Tag Archives: British

Life in Iraq: An Army Officer’s View

Captain Abi Brown

The final lecture in our Lent series was given by Captain Abi Brown, a member of our congregation and serving army officer, who had recently returned from a six month posting in Iraq – her second, having been posted previously during the initial invasion back in 2003.

This again was a total change of subject area from the week before. A lot of the presentation was about practical things, explaining what the army is doing in Iraq, and the day to day life of our soldiers out there. She also covered the preparation that the troops are given to prepare them for their tour of duty, and how the army supports their personnel once they get back.

Perhaps the most interesting part of all the background is the realisation of quite how little we know about day to day life for our troops in Basra. Even with all the embedded journalists that have been placed with troops we still only get a snapshot of life – it is rather different hearing from an actual solider.

Abi is a Captain with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers known as REME, who are headquartered here at Arborfield, hence how she came to be part of our congregation. Her troops were responsible for the maintenance, servicing and inspection of much of the equipment that the army use in Iraq, in particular vehicles such as the Challenger 2 tank and the Warrior APC that are the mainstays of the British equipment.

However aside from listing the equipment, she really focused on day to day life.

She was, like the majority of the British force based at Basra Airport, where the force is under continuous bombardment from mortars and rockets. She showed some pictures of the damage that these attacks cause, and also the measures taken to protect the troops. For example she showed pictures of her sleeping accommodation – a mattress surrounded by breeze blocks and a ‘roof’ consisting of a steel plate covered by sandbags. Another real and present danger was the risk of kidnapping, so she was armed at all times, and was never allowed to move around on her own – that even extended to going to the toilet at night, people were always accompanied.

She made some interesting comparisons with how things were during her initial posting to Iraq during the invasion. Today the army is well equipped, and properly supplied – she said that this is a big difference from how things were back in 2003. Back then she refused to wear desert uniform until all her troops were similarly equipped – she never wore her desert uniform during the entire posting. The general impression she gave of the situation then was that the army were ill prepared for what they had to do.

She largely steered clear of political comment, although she did say that about eighty percent of her troops probably disagree with the reasons that they went to war, but on a professional level want to do a good job. Interestingly she says that their biggest worry now is that due to political pressures the troops will be pulled out too early, and not get a chance to do their jobs properly, the job being to bring the Iraqi army up to a standard whereby they can look after their own country without aid.

Her husband Adam was posted to Iraq at the same time as her, but was in a different part of the country. She did say that the only British soldiers not posted to Basra were some admin staff based in Baghdad, and the special forces. Adam was posted to Baghdad, and all she would say about what he did was that it was a lot more dangerous than what she did, and that for her own sanity she never spoke to him at all about the kind of things he did.

She also talked about what it was like as a woman in a largely male organisation, and in particular being in command of men. She has some support in this respect as she is assisted by the first female ASM in REME. She commented that as a woman, the relationship with the men is different – she actually said that perhaps the least successful women in the army are those that try to be like the men – she sees handling things differently as an advantage. The most interesting comment she made was that many of the men seem to regard her as a mother figure – indeed one of her men commented after a telling off that it was by far the hardest he had had because he felt like he did when his mother was telling him off. She also said that because she is a woman many of the men open up to her a lot more than they would to a male officer, which sometimes gives her more of a broad view than a male officer would get, when perhaps the men would not mention some issues. Having said that, there are still soldiers who have a problem with being commanded by a woman – she has one in particular with which she has had issues. As part of her training though, she was required to spend some time working in industry, and she said she had a much harder time being a woman in the engineering company to which she was seconded than she has ever had in the army. Although it is still dominated by men, women are in many roles all across the army.

The final part of the talk, she discussed how she and her troops deal with the loss of fellow soldiers, she lost her first within twenty-four hours of arriving in Iraq. She also here talked about her faith, and how the weekly Church services she attended were about the only escape she had from the continual worries of attacks on the base – the Church was the safest building on the base. Key events are Remembrance Sunday – the base has a memorial with a brass plaque for each soldier that has been killed – and whenever a fallen soldier is repatriated as many troops as possible attend the ceremony. Amongst all of this, she says that many soldiers do find religion – “more than you would thinkâ€? she said – however that still doesn’t stop many of them having times when they find themselves asking why it is that situations like Iraq can happen, and why it is that certain people are killed and others survive.

Distraction Politics

So there you are as a government, taking a significant amount of heat for wasting a large amount of money on something before following the advice other parties were giving in the first place, what do you do? Why not distract the general populace by re-launching a debate on immigration!

The hot new idea this time is for people to do citizenship tests to ‘prove their worth’ – this follows on from the last hot idea less than a year ago to have a points system, and of course a citizenship test has been in place anyway since 2005.

Of course the irony is that a large number of British Citizens (and probably MP’s) probably wouldn’t be able to pass the existing test anyway. For example, try this question:

Why did the Protestant Huguenots come from France to the UK in the 16th and 17th centuries?

Most will probably get this one wrong too:

Where does most of the money for local government come from?

a) The National Lottery
b) Council Tax
c) Central Government Funds
d) A local income tax

The correct answer being c.

Of course, the announcement kicks off the usual rash of misinformed public outcry, so the various forums are already full of the usual rubbish about immigrants coming in to claim benefits and so on. For the record, immigrants pay taxes but cannot claim any sort of benefit – when Beth came in one of the things I had to sign as her sponsor was a document saying that I would financially support her as there was no recourse to public funds. In terms of the existing charges (part of the proposal is that they should be more) the current charge to naturalise as a British Citizen is £655.

Of course what it won’t address is the groups that people seem to have most problems with, which is the Eastern European migrants, who being EU citizens don’t come under the normal immigration system. Incidentally, the inaccurate rubbish about them being a drain on resources extends to them also, as they also aren’t entitled to any benefits or social housing either – hence why most end up living in massively overcrowded conditions in the lowest quality private housing.

The idea that this latest announcement is just another round of rabble rousing spin becomes even more clear when you look at some of the more detailed documents that the government are producing – an interesting read is “The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigrationâ€? which the Home Office produced in October. Section 2 outlines the effect on public finances paragraph 2.2.6 stating that in the long run it is likely that the net fiscal contribution of an immigrant will be greater than that of a non-immigrant.

It is also interesting reading section 5 which talks about why companies are employing migrant workers rather than British born workers – it seems that the opinions of those running businesses is rather different from the general view in the media. In the low-skilled and low paid jobs, paragraph 5.2.2 states that the

“…overwhelming majority of employers across sectors and regions started to recruit migrant workers because they could not get applications from domestic workers…â€?

Paragraph 5.2.4 is perhaps even more damning about British workers:

“Native workers sometimes proved unreliable in certain sectors… Some employers had tried recruiting applicants via a Jobcentre, but found that they sometimes turned up for interviews purely to get a form signed to enable them to receive Jobseekers’ Allowance.â€?

In paragraph 5.2.5:

“Polish workers were generally valued in London, where they were seen as highly-motivated skilled workers who could fill a skills gap.�

Paragraph 5.2.6 said that one employer in the Finance and Accountancy sector was headhunting internationally due to the very small pool of qualified applicants in the UK. Section 5.2 continues highlighting other business surveys that show the same thing – the migrants that are apparently a drain on our resources are being actively sort by British business to plug gaps where British workers are either unwilling or unable to do the jobs.

All of this outcry again harks back to the point that Ekklesia made last month – it’s a lot easier to blame a group or groups of the population for societies ills rather than addressing the real issues. So youth get blamed for crime, lone parents get blamed for the breakdown in family values, migrants get accused of scrounging benefits. It all makes big headlines, but it never really achieves anything, as in most cases it’s not really addressing the real issues – it’s just distraction politics again.

Inside a Sharia Court

I’ve just watched an episode of This World on BBC2 entitled ‘Inside a Sharia Court‘. The programme starts from the premise that a number of British Muslims would like to see Sharia Law implemented in the UK, and that since most westerners understanding of the practice is in terms of the stoning and amputations the programme set out to look at a place where Sharia Law already exists alongside British law, in certain parts of Nigeria.

In Nigeria, Sharia Law applies only to Muslims, indeed even Muslims can appeal their case back into the regular legal system. According to the programme the only two amputations there have been for theft were people who refused their right to appeal and opted to take the Sharia Law sentence. On the ground it seems very popular, but when part way through the programme you see a Christian man who is fighting a case against a Muslim through the regular courts you can understand why. In the regular courts business is conducted in English, a language the man doesn’t understand, and more than that the case is bogged down in legal technicalities. Compare that with the Sharia court where at one point the judge gets through four cases in half and hour, and lawyers are generally not involved and you can see the difference. For the normal person on the ground, the legal system is expensive and inaccessible, whereas the Sharia courts give them swift justice.

Having said that, is it necessarily fair? One case that is shown is a man accused of theft. The prosecutor has no witnesses to the crime, indeed offers no evidence at all. The man confessed, but in his testimony said that he confessed after being beaten and tortured by the Police. The judge offers him a choice of ten lashes or a prison sentence for his crime – he opts for the lashes. The programme also discusses how accusations of rape are handled – the judge states that a woman must report it immediately, and be able to produce four witnesses otherwise her crime is regarded as adultery.

By the end of the programme, the presenter seems at least in part convinced by the merits of Sharia Law and thinking that it might work for British Muslims in the UK.

For my part I think that you need to separate the particular laws from the process. Even in the UK the issues of the mainstream legal system in Nigera are present – what the Sharia system is providing is justice for simple matters at a much lower level, without the formality of a full court case. As an example, a friend is currently having a boundary dispute over his property – and has been quoted a pretty well unaffordable rate for the solicitors he needs to sort it out. In Nigeria, these kinds of disputes are handled by the Sharia court. I doubt that a system that dishes out public floggings and amputations as punishment would ever be acceptable to most British people, but certainly a system that allows the average person to quickly and simply sort out legal disputes would be very welcome.

A Good Old British Panic

So after the announcement from the government last night, calm seems to have returned to Northern Rock branches across the country – well aside it seems for Golders Green where savers were still queuing this morning with the government guarantee being seen as some sort of ruse.

However social commentators are already starting to draw comparisons with another September panic – the UK Fuel Protests, or more precisely what happens if ever there is a rumour of another blockade. For example in September 2005 after a series of news stories about potential protests, long queues started forming outside petrol stations, and thousands were emptied of supplies. However the protesters said several times that they had no intention of blockading refineries again, and in the event only a small number even protested. The panic produced more of a problem than the event itself.

In exactly the same way, the Northern Rock applied for a bail out from the Bank of England, and despite people regularly saying that the bank was financially solvent, queues quickly formed of savers withdrawing their money, exacerbating the problem.

So was it right in both cases for people to panic? In the case of the September 2005 Fuel Protests people only needed to remember a few years before to the chaos that was caused by the first UK Fuel Protests. There was also a general level of mistrust both of the protesters themselves, and of government assurances. This time around, again people distrusted government and official assurances. Also anybody who looked at the compensation scheme realised that for any sort of reasonable level of savings, you were going to lose – only the first £2000 is fully guaranteed. Certainly back in 2005, whilst I didn’t queue for hours, I did make sure I’d filled up both cars so as we could get to work, and if I’d had any money in the Northern Rock I’d probably have moved it as a precaution.

So maybe the commentators are slightly wrong, the British don’t like a good panic – they just fundamentally don’t trust people in authority and what they say – hence why the people in Golders Green were still withdrawing their money this morning.

Standing Up to the British Weather

Summer Poolside Barbecue

In recent years, we’ve not had much opportunity to demonstrate our traditional British stoicism in the face of the British weather – not so this year. After major flooding yesterday, and with more rain predicted, today was planned to be the annual swimming party and barbecue for the junior choir. There was some speculation that maybe we’d cancel – as you can see from the picture we didn’t!

Here you can see the junior choir happily swimming whilst it pours with rain – and with the parents huddled under umbrellas!

If you look at some of the other pictures in the set you can see that despite the weather we had the barbecue too – in the garage…

Having said that it was still rather galling when after an afternoon of downpours, just as everybody was leaving the sun finally came out – well for a few minutes anyway.