A military insider explains why the Special Air Service is permitted to act with deadly impunity.
Let me take you back to Basra Palace in 2004. Tucked away in the corner of the huge compound was Brookside Close. Like its Merseyside inspiration, it was a suburban street, lined with six-bedroom houses and drives for suitably large cars. Prior to our arrival, Brookside Close might have been occupied by Saddam’s local secret organisations. Now, you would hear of Friday night parties in one of these swimming pools, along with whispers of skinny-dipping. The houses were now occupied by our more exclusive military and civilian elements. One night, some soldiers from the unit I commanded were invited to a party in Brookside Close by a kindly spook. The house belonged to the ‘Blades’, the ‘Boys’, ‘Hereford’: perhaps better known to you and me as the sas.
We believe these men to be super-soldiers. They are not like you and me, having passed ‘selection’ and being able to munch girders and slaughter enemies while opining on lacunae in Kant’s moral reasoning. Either that, or they are infantry soldiers with an unusual level of physical stamina sufficient to carry them up and down the Brecon Beacons in short order, combined with military skills deemed adequate to be part of the ‘Regiment’. It is true that they’ve a bit more above the neck than your averagely intelligent soldier. Make of that what you will.
But back to Basra: the party was not wild and I was not aware of any skinny-dipping. Though for one 19-year-old infantryman on his first tour this was an eye-opener. A lot of people were drinking; some were drunk. He stuck to his permitted two cans of beer and left at 11pm as instructed. We had a patrol to do the next morning. On his way out of the house, he was tripped up. ‘Sorry, Sir,’ he said to the sas man on the doorstep whose boot he had – apparently – inadvertently caught.
‘What the fuck are you doing in this house, craphat! I’ll fuck you up!’ said the ‘Blade’.
The British Army loves its badges: the narcissism of small differences. They guard their sanctity with a combination of abuse and in-group language. My soldier, while part of an excellent regiment, was not in possession of an elite badge and beret. He was therefore a ‘craphat’.
‘You’ve no fucking right to be here, craphat. I’ll ask you again, what the fuck are you doing here?’
As the courtroom evidence might have put it, my soldier realised that the man was very drunk. He was also armed with a pistol.
The American military bans drinking in operational theatres for obvious reasons. And we are strict about our two-can-a-week limit. The possible consequences of being in possession of a firearm while intoxicated suggest why these rules are taken seriously. For those not members of the sas, being caught pissed with a gun in an operational theatre would generally result in being sent home, with terminal consequences for further promotion. At this point, my soldier’s immediate superior – a corporal – stepped in, mollified the drunk sas man and the two quickly went on their way.
I heard about this the following day. Though my career in the military was unlikely to go any further, I was senior enough (a major) to gain a hearing. I reported it to the Brigadier, the guy in charge of the whole sorry mess in Basra at that time. More fool me. ‘I’ll have a word. But you have to let it drop.’ purred the brigadier. An alcoholic special forces nco, armed with an evident propensity to threaten his fellow British soldiers, well, that was nothing to be too worried about. And so it goes.
It was some years later, and I’d just returned from a tour in Afghanistan when I received a call from a colleague. I’ll call him Harry.
Stationed in Helmand, his job was to handle men ‘lifted’ by the sas in ‘kill-capture’ missions. Some of these prisoners were dangerous and very violent; others were bewildered and genuinely had no clue why they were in a strange prison in a military camp. The way these raids would go down was this: upon receipt of ‘intelligence’, the sas would board a helicopter, fly to a ‘compound’ – Afghan houses are always ‘compounds’ – and arrest some men. But killing anyone who supposedly presented a threat.
These operations all too often seemed to be based upon rumour and tribal feuding more than anything approaching actual ‘intelligence’. But no one would accuse the special forces of being overtly aware of local dynamics. Those arrested would be returned by helicopter to Camp Bastion to be processed, interrogated and held. And my colleague was part of that end of the operation.
Harry told me about one particular incident. A prisoner who had just come in asked about his two friends who had, he said, come with him on the helicopter. Harry was mystified. Only one prisoner had arrived. Where were the others? Had they escaped? Prisoners who went missing were presumed to be at large in the base, which usually triggered a very robust response.
So, as you can imagine, Harry needed to find out where these men were. And he needed to do that immediately. He went across to the sas compound with Susie, another officer. Admitted to the walled enclosure housing the sas, he made his way to their operations room where a sergeant was on duty. Harry explained the situation.
‘So?’ said the irritated sas man.
‘Where are the other guys you took? The prisoner clearly said that the other two were taken to the helicopter with him, before he was blindfolded.’
‘They didn’t make it. There was only one Bravo [person of interest] on the chopper.’
‘What do you mean they didn’t make it?’
‘Didn’t make it, that’s what I mean. They weren’t on the chopper…’
The sas man paused and continued: ‘Remember this if you’re interested in taking this further. Its 600 yards between this compound and yours. Accidents happen on this camp. Suicides happen on this camp. Could happen to anyone.’
Harry and Susie walked those 600 yards quickly and quietly.
Both had their eyes on their career, so neither of them reported it. Both are now quite senior officers. Neither will acknowledge that this ever happened. Blank looks. Let it go. Move on.
As far as the rest of the Army is concerned, you don’t mess with the sas. This is not because they can kill you with a glance, but because they are the blue-eyed boys. They are beyond discipline in the normal way.
Over the past decade and a half of failed wars, special forces – which comprise the sas, the Special Boat Service, as well as other smaller units – have grown to become larger than at any time since the Second World War. They now have a strategic and political importance in that they constitute the only major capability we can offer to the United States, the only one that our vastly more powerful ally genuinely values.
Few of my colleagues have any idea as to the real chain of command for the British special forces. As a consequence of their perceived importance as a ‘strategic asset’, the Prime Minster has a line directly to the Director of Special Forces. No one really knows who is ultimately responsible for what the ‘Blades’ get up to.
Unlike their American counterparts, they seem to sit outside the realm of accountability. Some years ago, the American special forces stepped out of line, got too big for their administrative boots and tried to go their own way. The Congressional committee responsible for overseeing their activities placed them firmly and decisively ‘back in their box’.
People like me have no issue with these people being killers. We are proud of most of the things they have done. We believe that these are a highly skilled group of people, like our sailors, marines and airmen. But we also believe that they should be accountable – the same as the rest of us.
Recent revelations about special forces death squads in Afghanistan surprise no one who has had extensive dealings with them. Nor are the apparently routine attempts of their commanders to ignore or conceal their crimes.
There will be more assiduous digging into what exactly happened in Helmand from 2007 to 2014. Soon, the crimes of what is probably a small rogue minority will taint them all. In Australia, similar murderous practices by their sas are now common knowledge, due to heroic efforts from brave journalists and even braver special forces soldiers.
These men have displayed extraordinary moral courage in coming forward with their accounts of the murders of unarmed men by their colleagues.
No British special forces soldiers have so far displayed similar fortitude. They may take the view that no one will go to prison anyway, unless a film is leaked to the press, which was what occasioned the Australian investigation. They may have a point.
In the single British war crimes case so far litigated from Afghanistan, a Royal Marine was seen on film killing his wounded prisoner, while declaring that he was breaking the Geneva Conventions and instructing his men to ensure that ‘this doesn’t go anywhere.’ ‘This’ resulted in a manslaughter conviction and eventual release after four years in prison for shooting an unarmed civilian while offering a commentary on the murder. On camera.
The sas have not yet understood that they now live in an environment saturated with media, in a complex and multi-dimensional combat ecology.
Public opinion matters. Our self-image as the ‘good guys’, old-fashioned as it sounds, really matters. Even more important to soldiers such as myself, good order and discipline matters. And of course, accountability matters.
The alternative is bloody mayhem. The current commander of the Australian special forces, Major General Adam Findlay, gathered his men at their hq in July. He blamed their crimes and public disgrace on ‘self-righteous entitled pricks’ who believed that the rules of the regular army did not apply to them. Preach.