THE murder of Baha Mousa – for that it what it was, however you dress it up – is a profoundly depressing stain on the British military mission in Iraq.
For the young man’s family, it’s an unspeakable crime and unhealable tragedy; for no matter how much we apologise, investigate, punish and compensate we can’t bring him back from the dead.
For the British Army it’s a source of anger, frustration, annoyance and regret – because the whole damn thing was completely unnecessary and totally avoidable.
Last week, inquiry chairman Sir William Gage said soldiers from the First Battalion, the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, inflicted an “appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” on 26-year-old Baha Mousa during 36 hours in detention in Basra in September 2003. His body was found to have suffered 93 external injuries.
The head of the British Army, Gen Sir Peter Wall, said the episode had “cast a dark shadow” over the force’s reputation, while Sir William’s report named 19 members of UK forces, including three non-commissioned officers, who carried out assaults on Baha Mousa and nine other Iraqis held with him.
In times of war dreadful things happen to innocent people and horrific, genuine and understandable mistakes are made, sometimes even against our own soldiers and allies, as the numerous incidents of “blue-on-blue” friendly fire attacks prove.
But this wasn’t like that so neither we, nor Baha Mousa’s family, can cling to that fragile compensation – for he was beaten to death in cold blood while held in British custody.
Whenever you’re part of an overwhelming force that invades a country in a deeply dubious and toxic mission – whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam – you’re never going to be popular with the locals. (And that’s putting it mildly).
In fact, a lot of these people will simply be looking for reasons to dislike or kill you, no matter what tactics or level of force you use. So the one thing you must never do is give them moral ammunition to use against you, or even more reasons to hate and thus kill.
Much of the time the innocent civilians on the ground – like Baha Mousa – have been literally brainwashed by their dictatorial rulers, be they a Saddam Hussein or a Colonel Gaddafi, into believing that we’ve come with the worst intentions; to rape, to rob, to steal and plunder.
We must never prove them right and gift them this metaphorical stick to beat us over the head with; rather, we should prove them wrong and take the moral high ground, by being better and more humane in every way, than those who had ruled them.
It’s called “winning hearts and minds”, and it is how you win a war. For without it in the long-term you lose. Every time.
Baha Mousa wasn’t a terrorist, an insurgent, an enemy or a troublemaker of any sort. He was a young, healthy, honest and hardworking family man with his whole life ahead of him. And we took it away from him for nothing. Shame on us.
I had nothing to do with this personally, but if I ever met his family, I’d apologise to them and tell them that we did something wicked and dreadful, and that I’d hope in the fullness of time that they could forgive us – but I’d understand if they couldn’t.
Whenever you’ve done wrong in order to gain forgiveness you have to first admit your guilt and say sorry – and bloody well mean it.
We need to start by saying sorry to his family, and compensating them as best we can, before we can begin to move on.
I had the honour of serving alongside the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in Iraq and elsewhere and I know, in my heart of hearts, that 99 per cent of them are amongst the finest men and soldiers that you could ever hope to meet in any walk of life.
I know, too, that nobody could be more saddened and remorseful at what happened to that unfortunate man than they.
Quite simply put, Baha Mousa found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the men whose hands he fell into were not in any way, shape or form representative of the proud, honourable and illustrious history that seeps through the QLR’s veins.
They’re a great Lancashire regiment and it is just an utter tragedy that this happened on their watch, because in all honesty this could have happened in any unit in any war. For we must never forget that no matter how great a regiment is it is still nonetheless made up of individuals, and from time-to-time, those individuals of a certain bent will do dreadful things.
I hope that those who killed him are seeking forgiveness and searching their consciousnesses, for both Baha Mousa’s sake and their own.
If, from here on in, they can devote their lives to good causes and accept the gravity of their misdeeds, then I believe they will find forgiveness and a second chance.
I hope so, because I believe that good things can come out of bad and wounds can heal. We owe it to Baha Mousa and I believe it is what he would have wanted. And let us never forget that he is the most important individual here.
Steven McLaughlin served in the Royal Green Jackets in Iraq in 2003. He is the author of Squaddie: A Soldier’s Story.