Colonel Bob Stewart DSO is MP for Beckenham and was the first United Nations Commander of British Forces in Bosnia
Photographs apparently showing Royal Air Force Regiment personnel posing beside the dead body of a Taliban fighter are of course utterly wrong and abhorrent. They are also illegal under military custom and law. Of course the Ministry of Defence is carrying out an investigation into the matter and has actually been doing so for some time. Indeed, it seems that two front-line servicemen may have been suspended over the matter already. All that is right and proper – as it should be.
The trophy photograph incident occurred after a particular ferocious fire fight which took place on the night and morning of 14/15 September 2012. Fifteen heavily-armed Taliban insurgents infiltrated into Camp Bastian and attacked the airfield. The resulting engagement lasted several hours, and tragically resulted in the deaths of two US Marine Corps personnel, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible and Sergeant Bradley Atwell. Eight American personnel, eight British servicemen and one civilian contractor were also wounded. Six United States’ Harrier Jump jets were destroyed. British and American servicemen fought tenaciously to regain the initiative, and succeeded in killing 14 Taliban attackers and capturing a badly wounded fifteenth insurgent. It was a ferocious mini-battle.
The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, published a report on the incident less than a month ago, and before doing so we had visited the site of the incident. On 14 September 2012 the perimeter fence, through which the attackers approached the base, was guarded by British personnel. We, the Defence Committee, suggested that insufficient attention had been given to the fundamental requirement to defend Camp Bastian from external assault, and we believed that our guard force had been too complacent. But in fairness, looking at the ground as an old infantry soldier, spotting Taliban fighters cutting through the perimeter at that point may not have been easy, even if all sentries were fully alert and all guard towers manned.
But the damage was done and British and American servicemen had to fight hard to put it right. They did so in a small scale battle which clearly involved many casualties. That must have been incredibly nerve-wracking and frightening for those involved. Nobody faces the prospect of imminent death with equanimity no matter how courageous. I totally understand how our servicemen must have felt having survived their (possibly first time) in such close combat. Their relief at being alive after it would have been immense.
I don’t know whether those photographed were intimately involved in the fire fight, but certainly their close comrades would have been. Yet, after such an experience people do daft things – despite knowing what should happen.
An enemy soldier is an enemy until he is dead, but then his body deserves respect. Soldiers are only too well aware that the boot could have been on the other foot! In 1993 and in Bosnia, with as much respect as possible, I helped carry a dead Bosnian Serb soldier on a stretcher out of No Man’s land and back to his unit. The thanks we received from his comrades was immense. An enemy is an enemy until he is dead but then basic humanity kicks in. Article Three of the Geneva Conventions declares that enemy bodies must be treated with respect. All servicemen and women know and understand that – back in the safety of their barracks.
This incident is nothing to do with instances of abuse previous incidents such as at Abu Ghraib or the killing of a wounded prisoner. The comparisons are invidious and wrong. This was a silly action carried out when emotions were probably very high. Trophy photographs are totally unacceptable and shouldn’t happen, but a little part of me understands why they occur.