‘A War Waiting for a Pretext’

Newsweek Web Exclusive

Sept. 27 — John Nichol knows all about the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As a 27-year-old navigator for Britain’s Royal Air Force during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he was shot down over the Iraqi desert during the first low-level daylight raid of the war.

HE AND HIS PILOT ejected safely, but were captured by the Iraqis. During the next seven weeks, he was beaten, tortured and paraded before the television cameras to denounce his country’s attack on Saddam.

Since leaving the RAF in 1996, Nichol has launched a second career as a writer. He now has six books in print; a seventh, “The Last Escape,” is to be published in Britain next month. As the debate over an attack on Iraq gains urgency—100,000 protestors are expected to join an antiwar march in London this weekend—Nichol has emerged as a forthright critic of a U.S.-British strike against Saddam. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s William Underhill in London:

NEWSWEEK: You were held captive and tortured by agents of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Why do you now oppose military intervention to secure his overthrow?

John Nichol: One reason why the West, and Britain and the United States in particular, are in such a difficult position is that they seem to think that they can cherry-pick regimes that are bad and need to be changed. We deal with bad regimes on a daily basis: we deal with Iran, we deal with Saudi Arabia, which has a truly appalling record on human rights, but we don’t talk about regime change there. America and Britain can’t set themselves up as the world policemen without a mandate from the world.

Would you agree to an intervention if it were sanctioned by the United Nations?

If it were sanctioned and supported. There is a very real difference between the two. A huge amount of bribery, arm-twisting and coercion goes on at the U.N. I am not naive enough to think that doesn’t have to happen, but there is a difference between Britain and the U.S. forcing through a resolution and the rest of the world actually agreeing to it. What would turn the issue for me is if the Arab countries of the region said, “We feel threatened by Saddam Hussein, could you help us?”—which is what they did in 1991.

Prime Minister Tony Blair this week produced a dossier of evidence to support the case for military action. Why weren’t you persuaded?
It did reinforce the notion that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime have an appalling record for human rights, that he has weapons of mass destruction and seeks more weapons of mass destruction. But I could name 10 other countries in the region whose names you could substitute for Iraq’s in that dossier. Iraq is a war waiting for a pretext and that is what the dossier is trying to provide. There was nothing new in it. There was evidence for all those allegations five, 10 or 15 years ago—when we were still doing business with Iraq.

Is that why you have accused Britain and America of hypocrisy in their attitude to Iraq?

Many countries have shown a degree of hypocrisy. But Britain and America are particularly bad. We trained Iraqi armed forces. Our special forces were in Baghdad training their special forces. We trained pilots in the Royal Air Force to fly aircraft and drop bombs. We gave Saddam Hussein the technology and the material to produce his weapons of mass destruction, and it’s simply not good enough to say: “Well, we have changed our mind about this.”
It is that duplicity which puts us in such a difficult position. The classic example is the attack at Halabjah in 1988 when 5,000 Kurds were killed [in a chemical attack by Iraqi forces].

Every single politician from [President] Bush and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld to Blair stands up on television and says “Saddam Hussein gassed his own people and is a disgrace to the world.” But America sent representatives from [major U.S. companies] for a personal audience with Saddam Hussein one year after the attack.

Do you feel any animosity towards the people of Iraq after your experiences as a POW?

I feel absolutely no animosity towards the Iraqis. War is an appalling, brutal experience which I have been through on a couple of occasions. Members of the general public and even politicians seem to forget that. They think that war can be waged by computer, by cruise missile, by laser-guided bomb. It can’t be. Yes, I had some brutal treatment at the hands of some Iraqi people. I was kept in a tiny concrete cell with no bed, no cups, nothing. You were just alone there with your thoughts. But these things happen in war and, more important, 99.9 percent of Iraqis are good honest people. I went back to Iraq 18 months ago and was welcomed by everybody there.

As an ex-serviceman, how do you think the armed forces will react to being sent to fight in Iraq without the full support of the public?

The members of our armed forces are professional people. They will do exactly what their commanders in chief tell them to do because that is their job. That’s doesn’t mean some of them won’t have misgivings. The views of the armed forces are just the same as you will read in every newspaper or hear in every TV show. But there is something really important here. Politicians say we can’t criticize our armed forces when they are in action, but that doesn’t means we can’t criticize the policies that put them in that position. I particularly remember when I was flying over Bosnia being shot at by all three sides—Serbs, Muslims and Croats—and wanting someone to question the government policy on what we are doing.

What has been the lasting effect of your captivity?

People always look at an appalling experience and say, “My God I couldn’t go though that.” But it was only seven weeks. It was a horrible seven weeks, a brutal seven weeks—but only seven weeks. I came home and tragically some of my friends didn’t come home. So in that way I am incredibly lucky. I suppose what the gulf war showed me—as it was my first war—was the brutal reality of war. That doesn’t mean war isn’t sometimes necessary, but when you see it at first hand you view with suspicion politicians who are so ready to wield the military stick.

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

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