Sunday, April 08, 2007

The 15 Brits: Unprepared? Improperly Trained?

What came to my mind when the Iranians first captured the 15 unsuspecting, unresisting UK navy and marine personnel was April 1, 2001. That’s the day a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries Intelligence gathering aircraft, disabled by an overzealous Chinese J-8 fighter pilot, was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan.

Watching events unfold almost exactly 6 years later—and I hate to say this—BUT, I am extremely unhappy with the weak-willed actions of the captured British servicemen and of course with the thuggery of the Iranians. We’ve come to expect this kind of chaotic conduct from Iran, so I immediately adjudged them as “lawless as usual,” but I waited until the end of the proceedings before passing judgment on the 15 Britons.

Almost immediately, their Iranian “masters” were able to cow the Brits into making derogatory statements against their own nation. I have to say I was shocked at how quickly they did this. Compare that to the Chinese interrogations of our captured people in 2001 when none of the Americans came close to cracking. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the Navy P-3 pilot, Shane Osborn:

What happened when you landed?

They circled the plane and were giving us the cut power sign. I shut down engines one at a time, taking my time so that we could talk back home, and make sure we were getting as much information off the plane as we could about what happened. They were becoming very adamant about us shutting out engines down and shutting power off.

I wanted to be the first one to talk to them, so I went to the back. They had an interpreter also standing there. I was the first one to talk to them, and tried to get him to let me call either the ambassador or my chain of command. They wouldn't let us do that, and then things went from there. More guys showed up and they wanted us off the plane. So finally, once we'd taken care of what we needed to on board, we de-boarded.

Were they rough with you?

No, they didn't harm any of us physically.

Where were you taken?

We were at a military base where the F-8 that hit us flies out of. We sat on a bus for two hours, because they were pretty surprised to have us there, obviously. Then they took us to eat and then took us to their barracks basically. We were on a floor and it was guarded with armed guards.

When did you first make contact with the ambassador?

Oh, it was about three or four days later, in the middle of the night. We spent day in, day out in interrogations -- myself and the other pilots. The first night they grabbed me at like 11 at night. It had been 22 hours since I'd slept, and that was pretty physically exhausting, flying that plane in and the adrenaline rush that you are coming down off of and being s

cared. So they waited until the middle of the night before they started questioning me, and they questioned me, I think, from midnight to six in the morning that day. Pretty rough night, and it was obviously pretty scary.

They were getting pretty upset with me and my level of cooperation, let's put it that way. There were a lot of verbal threats and standing up and yelling. Then they would calm down for a while and then they would just want me to go through everything, and what I was willing to talk to them about was the details of the accident. Like I said, they didn't find anything any more out the whole 12 days we were there.

So it was the same questions all the time?

No, they would try different ways -- different threats of being tried, and accusing me of being a master spy, etc., and they used sleep deprivation techniques. After I didn't cooperate, they took me away from the crew and isolated me for the next eight days. There they'd have two guys sitting in a chair smoking cigarettes as I'm trying to sleep, blowing smoke in my face to keep me awake, and they'd wake me up if I'd fall asleep -- all those sleep d

eprivation techniques. I was getting pretty tired, but we hung in there. The crew did well.

How did the ambassador and General Sealock help you?

General Sealock came in the first night. ... We were waiting in a room in the middle of the night again. We probably sat in there for about an hour and half, and then all of a sudden a general, about six-foot-three, comes walking in the door. There was no question he was an American. He was very straightforward and said, "This is what I need. We've got 40 minutes." One of the Chinese officials started arguing with him because he was writing things down. He argued with him, and when that was done, he asked the guy if he was going to give him those 60 seconds he'd just used up back. That was pretty good for the crew's morale, just to se

e somebody come in and be a little defiant. We were getting pretty beaten down, not physically, but actually physically exhausted. He did a lot for us, he really did. We were always happy to see him, especially that last time, when we were leaving. He was great.

The contrast between the attitudes of the P-3 pilot and the Royal Marine Captain is startling. Right from the beginning, the Brits allowed themselves to be intimidated into submission both at sea and behind bars; but to be fair to the rest of the crew I mostly blame the officer in charge of the detail for setting the tone. For me, his own words are damning.

"From the outset, it was very apparent that fighting back was not an option," Marine Captain Chris Air said of their capture in the Gulf on March 23.

Air said the crew faced an aggressive Iranian crew. "They rammed our boats, and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs, and weapons on us."

"We realized that had we resisted there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won and with consequences major strategic impacts," Air said "We made a conscious decision not to engage the Iranians and do as they asked."

Evidently, modern Royal Marines are not trained to the same aggressive standards as their couterparts in "the colonies." U.S. marines would never consider surrender just because they were confronted by “aggressiveness,” not unless they were so ordered, and even then they would have bitterly objected. I’m not the only one to think these thoughts. I’ve read similar comments from several UK veterans who are as irked as I am.

Speaking for myself, I am embarrassed for these guys; but part of my problem with them is that they don’t seem the least bit angry or humiliated, at least not based on their juvenile looking antics on TV when they were about to be released. They certainly did not

look like self-disciplined military people. They joked around, played grab-ass and mugged for the cameras. During captivity instead of resembling bad-assed marines they looked more like a bunch of young foolhardy footballers arrested for being naughty.

I have to question the level of their training and the apparent lack of leadership and self-restraint among them. The folks with any rank at all should have reminded the others that the eyes of the world are on them. An occasional “AT EASE!” should have been barked out as a reminder to chill out and stiffen up. To laugh and play around the way they did gave the impression that these guys are a bunch of non-serious amateurs. That may not be true at all, but perceptions tend to live on long after the cameras are turned off.

Aside from their unbecoming joviality, it was really over-the-top nauseating for me to watch these guys smilingly thank the Iranians for their decent treatment. I remember clearly in 1973 the image of our American POWs when their cruel North Vietnamese jailors were in the process of releasing them. In the most dignified manner they walked, some limping, all as ramrod straight as they could manage, unto the buses and into the Air Force transports. Believe me; those guys did not display even a hint of non-military behavior or a trace of inappropriateness. Now THOSE guys had style.

Going back to the time of their capture, I have to second guess the captain’s decision to surrender so easily. To paraphrase him, he states that since they couldn’t win then giving up was the smart thing to do. It was the old “discretion being the better part of valor” nonsense. My question is, why not stall for time? Call for help from the mother ship, which I believe was a cruiser or a destroyer, and wait for backup. If outmatched they didn’t have to fire their weapons, but they also didn’t have to allow the Iranians to board them so quickly and easily.

During subsequent interrogations, all 15 made the same sort of self-serving wimpy decision “to confess.” Not for a moment did any of them think they had violated Iranian waters and yet they caved almost immediately to Iranian demands. They made no uncertain statements to the contrary and even apologized personally and in the most heartfelt manner for having done so.

What brought on these instantaneous admissions of guilt? Well, the Iranians put them in blindfolds and threatened them with 7 years incarceration if they didn’t comply—that’s pretty much it! No beatings, no fake firing squads, no physical torture at all—just the threat of imprisonment and that’s all it took to make them fold. Astonishing!

I certainly hope that the Brits take a hard look at their POW rules of conduct. The American military learned the hard way during the Korean War that service personnel need guidelines to follow when they find themselves taken prisoner. We don’t expect our people to hold out forever, but we do expect them to resist with all means possible and to keep the faith with their fellows and to continue to believe that their country will never give up on them. We are trained that no one can hold out forever—that everyone has a different breaking point—but these British folks have absolutely NO idea what

their limit actually is since they never tried.

Its obvious to me that these guys were ill prepared at all levels. They weren’t ready to resist being boarded or how to resist interrogation, and they weren’t trained well on how to act as a prisoner of war. Unless what happened is an example of what the modern U.K. military expects of their personnel. If so, I am deeply concerned for them as our partners in war and I hope they consider rethinking their policies and rules of conduct.

Aside from that I find it unfathomable that these people were so unprotected while going about their job inspecting ships and boats for contraband. A single helicopter with a machine gun hovering nearby is all they would have needed to keep them secure from the weak-ass sneak attack mounted by the Iranians. Someone should seriously lose their career over this fiasco, because it was so easily avoidable.

I chuckled in disbelief today watching these marines and sailors being applauded as “heroes” upon walking into a press conference. What exactly did they do that was so praiseworthy? First, seeking to save their own lives they gave up without a fight. Then, to ensure their quick release, almost straight away they followed the instructions of their captors to make false statements against their own country to include confessions and apologies. In effect, their actions made the UK look feeble and weak willed, and now these “disgraced” 15 stand to make a small fortune for basically acting like untrained cowering civilians. All countries expect much more than that from their military personnel. Is this really how the Brits are now trained to comport themselves in battle? Man, I hope not.

Here’s my prayer: Please let these unfortunate actions be an ignominious anomaly that the British military fully intends to learn from and then vow never to repeat.


Ed said...

I had many of the same thoughts as you Phil. I almost couldn't believe they were military people while seeing the videos. I'm glad they are safe now but it certainly will put a large stain on the Royal Marines.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You got that right, and we aren't the only ones to think so.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure those folks got some nasty treatment and I'm sorry for that. But they really should have bucked up a bit. What amazes me is that the press has been awfully gentle with them. The most scathing comment I've seen is from their fellow Brit Melanie Phillips. Read it at:

PhilippinesPhil said...

The reason the press has been easy on these palookas is because so few in the press have ever served in the military. I suppose they feel uncomfortable accusing people of doing things that they themselves would more than likely do in a similar situation. You're right about Phillips; she really gave them hell, although I noticed she found a way to somehow take a dig at the US as well. Figures.

Kevin said...

You were all over this one. This from Tim Wilson, at The National Review:

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Apology for the Behavior of the Iranian Hostages [Tim Wilson]

As the British Government does yet another about face to (rightly) re-impose the traditional ban on its serving military selling their stories to the press (after at least 2 stories have already been published), the protests continue. For that, as a British ex-military man of over 30 years service, I am grateful. Yet the behavior of most of those service personnel, their warship commander, and their political masters has been embarrassing in the extreme.

Having retired only several years ago, I can confirm that the majority of the hostages failed to act in accordance with the recognised methods of dealing with such captivity. The only answers which should have been given to all questions and conversational gambits were “name, rank, and number.” When paraded before the cameras, even if convinced that greater cooperation than the basic answers were required to save lives, a determined stare and obvious reluctance to talk should have been demonstrated (and at least one marine behaved in this correct manner, but was apparently let down by the behaviour of the commissioned officers present who joined in the on-camera smiles and jocularity). As recently as the first Gulf War, two captured RAF pilots (Flight Lieutenants Peters and Nichol whose story was well told in Tornado Down, written after they left the service) managed to demonstrate such proper behavior in front of Saddam’s Iraqi cameras despite obvious physical abuse.

The behaviour of the majority of the British hostages was far removed from the traditional “stiff upper lip” required in such circumstances, and should have led to official condemnation and disapproval. Instead, the unelected political advisors of the modern (Blair era) British government probably decided to curry favour from the media by allowing the hostages to profit from their experience, and sadly convinced their political masters that this was the right tactic. It was only the astonished howls of protest from the public which led to a reversal of this incredible decision.

Furthermore, there has been no obvious condemnation of the man responsible for allowing the crisis in the first place, Commander Jeremy Woods RN who commands HMS Cornwall. Despite his apparent lack of the Nelson touch, his failure to engage the enemy, and his loss without a shot fired of 15 of his crew to Iranian captivity, Commander Woods continues his mission “to protect the Iraqi waterways.” As far as I can find, there has not even been a revisiting of the Rules of Engagement which allowed this travesty to occur, providing every opportunity for future similar events.

All of the above are a tremendous embarrassment to both the serving and retired British military. It does not bode well for the future and I can only hope that lessons will be learned and that such events will not be repeated. We British have many long and proud traditions of excellence in military service. The behaviour of these sailors and marines was not in keeping with those traditions, and I personally feel sufficiently embarrassed to apologise to our allies for this failure in behaviour, standards, and training.

PhilippinesPhil said...

It's nice to see that there is SOME shame within the UK for how the whole distasteful episode played out. You're right Kev, almost seems like Wilson read MY post...