Iraq fiasco: how have top brass escaped dismissal or discipline?

Military leaders are like BBC execs – near-impossible to sack and without the self-knowledge to step down

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:24 ON Thu 20 Dec 2012

EDITOR'S UPDATE at 11.45 am, Friday 21 December: Since this column was posted, Dr Derek Keilloh has been struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council. It was acknowledged that Keilloh did "everything possible" to save Mousa's life, but he should not have lied to Army investigators.

'THE BUCK STOPS HERE' was the sign on President Truman's desk in the Oval Office, and it was still there as late as Jimmy Carter's presidency a quarter of a century later. But the idea of ultimate responsibility has been quietly shelved on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years. The buck, mostly, these days, stops elsewhere.

British soldiers have always had their own description of this process: "shit rolls down hill". And it's rolling at the moment towards Dr Derek Keilloh who was serving as the Medical Officer of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in Basra in 2003, when the regiment let itself down, badly, by mistreating prisoners – ultimately causing the death of one, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist and father-of-two, Baha Mousa.

It was a murky and disreputable episode. The facts and responsibilities are still disputed even after a hugely expensive court martial in which four defendants had charges dismissed for lack of evidence, two were acquitted and only one convicted, a NCO who had pleaded guilty.

Keilloh wasn't a defendant at the court martial but came in for criticism at the subsequent official inquiry by a former court of appeal judge, Sir William Gage, who reported at the end of last year.

As a result Keilloh has been in front of a GMC medical tribunal this month. They will meet again shortly to decide his punishment and they have the power to strike him off.

The tribunal accepts that Keilloh and his medical orderlies did everything they could to save the unconscious Mousa's life once they arrived at the scene - but that he failed to make an adequate examination of Mousa's body or bring to the attention of senior officers the possible mistreatment of Mousa and two other detainees.

He had also engaged in "misleading and dishonest" conduct when, at courts martial and at the Gage inquiry, he maintained under oath that he saw no injuries to Mousa's body apart from blood around his nostrils.

It is highly unlikely that prisoners would have been mistreated, let alone killed (for which there is no excuse), if proper post-war planning had been put in train before the invasion. The then 28-year-old Keilloh, who had been in the job only eight weeks, should never have found himself caught up in all this – he had nothing to do with the mistreatment of the prisoners. In any case, as the tribunal accepts, he did his best to save Mousa.

What is absolutely clear in all accounts from regiments stationed in Iraq immediately after the defeat of Saddam Hussein was that they were neither trained nor equipped for the situation they found themselves in.

The top brass in London don't seem to have thought very much about what was going to happen after the war, or bothered to put even mild pressure on the politicians to think the whole performance through. The six Ps, bedrock of all British military thought, were ignored – Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-poor Performance.

It is instructive to compare the fates, ten years on, of the unfortunate Keilloh and the man in overall charge of the military at the time of the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce.

It was Boyce's responsibility and no one else's to make sure that military planning and preparations were up to scratch. At the Iraq Inquiry in 2009 (where witnesses were not under oath), the Labour MP Clare Short commented waspishly: "He spent a lot of his life in submarines and it showed."

After retiring in 2004, Boyce went on to receive a series of gongs and goodies of Ruritanian splendour, including a peerage - Baron Boyce of Pimlico – and appointment as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an honorary post which includes a very comfy grace-and-favour home at Walmer Castle, near Deal. His immediate predecessor was HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose predecessor but one was Winston Churchill. In 2011, to the astonishment of many in the army, he was made a Knight of the Garter– an honour in the Queen's personal gift.

The army man in charge at the time, General Sir Michael Jackson, hasn't truffled up quite so many baubles and sinecures. But he served out his full time, and still struts magnificently across our television screens and newspaper pages, giving gravelly advice about how to win wars.

The French have a wonderful term for the process by which military commanders who fail are removed: 'Limogé' – given command of the inconsequential Limoges military district in the deep southwest of France and then booted into obscurity, with no medals, no directorships.

The British term is 'bowler-hatted' – as were most of the architects of the UK's military disasters, until recently. Senior military commanders who screw up are now more like BBC executives than their military forbears – nearly impossible to sack and without the self-knowledge to step down.

We are inured to the kitsch spectacle of Tony Blair crowing from his gilded and tax-efficient dung-heap, as he was again earlier this week. But it should still surprise and offend that not a single senior officer was dismissed, disciplined or even had the decency to resign over the Iraq fiasco. It is both disproportionate and unjust that the unfortunate Dr Keilloh could lose his livelihood over it. · 

Disqus - noscript

There is one other common description to be applied to this process in addition to that used by British soldiers... Scum always rises to the top.

I struggle to be convinced by anything Claire Short says, but was Boyce the fool who pressed for the ill-conceived CVF project when what the RN actually needed was 3 x 30,000 ton CVH? Thanks to Boyce & Co. we now have 19 destroyers and frigates instead of 35. Nice going guys.