Sean Rayment / The Telegraph – 2006-03-23 23:19:36
‘I Didn’t Join the British Army To Conduct American Foreign Policy’
Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent / Daily Telegraph
(March 12, 2006) — As a trooper in the Special Air Service’s counter-terrorist team — the black-clad force that came to the world’s attention during the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 — Ben Griffin was at the pinnacle of his military career.
He had already served in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan as a member of the Parachute Regiment, and his sharp mind, natural fitness and ability to cope with the stress of military operations had singled him out as ideal special forces material.
Born in London but brought up in Wales, Mr Griffin left school at 18 with two A-levels and six GCSEs and, although he could have become an officer, he preferred life in the ranks.
Within a year of joining the elite force in early 2004 and serving as a trooper in the SAS’s G-Squadron, he learnt that his unit was being posted to Baghdad, where it would be working alongside its American equivalent, Delta Force, targeting al-Qaeda cells and insurgent units.
Unknown to any of his SAS colleagues at their Hereford-based unit, however, Mr Griffin, then 25, had been harbouring doubts over the “legality” of the war. Despite recognising that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and posed a threat, albeit a small one, to the West, he did not believe that the case for war had been made. The events he witnessed during his three-month tour in Baghdad, and especially the conduct of the American troops, would force him into making the most difficult decision of his life.
During a week’s leave in March 2005 he told his commanding officer in a formal interview that he had no intention of returning to Iraq because he believed that the war was morally wrong. Moreover, he said he believed that Tony Blair and the Government had lied to the country and had deceived every British serviceman and woman serving in Iraq.
Mr Griffin expected to be placed under arrest, labelled a coward, court-martialed and imprisoned for daring to air such views.
Instead, however, he was allowed to leave the Army with his exemplary military record intact and with a glowing testimonial from his commanding officer, who described him as a “balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions”.
In his first interview since being discharged from the SAS in June last year, Mr Griffin explained why he has decided to speak out about the war.
He said: “I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong. I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population. And if you don’t win the hearts and minds of the people, you can’t win the war.
“If we were on a joint counter-terrorist operation, for example, we would radio back to our headquarters that we were not going to detain certain people because, as far as we were concerned, they were not a threat because they were old men or obviously farmers, but the Americans would say ‘no, bring them back’.
“The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects. The tactics were draconian and completely ineffective. The Americans were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib [the notorious prison in Baghdad where US troops abused and tortured Iraqi detainees] or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured.
“The Americans had a well-deserved reputation for being trigger happy. In the three months that I was in Iraq, the soldiers I served with never shot anybody. When you asked the Americans why they killed people, they would say ‘we were up against the tough foreign fighters’. I didn’t see any foreign fighters in the time I was over there.
“I can remember coming in off one operation which took place outside Baghdad, where we had detained some civilians who were clearly not insurgents, they were innocent people. I couldn’t understand why we had done this, so I said to my troop commander ‘would we have behaved in the same way in the Balkans or Northern Ireland?’ He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘this is Iraq’, and I thought ‘and that makes it all right?’
“As far as I was concerned that meant that because these people were a different colour or a different religion, they didn’t count as much. You can not invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that.”
On another operation, Mr Griffin recalls his and other soldiers’ frustration at being ordered to detain a group of men living on a farm.
He said: “After you have been on a few operations, experience tells you when you are dealing with insurgents or just civilians and we knew the people we had detained were not a threat.
“One of them was a disabled man who had a leg missing but the Americans still ordered us to load them on the helicopters and bring them back to their base. A few hours later we were told to return half of them and fly back to the farm in daylight. It was a ridiculous order and we ran the risk of being shot down or ambushed, but we still had to do it. The Americans were risking our lives because they refused to listen to our advice the night before. It was typical of their behaviour.”
Mr Griffin said he believed that the Americans soldiers viewed the Iraqis in the same way as the Nazis viewed Russians, Jews and eastern Europeans in the Second World War, when they labelled them “untermenschen”.
“As far as the Americans were concerned, the Iraqi people were sub-human, untermenschen. You could almost split the Americans into two groups: ones who were complete crusaders, intent on killing Iraqis, and the others who were in Iraq because the Army was going to pay their college fees. They had no understanding or interest in the Arab culture. The Americans would talk to the Iraqis as if they were stupid and these weren’t isolated cases, this was from the top down. There might be one or two enlightened officers who understood the situation a bit better but on the whole that was their general attitude. Their attitude fuelled the insurgency. I think the Iraqis detested them.”
Although Mr Griffin has the utmost respect for his former colleagues and remains fiercely loyal to the regiment, he believes that the reputation of the Army has been damaged by its association with the American forces.
“I had reservations about going out to Iraq before I went, but as a soldier you just get on with what you are ordered to do. But I found that when I was out in Iraq that I couldn’t keep my views separate from my work without compromising my role as a soldier.
“It was at that stage that I knew I couldn’t carry on. I was very angry, and still am, at the way the politicians in this country and America have lied to the British public about the war. But most importantly, I didn’t join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy.”
Mr Griffin said that although he was angered by many of the events he witnessed in Iraq, he waited until he returned to Britain on leave before making his views clear to his commanders.
“I didn’t want to say anything when I was in Baghdad because I still have great respect and loyalty for the soldiers I served with. I didn’t want to cause any unnecessary pressure or discomfort by voicing my opinions.
“When I returned to the UK for a week’s leave I asked for an interview with my commanding officer and told him that what I thought was going on in Iraq was wrong, not just legally but operationally as well.
“Initially, he suspected that I had been offered a job by a private military company in Iraq but when it became clear that was not the case he was very understanding. It was a big decision for me. I put a lot of effort getting into the SAS, so this wasn’t a decision I made on a whim.
“He understood my point of view and his attitude was brilliant, in fact everyone was brilliant about it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought I might be charged or end up in Colchester [the military prison] for refusing to soldier.”
Mr Griffin, who lives in London, denies being a peace activist or a member of any political party, or having an agenda designed to bring down the Government.
But he said: “I do believe passionately in democracy and I will speak out about things which I think are morally wrong. I think the war in Iraq is a war of aggression and is morally wrong and, more importantly, we are making the situation in the Middle East more unstable. It’s not just wrong, it’s a major military disaster. There was no plan for what was to happen after Saddam went, no end-game.”
Mr Griffin did not ask for or receive any payment for this interview.
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