He did so in the context of a story about Irish soldiers in the British army in what was Turkish-controlled Mesopotamia during World War I and, in the years following, when Iraq was born under a League of Nations-inspired British mandate, much to the annoyance of the region’s “uncivilized tribes.”
Churchill spoke in his capacity as minister of state for war and air in 1920. The natives in Iraq were restless at the time and were being taught a sound imperial lesson by means of aerial bombing and gas attacks.
Fifty years after Churchill justified extreme tactics in a dirty little war by the banks of the Tigris, another insurrection had broken out by the Lagan. It too was to become a dirty war, one in which the more rarified rules of formal military engagement would be bent and broken, though not only by the British.
Justifying foul play in warfare goes way back. The Trojan Horse was seen in its day as a most dubious tactic. The British bitterly complained when citizens of the emerging American republic fired from behind walls and trees along the road from Lexington to Concord in April 1775.
Pearse and his comrades fought by more formal rules in 1916, but they have been hammered by revisionists in recent years for other reasons.
It’s human to expect better conduct of ourselves in war simply because years have passed. New rules, conventions and tactics are always being drawn up. Carpet bombing becomes smart bombing and that, we are told, is progress.
Sir John Stevens has laid bare a crude form of smart bombing in which particular targets were singled out for elimination.
Pat Finucane was one such target. The smart part was that his wife and three children stayed alive, if only to watch a state-aided ex-judicial execution of their husband and father. Killing a lawyer who defended Provos was one thing. His wife and kids? Even his killers had their limits.
The Stevens investigation has been an imperfect substitute for the rule of law. Its limited release will merely sustain an open wound. But it does raise again the critical issue of what is, and what is not, permissible in a formal state of war, or informal warlike state as was the case during the Troubles.
The Troubles threw up bad guys everywhere. Some died, many were jailed, some repented, some did not. But those who murdered in the name of state power have never been fully called to book. There has been no judgment at Nuremberg for state-sanctioned killers or their proxies. And perhaps there never will be. But the fact that it is being officially acknowledged that they existed at all is, arguably, a catharsis of sorts.
Extra-judicial killing first emerged in the early 1970s. The British Army’s Mobile Reconnaissance Force’s hallmark was drive-by shootings intended to take out IRA men.
The MRF begat the 14th Intelligence Company, which led to the Field Research Unit and, ultimately, the now infamous Force Research Unit. Also in the grim mix were loyalist paramilitaries, elements of the RUC’s special branch and, of course, the Special Air Service, or SAS.
The SAS has been most recently active in the aforementioned Iraq. The New York Post last week reported that the unit was operating in Baghdad wearing U.S. army uniforms and driving U.S. military vehicles. The SAS likes to blend with the background, just as it did in the woods and ditches of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
The Post report stated that the SAS men were “sharing their peacekeeping and policing expertise — gained in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and elsewhere” with their U.S. allies.
Such a benign assessment would be laughed at by all too many in Northern Ireland. Writing post-Stevens of the combined effect of 14th Intelligence, the FRU and SAS, columnist Brian Feeney of the Irish News decided that “it would take too long to detail the disastrous consequences of unleashing these undercover military units on the North’s population.”
Writes Feeney: “What we do know is that they murdered with impunity. They were spirited away from the scene of their killings often before police arrived. No attempt was made to preserve evidence. What would have been the point? None of them was ever prosecuted.”
Not by a judge and jury, at any rate. But the judgment of history stands on its own ground.
The Stevens investigation draws attention to all the contradictions that a dirty war throws up. It has been criticized for leaning toward a view that mistakes were made within the orbit of accepted rules of policing rather than it being a case of entirely new, and very nasty, rules being inserted into a conflict.
To many in Northern Ireland, Stevens is old news and will not change long-fixed positions and points of view. To many in the U.S., by contrast, its content is something newly revealed.
“The chilling results of his investigation, unfinished even after 14 years, leave it critically clear that violence and indeed terrorism in Northern Ireland were waged by Protestants as well as Catholics,” the Albany Times Union wrote in an editorial following the release of the “interim” Stevens document.
“In Ireland and in Britain, that’s a matter of stated history. On this side of the ocean, and in much of the world, that history comes more as a revelation,” the editorial added.
What has been revealed is rooted mostly in the 1980s, a drop in time ago. Some recent wars, the conflict that tore apart Yugoslavia for one, saw justification for evil acts being based on events in the Middle Ages.
As such, Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy’s assessment, that because the events at the core of the Stevens investigation date back to the 1980s it did not diminish their seriousness, comes across as fatuous understatement.
Gassing the rebellious inhabitants of Iraq 83 years ago was a criminal act, then and now. So too was the murder of Pat Finucane a mere 14.
And “mere” is also an understatement. What his wife and children witnessed remains a constant thought, not some fading, distant memory.