At the coalface in Iraq: Steven McClaughlin interview

In all the thousands of words that have been written about the invasion and occupation of Iraq surprisingly few have explored the opinions and experiences of the British soldiers on the sharp end of our Governments foreign policy.


While there is a long tradition in the US of grunts writing about their military service, in the UK "it has always been SAS veterans or retired generals or colonels writing memoirs", says Steven McClaughlin, who served with the Royal Green Jackets in Iraq in 2003.  In an attempt to rectify this imbalance and give a voice to those "at the coalface", the 35-year old former Rifleman has written a book about his time in the British army, Squaddie. A Soldiers Story.  With serving soldiers forbidden to speak to the press without prior permission, as he is now a civilian McClaughlin is happy to talk freely about what he calls "the biggest foreign policy cock up of the last fifty years."


Sitting in a café in Euston station, the well-read, articulate McClaughlin explodes the Squaddie stereotype, giving thoughtful and cogent answers.  "Its really deteriorated big time", he explains when asked about the situation on the ground in southern Iraq.  "When I was there, Op Telic 2 ['Op Telic' is the title given to each British army operation], we went out every day in soft-skinned Land Rovers.  We used to mix with the locals, we used to patrol with berets and soft-hats, we talked to everybody, wed even talk to people who didnt like us."  Since then, "the security has got more and more draconian.  At the end of Op Telic 1 it was all flowers and clapping.  In Op Telic 2 we had attacks on a weekly basis.  By the end of Op Telic 2 outside Basra airport were these great big stone blocks.  All of a sudden you started seeing Warrior fighting vehicles.  Op Telic 3 snatch Land Rovers.  By Op Telic 4 all of a sudden you see Challenger tanks, and there is barbed wire everywhere."


So what went wrong?  "A catastrophic error we made was dismantling the Iraqi police force and army.  Because straight away you are putting out of work a huge section of the population in an already poor area."   Also, he notes the British forces failed to get the water or power back on quickly enough, which created a deadly vacuum.  The insurgents must have "thought it was Christmas time", quips McClaughlin.


The British forces are "strangers in a strange land" while the insurgents "know every nock and cranny, every back street, every dirt track every hiding place."  According to McClaughlin the only reason the casualty rate is not higher is because the British "very, very rarely" leave their base.  When they do "an armada of vehicles will go out with top cover – thats helicopter cover – and it will be a great big operation."


Despite the blowing up of a rogue Iraqi police station on Christmas Day being widely reported as a victory for the British, McClaughlin thought it was "a backward tactic.  Absurd."


"In 2003 fully half of my regiment was involved in training Iraqi police officers.  And the self same Iraqi police officers that we are training and we are supporting financially, morally, you name it, we have got to go to their police station and we have to blow their police station up.  Now what does that tell you about the true nature of our relationship with the Iraqi police?"


This incident is indicative of the impotence of British forces in southern Iraq.  "We are spectators.  Politicians, senior military, they overestimate our ability to influence events on the ground."


Indeed it is the politicians who sent him to war McClaughlin saves most of his anger for.  "One by one all these deputy prime minister contenders, like Peter Hain, are all coming out saying oh you know we were kidded by the intelligence as well, the Americans are so right wing and got it all wrong’.  And I think, for gods sake where were you four years ago when you sat there like a meek little sheep to protect your own job and position.  Im convinced everybody in the higher echelons knew that evidence was phoney."


As for the Prime Minister, "without any hesitations or doubts whatsoever" McClaughlin would like to see him tried for war crimes as "he initiated a war of aggression against a sovereign nation that posed no threat to us."


A self-confessed republican libertarian, McClaughlin believes Britain invaded Iraq to secure the oil supplies in the Middle East.  "Basically its about Middle Eastern influence and power", he adds. 


In the final analysis, while he is proud of his service in Iraq and thankful to come home in one piece, McClaughlin does not have any illusions about heroism and glory.  "I genuinely believe any soldier that dies in Iraq is a waste of a life, no matter how heroic the circumstances.  The fact remains they shouldnt be there in the first place."



Squaddie.  A Soldier’s Story is published by Mainstream Publishing, priced £10.99.   Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected]


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