The government’s apology for the Ballymurphy massacre is 50 years too late – this culture of military cover-up needs to change
Last modified on Thu 20 May 2021 09.50 BST
In the aftermath of last week’s inquest into the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, in which a coroner ruled 10 people killed in Belfast during a British army operation were unarmed, innocent civilians, former head of the army Richard Dannatt made a pressing point: “Frankly, these matters should have been investigated much more thoroughly a long time ago.”
Well, why weren’t they? The question stands for many actions involving the British army.
Why weren’t they investigated more thoroughly for Bloody Sunday, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, or the Iraq war? Last December, the international criminal court found the initial British response to alleged war crimes in Iraq “vitiated by a lack of a genuine effort to carry out relevant investigations independently or impartially”. Why aren’t these matters treated with genuine effort?
You might think punishing war crimes offers a chance to isolate wrongdoers from the great majority who serve honourably. Punishment hurts the guilty, but it can also hurt those in charge of the guilty. It can create a culture of non-compliance among a “band of brothers”: while an “all-for-one” spirit is invaluable in facing an enemy, such closing of ranks can cause problems with internal discipline. The threat of punishment sends a negative – but necessary – signal to the wider group of soldiers who may withdraw their effort (or resign); it also prompts the vocal opposition of former soldiers such as Johnny Mercer. Those in charge must maintain the confidence of the troops. For fear of losing the dressing room, so to speak, allegations are unlikely to be thoroughly investigated and punished.
Even appropriate punishment comes with risks for those in charge. It may cause disillusionment among difficult-to-replace personnel. Military service requires lifestyle sacrifices, specialised training and a willingness to put one’s life on the line at a leader’s command. It fosters abiding loyalties among those going through it, notably so with special or elite forces, which then presumably present the most serious control problems. Incentives are needed to undergo such training. Money is a powerful incentive, but getting rich in military service is unseemly and no doubt upsets taxpayers. Willingness to serve will also be affected by the losses or punishments meted out. Beyond “Queen and country”, what have those in charge to offer? One thing is a secure contract, tolerant of behavioural lapses.
When it comes to such atrocious events as Ballymurphy, one might wonder whether other soldiers would back the perpetrator, not the victim. And often it appears to be so. Beyond Northern Ireland, fellow soldiers had to be warned off attending a rally for a marine convicted of shooting a wounded Afghan, who was killed in 2011 with the parting words, “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt.” The incident was inadvertently recorded on another marine’s helmet camera – as well as the follow-up instruction: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas … I’ve just broken the Geneva convention.”
The army’s Aitken report in 2008 into abuse and unlawful killings in Iraq recommended teaching “our people to understand that lying to the Service Police, or having selective memory loss in order to protect other members of their unit, are not forms of loyalty, but rather a lack of integrity”.
Of course, such issues don’t only apply to the British army. In Vietnam, even for an atrocity of the scale of the My Lai massacre, US soldiers rallied around the perpetrators, particularly Lieutenant William L Calley, the only one convicted for the crimes. While investigative journalists exposed this event, the chain of command sought to cover it up.
Armies in democratic countries answer to civilian authorities, who are responsible to voters. But the incentives higher up reinforce not accountability, but loyalty to the perpetrator. Politicians are the ones who placed troops in difficult situations, be it in Helmand province or Ballymurphy, so they must be seen to back them.
Boris Johnson’s government, while ultimately apologising for Ballymurphy, seeks to make the prosecution of soldiers even harder than it already is. Though vaguely worded, the recent Queen’s speech indicated there will be protection for Northern Ireland veterans. For Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2021 Overseas Operations Act makes prosecuting allegations of war crimes committed more than five years ago very difficult, further incentivising the practice of not thoroughly investigating matters at the time.
Meanwhile, public opinion often appears to be on the side of the soldiers – or at least those in power claim it to be. Former defence secretary Gavin Williamson declared that Bloody Sunday prosecutions “turns the stomach of the British people”. The Daily Mail credited its campaigning and public support for overturning the Shakespeare-quoting marine’s murder conviction in 2017.
When Calley was convicted of war crimes in Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison for killing 22 of those massacred, President Nixon intervened to prevent severe punishment. His defense secretary, Melvin Laird, claimed that the public supported such a move.
When violations happen, the response of those in command is often to maintain the confidence, not the integrity, of the institution. Of course, this is a choice.
As Lord Dannatt says, Ballymurphy should have been investigated at the time, not a half century later. The counterfactual then is whether the sorrow of Bloody Sunday would have followed if army atrocities were examined thoroughly in their immediate aftermath. For those in charge, the cost of deciding not to take control needs to be more grave. But present policy is doing the reverse. The government appears content with serial prime ministerial apologies.
Neil Mitchell is emeritus professor of international relations at University College London, and author of Why Delegate? (Oxford University Press, May 2021)