“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, a religious blog that, if nothing else, stands for peace and justice. I’m very pleased to reprint 2 articles about Ben Griffin, one from The Independent and one from a marvellous little Christian magazine “Making it Real” produced by 4 friends in London: Roland, Sue, Alan and Dann. I first met Ben 2 years ago at the London Catholic Worker and was most impressed by his courage and integrity. He’s come through the post traumatic stress so many ex soldiers suffer, and is now happily married and working as a paramedic in London.
I think you will find these accounts very moving.
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”
An ex-soldier’s mission to reveal the true face of war
(The Independent, 18/1/2015)
Serving the crown is a concept familiar both to convicts and soldiers. The former, for their sins, serve time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure; the latter put their lives on the line in the defence of others. For some former armed forces members, the future on civvy street can be as bleak, if not more so, than for those leaving prison. For former servicemen, especially those who have seen combat, the gunfire may have long since ceased but, out on the streets, their battle is only just beginning.
According to a recent ForcesWatch study, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol misuse are three times as common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than in the general population, while other mental disorders – such as depression – are 90 per cent higher.
The question of how to respond to the horrors wrought by modern conflict is one that a former SAS trooper, Ben Griffin, has been grappling with ever since he left the military in 2005.
After a childhood defined by Commando comics and the Army Cadets, Griffin joined the Parachute Regiment, aged 19. “I went into the military as an ideological recruit,” he recalls. “A true believer… I saw going to war and being a British soldier as the highest ideal one could achieve.”
Throughout most of his career – he served in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan – he saw little to contradict this. It was only when he was deployed to Iraq, having survived the elite SAS’s gruelling selection process, that his faith in the military began to be seriously challenged.
As part of a Special Forces snatch squad tasked with picking up suspected insurgents and handing them over to the Americans, he began to worry about the legality of the war and the missions he was sent on.
After eight years of exemplary service, Griffin hung up his boots. He risked court martial doing so but, as he revealed shortly before he was silenced on the subject by a High Court injunction, he could no longer bring himself to carry out missions which were making Britain complicit in acts of “brutal interrogation” and “torture”.
Like many other veterans, Griffin – who is now more happily employed in the ambulance service – has suffered the afterburn of the battlefield. Although he doesn’t find the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” useful, referring to its symptoms instead as a “natural human reaction” to the horrors of war, he has his demons. But rather than allow himself to be consumed by them, he has harnessed them.
With the help of Veterans for Peace UK, Griffin has been turning his SAS-honed tactical skills to the task of educating the public about the true nature of war. With 142 veterans, whose experiences of conflict range from D-Day to Iraq and Afghanistan, standing alongside him, his organisation’s perspective crosses continents and spans decades. This unique insight has left Griffin with few doubts about some of the costs of military service.
“Just being in a system where you’ve got hierarchy, peer pressure and a set of values completely at odds with the rest of society – it’s psychologically difficult both to enter and to leave. Just as it’s psychologically difficult to enter and leave prison.
“Add the chaos, the irrationality and the immorality of warfare on top, and people are going to be affected by what’s happened.
“You can do or witness terrible things in the military and they can almost be laughed off – they often are – but when a soldier leaves the military the hierarchy is instantly removed. And, over time, the peer pressure and the indoctrination start to drop away too. Then you start to look back on the things that you were involved in with different eyes.
“I’ve often thought since I got back from Iraq about the effect we had on the people we came into contact with. And not just the men that we dragged off to prison, but the younger boys who would have been there watching us, who would have been watching their family members being brutalised and dragged out – and maybe never saw them again, or didn’t see them for months or years.”
In 2008, he said: “I have no doubt that non-combatants I personally detained were handed over to the Americans and subsequently tortured. The information I have released is the tip of the iceberg.”
At the time, within 24 hours the Ministry of Defence served him with a permanent injunction, banning him from revealing any more. “I’ve often wondered how many of the people we traumatised went on to join Isis,” he muses.
This cycle of political and psychological violence, with its repercussions for both the British soldier and the communities he is deployed against, is one Griffin is determined to break. The nation’s classrooms are a key battleground in this fight for peace.
“Ask a child what it’s like to be in a war,” says Griffin, “and they’ll tell you what it’s like to be a soldier in a war. ‘You might see your friend be killed.’ ‘You might be killed.’ ‘You might have to kill someone.’ But none of the kids in the workshops I run ever – or at least very rarely – answer the question as if they were a civilian in a war, or think about what it might be like to have their country invaded. Our children are definitely thinking about warfare in terms of what it would be like to be in the military.
“One of the purposes of our workshops is to get children to think about what it might be like to be on the end of British or American military power, to take them out of that zone where they’re thinking purely in terms of our own military and think about what it must be like to be on the end of that. And that’s what we are trying to achieve – to get people to think outside of nationalistic terms.
“Think of it like climate change. If we stopped burning petrol tomorrow the world would still heat up for 20 or 30 years. But just because it might take a few decades is no reason not to do it. We need to look at militarism and war in the same way.
“If we stop interfering in the Middle East, there is still going to be a time period where we are going to experience the repercussions of the actions that we’ve already taken.
“It will take time, but eventually the effects of the pollution we’ve released will disappear.”
BY BEN GRIFFIN
When I joined the British Army seventeen years ago, my ideas were based on a false history. I’d been taught and I’d read about our involvement in Malaya in the 1950’s. All I’d read about is this amazing “Hearts and Minds” Campaign and how we’d won the local people over to our democratic ways. And similar stories about campaigns in Oman, Aiden (?) and Northern Ireland. So when I joined I had these false ideas based on propaganda that the State puts out, and the propaganda that the military puts out.
In 2002 I was in Kabul and I wasn’t in Special Forces at the time, I was in the parachute regiment. And we weren’t involved in taking prisoners or anything like that. But you could see the helicopters flying out with the Special Forces soldiers on and you could see them at Bagram airport and you could see that there was something going on and it was all very secretive and all kept apart from us. But in 2005 I deployed to Baghdad and was involved in exactly the same system that was put in place in Afghanistan and this system is still in place now and has become more sophisticated over time.
I’m going to briefly describe how it is that soldiers can sink to the depravity of torture and other unspeakable actions. My own ideas is that it is through a process that I would call “Compartmentalisation”. When you want to carry out something that is abhorrent, you have to break it down into little, easily digestible parts. I’m going to describe how that process was carried out in Baghdad. And it was a very similar process that was carried out in Afghanistan as well. What you do is you break down this bigger task of capturing people and torturing them into very small, little parts.
The start of that chain is the intelligence, where the intelligence comes from. A lot of that intelligence, especially when I was serving and I think it still goes on now, was what they called “human intelligence”. That means someone from the local indigenous population telling stories about someone else. I think in Afghanistan and Pakistan a lot of the guys who ended up in Guantanamo were actually sold out by other people, you know there were bounties offered. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about money. And if you offer someone money for intelligence, in a country where there is high unemployment and there’s not much money around and people are starving… guess what? They’ll keep coming back and they’ll give you more intelligence! So this whole system is based in part, on intelligence that people have paid for. And even if someone comes to you and says “Oh yeah, this guy down the road, he’s involved in Al Qaeda, he’s involved in insurgency”, he might be. But the next time he comes to you and he wants that two hundred bucks he’s going to grass up someone else, and he might just grass up someone he’s had a feud with over the years, or he might grass up someone who is from a different ethnic background or someone who is from a different religious sect.
And then this information is passed on to surveillance teams. And the problem is, when a surveillance team has been told that this person is a terrorist or that this person is an insurgent, they see guilt or they see suspicion in everything those people do.
Say you’ve been tasked to watch a certain house or watch a certain person. If you see that person go around the back of the house and start digging you don’t think “That guy’s digging some potatoes or digging in some vegetables”. You think, “What’s he hiding around the back?” If you see him put some bags in the car and go to another building you don’t think, “Oh, he’s just taking some stuff around to his mate’s house.” You think, “Oh this guy he’s going to is obviously part of this bigger network.” And so everything these people do becomes suspicious. But the problem with the guys who carry out the surveillance is that they see these people in a family situation. They see them taking their kids to school. They see them going to work. They see them smoking on the front door. They see them having fun with their family. So you don’t want the guys doing the surveillance to then carry out the detention operation. You want a different set of guys to do that. Guys who haven’t seen these people in their normal human environment. So then the job gets handed on to the detention team. And that’s what I was involved in.
It’s called all sorts of things in the press, I’ve never heard these terms when I was in, but the term they use in the press is a “Kill or Capture Team”. I was involved in that. Our job was to go out in the middle of the night, usually, smash our way into people’s houses with explosives and detain these people.
I’m going to describe a generic version of one of those raids because I want you to try and understand what it must be like to be on the receiving end of that and how terrifying that must be.
We’d usually sneak up to a building in the middle of the night. I want you to imagine that it’s one o’clock in the morning. It’s dark. It’s quiet. You’re in bed in your house with your husband or your wife. Your children are sleeping next door and it’s all very still. And all of a sudden there’s this huge explosion that rips your house apart almost. That’s us coming through the wall or coming through the door. Your ears must be ringing and there’s dust everywhere and it’s still dark and you can hear men, heavy men, rampaging through the house. And before you know what’s happening they’re in your room and they’re dragging you out of your bed.
We used to go into these buildings and we used to dominate every room. Once we’d secured the place we would separate people out. Women and children into one room, the men into another room. And then one of our guys who could speak Arabic, he’d start interrogating these people. And we were always taught that the most important intelligence you could gain was at the point of capture. The shock of capture, they call it, when someone’s so terrified they’ll say anything. And the police use this as well in domestic cases.
So one of our guys would be interrogating this man and my job, along with another of the guys, was to go and ransack the house. And we’d go around the house and we’d just tip it all apart. We’d just drag everything out. The women would be really upset, the kids would be upset and we’d just be dragging everything out. And we’d get all the computers, money, phones, any weapons in the house any pieces of paper that looked sort of important and we’d chuck them into these big sacks. This used to take maybe ten or twenty minutes. We’d drag all this out into the main hallway. The interrogation would be finished by then, and then we’d take all of this stuff out of the house along with the males.
Now a lot of the time we’d be given a name or shown a picture of someone that we were after, and when we got in there he wasn’t there. But that didn’t matter. We’d just take whoever else was in there because they must know something about what was going on because they’re in the same building. So quite a lot of the time we took people in who we weren’t even looking for. The (sort of) guidelines we had were any male of military age. That’s fifteen, sixteen… up to sixty five. We took really elderly people, really young people. We’d drag these people out of the houses and a lot of the time this was the first time these people had been in a helicopter and I can’t imagine how terrified they were and we’d take them back to our camp. And I often used to think after coming in after these jobs you know “What have we just done? We’ve destroyed the security of the home. We’ve traumatised everyone in the house. We’ve taken everything of any value. We’ve humiliated the males in front of their family. And then we’ve taken away the breadwinner, the guy who’s going to look after this family.”
This started to really get to me and when I was on these jobs I used to look at these children and think “What must they be thinking about us?”
After our part was finished, after we’d got these people back to our base, we would just stand them up against the wall with their hands over their heads. They’d be in their dish dash, their traditional clothing that people often wear to bed in Arab countries, and they’d either have goggles on or a hood on and some ear phones over their ears and we’d use these plastic ties to hold their hands together. So by the time we took these people back to the base, what did these people look like? What had we turned them into? They looked like terrorists because that’s what you’re told a terrorist looks like. And so the people we handed them over to, who started the interrogations, to them, they’re not seeing the person who took their kids to school, or the person just going about their daily lives, they’re seeing a man cuffed, terrified with the hood on or goggles on and their hands tied. And they see the terrorist.
We used to hand these people over and we never got to see these people again. I found out afterwards actually they ended up in a secret prison network just like Guantanamo. The ideas of Bagram and Guantanamo spread. There was a secret prison network in Iraq and these people would be interrogated and then their value would be assessed and depending on how significant they thought these people were some would end up in Abu Graib. That was actually the better prison to go in. They had more secretive prisons. There was one called Camp Namar at Bagdhad International Airport and the RAF were actually in charge of guarding this. One of the guys who worked there has actually described how these men were held in these like dog kennels in the sun, out in the sun! And then they’d be taken out and tortured and interrogated further.
So by the time these people were in the system they had become completely dehumanised. I often liken it to what the Germans must have done. People often wonder “How did Germany carry out this genocide?” It was through the same system. A French policeman goes into a French Jew’s house and pulls them out. Then he hands them over to the train driver. All he does is drive the train. They might even swap train drivers on the way and then another train driver takes them into Belsin or Auchwitchz. And then someone else takes them off the train and strips them and shaves their head and gives them a stripy outfit. And then someone else takes them and forces them to work these crazy hours and then someone else puts them in the gas chamber. And it’s the same process. You split this thing up and you give people more easily digestible jobs.
I actually believe that if one person was to follow the whole chain of events you’d never be able to do it. You’d never be able to go from seeing that person in their family life to the outcome. Whether it’s Guantanamo, Bagram or Auchwitchz, it’s all the same.
So that’s the process that’s going on.
About the author.
During a week’s leave in March 2005 Ben Griffin told his commanding officer in a formal interview that he had no intention of
returning to Iraq because he believed that the war was morally wrong. The decision marked the rst time an SAS soldier had refused to go into combat and quit the Army on moral grounds. Moreover, Ben said he believed that Tony Blair and the Government had lied to the country and had deceived every British serviceman and woman in Iraq. Ben expected to be placed under arrest, labelled a coward, court-martialed and imprisoned for daring to air such views. Instead, however, he was allowed to leave the Army with a glowing testimonial from his
commanding officer, who described him as a “balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions”.
Ben Griffin tirelessly campaigns to expose the truth about war and the military, actively supports Wikileaks Editor Julian Assange and whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. He is the founder / coordinator of Veterans For Peace UK .
You can read about other heroes of conscience and what they stood up for clicking below or by requesting a hard copy of Making it Real part one.
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