Saturday, April 07, 2007

Clear Sailing for freed British Sailors

The Yorkshire Post reports: Forced smiles as Iran gives Britons the 'gift' of freedom

The International Herald Tribune, on the other hand, focused on the Persians, in an awkward headline: Iran shows strength in standoff over 15 captive British sailors.

Iran emerged with a measure of strength from its standoff with Britain over the captured sailors — deflecting attention from its disputed nuclear program and proving it can cause trouble in the Middle East when it chooses.

Yet the country's hardline leaders also shied away from all-out confrontation with the West — backing down once they had flexed their power, apparently worried they might go too far.

Meanwhile, SKY News reports, Iran Captives To Cash In. The Times Online writes, Fury as the hostages sell stories:

The 15 British military captives who were released by the Iranians have been authorised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to sell their stories.

MoD officials claimed that the move to lift the ban on military personnel selling
their stories while in service was justified because of the “exceptional circumstances” of the case. The hostages are expected to earn as much as £250,000 between them.

The story of Faye Turney, 26, the only female among them, is expected to be the most lucrative. She could profit by as much as £150,000 from a joint deal with a newspaper and ITV.

A number of critics, pundits and commentators are disappointed and upset about this decision, adding more fuel to the firestorm of criticism about the Sailors' behavior in captivity. I feel Hot Air took the most balanced, prudent approach:

It’s really not my place to criticize the conduct of the captured British sailors and marines; they have put their lives on the line to defend their country (and by extension, mine), and I have not. They’ve already demonstrated more bravery than I have, just by getting on a boat flying the Union Jack anywhere near Iranian waters.

Some things about this are, I believe, fair game: their lack of preparation for capture, the “please just kill me now” rules of engagement foisted on them by Whitehall ninnies, and the absurd policy of appeasement toward Iran propagated by feckless British politicians. Those things I’ll rant about quite a bit. But the sailors and marines have nothing to prove to the likes of me, and I give thanks to God that they are home safely.

Still, I want to contrast the story of another Navy POW you might have heard of. He ran for Vice-President alongside Ross Perot in 1992, and he spent seven years being tortured by the North Vietnamese. For his resistance to their efforts to use him as a propaganda tool, Rear Admiral James Stockdale won the Medal of Honor:

Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners’ of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country. Rear Adm. Stockdale’s valiant leadership and extraordinary courage in a hostile environment sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Hot Air also points out that not all the British hostages were smiling in their photos. On the whole, as I've said, Hot Air's assessment of the Sailors is the most in line with my own thinking. They were not properly trained, and they are very brave for having even been in combat, serving their country. My gripe is with the smiling, however. Forced confessions were to be expected, it is impossible to know the true impact of mental duress these captives were under. But standing before the cameras at the time of their release, it confounds me that most of the Brits chose to wave and smile at the cameras. Perhaps they wanted to send messages to their families, perhaps they were just overcome with elation in the heat of the moment, but the signal it sent to Western audiences was that of lighthearted fun, not stoic acceptance.

Yet, Think Progress assails the critics, many of whom have asserted that Democrats did not support the British troops, nor condemn their capture. The website points out the Senate resolution condemning the seizure of the British sailors. However, critics have condemned Democrats in the House, not the Senate. It was Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats that withheld a House vote condemning Iranian actions.

The website MediaMatters pointed out what they call "Conservative media ridicule, smear captured British sailors." In fact, the harshest criticism has come from American military personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters called for the court-marshal of the officers. Peters questioned the way in which the soldiers lacked dignity and leadership with respect to their country. He futher criticizes the propaganda videos, the "kissy faces with Ahmadinejad" and the "goody bags." Peters points out that this will strengthen the hard-liners, Ahmadinejad looks strong, and the British look weak.

Similarly, Colonel Jack Jacobs called it a disgusting, disreputable performance by the Brits.

But let's be clear - it is not only American conservatives and military personnel who have criticized the British sailors. The following is an excerpt by Toby Harnden, of the Daily Telegraph of London:

I've just watched footage of a member of Her Majesty's Royal Navy call President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "sir" and gushing that he and his fellow sailors and marines were "very grateful for your forgiveness".

Embarrassing? You bet. Back in the early 1990s, I served in HMS Cornwall, from which the 15 captives were operating, and so understand a little bit about this. I've also spent time in captivity myself, in Zimbabwe, and have been interrogated by insurgents in Iraq and so have some limited insight into what is like to be held against one's will.

Am I the only one who finds the conduct of the 15 on camera cringeworthy? Of course, you have to do what you are told when you are a prisoner. When your life is in peril, it is sensible to accede wholeheartedly to every demand.

But the sailors and marines must have known right from the outset that they were not going to be executed or otherwise harmed. If they did not, then the briefings they had received before carrying out their boarding party duties on the Shatt al-Arab were grossly inadequate.

The demeanours of the sailors and marines - with the possible exception of Leading Seaman Faye Turney, who seemed scared and spoke in a flat monotone - were relaxed, indicating they were being treated well. So did they need to appear quite so eager to cooperate and admit "trespassing" in Iranian waters?

The video of the soon-to-be-released sailors and marines shaking Ahmadinejad's hand and thanking him profusely confirmed to me that these servicemen and woman did not know how to handle themselves properly.

I'm not saying they should have poked him in the eye but they were altogether too enthusiastic and apparently genuinely grateful to a demagogue who had behaved outrageously. It's always nice to be released from captivity, as I well remember in Zimbabwe, but did they really need to wave and grin for the cameras while still in Tehran?

An Australian colleague just wandered past my office, chuckling as he asked: "What happened to the British stiff upper lip?"

The British hostage taking was a tragedy, but not so much for the British sailors as for the pride of the British people, and because undoubtedly, Iran must now feel emboldened with a fresh propaganda victory.

The U.S. and U.K. may have more guns, but in this round, the Persians had more guts.

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