Max Hastings writes on the "Mark of Cain"

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  1. The real scandal about our troops'
    by MAX HASTINGS - More by this author »

    Every now and again, I ring up senior officers of the British Army and ask what is worrying them.

    Sometimes the answer is recruitment, the helicopter shortage, or just lack of cash and political support. Most often in the past few years, however, I have received a one-word response: "Reputations".

    Compelling: The Mark of Cain claims to reveal how even the best of our soldiers can be brutalised by war

    No single issue causes more concern to the Army's leaders than that of preserving its image as an institution which treats its own people and its enemies alike with humanity and respect.

    Over the past decade, a succession of scandals has tarnished that ideal: the suicides at Deepcut Barracks; allegations of bullying; and, above all, a series of high-profile court-martials for mistreatment, and indeed murder, of detainees in Iraq.

    No matter that most of those charged have been acquitted. It has been undisputed that some prisoners were subjected to shocking illtreatment. Doubt has focused chiefly upon whether the right people were in the dock.

    Lack of evidence, not lack of a crime, has prompted some "not guilty" verdicts.

    If you love the Army, as I do, then you will find this Thursday's Channel 4 film The Mark Of Cain bleak viewing.

    It is a fictional drama about the experience of an infantry section serving in Iraq, and the subsequent court-martial of one of its men for abuse of detainees.

    In one sense, the film is grossly unfair: it gives one-and-a-half hours of screen time to the misdeeds of British soldiers.

    How nice it would be to see a 90-minute Channel 4 drama about the doings of the 95 per cent of men who do a great job under appalling circumstances, neither losing their cool nor mistreating suspects.

    But that is an argument against making films about villains in any walk of life. Bad guys make much more powerful viewing than good ones, and it would be naive to moan much about it. The Mark Of Cain is compelling television.

    The Dambusters, it is not. It would make Jack Hawkins and John Mills turn in their graves. But it offers a gripping portrait of what Tony Blair's Iraq war is like for some of those who have had to fight it.

    In an early scene, as newcomers to the battlefield, the soldiers are briefed about their role, and above all about the attitude which they should adopt towards Iraqis.

    "These people are not "ragheads" or "wogs"," says their commander. "They have suffered terribly under Saddam. They are now entitled to enjoy the freedom that has been won for them, and freedom starts with respect. Let's leave this place better than we found it."

    In this spirit, they set out to patrol the streets of Basra. When the section faces its first challenge, from a hysterical mob at a filling station demanding fuel and screaming that "the Americans have stolen our petrol", rocks fly and there is almost a shoot-out.

    The situation is bloodlessly defused by warning shots and a display of calm resolution by the British commander. The crowd drifts away.

    Much of the film is shot in the style of a news documentary, with handheld cameras. It captures superbly the fear, tension and bewilderment of Iraq, through the eyes of a British soldier. We see fiercely emotional local people shouting incomprehensible abuse at their "liberators".

    Who can tell which of the throng on the streets are innocent civilians, or which ones are insurgents bent on detonating a bomb? The purpose of all terror campaigns is to promote mistrust, to provoke the occupiers into outrages against the innocent.

    The strain is enormous, of patrolling streets day after day and week after week, never knowing at what moment, without warning, a handful of scuttling figures will try to kill British soldiers from behind the shelter of innocents.

    If there is any "best thing" about conventional war, it is that everybody knows who is who. Sixty-five years ago, if you saw a German uniform, you recognised that its wearer's job was to kill you, and yours was to kill him.

    There were rules and conventions, albeit sometimes broken. In most World War II campaigns, there was plenty of fear but little hate.

    The hate has been unleashed in terrorist campaigns, Cyprus, Aden, Northern Ireland - and Iraq. It seems so monstrous to soldiers, that they walk daily among people whom they are doing their best to help, who smile and nod and fawn - then suddenly, one sunny morning, seek to murder them.

    In The Mark Of Cain, the British section is on a LandRover patrol when it is trapped before a roadblock in a narrow street. There is a hail of automatic fire, then a rocket which hits the vehicle and kills two soldiers.

    The next day, the unit is briefed to raid a village from which, according to "good intell", the attackers came. Commanders tell the men grimly that treatment of the villagers should be "vigorous - justice is coming their way, and some of it is going to be rough".

    The scenes which follow are wretched, but believable: doors are beaten in, women scream, soldiers drag out terrified and volubly protesting men. One is found to have binoculars. "What's he got these for?" demands an NCO. "Birdwatching?"

    The man is dragged into a vehicle and driven back to camp along with several other "detainees". An officer says formally to a sergeant that when the Military Police come to collect the Iraqis next day, they are to be handed over in the same condition as they were brought in.

    They are not, of course. As the evening wears on, the soldiers psyche themselves into a rage towards the prisoners, talking of the ghastly crimes committed by Iraqis under Saddam's regime - "and now we're supposed to respect their human rights, eh?"

    The detainees are beaten and revoltingly abused. One squaddie refuses to join in. He is warned that nobody will watch his back next time the section is sent onto the streets unless he does his horrible part with the others. It's a matter of loyalty, solidarity, you see.

    The officers collude. The NCOs join in, one repeating mechanically as he kicks an Iraqi: "I'm in command! I'm in command!" The following morning, when the most reluctant participant goes to the unit chaplain to unburden himself, the Man of God shrugs: "Feelings were running high," and doesn't want to know.

    When an Iraqi wife arrives seeking news of her husband, an officer says blandly that the man tried to escape, "resisted arrest, and received injuries which required treatment at a British military hospital".

    The rest of the film is about what happened afterwards. Back in England, wives and girlfriends are horrified by the brutalised, traumatised men who return to them.

    In a pub, one soldier is disgusted by his poor reception after fighting for his country in Iraq and reminds the barman that soldiers returning from the Falklands got a hero's reception. "Yeah, but we won in the Falklands," comes the response.

    That last bit is true, and contributes significantly to the emotional troubles of veterans of the Iraq war.

    Many British soldiers returning from Blair's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dismayed, even embittered, by how little the public seems to care about what they have done and sacrificed in their country's name.

    In the Channel 4 film, photographs are discovered of the assault on the Iraqis. One soldier confesses. Charges are brought - inevitably against the two most squeamish and unwilling participants in the crime.

    Officers and NCOs collude in an attempted cover-up. They urge the men charged to take their punishment in silence, to refuse to "grass" on their mates. A sergeant tells one of the accused that loyalty to the regiment is what matters now - "it's all you've got left, isn't it?"

    There is no doubt that in some real court-martial cases, there have been cover-ups and conspiracies of silence. But in this TV drama, credibility starts to drain away in the face of the grotesquely awful on-screen behaviour of absolutely everybody in uniform, especially the officers.

    One of the accused kills himself before the trial. After the other has blown the gaff in the dock, refusing to keep silence and defiantly fingering the guilty, he is beaten to a pulp outside the court by his former mates.

    Whatever you think of military justice, it is unthinkable that this could happen. Somewhere here, the movie becomes absurd as well as repugnant. Even at its worst, the Army is not this bad.

    In one sense, I hated the whole film, because of the damage it must inflict on the battered image of what is still a great national institution. Few mothers who see it will afterwards pat their own little Johnnys and Jimmys on the head, and send them running to the

    nearest recruiting office to sign on. Yet it is impossible to dismiss the programme as a figment of fantasy.

    It contains important and painful truths. First, soldiers under the stresses of mortal peril do not always maintain the standards of boy scouts. In my own researches on World War II, I have often encountered examples of prisoners being shot.

    Sometimes, this was because exhausted and frightened men facing the likelihood of imminent death found it intolerable to send captured enemies to the safety of a PoW camp.

    On other occasions, prisoners were shot in response to alleged atrocities committed by the other side. The British Army's record in insurgencies is better than that of other armies - the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Israelis in Gaza.

    But there have always been a few men who committed monstrous acts, because conflict itself is monstrous. In the old days, however, no one cared - not the high command, not the politicians, not the media.

    You could kick an Adeni or Greek Cypriot or Kenyan Mau-Mau suspect half to death, even kill him, with little chance that questions would be asked. What has changed today is not the British soldier, but the climate in which he must fight his wars.

    He is expected to maintain extraordinary standards of decency and humanity, while fighting foes who have no standards at all.

    If he errs, exposure, disgrace and retribution are almost inevitable. The Army has always had its share of mindless young thugs, but their excesses are no longer tolerated.

    No civilised person can regret this. Yet those of us who honour soldiers and understand the nature of their dirty job - to kill and be killed - pity their vulnerability in our squeaky- clean new world.

    There is no mercy for little people who fall from grace. The stomachchurner is the manner in which the great criminals escape.

    Tony Blair, the man who launched the Iraq nightmare, who committed the British Army to this war under false pretences, will soon walk out of Downing Street to make his millions and live happily ever after.

    The burden of guilt, shame, punishment, falls solely upon such wretched men as are depicted in The Mark Of Cain. This is the real scandal, in which we are all complicit.

    •The Mark Of Cain: Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm.

    I'll watch it, but I have a feeling I'm not going to like it!


  2. That one sentence encapsulates everything that f*cks me off about this whole debacle: for people like Blair, Rumsfold and Bush, the only casualty that really concerns them is their reputations and consequent ability to rake it in on lecture circuit and directorships gravy train. What is even worse is that even if they are seen us criminally culpable f*ck-ups and incompetents, it will probably only mean that they will get 250 grand an appearance instead of 300.
  3. Fair play, Max Hastings is a fantastic journalist who supports us to the core and I think he hits the nail right on the head with this one.

    That being said, Im not going to watch it.
  4. Agreed Sparky... I will be out on the p!ss anyhow so will miss it.
  5. OldSnowy

    OldSnowy LE Moderator Book Reviewer

    The problem is, as someone pointed out already this morning in the press, that this will be sold abroad - i.e. in the Middle East - as absolutely factual. The results will directly endanger the lives of Soliders in Iraq and Afghanistan - how could the author have that on his conscience?

    Unless of course he doesn't give a toss about the young men and women who join the Army, of course?
  6. Isnt it odd how sometimes the people who benefit mostly from freedom of speech make such a killing out of 'dissing' those who guard it. Makes me sick, anyone up for a protest march?
  7. Outside the Liabour Party, I think that it would be difficult to find someone who would disgaree with that statement. When you stand back from it, the reality of it slaps you in the face. When you stand up close, it kicks the sh*t out of you.

    To add insult to injury, we'll have to pay for his personal protection for the years to come as well.

    I f*cking hate the man, his politics and his Party.
  8. "There is no mercy for little people who fall from grace. The stomachchurner is the manner in which the great criminals escape "

    This is so true. There is a big difference between a young man who has been brutalised by war, who loses it when pushed over the edge, and a person who systematically enjoys brutality and cruelty - but which one of these will face a court-martial ?? I'm sure you can quesss !!

    I will not watch this "drama". I respect Max Hastings though. He has always seemed to talk sense.
  9. A few good men eh?
  10. He is expected to maintain extraordinary standards of decency and humanity, while fighting foes who have no standards at all.

    Yet those of us who honour soldiers and understand the nature of their dirty job - to kill and be killed - pity their vulnerability in our squeaky- clean new world.

    Why doesn't someone make a film that portraies this instead. I guess a head line of "Ordinary poeple working in extraordinary situations" doesn't make good headines.
  11. Heard on the radio this morning that there is some doubt about it being broadcast. Anyone have any additional info?

    Also note that it is has a website and that the DVD is released on 9 Apr 07 so it will be passed around the world quite quickly via other broadcasts and this means.

    If you have a reasoned comment you may wish to visit the site below. However, reasoned should be the approach, as we would not want to feed what is probably an already jaundiced view of the military.

    I imagine the forum will get quite busy following the broadcast and will be interesting to see the views expressed. I, like some others, will not be able to watch it.
  12. Someone has mentioned A Few Good Men.
    Do we have anyone from real life like the fictional Col Nathan Jessep to put across just what serving one's country can mean? I suppose the only one that comes to my mind is the revered Col Tim Collins - and look what happened to him!
    I can only hope that the tv play really makes it clear what the soldiers have to endure on a daily basis. I do not see it having a great increase in what our enemies think of do as they will have already made up their minds. No point in their opposing uis if they did not think we were evil. Best we can do is impress on the younger soldier just how things can be seen by the uninformed who do not wish to switch from the more dumb channels of tv.
  13. I wouldn't describe Collins as 'revered' ORC. You been at the Daily Hate again? (It'll make you go blind you know).

    There was a mini debate on 'The Wright Stuff' this morning. The panel disagreed with the timing of the 'drama' as did quite a few of the callers. There was the obligatory call from a 'Spouse of an Iraqi' with predictable outcome, but there was one bloke in the audience however who supported the timing of this 'drama' (who bore a remarkable resemblence to Frankenstein's monster), who harped on about 'freedom of speech'. Funny how they have know idea who maintains that freedom and how some people take those freedoms for granted, a point made by Wright in fact, in the opening 'one way conversation' with the 'Spouse of an Iraqi' (they cut her off in the end).

    The actress (can't remember her name) who was on the panel summed it up quite well, by saying that the danger lay with some people having difficulty in seperating what is drama from what is documentry. This highlighted Channel 4's stance that they felt that 'drama' had a responsibility to show what was happening in reality. So, despite the fact that none of this 'drama' is true, have Channel 4 decided to lie to the nation by selling them the idea that this is in fact a 'documentry'?

    Let's hope that no one gets killed on the strength of this 'drama' then.
  14. cpunk

    cpunk LE Moderator

    Over the years, the bogus idea that many soldiers are so deeply traumatised by war that they indulge in homicidal rampages - propagated by fictional dramas - has become accepted as reality by writers and by the public. A lot of this has come from the US experience in Vietnam and films like Apocalypse Now (a great film, btw, but it was an updating of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' set in the 19th century Belgian Congo, not a documentary) and the Deer Hunter. Now it's a cliche which has come home to roost. Personally, I can't recall a spree or serial killer who had actually been a soldier, but I can recall a lot of murderers who are said to have operated in a 'military style', for no particularly good reason. Films like this are inspired by ignorance and prejudice: it's a shame it won't be ignored.
    • Like Like x 1
  15. For info only:

    the wright stuff
    tuesday 3rd april
    panel: Lynda Bellingham, Chris Bryant MP
    special guest: Les Dennis
    expert: Dr. Catherine Hood