Thursday, November 19, 2015

(Iraq 2) : From Easington Colliery to Basra.

The area of Easington Colliery where I lived before I was sent to Basra in Iraq to undertake my National Service.

I was brought up at Easington Colliery on the east coast of County Durham. Before I was called up to undertake my National Service in the RAF in November 1954, I had never travelled any further south than York. That journey had been made two years earlier, when I had applied to be a railway clerk after leaving school. I then had to travel to the railway head office at York for an interview. It landed me a job which I then undertook covering passenger and parcels office work, mainly at Easington's neighbouring railway station which was at Horden Colliery. But it was a job that was to have bigger implications for my travels than I ever anticipated.

When I undertook my basic training in the RAF at West Kirby, I was interviewed by a Sergeant to help determine what form of work I should seek to undertake in the RAF. As I had been a railway clerk, he suggested that a position in a "Movement's Unit" might be appropriate. He pointed out that there was a large unit of this type at Hull.  I felt that would be ideal for me to be able travel home regularly. So that became my first and accepted option.

But amongst our Squadron at West Kirby where I did my basic training, I was the only person to then be sent straight overseas. For it was felt that I did not require any training for my post.  I could work and learn under a corporal who already was undertaking the tasks I needed to follow. These involved working closely with Iraqi State Railways in Basra.  RAF equipment and goods arrived at the port at Basra to then be sent by rail to Baghdad, from where they were collected by personnel from RAF Habbaniya to then be taken to their camp by road some 55 miles away. There were also regular (but limited numbers) of troop movements of those travelling by rail to and from Baghdad, which had to be catered for.  In English, I filled in arabic passenger forms and goods' notes. But no-one ever taught me any arabic. I just learnt what to put where, in English. The best I did was to understand arabic numerals. All the Iraqis I dealt with spoke English - including those who worked at our Movement's Unit which was situated on the banks of the Shat-el-Arab river. This included many Iraqis who undertook manual functions.

I regularly visited Basra railway station, its docks and its goods yards. Then when our Movement's Unit downsized, I also took up some similar clerical and organisation work with shipping companies, handling "Bills of Lading" relating to shipping merchandise.

Not only did the RAF fail to facilitate (or even encourage) us to learn arabic; no-one ever explained why it was that we were in Iraq. Furthermore, we were just a small movements unit with many of us being only 18 to 20 as we were undertaking our National Service. I shared areas of accommodation with those up to the rank of corporal and we socialised. But those in higher ranks lived a separate existence. Even our cricket team only contained two sergeants (which may, however, have been a fair proportion), the rest being entirely from lower ranks - including myself as the scorer and standby.  No one I ever came across used their holiday breaks to visit historical sites such as the Ziggurat of Ur, which was less than 100 miles away - although officers might well have done this unknown to us. But we only communicated with high ups in relation to our duties. Nor was information made available to tell us that Iraq covered land which had been the cradle of civilisation. Neither was there today's modern technology to click into, which can be used as a form of self-education. It was not for us to ask where we were, nor what we were doing there.

Yet my time in Iraq helped to transform my life. When I left Britain, I initially had a six day stay in the canal zone in Egypt,  I then boarded a flight to Habbaniya; via Jordon where we landed late at night and saw little but a landing strip, desert and the inside of a large reception tent.  At Habbaniya, I stayed for a period to undertake a weapons' course run by the  RAF Regiment. This gave me time to spend a weekend at the YMCA in Baghdad, travelling via Fallujah. Then when I finally travelled by rail from Baghdad to Basra, the train was delayed as we were due to pull out of the south of the Iraqi capital. I was looking out of the window at a scene which seemed to me to be from an ancient world. Everything was made out of mud. Mud houses, mud walls, mud walkways, open sewers cut into the baked mud, with a drinking well close by. Men and women were neatly and cleanly dressed in the Muslim tradition, with children playing beside them. But this was a world I had never glimpsed nor thought about before in a modern context. It came to have a huge impact upon me.

Mud houses in Iraq

Later in the dock area in Basra, I observed heavily exploited labour at work. For instance, men were bent double carrying what were huge (and now old-fashioned) commercial refrigerators on their backs. Manual labour still often being a substitute for the technology of that age.

A double question began to pray upon my mind. How could God and man allow such things to happen? Matters of a philosphical and political bent were emerging for a thinly educated young man. These would help to reshape my values, self-studies and key interests. But life at the Movements Unit with regular weekly trips into Basra town centre, gave me the false impression that Iraq was a place of peace and tranquility. The first seven sections in the previous item on this blog (click here) cover a brief military history of Britain's involvement in the area over the 41 years before I arrived in Iraq. When I now reflect that it is 60 years since I arrived in Basra; the preceding period of 41 years seems to be a relatively limited time span. Many of the Iraqis I met and passed had lived through those years of military conflict and imperial domination. Unknown to me, these were experiences that had not gone away from their minds.

The only hint that some problems existed was when I attempted to order a copy of Marx's "Das Capital" from an English bookshop in Basra. The proprietor who originated from India, later felt the need to check matters out with the local Chief of Police. He was not allowed to order a copy. I only learnt much later that the Iraqi regime had been in a period of conflict with its own home grown Communists - see Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" (Princeton University Press, 1978 and here).





Unknown said...

Harry’s interesting social history and Basra story reflects my own experience in the York & Lancaster Regiment 1958/9 and service in Aden. Questions about what we were doing there got the Tennyson like response “yours not to reason why” followed by Jankers’ if you didn't shut up.

It was that Colonel Blimp behaviour and Land & Hope and Glory mentality that made me push back (got me loads of Jankers) and start to question British values, the status quo and my so-called betters. E.g. I was once appointed batman (Gentleman’s servant) to a Second Lieutenant called John Charles Horatio Sprague Byrne (how I never knew) but messed up and was sacked a few weeks later as totally unsuitable.

So unlike Harry Barnes, who I admire immensely and who went on to teach political studies and industrial relations at Sheffield University and then become Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, without going native and joining the Westminster gravy train, I just railed against the system and became a bit of a trouble maker, an inarticulate lefty and troll before the days of the internet.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : I aim to add an item about my time in Iraq. Both explaining my experiences and my limited perception of what was going on around me at the time. Although my understandings were restricted, the attitudes I developed helped to shape much of the rest of my life. I arrived as a practicising Methodist and a tribal Labour supporter. I left as an atheist and a fully convinced and committed democratic socialist.

Life became quite relaxed at our camp, especially when it downsized. I only once got into trouble and received a dressing down from the Adjutant in his room, but I was not disciplined.

I was demobbed in the middle of both the Suez crisis (the British invaders clearly had no need of the pen-pushing skills of railway clerks) and of the Hungarian crisis. These further shaped my attitudes. Then after a couple of years I joined a short lived body based on ideas propounded by GDH Cole, entitled the "International Society for Socialist Studies". Around the same time I joined the Labour Party as a Bevanite opposed to the views of its leader - Hugh Gaitskell. I also joined CND on Aldermaston marches. I had become a version of what GDH Cole called himself - "a loyal grouser". The grousing finally reached its peak under Blair.

But please stop all that admiration stuff. It is, of course, mutual admiration. But it inhibits me from ever arguing with you. Yet what would life be like for either of us without some of that healthy dialectics of debate? It is much better to have debates with those you share values with, than to have a fundamental disagreement with Progress and its Labour MPs.

Apologies if I have gone over old ground. But next year I should really rename this blog -"Four Score Years".

Unknown said...

Point accepted. And when it comes to the Labour Party there is plenty for us to disagree about, especially when it comes to issues like Trident and the mess our Westminster politicians have created in the Middle East.

I mean, if Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Maria Eagle, thinks that Labour should support Trident (said to cost £167 billion and rising) a weapon that can never be used and is in no way independent and in an age of austerity, she’s delusional.

And while the attacks in Paris were acts of pure Barbarisms, nobody ever seems to ask what makes humans behave in this way? No easy answers but one thing for sure Jeremy Corbyn is right to oppose extra-judicial drone killings, while Cameron and all our arm-chair generals are not just wrong but are buffoons if they think the answer to never ending middle-east warfare is even more weapons of mass destruction. Because despite the political spin it’s invariably about war and hardly ever about defence.

So UK politicians (many of them Labour) are happy to bomb the shit out of Syria and if it involves a bit of collateral damage, so what because - Hey Ho -you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (heads).

Despite this sad history people like John Mann MP and his Blairite colleagues want to replay the same old record that has cost the lives and displaced millions over 13 years of non-stop Middle East wars. Surely the one thing we can all agree on is that a country awash with armaments and weapons of mass destruction (mainly American) doesn’t need more.

But fearless Dave and his nasty party seem happy to spend ever more billions on weapons of mass destruction in the certain knowledge that neither they nor their families will suffer the consequences of their lies and self-serving hubris.

Is it too much to expect Labour MP’s to open their eyes, use their brains and consider where the hell do they think ISIS came from? And to conclude that the roots lead right back to war criminals Bush and Blair and the almighty mess that they created in Iraq and the middle east. A human mess that fearless Dave and some 60 Labour MP’s want to perpetuate.

Well not in my name and hopefully not in Jeremy Corbyn’s.
Because whether we like it or not, the Blairites and Labour’s establishment cannot accept that the party has changed and will not countenance one member one vote decision making, without the toxic influence of big money trumping democracy. Nor that our Westminster Parliament with its hideous language and rituals together with the FPTP electoral system and Buggins-turn administrations, might have run its course.

And like night follows day many of these MP's will surely jump ship once they conclude that the Labour Party is unelectable and that their personal ambitions and interest are no longer served via the workers Party.

So one way or the other Labour as an alternative government in waiting might be going the way of Labour Scotland. But from my perspective if it cannot or will-not turn its back on neoliberalism and its Imperial (Colonel Blimp) world policeman mentality, then that will be no great loss.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : I feel that matters are no longer as clear cut on the two issues you raise as they were in the past. In the days of the Aldermaston Marches, one of the key arguments we used for "Ban the Bomb" was to help stop nuclear proliferation. But that has now occured. So shades of Nye Bevan's "not going naked into the Conference Chamber", can we not try to bargain with others for deals which will also end or reduce their nuclear capacity? In the end, however, I feel that the world is safer with the removal of our own nuclear capacity. An "accident" is less likely. But I do not feel that those in the Labour Party who come down on the other side are all evil. Only some of them ! I also know that Nye's approach did not work out.

I will put up a later comment on Syria.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : Whether Jeremy should press for Labour Party support or opposition to any motion put to the Commons by Cameron for the bombing of ISIS, will (of course) depend on what exactly is being proposed. If the motion is over the top, then in addition to voting against it Labour has the option of putting forward an amendment to qualify the proposals.

But as Jeremy is a strong advocate of internal Labour Party Democracy, a resolution on the "Syria Emergency" which was passed at the recent Labour Party Conference(moved by UNITE) should clearly come into play. It was overwhelmingly carried. I voted for it and only saw one person vote against it in my area. It said that Cameron should be opposed UNLESS the following conditions were met - (1) clear and unambiguous authorisation for such bombing by the United Nations, (2) a European Union-wide plan to handle the resulting increased number of refugees which the bombing would lead to, (3) the bombing to be directed exclusively at ISIS's military targets and (4) that any military action should be subordinate to international and regional diplomatic efforts.

Jeremy could buck at point (1) by claiming that the UN Resolution was not adopted under Article 7 of its Charter. But this would just look like a technical get-out to most people.

If Cameron had his wits about him, points (2), (3) and (4) could be put down in his own Commons motion. Otherwise Labour could (and should) put these down in an amendment. Which it might carry, if it was the only way a relevant motion could win the day. In fact Jeremy should be pulling the stops out to further the Conference resolution. And if he did, he could be the winner. One avenue is for him to meet with Cameron to press the case.

This is not a sell out of our past position, for when Ed Miliband blocked Cameron's earlier proposals to bomb Syria the target was then the Asad regime and not ISIS. The situation has changed significantly.

Of course, Cameron might use such a Labour inspired motion to deliver only the bombing. But Labour should then continuously press for points (2), (3) and (4) to be acted upon. It would hold the initiative and the high ground. But I accept there is a danger that Cameron will only forcefully act on (1) and only in a token way on (2),(3) and (4). It would, however, be up to Labour with worried Conservatives and others to push for a proper delivery of Labour's Conference position.

Unknown said...

The Independent newspaper is reporting that Corbyn is considering a membership vote on Trident renewal.

Great, a one-member-one-vote on Trident a weapon of mass destruction that is hideously expensive, is not independent and can never be used.

Let’s see Labour’s Parliamentary war mongers talk their way out of that presumably on the grounds that the plebs are too thick to understand the complexities of geopolitics and the vital importance of the UK’s world status and peacekeeping role.(sic)

And Harry, the Parliamentary Labour Party has always been a war party, so lets keep the military industrial complex busy, the money men happy and lets bomb the shit out of Syria and kill an average of 40 innocent civilians (men, women and children) for every terrorist. Not forgetting the additional cheap labour our leaders and the wealthy will benefit from when the exodus includes the whole middle east population.

Afterall we can't make a democratic omolette without breaking a few egges. Sorry heads.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : Are you in favour of Labour Party decisions being made on the basis of the leader deciding what the issues are to be and then putting them out to the members for ballot decisions - perhaps using a mixture of votes via the internet and by postal votes to be counted by the Electoral Reform Society? Or should we try to build a democratic party where people are encouraged to attend meetings, enter into debates, pass resolutions, mandate delegates attending Labour Conferences, have proper report backs afterwards and keep this system going as a form of participatory democracy ?

The case for a postal sytle ballot on Trident would (to me) need to be that it is a one-off, as we don't have the time to call a special conference on the issue. Then if the anti-Trident position was then somehow taken up by Parliament thanks to Labour and SNP support; the Labour Movement would need to come up with some serious ideas about job replacements on the Clyde - as it should be doing over issues such as the loss of jobs in areas such as the Steel Industry and the final deep mine pit closer.

You say that the PLP has always been a war party. I agree that it has a poor record. But I feel that it took the correct line in 1939. And it was anti-war earlier on over Syria. There was a significant advance leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when a move by Graham Allen MP stopped Blair from just using "Royal Prerogative Powers" to invade Iraq and a tradition has now been establsihed of requiring a parliamentry vote. I will give a link to Graham's actions in a comment soon below this one.

On Syria, if it follows the line I suggest it would restrain military attacks and advance more worthwhile actions. That would be an advance on a straight win by Cameron.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : This is the article on Graham Allen -