Notes From the Margins…

The Curse of the Careerist

  • March 18, 2013
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You have to admire the courage and moral fibre of Britain’s military chiefs.  Here they are, ten years after the Iraq war, queuing up to describe  the inept planning for the post-invasion scenario as ‘wholly irresponsible’.    So we hear former chief of defence Lord Guthrie, thundering that it was ‘ absolutely irresponsible to go in without thinking of the consequences’ and declaring that Donald Rumsfeld has ‘  lot to answer for.’

And Air Chief Marshall Sir Brian Burridge demanding to know what impelled Paul Bremer to ‘ squash any sense of the Iraqi people taking any role in their own destiny?’.   And General Sir Mike Jackson, accusing both Rumsfeld and Bremer of being ‘intellectually bankrupt.’

Well the country can consider itself fortunate indeed to have been led into war by forthright men with the honesty and backbone to stand up tell the truth to those in power – even if they have waited more than a decade to do so.  Nor is such integrity reserved for the military.   On tonight’s Panorama, some of the country’s intelligence officers will be heard telling interviewers that the British and American intelligence services were aware that Saddam did not have WMD.

We will hear from one officer how information on WMD was ‘being torn off the teleprinter and rushed across to Number 10’ and another describing the search for weapons as ‘wishful thinking… [that] promised the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow’.

In the first instance, senior military officers knew that the British Armed Forces would be embarking on a war without any viable plans to ensure Iraq’s post-war stability.   In the second, intelligence officials knew that the British public was being duped into a war based on false pretenses.

Why were none of these officials prepared to resign or  go public about what they knew at a time when the information that they possessed might actually have made a difference?

It wasn’t as if examples were lacking.  These officials would have been aware of  Elizabeth Wilmhurst, deputy legal advisor to the Foreign Office, who resigned from her job in 2003, declaring in her resignation letter:

I cannot in conscience go along with advice – within the Office or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without such a resolution, particularly since an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression.

Whether any of the officials who are now coming forward felt similar pangs of conscience at the time about the discrepancy between what they knew and what their government was saying is not known, but what is certain is that none of them were prepared to act on them if they did.

It may be that some of them genuinely believed that Saddam posed some kind of threat to the UK’s ‘national security’ or (less likely) that they were so concerned for the Iraqi people that they were prepared to accept even a dishonest war if it got rid of the dictator.

But I suspect that the real reason for their acceptance lies elsewhere – in the culture of obedience and careerism that underpins both military and civilian bureaucracies.

You don’t get words like ‘Lord’ and ‘Sir’ attached to your name by standing up to the lies and manipulations of politicians and governments.  Career prospects are not advanced by sticking your head above the parapet and saying that something is wrong when you believe that it is.

Carne Ross, the British diplomat who resigned in 2004 in protest at the manipulation of WMD intelligence by the British government, later wrote of his  involvement in the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council – a regime that he gradually came to realize was responsible for the ‘excess mortality rate’ of 500,000 children under five.

In a thoughtful and honest analysis of his continued implementation of a policy that he knew was morally bankrupt,  Ross noted how ‘The comfortable succor of my institution, in this case the British Foreign Office, allowed me to ignore the dictates of my own conscience.’

Ross saw such behaviour as a consequence of ‘  any system where people feel dissociated from the consequences of their actions — where they feel that someone else, not them, is really in control’.   He suggested that this pattern could be challenged by a new attempt to ‘Confront individuals with the consequences of their actions. Restore the moral understanding that each of us is responsible for the world as it is, and for each other.’

Absolutely right.  But too many individuals are motivated not by a ‘moral understanding’ of the world, but a desire to get on, and these are kinds of people that governments like to work for them.

And the result is a world of Yes Men, where obedience is always a virtue, and where those who do act on their conscience, like Bradley Manning, are ruthlessly punished, while others keep their mouths shut, until it becomes clear to them that speaking out will no longer do them any harm.

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1 Comment

  1. Carne Ross

    24th Mar 2013 - 7:27 pm

    Thanks. Carne

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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