War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part III

The final part of Tom Sykes’ exclusive interview with Graham Horne, South East Coordinator for Veterans for Peace, touches upon state-corporate propaganda, US-UK war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t anti-war enough.

Tom Sykes: Various people have tried to sue the British armed forces for alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last summer, though, a law firm representing some of the plaintiffs was forced to shut down amid accusations of malpractice and incompetence. What’s your view of all that?

Graham Horne: It’s a difficult one to unravel. I’ve got no time for lawyers – they’re ambulance chasers or, in this case, battle chasers. All they see is money. Having said that, from the Iraq veterans I’ve spoken to it’s obvious we did break the Geneva Convention on a number of occasions and in a number of ways.

TS: Can you give me examples?

GH: We’ll be here all afternoon.

TS: Just one or two?

GH: Well what my Veterans for Peace (VfP) colleague Ben Griffin had to do is one example. He was recruited into a ‘snatch squad’ while serving with the SAS in Baghdad during the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. He’d be sent to the home or hideout of a suspected insurgent, blow in the wall and kidnap the guy at gunpoint. He’d then hand him over to the US authorities. Nothing had been proved against these suspects. They could have just as easily been innocent as guilty, but they were abducted anyway.

TS: This was part of what’s been termed ‘extraordinary rendition’?

GH: Exactly. There’s a clip on YouTube of Ben throwing all his medals at Downing Street. He singles one of the medals out and says something like, ‘I got this for breaking into people’s homes and I’m handing it back.’

TS: What would happen to the suspects after Ben handed them over?

GH: If they were deemed ‘high interest value’ they’d be sent to an American compound, stripped naked and bunged into dog kennels in the blazing sun. You’ve heard of the Abu Ghraib scandal in which American servicemen and women killed, tortured, beat up and anally raped Iraqi prisoners?

TS: Yes.

GH: Well Ben’s been to Abu Ghraib and he says it was one of the better prisons. The British forces were absolutely complicit in these horrific war crimes against Iraqis.

TS: They’ve also been directly involved. The British government tried to suppress evidence showing that MI6 officers tortured Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national. One minister admitted it was possible British agents were present when Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was being waterboarded.

GH: When I was serving in West Germany during the Cold War, I’m fairly certain we were torturing KGB agents. If you could bag yourself one of them you’d do anything to get secrets out of him. Back then they used aversion therapy and truth-drugs like sodium pentothal, so it was a bit more subtle than the modern ‘war on terror’, but it was still illegal.

TS: Do you think individual servicemen and women should be held to account for Abu Ghraib-type crimes?

Graham Horne, South East Coordinator for Veterans for Peace
Graham Horne, South East Coordinator for Veterans for Peace

GH: The forces often try and deal with these sorts of offences internally – someone will go up on a charge, get a slapped wrist and told don’t do it again. Alternatively, if certain low-ranking personnel are deemed expendable they’ll be made examples of and thrown to the baying masses, if you like. For instance, Graner, England and the other US soldiers who got banged up for Abu Ghraib, were sacrificed to protect people far higher up the food chain who were equally guilty – if not more so – because they had control over the wider culture that allowed that cruelty to happen.

It has similarities to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse that’s going on right now. The odd clapped-out celebrity here and there has been thrown to the wolves – and I don’t doubt they’re guilty – but does the circus around Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris distract from a much deeper, systemic problem: the culture of silence at the BBC or in hospitals or in football or wherever? As for whether there’ll now be investigations into the British military, I don’t think so. The public outcry alone would squash it. Already the mainstream media have attacked the plaintiffs as enemies of ‘our brave boys’ and so on.

TS: What’s VfP’s relationship with the mainstream media like?

GH: We detest it. We won’t even talk to the BBC. There are groups such as Real News that we’re friendly with and they’ve done things like film our alternative Remembrance Day. In September we were picketing the release of the Chilcot Report and a BBC journalist came to us for a comment. We just turned our backs. We don’t trust them.

TS: Is that because of previous bad experiences?

GH: Our feeling is that the mainstream media is part of the military-industrial complex. The BBC are one of the world’s worst propaganda machines as they’ve supported every British imperial adventure for as long as I can remember.

TS: Aren’t oppositional viewpoints ever aired on the BBC? During the Iraq War, for example, there’d be George Galloway, Will Self, Charles Kennedy and others on Question Time criticising the government line.

GH: This is where my cynicism really kicks in! If you look back at footage of Question Time prior to the invasion of Iraq you’ll find an anti-war voice on there, but he or she’ll be in a minority of one. The other people round that table would be, say, a Blairite Labour frontbencher who’s pro-war, a Tory MP who’s pro-war, a journalist or author or businessman who’s pro-war. And you’ll notice that the chairman, David Dimbleby – who only got the job because of his famous dad – will cut the anti-war speaker off when they’re in full flow or allow the other speakers to interrupt them. You see these sorts of subtle tactics at work across the mainstream media.

TS: Just then I noticed the appalled expression on your face when you said ‘Blairite’…

GH: Believe me, I feel a lot more angry with that man than my expression might have conveyed!

TS: What did the Chilcot Inquiry mean to you?

GH: Bugger all. Effectively Blair’s got away with it. What VfP wanted out of it was his impeachment and prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

TS: I write fairly often about West Africa and leaders from that part of the world can end up in The Hague for doing a lot less than Blair did.

GH: Yes, you could say the same about the former Yugoslavia. Blair is on a different scale to Milosevic and the rest. He must take his share of the blame for anything between a few hundred thousand to 1.5 million dead. I also think every MP who voted for the war and a goodly number of the military high command should be put on trial alongside him.

TS: Was the Iraq war uniquely appalling, in your view?

GH: The deception, the lies, the naked profit-making. The first justification given was Britain would be wiped out by weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, except we couldn’t find these WMD anywhere. The terms of the debate were then amended to ‘regime change’ because, you know, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and he’d killed his own people – with the total backing of the West of course, but you almost never heard that side of it from the BBC.

The grab for the oil meant billions of dollars’ worth of private security contracts for firms like Blackwater USA. A lot of ex-military are still working for these firms as civilian security guards. They love it out there because they can pack semi-automatic rifles. They wouldn’t be allowed to do that in England!

TS: The Labour party’s leadership has changed a lot since the Blair days. Unlike Blair, Jeremy Corbyn has anti-war credentials. What does VfP think of him?

GH: I’ve met Jeremy Corbyn twice and I think he’s a nice fella with his heart in the right place. For my mind, though, what he’s peddling is an anachronistic social democratic politics that’s been tried and failed. On top of that, he’s apologised for the Iraq War, but that’s not quite good enough. I would take him a lot more seriously if he now actively purged his party of the Blairite rump that led us into that mess in the first place. Corbyn should also be actively working towards bringing Blair to trial.

One reason why I wouldn’t trust Corbyn in power is that every Labour government since 1945 has started a war somewhere. During Attlee’s administration, the army did some hideous stuff in what were then the colonies. 300-500 unarmed civilians were mown down by the British at Batang Kali in Malaya. We introduced concentration camps to Kenya during the Mau-Mau rising.

Harold Wilson is given credit for keeping us out of the Vietnam War, but that’s actually bullshit. Our boys were sent on covert missions or secretly attached to Australian or New Zealand divisions. At the same time, we had troops in Borneo and Brunei repelling communists who had links to the Vietminh. And we don’t even need to mention how many wars Blair started.

TS: Both Tories and Labour are militaristic parties, in your view?

GH: Absolutely. I wouldn’t piss on a politician if he was on fire, not any single one of them. That doesn’t mean I’m apathetic or don’t care about politics. Quite the opposite. I identify as an anarchist because I’m fairly certain we the people could run our own affairs without these hierarchical power structures that only seem to prevent rather than promote freedom, equality, truth and justice. I’m not your sort of Class War anarchist who wants to bomb things and punch people – that doesn’t lead anywhere. My anarchism is more like socialism without the authoritarianism, and it owes a lot to the social experiments in Barcelona and Aragon during the Spanish Civil War.

TS: Does your anarchist perspective stop you from lobbying mainstream politicians?

GH: It depends on what we feel can be achieved. Before going to see Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in response to the Chilcot Inquiry, we were invited to a closed press conference where Labour apparatchiks told us not to ask Corbyn any difficult questions. It reminded me weirdly of the way Alastair Campbell used to stage manage the New Labour lot. We were told we were ‘guests of honour’ at the speech and were given four seats right at the front.

When we went inside the hall the Momentum people were chanting ‘Jeremy, we love you!’ Corbyn came in and everyone stood up – everyone except us. We shook his hand but we refused to stand up. It was quite a sight, us four veterans in turquoise hoodies being the only people not on our feet when the new messiah – as some people see him – strolled in to rapturous applause!

TS: Why didn’t you stand up?

GH: We were waiting to see if he was going to say anything that we agreed with. We’d asked him some time before to renounce war as a means of foreign policy, and he didn’t do that in the speech. If you read the transcript, he criticises the Iraq war but he also says that the UK and US should have sought a UN resolution for it. VfP maintains that Iraq would have been a disaster whether the UN had been behind it or not. The impression I get is that Prime Minister Corbyn – though I doubt he will be PM – would take us to war as long as he got some piece of paper from the UN, which is, after all, just another undemocratic institution dominated by the rich imperialist nations. Anyway, after Corbyn finished his speech, everyone stood up.

TS: But you remained seated?

GH: Correct. We weren’t happy at all. We wanted some definitive answers from both the inquiry and from Corbyn, and we didn’t get them.

TS: Tony Blair’s been threatening a comeback. What do you think of that?

GH: If you think about it, the PLP are on Corbyn’s case and they’re short of a leader…

TS: Surely not. People can’t be that stupid, can they?

GH: Well maybe the PLP might ultimately decide that they’d be shooting themselves in the foot with Blair, but probably a lot of them think they’re already shooting themselves in the foot with Corbyn. Makes no odds to an anarchist like me – neither man is unequivocally anti-war.


Photography by Moshe Tasky and Veterans for Peace.