As the legacy of Britain’s war in Iraq continues to unfold, one ugly chapter of the conflict’s aftermath is chronicled in Brian Wood’s compelling new memoir Double Crossed. The book tells the story of Wood’s involvement in the now infamous ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ during Operation Telic on 14th May 2004, and the subsequent public inquiry into the events of that day. As the title suggests, this is a story about “complete betrayal”, and the pain and turmoil caused by being forced to publically defend one’s character and conduct in the face of false accusation.
The initial complicating event of the story is the Battle of Danny Boy itself. The battle was an ambush by Iraqi troops of the Madhi Army in which British forces found themselves outnumbered and fighting for survival. Wood drags the reader through a grievous account of the fighting that took place, including the ghastly aftermath of the battle:
“Having fought these individuals, gone through the battle, then looking at the bodies afterwards, it was brutal. To take another person’s life is a lot to process. To pick up that body afterwards, it makes what you’ve done hang heavy on your shoulders. I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.” (p. 101)
After this reminder of the heavy burden and life-altering consequences of participating in close combat, Wood’s story turns to the emotional fallout of his tour in Iraq. He writes, for instance, of waking up at night and staring into the darkness for hours with scenes from the battlefield playing over in his mind, and of the anger and irritability that soured his personal relationships. This part of the story describes what is (lazily) often assumed to be a typical experience for veterans: relationship breakdown, post-traumatic stress, and a tumultuous transition to ‘civvy street’. And then the twist.
When news of the Al-Sweady public inquiry broke and the press were running rampant with accusations that Wood and his colleagues had abused and murdered Iraqi prisoners of war detained following the Battle of Danny Boy, Wood found himself not only under the media’s spotlight, but, also, seemingly abandoned by the Ministry of Defence. This sets the stage for the betrayal narrative that scaffolds Wood’s memoir.
It is no spoiler to reveal that Wood was eventually vindicated by the inquiry (we are told on the book’s reverse cover that he is “redeemed at last”), and that in the words of inquiry’s chair Sir Thayne Forbes, the allegations made against British servicemembers were “wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation, and ingrained hostility” (Sir Thayne Forbes; quoted in Wood 2019).
One thing that strikes me about this book is the manner in which betrayal is narrated throughout the story: that is, as a treasonous assault on the values of the British Army. As well as offering a cautionary tale about the potential for recklessness in the UK’s legal and justice system, Wood’s story reads as an emotive and patriotic defence of the British Army’s institutional honour. For me, this is most evident in passages such as the following:
We were British soldiers. We were sent to war to do what we’d been told by politicians, only to then come back and find ourselves fighting another battle to clear our names (p. 195).
And again, during Wood’s reflections on being questioned by one of the inquiry’s lawyers:
Inside, I was thinking, Fucking shut it up. Why are we even discussing this? I am a British soldier and you are a British person as a British citizen questioning me about how I applied a plasticuff when I am out fighting for my country, protecting and serving this great nation. What the fuck is all this about? (p. 232-233)
The inquiry positions Wood as the villain, and Wood’s impassioned refusal of that identity and defence of his character is clear and heartfelt. Yet it is also worth considering the emotional and political work undertaken by the category ‘British soldier’ in this narrative. In other words, what does the patriotic defence of British soldierly virtue do to our understanding of soldiers’ accountability?
The term ‘British soldier’ carries with it the considerable weight of history. Arguably since at least Britain’s role in defeating the Nazis in World War Two, the British soldier has been synonymous with service, sacrifice, nationhood, and citizenship within British culture. Pride ‘sticks’ to it as an emotion (Ahmed 2014), and the use of the term conjures the emotions and meanings attached to it. Using it as part of a defence against accusations of military wrongdoing instructs us toward a certain outrage that the actions of a British soldier should be questioned at all. On the back of strong, prideful emotion, it positions the subject of the British soldier as, at least potentially, morally beyond reproach. The issue here is not about semantics but the coupling of patriotic feeling with unquestionable virtue, a relation which should make us think carefully about how we approach the subject of accountability in war.
But Wood’s story also raises a larger question about accountability, specifically over who or what is made accountable in the first place. As Owen Thomas argues in his work on the Iraq War Inquiry, our legal system seems wedded to the idea of individual responsibility (juridical individualism). The logic of this approach is that someone – some particular individual – has committed an offence and must be brought to justice. Root out that individual, and moral order is restored. Crucially, this protects the institution (in this case, government and the Ministry of Defence) from any alleged transgressions. As such, we cannot hold institutions accountable for the cultures, systems and procedures that create the conditions for potential wrongdoing. There is, it would seem, something deeply unjust and hypocritical about holding to account only those ‘close to the ground’ whilst protecting the wider institution, the senior decision makers, and the politicians who opt for war.
Double crossed should therefore be read not only as a moving reflection on the personal devastation of publically facing down false accusations, but also an effect of the politics about how we inquire into the alleged abuse of human rights in war.
 Plastic disposable handcuffs
Author: Dr Nick Caddick