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Published: 19 June 2014

Toy Soldier: New radio play examines military abuse of prisoners

Playwright and Surrey PhD English Literature and Creative Writing candidate Jonathon Crewe asks some tough questions about military abuse of detainees in Iraq, which is also the theme of his new radio play.

On 13 May 2014 the International Criminal Court reopened the preliminary examination into allegations of war crimes involving an estimated 60 cases of unlawful killing of Iraqis in British military custody between 2003 and 2008. The court’s decision restates many unanswered questions about the role officials in the United Kingdom played in alleged systematic detainee abuse.

The connection between soldiers on the ground and their military and civilian commanders, especially in terms of where responsibility lies for deaths in custody, has interested me since I attended the Third Annual Baha Mousa Lecture at the London School of Economics in 2011.

Baha Mousa was an Iraqi civilian who died in 2003 whilst in British custody in Basra during the invasion of Iraq. The subsequent report into his death concluded that he had been subjected to practices banned under UK law and the Geneva Conventions, and that a large number of soldiers and officers were either directly involved or must have known about the abuse. The inquiry condemned the Ministry of Defence for ‘corporate failure.’ So far only one person has been found guilty, and was jailed for just twelve months.

The Baha Mousa case had echoes of the Abu Ghraib scandal, where military police personnel of the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency allegedly committed human rights violations against prisoners. The highest ranked soldier to serve a jail sentence was a Staff Sergeant.

Toy Soldier is a courtroom drama following the civilian trial of a British soldier after an Iraqi detainee dies in her custody.

These two cases and the issues they raised inspired me to write the play Toy Soldier, a courtroom drama following the civilian trial of a British soldier who returns to England from Basra after an Iraqi detainee dies in her custody.

As a writer, I wanted to explore the characters involved. Who are the men and women on the frontline fighting these wars of questionable motive?  How did they get into this position and what led them to commit such crimes?

There is no doubt that British soldiers in Iraq abused prisoners in their custody. But the question should be asked, who put them there and are they now being scapegoated to cover up systemic complicity in torture? Is it the case of ‘a few bad apples’ or did the British military command - and government - indirectly allow or mislead soldiers into believing they were within the law to carry out such actions?

An occupying force has certain legal and moral obligations, usually encoded to act as a bastion for human rights in the face of an immoral enemy. Within this framework, does the publicity and subsequent trials of cases of abuse undermine the mission to bring human rights and democracy to areas that lack them? What are the disadvantages of following the trail right back to the top? In the long run, if tyranny is overthrown and democracy established, are the morally debatable actions of the occupying force justified? Or is the hypocrisy a rallying call for the insurgents they’re trying to quash?

"The soldiers have as real a stake in this debate as anyone else and their voices deserve to be heard." - Jonathon Crewe, playwright

There are no easy answers to any of the questions raised by the play. The motivation for the Iraq war itself is still hotly debated and is unlikely ever to be resolved, let alone the myriad allegations of abuse. One thing, however, is clear from all these debates; the soldier’s role is central. From the perspective of those on the ground, where can we draw the line in war? Should every death be investigated? How should we make the distinction between the cases mentioned above and an airborne bomb that misses its target and kills civilians? Or for that matter, the remote pilot who sends drones to target insurgents hiding in mountainous areas and ends up destroying a village? Do we risk seeing soldiers as weapons rather than people, as drones rather than humans, and what does this say about the people who freely declare war abroad yet never leave their own country?

The play doesn’t attempt to answer the questions, only to raise them. But an important point I did want to make is that amongst the scramble of politicians and senior military commanders trying to distance themselves from these allegations of abuse, there are real soldiers getting lost in the furore. Yet, these are not toys to be played with and discarded for the sake of political expediency. The soldiers have as real a stake in this debate as anyone else and their voices deserve to be heard. After all, they are people just like us and have to live with the atrocities of war far more acutely than those who sent them to fight in the first place.

‘And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls’

From London by William Blake

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Toy Soldier, written and directed by Jonathon Crewe, was broadcast on Monday 21 July 2014 on Resonance FM.

The play was followed by a discussion chaired by Robert Jago (Head of the School of Law, University of Surrey). The panel included Clare Collier (Senior Lawyer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission), Kevin Laue (Legal Advisor for REDRESS) and Robin Horsfall (ex-SAS).

A recording of the play and the panel discussion is available online.

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Freelance writer and director Jonathon Crewe is currently studying for a PhD English and Creative Writing at the University of Surrey, where he is also an Associate Tutor in Screenwriting, Film and Creative Writing.