replies:  Thanks, John.  A few reactions:  'Understanding' how some people in the middle east (and elsewhere) may well react to these events doesn't make them right.  Tout comprendre is not necessarily tout pardonner, and understanding too easily slips over into condoning what doesn't deserve to be condoned.   Nor does your description of the likely reactions of some people in the area seem to tally with those of some of them, including the Syrian government which was reportedly not the only government of a Muslim country in the area to make urgent representations to the Iranians urging them to release the hostages without delay.  It has also been reported that many in Iran itself were deeply mortified by their President's antics and unacceptable behaviour and that these were among those who put pressure on him to end it all without more ado.  Both the Security Council (unanimously) and the governments of the EU (unanimously) accepted Britain's account of what had happened and condemned the Iranians for their action.  Iran has come out of all this distinctly bedraggled, however reluctant those who automatically dismiss their own government's version of events may be to recognise it. 

    Horace's maxim means, as I said in my original post, that it is sweet and appropriate (or right and just) to die for one's country.  Since Wilfred Owen described this as a "lie", I think we can take it that he didn't agree with Horace. 

  9. Bryan Cartledge says:

    This is my first contribution to your, or any other, blog, Brian, so please excuse any breaches of blog etiquette.

    First, two propositions:

    1. Men and women who volunteer to serve in the armed forces should do so in the knowledge that they may be exposed to situations which could threaten their lives or their physical and psychological well-being. It is difficult to see how an army, navy or air force could function on any other basis. Soldiers, sailors and airmen cannot be allowed to choose between the situations in which they would be prepared to make this sacrifice and those in which they would not: commanders could not initiate an offensive or defensive action knowing that a proportion of their force might walk off the job when the going got tough.

    2. POWs or kidnap victims — and from the point of view of the captive the distinction is a fine one- must have in their minds a firm and simple 'line in the sand' beyond which they must not co-operate with their captors, however great the pressure exerted upon them. They cannot be expected to judge for themselves what degree of co-operation would or would not damage the interests of their country and their comrades. The 'name, rank, number and d.o.b.' formula has the virtues of clarity and simplicity.

    Applying these propositions to the Iranian 'hostage' situation (I use this inaccurate description for the sake of convenience), my views are:

    a) The marines and sailors concerned appear to have given the avoidance of further physical and psychological suffering priority over the possible political and strategic interests of their country. Where would they have drawn the line? If the Iranians had pressed them to divulge such secret information as they may have possessed, would they have vouchsafed it? Co-operation with the captors is a slippery slope: the prospect of a return to solitary confinement is all the more intolerable when the atmosphere has relaxed over a good meal.

    b) The extent to which the 'hostages' did co-operate with their captors does appear to have damaged the national interests of the UK, not to mention the reputation of the British armed forces. Most commentators agree that Iran has scored a significant propaganda victory in the Middle East — and among the UK's allies.  If the 'hostages'- even some of them — had stuck it out, Iran would have sustained a political as well as a propaganda defeat.

    Last thoughts:

    Yes, it is true that I do not know how I would have behaved in the circumstances in which the 'hostages' were placed. I might well have cracked, even at their relatively young age. But I can affirm with certainty that I would have started out with the resolve to defy my captors abd reject their demands; I might not have found the physical courage or the stamina to sustain this resolve, but it would have been there. Was it there in this case? You, Brian, like me, were a government servant in circumstances which carried a certain, albeit low, level of physical risk (your postings were riskier than mine). If you had been kidnapped, and your early release made conditional upon your disclosure of  sensitive information — e.g. the identity and modus operandi of undeclared MI6 officers — where would your priorities have lain? Knowing you as I do, I am fairly confident of the answer; I believe it would have been the same as mine.

    P.S. As for the ’sell your story’ sequel, I am speechless.  B.C.

    Brian writes:  Many thanks for this magisterial and cogent comment, Bryan.  I am posting my reactions — by no means involving great disagreement — in a separate Comment. I can detect no hint of a breach of blog etiquette: quite the reverse;  your comment would pass with flying colours any blogosphere code of civility test!

  10. Brian says:

    Bryan, I appreciate your heavy-weight comment and agree with four-fifths of it.  The one major point on which I disagree is on the extent of the damage actually done by the statements (or actions) in captivity of any of the Fifteen. 

    As I understand it, (a) they were told by the senior of the two officers to do as the Iranians told them rather than risk serious harm being inflicted on them — but I don't know what restrictions he placed on that guidance, e.g. whether he excluded revelations of classified or sensitive information (if any of them possessed any, which seems to me unlikely); and (b) I haven't seen or heard any evidence that any of them told the Iranians anything so damaging to British interests as to justify taking serious risks by withholding it.  None of them, so far as I can tell, 'admitted' to their inflatable boat having strayed into Iranian waters, although they made conditional apologies 'if" they had in fact done so, and agreed that to penetrate another country's territorial waters 'would be' remiss and would arouse jusifiable concern on the part of the country penetrated.  This seems comparable with the formula commonly adopted in conciliatory statements by people who aren't prepared actually to retract what they have been attacked for saying or doing, nor to apologise for it, but can truthfully say that "if their words or actions had unintentionally given offence to anyone", then they regret it, or words to that effect.  The letters written by the woman sailor (a boat driver) to Iranian dictation certainly came close to a 'confession' and apology, but their style was so stilted and unidiomatic that it was obvious that they had been written under duress even before she was released and able to describe what had happened. 

    As I have written earlier in response to others' comments, I'm not convinced that British interests suffered overall as a result of anything said or done by the Fifteen or by the way the crisis was handled by British diplomacy.  Fairly impressive international support was mustered for the British case, and several regional Muslim governments have credibly been reported as having joined the Security Council and the EU governments, as well as many others, in pressing the Iranians to release the kidnap victims forthwith (I agree that they were not technically 'hostages').  Reports from inside Iran have suggested, again credibly, that Ahmadinejad was strongly criticised by his more prudent critics in Tehran for exposing Iran to such international condemnation and pressure, and that the whole thing will have weakened him while strengthening more moderate elements.  The quiet diplomacy practised by London, refraining from bluster or exaggeration and always leaving the Iranians a way out, seems to have won a degree of international respect, not only because it succeeded in getting the [un]hostages released in less than two weeks, but also because of the contrast with traditional American noisy diplomacy (and militancy)  in similar circumstances.  So I'm not convinced that Britain was publicly or internationally humiliated or that our interests were perceptibly damaged (except of course by the inexplicable blundering decision, now reversed, to allow the Fifteen to sell their 'stories' to the media).

    Finally, I agree that the spectacle of British servicemen and a servicewoman giving in without a fight, and seemingly going along with every improbable confession demanded of them by their kidnappers, was at best distasteful and at worst contrary to the traditions of our armed forces.  But it's fair to ask what the alternative would have been.  I don't think anyone sensible is arguing that the Fifteen should have used their small arms against the much more heavily armed Iranian patrol boats when they surrounded and captured them:  to have done so would have covered them in glory, caused (probably) extensive bloodshed on both sides, had the same outcome (the capture and imprisonment of any survivors in Iran), almost certainly made their treatment at the hands of the Iranians even harsher than it actually was, delayed their eventual release (perhaps by months or even years, greatly prolonging the crisis), and had a severely negative effect on our relations with Tehran and our ability, such as it is, to encourage the moderates there against the hotheads in such matters as Iran's nuclear programme. 

    Similarly, wouldn't a refusal by the Fifteen, even if they had sensibly given themselves up without a fight as they did, to provide the Iranians with any more information than their names, ranks and serial numbers, have deepened the crisis and made it even more difficult for the Iranians to release them quickly, with many of the same repercussions as those that shooting at the Iranians from the dinghy would have had?  It would of course have made our chests swell with national pride, always a nice feeling:  but would the risks to the Fifteen that this would have entailed have been in any way proportional to any possible benefit gained?  We weren't and aren't at war with Iran (yet, but Shrub seems to be working on it):  the Fifteen weren't Prisoners of War:  it seems highly unlikely that any of them possessed sensitive classified information (and even if they did, it would have been comparatively easy to disclaim any such knowledge):  defiance and bravado would have been splendid but, in the circumstances, stupid, being liable to make an already bad and dangerous situation even worse.  It goes against much of my grain to say it, but I believe they did the right thing. 

    All the same…  yes, it was hard to swallow.  "22714665 Trooper Barder, Sir.  That's all I'm allowed to say, Sir."    Or have we been watching too many war movies with Jack Hawkins and John Mills?  I prefer Shaw's soldier, Bluntschli:

    Bluntschli:  I don't intend to get killed if I can help it. Do you understand that?
    Raina (disdainfully):  I suppose not.  (With cutting emphasis):  Some soldiers, I know, are afraid to die.
    Bluntschli (with grim good humour): All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me.  It is our duty to live as long as we can.

  11. Sorry Brian, you've completely lost me here.  We have no place expressing or feigning outrage at Iranian behaviour or perceived breaches of international law.  This whole episode has made me truly disgusted at this country.  Any notions of a free press have been eradicated.

    Brian writes:  A case of mutual incomprehension, I fear!  I don't see any reason to disqualify myself from expressing (unfeigned) outrage at unacceptable behaviour by the Iranians, any more than I am disqualified from expressing outrage at even worse behaviour by American and British soldiers when it occurs.  And I don't understand where the free press comes into it.  We'll just have to stare at each other in mutual bewilderment.

  12. Peter Harvey says:

    I have not been following this as closely as people in Britain, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that in the Middle Ages, when an oath was a deadly serious thing, an oath made under duress was allowed to be valueless. Many Crusaders took advantage of that perfectly legitimate loophole when they were captured.

  13. Thanks for replying Brian, and I appreciate the point you make.  I was not accusing you personally of feigning outrage – that was directed more at the government and media commentators screaming about grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions; the hypocracy was revolting to behold (Saddam Hussein in his underpants being a particularly shameful example).  Our national press have been eagerly beating the war drums for Iran, just as they did with Iraq – hence my comment about a free press and the lack thereof.  Your post used the same inflammatory language as the media commentators, which surprised me.

    I can wholly understand why the Iranians acted as they did; does this make me morally bankrupt, as you state in your post?  My point is that we are the belligerent party, we have surrounded their country and threatened them with aggressive war.  Iran is not in breach of the NPT; Iran is not about to invade any of its neighbours (and please don't tell me that you buy into all that 'wiping Israel off the map' nonsense).  In fact it wouldn't surprise me if our warmongering government deliberately sent them into disputed waters without adequate backup in order to provoke the requisite casus belli for war.  I don't know if our sailors were in Iraqi or Iranian waters, but I'll side with Craig Murray's knowledge of maritime law for the timebeing.  Well, Blair's regime is so odious I expect the worst from them and cannot believe anything they say.

    Brian writes:  Of course 'understanding' why misguided, foolish or downright evil people do terrible things can't in itself indicate moral bankruptcy.  But if the invitation to 'understand' the motives of wrong-doers is in reality an invitation also to condone the wrong-doing, to find excuses for it because it was 'understandable', then that clearly does involve moral bankruptcy.  As I wrote in reply to an earlier and similar comment in this thread, "'Understanding' how some people in the middle east (and elsewhere) may well react to these events doesn't make them right.  Tout comprendre is not necessarily tout pardonner, and understanding too easily slips over into condoning what doesn't deserve to be condoned."

    To take an extreme example, what would you think of anyone who told you that you ought to 'understand' the motives of the Nazis who systematically organised the murder of around ten million Jews, gypsies and gays — the injustice of the Versailles settlement, the humiliation and impoverishment of Germany after the first world war, their belief that international Jewry had been responsible for their suffering, and so on?  Would you nod in agreement when your interlocutor segued easily from saying that because one could 'understand' all that background and motivation, the Holocaust was 'understandable'?  Would you not recognise such an approach as condoning, not just 'understanding', mass murder?  Wouldn't that be a morally bankrupt approach to a terrible crime?

    The fact that you proclaim your 'complete understanding' of the Iranian action and go on to assert that —

    "we are the belligerent party, we have surrounded their country and threatened them with aggressive war.  Iran is not in breach of the NPT; Iran is not about to invade any of its neighbours (and please don’t tell me that you buy into all that ‘wiping Israel off the map’ nonsense)"

    tends to arouse the suspicion, which I hope would be unfounded, that you can see nothing wrong with the unwarranted and illegal kidnapping, incarceration, ill-treatment, menacing blackmail, midnight interrogations and multiple humiliation of fifteen wholly innocent people who had been going about their perfectly legitimate and peaceful business on behalf of and at the request of the elected government of the country in whose territorial waters they had been at the time when they were kidnapped.  Accusations of equal or greater wrong-doing by our own government are totally and completely irrelevant to any objective judgement of the Iranians' action.  So is your ability to 'understand' why they did what they did.  So is your distrust of the Blair government.  So is your preference for the allegations in Craig Murray's blog about which side of the boundary line the Royal Navy dinghy was on when it was seized and its crew kidnapped, rather than the contrary factual evidence, including the co-ordinates marked on the relevant maps, cited in my post-script to Ed Davies's comment above, with chapter and verse, which I don't need to repeat here.  As for your suggestion that the whole thing was a deliberate provocation organised by the British government in order to provide a pretext for a war against Iran, I can only echo the sublime Mr McEnroe:  "You cannot be SYRIUS!!!"

  14. Okay, you yourself called the example 'extreme' but honestly, invoking the holocaust in Germany is pretty ridiculous. 

    You said:

    you can see nothing wrong with the unwarranted and illegal kidnapping, incarceration, ill-treatment, menacing blackmail, midnight interrogations and multiple humiliation of fifteen wholly innocent people who had been going about their perfectly legitimate and peaceful business on behalf of and at the request of the elected government of the country in whose territorial waters they had been at the time when they were kidnapped.

    You are just parroting the government line!  It is a wholly Anglocentric viewpoint to say that these soldiers were 'illegally kidnapped'; they were captured in disputed waters.  Menacing blackmail?  Midnight interrogations?  They seemed pretty well treated to me.  Certainly treated a damn sight better than we treat those we disappear, sorry extraordinarily render.  Moral relativism seems to be a more apt approach than moral absolutism here, sorry.  Plus of course, their accounts of what their Iranian captors did to them were coincidentally 'sexed up' for their kiss-and-tell stories to the media.

    Fifteen wholly innocent people?  They're soldiers Brian!  And as far as I'm concerned their involvement in Iraq makes them accomplices in a crime against the peace.  They are following orders from war criminals.  This makes them war criminals themselves.  The war was not undertaken with UN approval, Kofi Anna himself declared it illegal, so to say that they are there at the request of the 'elected' government of the occupied country is somewhat disingenuous. 

    Finally, do you really think it outlandish to suggest that a government that has lied to us in the past in order to plan and wage aggressive war – a government that has taken military action against four separate countries since coming to power, a government that has been ratcheting up tension with Iran  – do you really find it completely unbelievable that this government may, perhaps find it useful to provoke that country into providing a casus belli?  You cannot be serious!  Plus of course, all of this transpires just as the film the 300 is released at the cinema!  Don't you see?  They're all in on it!  They're all in on it together!!  I need to go and have a cold bath and a lie down now.  Maybe a nice cup of tea would help.

    Brian writes:  Well, I agree with your last few sentences, if with nothing else!  Keep on taking the tablets… 

  15. Well thanks for addressing absolutely none of the points I raised.  And was there really a need for the ad hominem attack when I was lampooning myself?

    You talk about objective judgement of the Iranians' actions, and then proceed to use the most emotive language available!   And of course allegations of greater or equal wrongdoing by our own government are relevant.  It's why we're in the region in the first place.  We have been tinkering in Iranian affairs for well over a century.  Don't you think that context is important?  Or is your moral compass so accurate that it can determine absolutes without taking account of the surroundings or how you got there in the first place? 

    I was perhaps hasty in dismissing your Nazi analogy.  Yes, understanding German resentment after Versailles is important in understanding how the Nazis rose to power.  It does not by default lead to condoning Nazi philosophy or justifying their atrocities.

    I've spent this time commenting on your piece because, although you've always come across as something of an establishment man, your blog has always been thoughtful and well-considered.  I've found this discourse rather shrill and disappointing (not that I don't indulge in the odd bout of hyperbole myself).  Oh well.

    Brian writes:  I certainly didn't intend anything I wrote as an ad hominem attack:  my reference to continuing to take the tablets was merely a way of following up your own admirable change of tone at the end of your earlier comment by way of relaxing the tension a little.  If it came across as an attack, of course I apologise (i.e., in case the Tories are listening in, I'm sorry).  I'm also sorry, in a different sense, if you find this particular discussion shrill and disappointing.  I have been finding it reasonably enlightening and mind-clearing.  But evidently YMMV.  It's clearly a subject on which decent and sensible people can and do disagree.

  16. Thanks for the concilatory reponse.  Yes, it’s a highly charged subject and there will inevitably be differences of opinion.  The whole affair left me reeling and muttering "oh god no, not again!"  Personally, I think the editors of our daily newspapers should face trial for war crimes along with Blair and his cronies.  A man can dream.

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