Thursday, 7 July 2016
The consequences of conflict.
Before John Chilcot took to the stage yesterday to deliver his long expected report, I was filled with cynicism. I was convinced that the pre-publication hype would merely be the establishment’s way of rapping Tony Blair’s knuckles. When it came out, I imagined the document would be faintly critical but that would be it.
So when I turned on the livestream yesterday my expectations were exceeding low. However, within seconds, I was pleasantly surprised with the unusual sensation of my jaw dropping as I realised for once my cynicism was totally unjustified. In the politest, most gentle of tones, the former civil servant took apart the politicians, intelligence services, and military for their appalling failures with his carefully understated but devastating critique. As many of us argued at the time, there was no ‘imminent threat’ from Saddam Hussein and the UK rushed to war before all the options for peace had been explored. Tony Blair’s actions undermined the UN Security Council, and his government’s lack of planning for post-invasion Iraq led to the predictable rise of militia and Al Qaeda. The war took the lives of at least 150,000 Iraqi civilians, displaced a million and resulted in the deaths of 179 UK soldiers who should never have been there in the first place. And that’s only a few of the highlights.
As somebody who actively protested the war (and Tony Blair’s preceding ones in Afghanistan, Kosova and Sierra Leone), I feel nothing but sorrow that Chilcot’s judgement vindicates all of us who tried to stop the disaster. If only the intelligence services and military leaders had resisted Blair’s mission, if only the media (who in typical fashion have now turned like hyenas on the man they once feted) had been more challenging, if only the entire Labour Party had shown backbone, instead of a small group of rebels...The results could have been so different.
I began writing ‘Echo Hall’ a year after the war had ‘ended’. At the time, the conflict felt too close to write about, and besides I had good plot reasons for setting the novel in the recent past. So my story began in 1990 during the build up to the 1991 Iraq War. And yet as I began to develop it, going back in time to previous wars (World War 1 and World War 2),the current situation in Iraq was always in my mind.
In 2003/4, I used to receive a regular email bulletin from Jo Wilding an activist living in Karada, the district which lost 250 people in last week's truck bombing. Each post provided heartbreaking detail about the disintegration of civil society in Baghdad. These were made all the more poignant by the fact that at the time, we lived opposite Molesworth airbase where intelligence analysts produced reports that led to military actions contributing to the chaos that Jo was describing. (Julia Guest's searing film of Jo's time in Iraq, A Letter to the Prime Minister is still worth watching now.)
Over the next decade the war never felt far away. In 2006 our friend Norman Kember was kidnapped and we learnt a little of the anxiety that ordinary Iraqis feel everyday. (Thankfully Norman was released, his fellow hostage Tom Fox was not so lucky, he died another victim in the pointless war). We went on marches and vigils, and once Chris had brief fortnight in prison following an act of civil disobedience. When we moved to Oxford, I would watch military planes carrying troops to Iraq from my office in the county council. Sometimes, inquests for dead soldiers were held in the coroner’s court at the base of our building; I’d walk into the hushed cafe filled with families and friends whose grief was tangible and know the war was very close.
All of this informed my writing. I didn’t need Chilcot to tell me that the 2003 invasion was ‘an intervention that went badly wrong with consequences to this day’, we’ve been seeing this for years. But it did confirm that my theme that unresolved conflict always resurfaces in the next generation was correct. Though I was writing about past, I could see the direct link between the conflicts we witness today and those that preceded it. That a line can be drawn back from the mess of modern day Iraq through the 2003 and 1991 wars, the British occupation in World War 2 and post World War 1 to the Sykes-Picot agreement that started this whole sorry affair. The novel is called 'Echo Hall' for a reason; history repeats itself time and time again. It was more than ironic that Chilcot’s critique of the military mistakes that led to the unnecessary loss of life, happened to be published in the same week we remember that other colossal military mistake, the Somme. Rudyard Kipling's words in 'A Dead Statesman' written in 1919, could have been written about both situations. It was more than ironic that the report was published in the week we remembered the victims of the 7/7 London bombs and Baghdad experienced a terrible terrorist attack by ISIS. The consequences of the invasion continue to what end?
I don’t believe that fiction changes the world, but I do believe it helps us understand it. It is my hope that Echo Hall can help us all try to make sense of it. Because there's one thing I am sure of - we cannot afford to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We really do have to find another way.