Book Reviews

A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A.T.Williams

Almost ten years ago on a Sunday morning back in September 2003, British Troops raided a hotel in Basra. It was a difficult period in the occupation, six months on from the U.S. led invasion. Temperatures were more than 50 degrees centigrade. Members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (QLR) took ten suspects in for questioning from a hotel in the vicinity of insurgent weaponry. The Iraqis were hooded, plasticuffed, forced into stress positions and subjected to karate chops and kidney punches by the British. Other men and officers watched, walked by or wondered at the stench that resulted from vicious punishment. After 36 hours of torture, a 26 year-old hotel receptionist lay dead by asphyxiation. His grossly disfigured body bore 93 individual injuries. There are now in the region of another 250 individuals, men and women, whose families are making legal claims to have been killed in further encounters with British patrols or prison guards.A Very

Concern about what had happened, rather than why, quickly went upward through the ranks after the event. Those initially reporting the death, showing concern included a TA Intelligence officer whose normal specialism lay in the Russian language and East-West issues. The personalities involved are carefully delineated including the able and ambitious CO, Colonel Mendonca and his adjutant, Captain Moutarde. The latter had to report the incident to the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. The description of the roles and responsibilities various officers and how their reactions combines detail with the pace of a thriller. The ambiguous functions of the investigators, the RMP, are clearly explained and the high level of feelings were also fresh in the recent memories of all the troops in the wake of the six members of the police that died in the horrific attack on the Basra police station.

The Author A.T.Williams
The Author A.T.Williams

The response of Daoud Mousa, the father of the dead man, who had himself served in the Iraqi police force for some 24 years was initially trusting. He had been present when his son was arrested. His eventual discovery of his son’s fate in the very same buildings where Saddam’s forces had caused so many individuals to ‘disappear’ is heart-rending. This is but one example of how the events are thoroughly grounded in a long and difficult history similar to that between Iraq and Britain over the key resource of oil. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Mespotamia as it was then known was under a British mandate. The discovery by members of the QLR1 of the ill-conditioned graves of earlier Empire troops, neglected by the dictator, in Basra supplies another poignant instance of this sad past.

A.T. Williams who is a Professor of Law as well as a director of the Centre of Human Rights at WarwickUniversity is especially effective when writing about the legal procedures at the subsequent court martial in 2006. He describes everything from the blue-carpet and fresh polished pine walls of the Bulford Court Martial Centre with the collection of be-gowned criminal barristers looking as ominous as ravens. The collective noun for ravens, he reminds the reader, with more than a touch of irony is”unkindness”. The Iraqi witnesses have been pitched into an entirely different context and closely questioned about identity of their attackers even though they might have been doubly hooded.

The highly skilled team of defence lawyers for the seven defendants are trained to build a coherent argument. As Williams deftly explains, the focus is on establishing the guilt or innocence of the defendants. The witnesses were subject to techniques which do nothing to ease the psychological pressure upon the witnesses who had previously been grilled, beaten and kicked. This description of the trial is uncomfortable to read but the clarity of the writing shows that from the witness box this process feels like abuse over again. These talents explain why this book gained its author The Orwell Prize for Political Writing in May 2013.

Aba Mousa and his family
Aba Mousa and his family

In July 2008, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay £2.83 million in compensation to Mousa’s family and nine other men, after admitting that the British Army had committed “substantive breaches” of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Public Inquiry in 2011 was known as the Gage Report and called for by the Defence Secretary cost more than £12 million. This is discussed in the epilogue where the institutional knowledge of the BritishState that acts such as these are likely to happen is critiqued. This is especially true when final consequences of involvement have not been considered. This is not new; flogging and torture of the Mau Mau, callous brutality towards civilian populations in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Oman raise deeply worrying concerns about our own institutions and our values.

More about the Orwell Prize at

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Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two by Daniel Swift

BomberCounty is, of course, Lincolnshire where squadrons of Beaufighters, Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Lancasters were huddled in hangars for combined raids against enemy targets in German occupied Europe. As the war progressed the targets escalated, from attacks against the German Fleet, the industrial complex of the Ruhr and later, with the aim of breaking enemy morale, the targets included the cities-including Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Cologne. Night after night, crews already warmly dressed in jerseys and thick woollen socks zipped themselves into flying suits and made their way towards the enemy coast. Conditions were cramped and the temperatures plummeted as they gained altitude flying by the light of the moon to their appointed destinations.

By Daniel Swift

Later in the War, navigators were able to use the hazy reflected signals of H2S to guide them over the changing relief of the land towards enemy territory. Ack-ack batteries, enemy nightfighters and heavy flax over the target took a heavy toll on crews. This book relates the loss of one pilot, James Eric Swift of 83 Squadron on a raid on Munster, early in June 1943. His body was later discovered washed up on a beach in Holland. In this multi-layered book Daniel Swift, his grandson, sensitively retells this family story. He is further inspired to explore a range of related issues from poetry and literature to the morality of the bombing campaign as it was conducted later in the War.

The cover of this handsomely produced volume depicts the distorted perspective of aerial warfare as depicted by Paul Nash; it shows that visual arts produced effective responses to combat. The contrasting situation in poetry is examined throughout the book in counterpoint to the narrative. From classical times Virgil declared Arma virumque cano ( I sing of arms and man) in The Aeneid but this kind of warfare has weaponry that operates at speed and men have little time for reflection unlike the poets of The Great War; Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon. Daniel Swift refers to the dirge like rhythms of Dylan Thomas’s A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a child in Londonwhich despite the title, is a deeply moving elegy. The author also has much to say of interest on TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf’s responses to the Luftwaffe’s raids.

Swift makes mention of a small number of poems written by pilots like those encouraged by C Day Lewis. There is an exhilaration in flight which has been memorably captured by the lyrical French writer Antoine de St Expurey. Poetry is also inspired by heroism and myths such as that of Ovid’s Daedulus and Icarus, Such matters prompt Swift to tender family reflections and musings on the writings of Auden and Isherwood. These considerations make this an unusual memoir for his Squadron Leader Grandfather about whom Swift has thoroughly researched the archives.

Poetry was very popular during the Blitz, however, it sits awkwardly with mass bombing and firestorming and its effect on civilian populations. Swift who teaches English Literature at SkidmoreCollege in upstate New York is aware of the arguments concerning the morality of debates on such issues which continue to rage on and indeed intensify in relation to more recent conflicts. Arguments and emotions proposed and expressed by Orwell, Churchill and the ethical arguments on the effect of such destructiveness by AC Grayling and other philosophers are briefly outlined.

The Avro Lancaster Bomber

Did the barbarism of the Nazis justify the adoption of the ruthless means of waging war that led to Slaughterhouse V? The poetry falters as we consider events that ended that conflict; the use of Nuclear Weapons and the emerging political doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Swift examines and acknowledges many of the issues including the guilt about delivering death at a distance –especially in relation to the poetic recollections of James Dickey; a poet to thank the author for here introducing to a wider audience.

This interesting, informative and hybrid book should remind us all that the poetry as Wilfred Owen stated, lies in the pity. This pity must eventually bring reconciliation. However, UN estimates on August 10th, less than a month ago, quoted in the Guardian of that date; show the number of child casualities in Afghanistan has soared by 55%, despite strict rules on the use of airpower by NATO troops. This heartfelt first book reminds us that the best memorial to lost  grandparents is to earnestly strive for peace for our grandchilldren