Why the case of the British sailors was so appalling
On March 23, while conducting a routine boarding operation and inspection of a merchant vessel in the waters of the coast of Iraq, fifteen British sailors and Royal Marines were approached by two speedboats full of Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen. The armed British surrendered to the armed Iranians without a fight, and within two hours had been taken to Tehran in the Islamic Republic, where they were held captive for just under two weeks.
The Brits’ capture raised many questions. For example, why wasn’t their ship, the HMS Cornwall, within range of their operation, so as to provide cover for the rubber inflatable boats (RIBs) from which the boarding teams were operating? Why did the British helicopter tasked with loitering over the RIBs during the boarding operation leave its station? And, most of all, why did fourteen armed British fighting men, and one woman, simply give in, and decide, in the words of Marine Captain Chris Air, that “fighting back was simply not an option?”
The idea of simply surrendering to an armed enemy is antithetical to anything which a trained soldier believes and is taught to do. Doing so in this case – for the stated reason that “a gun battle would risk an escalation of tensions with Iran” – made an already bizarre situation even more so. As a combat veteran, I cannot even begin to fathom the thought process of allowing oneself – and the troops under one’s command – to be taken captive in the territorial waters of the nation which they are assigned to defend so that the enemy capturing them won’t be more hostile.
The United States military has a Code of Conduct which is in place to govern its troops’ actions in situations like this. Article II of this code says, in just so many words, “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.” Nowhere in the American military’s Code of Conduct is allowance made for simply deciding that “fighting back” isn’t “an option” – especially because it might “risk and escalation of tensions” with the nation which is doing the capturing. Granted, these sailors were British, not American; however, given that, here’s a tip for Captain Chris Air: if armed soldiers from a nation’s Revolutionary Guard are abducting you at gunpoint, then they’ve already “escalated” the “tensions” on their own.
Unfortunately, this act of going quietly, and allowing an enemy to come and abduct them without a fight, was only the beginning of an utterly appalling performance on the part of these fifteen British troops – as well as on the part of their government.
Within days of their capture, the British sailors were being paraded in front of television cameras – a violation of the Geneva Convention – and (led by their officers) were confessing left and right, on camera, to having violated the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty, despite the fact that the closest the RIBs ever got to Iran’s territorial waters was 1.7 nautical miles. Further footage was shown of several of the sailors “smoking and joking,” as they say – lounging around, eating, and playing chess, the men in their uniforms, and the woman , Faye Turney, in a hijab and outergarments.
Article III of the US Code of Conduct says, “If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” This behavior on the part of the British – the prompt, public confessions to supposed wrongdoing, and the taking part in propaganda films put out over the airwaves throughout the region and the world, clearly demonstrated that these sailors and marines had no interest in resisting their captors, or in maintaining their honor throughout the ordeal.
During their period of detention, according to one lieutenant, the British “were stripped of their uniforms, blindfolded and ordered to stand against a wall with [their] hands bound as people were cocking weapons in the background – and experience which was “an extremely nerve-racking occasion.”
“The detention was…not a pleasant experience,” said the lieutenant. “We as a group held out for as long as we thought appropriate. We then complied…with our captors.”
As long as they felt appropriate? Is that what the British military’s standard is now – to hold, when captured, out as long as the detainee deems appropriate, and then to give in? Beyond the absurdity of the sentiment itself, the reality is that these troops were in custody for two weeks – and at least half of that time, they had been complying with every wish of their captors. It would be very interesting indeed to see these British sailors explain that rationale to men like Col. George “Bud” Day, who spent six years in a North Vietnamese prison (and who was the only Vietnam POW to successfully escape from North Vietnam, though he was recaptured), or Senator John McCain, who to this day cannot even comb his own hair because of the tremendous physical toll of real torture he endured during five and a half years of captivity.
Article IV of the US Code says, “Should I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.” The British officers, tasked with being the active military’s leaders, only led the charge to give in to their captors. Seeing the captain and the lieutenant on film, confessing to everything short of a full-scale invasion of Iran, absolutely disgusted me personally, as well as every other military veteran who has fought for honor and who has sworn an oath to keep faith with his or her own country.
I have no doubt that the experience was, as the Lieutenant said it, “nerve-wracking” – especially given the combination of being in unknown territory, being held by an enemy which is an unknown quantity (though Iran is well known to the British and American militaries as being actively engaged in killing allied soldiers within Iraq), and being unsure of whether your government knows where you are, or will lift a finger to secure your release. The treatment they actually received, though, was no worse than that which American soldiers undergo during standard SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training. If the British actually consider Iraq – and the waters off its coast – to be a combat zone, then its sailors should be – and should have been – prepared for their hazardous assignment accordingly. Whether these fifteen received such training or not, I do not know, but if they did, their actions make it perfectly clear that they did not learn anything from it.
Article V of the Code of Conduct states, “When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.” The British officers led the way to make such statements, but female captive Faye Turney was possibly more high-profile than her military leaders, as she penned and signed statements and letters not only confessing to the false charge of invading Iran’s territorial waters, but also calling on her own country to “end it’s illegal occupation of Iraq.” Such an act was absolutely disgusting – and that is the nicest description which I can think to give it.
While the fifteen sailors and marines were being held captive, the British government was busily crafting strongly worded statements about the situation, with the dire threat that, if Tehran didn’t release the captives soon, or harmed them in any way, more strongly-worded statements would follow. Given that situation, it becomes more difficult to condemn the actions of the sailors out-of-hand, despite their dismal performance under pressure – for, had I been in their situation, I know full well that I would have questioned whether my government was more interested in coming after me, or in preventing an “escalation of tensions” with the nation which had kidnapped me, and was illegally holding me prisoner. This is not a good situation to be in, regardless of the duration of imprisonment.
Article VII of the Code concludes, “I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.” If these Britons trusted in their nation – or in their God – then they did an absolutely pathetic job of showing it. In their race to capitulate to an enemy, they dishonored themselves, the entirety of the British military, and the United Kingdom itself. What they were focused on during their captivity was not upholding their oath to their country, or maintaining their honor. What they were focused on (as has been admitted by the sailors themselves) was going home, and they were willing to play along with whatever Iran wanted in order to achieve that. That mindset, combined with the drive upon their release (after shaking the hand and kissing the cheek – again on international television – of their captor-in-chief, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) to sell their story to the highest bidder (a privilege usually only awarded to men who receive such high honors as the Victoria Cross; how far greatness has fallen!) exemplifies the current, “me-first” generation which will be responsible for carrying on the West’s tradition of greatness into the future.
I sincerely fear for our future if this group is an example of the best and brightest we have to offer. Given that all fifteen were not present in the propaganda videos, and some had to be cut out of the media’s pictures of the sailors’ release, it is entirely possible that there were a few out of the whole who did not break, who did not give in, and who did not so easily shed their personal honor. Unfortunately, these good men – whichever they may be – have been eclipsed by their comrades, from the officers down, who did not think their country worth the effort. It is a shame, but it is a reality.
We are all glad that the British sailors have safely returned home. The next step should be an inquiry – and the immediate removal from duty of these officers, of Ms. Turney, of the remaining British sailors who aided and abetted their captors, and the leadership of the HMS Cornwall, who, due to their laxness and negligence, were complicit in their own sailors’ capture in the first place.
And that should only be the beginning. Figurative heads must roll, and those who remain must open their eyes and seriously consider their future actions, lest the sun finally set on the fabled British Empire, once and for all.
Mr. Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a leadership fellow with the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia, where he also studies Classics. In addition, he is a contributing editor for conservative weblog RedState.com, and is a columnist for the Athens, GA Banner-Herald newspaper.