Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 25 October 2010

ISOF: How to make a torturer

When Greece was finally restored to the principles of democracy it helped found, the inner working of one of Europe's most brutal military regimes was revealed. For seven years The Colonels had used their security services to suppress behavior they considered socially unacceptable. With no civil rights to speak of, torture was routine for political dissidents and rock music fans alike.

Once sanity and human rights were restored the Greeks launched one of the most thorough investigations ever into how torturers operate. One result was the award winning film Your Neighbour's Son. In the film we get to meet Michalis Petrou, a recruit to the ESA who rose to become one of the country's top two torturers. The other one was apparently a Grade A psychopath, but even Petrou's victims acknowledge that he was really just a regular guy made into a monster by the system.

The recent Wikileaks Iraq War Diaries have showed how US approved torture didn't end in 1974. A repeating meme in the logs is how US and British forces repeatedly turned a blind eye, and even handed suspects over for interrogation to known abusers.

Key operators in this brutal trade were the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). A US trained unit distinguished by their balaclavas and US equipment, recruited solely for the purpose of internal security. This article by Shane Bauer in The Nation last year was written before the War Logs were released, but in it shows how the same techniques used by the ESA have been used in making the ISOF.

Firstly recruits are taken in young and naive. The ESA recruited from the Greek countryside and the ISOF, it seems, from the Iraqi desert. We don't now how exactly they were trained, but we can have a guess that similar dehumanising and desensitising techniques were used. Certainly when the ISOF were released onto the streets they were subsequently given the same direct political control, and freedom from all legal controls, as the ESA. The Colonels ran their agents directly, as do the Iraqi politicians.

So seven years after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power Iraq seems to be back where it began, under the control of politically controlled torture squads. The only difference appears to be that, compared with the ISOF, Saddam's lot were amateurs.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Less than Astute

HMS Astute is certainly not the first British sub to crash into something it shouldn't. In recent years subs have hit everything from the bottom of the Red Sea to a French ballistic missile submarine. However coming in the week that the government took the axe to local government jobs it does make you wonder whether they really need their expensive toys.

Once upon a time the military strength of a nation was easy to calculate; you had so many ships and so many soldiers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century there was an explosion in military technology. On land it wasn't just enough to count noses, you also needed to know how many rifles, artillery piece and machine guns an army had.

At sea things were even more complicated. Armored Battleships were so expensive that the race was on to find something cheaper that could sink them. The result was the Torpedo Boat, a barely seaworthy vessel that had a mathematical chance of sinking an ironclad - and a somewhat better chance of sinking itself. To counter this navies invented the Torpedo Boat Destroyer. At the same time the Cruiser was invented, a less heavily armoured version of the ironclad Battleship could patrol the oceans without requiring a fleet of colliers to follow it.

Comparing these different ships was like playing paper-wraps-stone. A Battleship couldn't catch a Cruiser and a Cruiser couldn't outfight a Battleship. The result was to leave naval planners utterly baffled, a condition that got even worse in the twentieth century when the naval mine and the submarine arrived. Every navy worth its salt had to have a bit of everything because everyone else did too.

When was came in 1914 the result was not what people expected. The Royal Navy went to war expecting a second Trafalgar, but instead its Battleships spent almost the entire war hiding in harbour. The submarine meanwhile proved utterly devastating to a land power like Germany, but almost useless to a naval power like us.

The twentieth century ended much like the previous one, with any serious navy having something of everything, including seriously expensive Hunter-Killer submarines. We have the Astute class because the Russians have the Akula class because the Americans have the Seawolf class and so on.

To make matters worse unlike Aircraft Carriers, which can at least be used to land marines or evacuate refugees, and Frigates and Destroyers which can at a pinch be turned on Somalian pirates or Caribbean drug runners, nuclear submarines can't really do much except play with other subs.

True they can sink surface ships, but 28 years after Maggie torpedo the Belgrano this doesn't seem like the sort of thing nice nations do. They can also fire cruise missiles at land targets but that would be, as Pitt the Younger said about an earlier naval operation, "like breaking windows with golden guineas". When the War on Terror started an imaginative US defence contractor came up with the idea of using them to fire Special Forces out of the torpedo tubes, but funnily enough the troops didn't seem too keen.

Council workers on the Isle of Skye wondering if their P45s are in the post may well look out at the Navy trying to rescue its newest ship and wonder whether that really is the best way to spend £1.3 billion.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Great Hostage Rescues of US Military History

As the USA hastily amends it's account of its failure to rescue the British aid worker Linda Norgrove, perhaps we should remember some of the previous occasions when real life turned out to be a bit different to Rambo.

The most famous failure was Operation Eagle's Claw in 1980, the attempt to rescue the hostages held in the former US Embassy in Tehran. The operation was supposed to begin with a night rendezvous between eight helicopters and six transport planes at a secret place called Desert One. This wasn't quite the remote spot it was supposed to be and the first thing the US special forces had to do was detain a bus load of Iranians who'd been driving past.

The bus was followed by another lorry which refused to stop. The Americans decided to stop it
anyway by firing an anti-tank rocket at it. Unfortunately it turned out to be a petrol tanker and the resulting explosion lit up the desert from horizon to horizon. The driver, a smuggler probably, miraculously survived and legged it into the desert.

Undaunted the team planned to carry on, but they were already two helicopters down due to mechanical failure and the pilots, having flown through a sand storm at ultra low level, were bushed. They all agreed to call it a day, but as one of the choppers took off it stuck a tanker plane resulting in another huge explosion and the death of eight men. The surviving Americans quickly skedaddled in the surviving aircraft leaving debris scattered across the desert and a party of extremely confused bus passengers.

Had it not all gone wrong so quickly the plan was to fly the assault force 1000 miles to Tehran where they would sneak into town, rescue the hostages, bus them across the city to a sports stadium to be picked up by the choppers again, flown another 400 miles to an Iranian air base that had hopefully been captured by paratroopers and then finally fly out. The Iranians were, presumably, just going to stand by and watch. When told of the plan after his eventual release one hostage remarked "Thank God for the sandstorm."

For the elite of the US armed forces the rest of the 1980s was not a great decade either. Delta Force, the hostage rescue team at the heart of Eagle's Claw, was soon mired in financial scandal including the purchase of a number of sports cars, supposedly for the purposes of covert reconnaissance. That might have been a bit of fun at the tax payers expense, but more serious stuff was going wrong. When Reagan decided to invade Grenada a team of Navy SEALs parachuted into the sea to help - and all drowned. It turned out the week they'd been due to practise this insertion technique they'd all bunked off.

The 'hostages' on Grenada, the students at the medical school, all came through more or less unscathed. They actually never saw a Grenadan soldier and the only danger came from the US Navy who decide to shoot up their campus before the troops landed.

The 1990s weren't a startling success either. There were no famous hostage rescues, but a group of Rangers and Delta Force almost became hostages themselves when their mission to kidnap Somalian warlords went wrong. The story has since been Hollywoodised, but the opinion of America's greatest infantryman, David H Hackworth, of the plan was that there wasn't one things wrong with it - there was everything wrong with it.

Quite how the War on Terror has been going this last decade or so is somewhat harder to say. The most famous hostage rescue of the Iraq War was that of Private Jessica Lynch. Allegedly captured, and raped, by dastardly towel heads after putting up a heroic resistance and being horribly wounded, she was liberated by brave special forces before the wicked Arabs could do anything worse to her.

Eventually the truth came out. Lynch had been in a convoy that got lost, and she had been in a minor road accident. The battle she allegedly fought in, and won a medal for, happened whilst she was out cold and the hospital she was sprung from was not only unguarded, but the medics had been trying to hand her back to the US Army for two days.

What else the cream of the US army has been up to is a little unclear given the secretive nature of their work, but what we do know is that Osama Bin Laden is very much alive and Linda Norgrove isn't.

None of this means that US Special Forces are incompetent (although many of their officers certainly have been) it's just that war tends to be more Laurel and Hardy than Rambo. Laughing at men who put their lives on the line may be a little mean, but it's generally a better strategy than believing the Hollywood hype and sending in the Marines.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Could Britain have lost in 1940?

British police watch German soldiers in occupied Jersey
Druids planning outdoor rituals know that the weather in these Isles can be a little fickle. This autumn we had a mild weekend for our, now officially 'religious' rites, but this time of year you can't always guarantee that.

Seventy years ago though it wasn't Druids who were hoping for mild weather over the equinox. In fact,if there were any around, they were wishing for exactly the opposite as across the Channel, in occupied France, German Generals were wondering whether a rag-tag fleet of requisition Rhine barges would really be able to transport their army across the sea to England.

Requisitioned Rhine barges
In the event Operation Sea Lion was called off at the end of August. The weather, unusually mild for the time of year in 1940, would have been the least of Germany's worries. An undefeated RAF, a rapidly reforming Army, a fully mobilised Royal Navy, and an unyielding Winston Churchill stood waiting for them and Hitler chose to strike east at Russia rather than risk a Channel crossing.

But could things have been different? If just one of these factors could be changed, could Germany have won the war in 1940? In the frustrating and occasionally illuminating world of Counter-Factual History, anything is possible.

Firstly there's the weather. The invasion was scheduled for the period 19th - 26th September, when the tide was right to allow the invasion barges to land at high tide and avoid the improvised defences on the beaches (made from builders scaffolding - a far cry from the concrete of the Atlantic Wall that faced the Allies on D-Day.) A low pressure suddenly turned left and headed for Norway leaving calm seas for the barges. Hindsight tells us the invaders would have crossed safely, but the German planners didn't have hindsight. An accurate seven day forecast was impossible with 1940s technology. In 1944 the Allies had ships at sea to help, but it was still a bit of a gamble. It would have been a brave man who launched his flat bottomed barges into the English Channel that September.

But it wasn't the weather that led to Sea Lion being cancelled, but the failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Could they have won? On the face of it, no. Contrary to some myths, the RAF never came close to loosing. In 1940 we had the best air defence system in the world and the Germans barely dented it.

Eagle Day by Geoff Nutkins
However the RAF was quite capable of defeating itself. Dowding used his planes as aerial guerrillas, attacking the Luftwaffe by surprise in small groups, disrupting their formations and disappearing into thin air. It worked, but was unpopular. Dowding had devised the system, but it was the individual squadron leaders who carried it out. It takes a selfless leader to delegate such responsibility, and few of Dowding's colleagues shared his gift. The rival 'Big Wing' tactics were ineffective when tried, shooting down just a single German fighter in ten massive sorties, but it was popular with such charismatic fliers as Douglas Barder.

In November 1940 Dowding was ousted from the top of the RAF by the 'Big Winger' Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory was eventually to use his ideas in battle over occupied France, where the Germans shot his planes out of the sky at four times the rate they were downing Luftwaffe aircraft. Fortunately by this stage of the war it didn't really matter.

So with a favourable weather forecast and the RAF immolating itself with the wrong tactics, the German Army could well have set forth on the invasion of England. In May 1940 they had sent the British Expeditionary Force packing from Belgium, and morale would have been sky high. But the army that struggled ashore from its rickety barges would not have been the force that had overrun Poland and France, whilst the British Army it faced was not the bedraggled and demoralised one that had limped home from Dunkirk four months earlier.

Improvised armoured vehicles
Only a handful of tanks would have accompanied the invaders, whilst the defenders, under the command of possibly Britain's best General of the war, had assembled a small number of motorised brigades to oppose them. General Brooke only had a few tanks himself, but they would probably have been enough to at least hold the Germans. The invaders would also have found that Britain's renowned sense of fair play has temporarily gone on strike, and there were plans to set fire to the sea, carry out sabotage in the German's rear areas and even drop mustard gas on the Germans. Unless reinforcements could be brought up quickly, the Germans would have been unlikely to have captured more than a few square miles of England.

The Home Fleet
Whether or not the second wave would have made it would depend on the Royal Navy. The Navy was aware of the danger, and had been recalling cruisers and destroyers from all over the world. Later experience in the Pacific would suggest that warships could be defeated by air power, but at this stage of the war that might not be true. The Luftwaffe had very little experience of attacking ships and if the worst came to the worst the Royal Navy would have brought out its Battleships - and the Germans simply didn't have a bomb big enough to destroy a Battleship. Maybe if their own Battleships the Tirpitz and the Bismark, or the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, had been finished they might have had a chance, but as things stood in September 1940, they didn't.

All this though assumes though that Britain still wanted to fight. The crucial decisions were made in a series of War Cabinet meetings held between 25th and 28th May 1940. The French Army was collapsing and the Royal Navy were desperately trying to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk. Things looked grim.

Churchill (left) and Hastings (right)
The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, the affable Tory Peer Lord Halifax, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and the Labour men Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Later in the war Cabinet meetings would become mere formalities as nobody would dare challenge Churchill, but only two weeks into the job, Winston did not at this time have the authority he later earned.

Churchill wanted to fight on regardless, Halifax meanwhile wanted to open negotiations using the Italians as intermediaries, something that Churchill thought would destroy the countries fragile morale when the news inevitably leaked out. Attlee favoured Churchill's position, whilst Greenwood appears to have been on the fence, but in any event the Labour men would probably have been unwilling to challenge the Conservatives at this point in the Coalition Government. The balance was therefore held by Chamberlain.

History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain. He was not a great Prime Minister, but neither was he all that bad. A One Nation Tory more interested in reform at home than war abroad, he was the wrong man for the job in such troubled times. He usually gets the blame for Munich, but in 1938 the Opposition, and the country as a whole, were not ready to fight. He also appeased the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, but Churchill was right behind him on that one. In 1940 though, despite his instincts for peace, he came down on the side of war. Bolstered by a favourable report from the Navy he backed Churchill and Britain fought on.

Top men; Churchill and Chamberlain
But what if the people present at those fateful meetings had been sat in different seats? Perhaps here we have nearest to a possible alliterative history.

Wind the clock back a fortnight to another meeting at Westminster, this time between Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and Chief Whip David Margesson. Margesson has just told Chamberlain that Attlee will not enter a coalition whilst he is Prime Minister. Chamberlain then bluntly turned to Halifax and Churchill and asked who should succeed him. There then followed a very long pause indeed before Halifax ruled himself out.

Had he not done so he would probably have become Prime Minister. He was most likely Chamberlain's preferred choice. Churchill, although he had been right about Hitler, had been responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli in the First World War and Narvik in this one. A maverick and a rebel, who annoyed the Conservatives by joining the Liberals and had wound up the Trade Unions by using armoured cars during General Strike, he was hardly the ideal choice to lead a Government of National Unity.

Whilst Churchill had been turing up in the House of Commons drunk to defend the pro-Nazi King Edward VIII and railing against "the twin dangers of Hitler and Ghandi", Halifax meanwhile had been Governor of India, where he had actually released the Mahatma from jail and invited him to private talks. Politically they were chalk and cheese.

Churchill would have continued to serve under Halifax, but as the latter was one of the architects of Appeasement there is little doubt what Prime Minister Halifax would have done on 25th May. Britain would have made peace and Germany would have given terms that Halifax could not refuse.

There would not have been a Battle of Britain and no need for an Operation Sea Lion but there would also have been no D Day. It's difficult to say who would have won the war, but the result would be that either Hitler or Stalin would have become master of the whole of Europe.

There would probably have still been a Cold War between a totalitarian Europe and a democratic America, but without British nuclear physicists there may not have been a Manhattan Project. The first atomic bomb might have been built by Heissenberg or Kurchatov and fitted to one of Wernher von Braun's rockets - the man almost certainly having no qualms about serving whoever would let him play with his dangerous toys.

And so history turned. Churchill, the warmonger, became the hero and Halifax, the peacemaker, was forgotten. Britain fought on, Brooke's soldiers and the Royal Navy waited for an enemy that never came, the RAF won the Battle of Britain and whilst the weather remained calm, the German barges stayed in port. Hitler turned East and the rest is history. Real history.

Operation Sea Lion Richard Cox
Fateful Choices Ian Kershaw
More What If? Robert Cowley (editor)