“It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and gave ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies”
-Willard, Apocalypse Now
Travelling up the thick, dark vein of the Nùng River in search of the demi-god rogue Colonel, Kurtz, Martin Sheen’s Willard realises something about the bureaucracy of war: it’s a pack of lies. Last month, my phone buzzed to notify me that an attempt to privately prosecute Tony Blair had just been rejected. Admittedly, the grounds were sound: the law in question had neither been incorporated into English law, nor would it work retrospectively had it been. But the discussion raised vital questions – questions that we’ve been asking since 2003 – about the Iraq war, and what liability, if any, the key players should have for its consequences. It also raised memories of the many discussions I’ve had since the Chilcot Report first came out a little over a year ago: stories of corruption, abuse of power, and gross immorality that have led to the destruction of life and infrastructure in equal measure. I invite you, too, dear reader, to journey with me up the Nùng in search of a very real Colonel Kurtz. Our orders? Terminate with extreme prejudice.
On the 6th July 2016, the Chilcot report was published – more than 7 years after it was announced. It arrived 13 years after the decision it took judgement on; just over two weeks before the nation took the biggest collective decision it would ever take. As a result, apathy about Iraq had had over a decade to stall and the focus of most UK residents (especially the politically-minded) was on the Brexit culture-war being fought on city streets rather than middle-eastern outposts. The report is astoundingly damning – as we shall see – and runs to four times the length of War and Peace. Although, on the 7th July, the nation’s newspapers may have screamed about the deceit, betrayal, and lies detailed within, their focus had returned to the Tory leadership contest by the 8th. These days, barely a week goes by without Blair giving his two cents on some political matter from Jeremy Corbyn to Irish borders and beyond.
After Bush’s infamously hysterical “Axis of Evil” speech, Blair allegedly indicated in April 2002 that he would follow the US into an Iraqi war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, with or without a UN mandate. This was, as many of you already know, the famous moment in which the UK PM was invited to Bush’s country house for a series of talks which, almost indisputably, were crucial in the decision to engage. But an intercepted communication from even before this meeting suggests that invading Iraq was already agreed: Blair would ‘follow our lead’.
Over the coming months, relations between the UN and Iraq became increasingly tense. But the key thing for us to remember is that the Iraqi government repeatedly affirmed that weapons inspectors were welcome to investigate the country. Reports were published by the government that were debunked on the spot – particularly that of 30th January 2003. In fact, there’s evidence that internal UK intelligence was used to inform Blair that there were countries, such as Libya, who posed a greater threat than Iraq. Records show countless internal memos, concerned voices, and even resignations over not just the idea that there was no evidence of WMDs in Iraq; but also of the highly immoral nature of invading the nation even if the reports did have basis in fact.
On the 14th February, the UN Weapons inspectors confirmed that not only was Iraq co-operating, but that there was no evidence of the existence of nuclear weapons and no cause for war. Even the public could see the deception – as plain as day – marching en masse against the war on the 15th in the biggest ever demonstration of its kind. Amidst plans for war brewing amongst western nations, Iraq complied with the destruction timeline for its missiles in March of 2003. The will of the UN was very much against the war – yet Blair went ahead with a commons vote on 18th March. The war began on the 20th.
Indeed, we might argue, Kurtz had gone mad. He’d become obsessed with power and influence – and had exercised his will egomaniacally on a public that had been deceived. His earthquake-role may have been mostly over, but the resulting landslide caused devastating consequences that are hard to come to terms with, a whole 15 years after that fateful meeting. It’s nigh on impossible to measure the death count caused by the war – one study puts it at around 500,000. Iraq Body Count keeps track of the official deaths through the media, morgues, and the records they acquire. They’ve attributed 268,000 deaths to the conflict – of which between 178,208 and 199,559 are civilian. To put that into perspective, that’s between 66% and 74% (averaging at 70%) of the dead being non-combatant citizens. The upper estimate lies between the entire populations of York and Aberdeen. Killed for what? Nothing.
But, like a gangrenous infection, the battle wounds continued to spread. By the time UK troops had left the area in 2009, the region was left ravaged and destabilised. The West had planted the dynamite years before, and it was inevitably destined to explode. As Kanan Makiya writes in an astounding piece for the New York Times, the 2003 intervention represented a reversal of US foreign policy following the Gulf War: the dictators of the Middle East were no longer to be supported. For all the damage they caused, coalition forces claimed they were going to install democracy. This had a ripple effect. Amidst the chaos, in Lebanon in 2005, the Cedar Revolution rid the country of an oppressive Syrian influence. In the same year, Egyptians were given a contested election for the first ever time, and Palestinians were given their first presidential election in almost 10 years.
Several sources attribute this growing flame to the eventual breakout of the Arab Spring in 2010. The events that, despite representing liberation and freedom to oppressed peoples, resulted in mass civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Four of those conflicts still rage today. Al Queda began to fracture in Iraq in 2007, following Iraqi government urges for Sunnis to disassociate themselves. Eventually, amidst the Arab spring, they regrouped in Syria – renaming themselves ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’. Even Blair admitted in 2015 that ISIS would not have existed but for the Iraq war. Millions upon millions of refugees seek a safe haven in the countries that heavily aided in destabilising their societies, and yet, we refuse to take them in. Throughout the last few years, terrorist attacks have ravaged Europe. And in 2016, just 17 days after the publishing of the Chilcot Report, a divided Britain voted to leave the EU.
This is the end of the road. Our boat may have reached Cambodia safely, but 7000 kilometres away, another filled with men, women and children sinks in the hopeless dark of an unforgiving sea. 50 families lost – clutching each other as they descend to suffocating depths. They’re never recovered. 4,000 kilometres away again, a nation is fractured by irreconcilable hate and anxiety. And at the heart of it all – our very own Colonel Kurtz. Or perhaps he was no better than Dennis Hopper’s snivelling, sycophantic photojournalist at the feet of an American demigod?
Driven by power, greed, and arrogance, Tony Blair drew us into a web of deceit that’s ultimately trapped and devoured us over the last 14 years. A web that could have been avoided. A web that should have been avoided. And a web that, just last year, he admitted he would drag us into all over again. And that’s why, when I checked my phone this morning, I felt such stabbing anger. The crime of aggression is an intellectual construction that can’t be retroactively applied, yet the events that began to take shape in 2002 do not slide easily into the technicalities of a statute book.
Kurtz himself realised the truth in his dying breath: “The horror. The horror.”