The Magazine

Soldier of Iraq

How a genuine hero was laid low by politics.

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By HENRIK BERING
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Rules of Engagement

by Tim Collins

Headline, 352 pp., $39.95

"Friendly fire'' is the curious term used to describe casualties accidentally inflicted by one's own side or by allied forces. That such casualties can also occur in the metaphorical sense is proved by the ruined career of one of Britain's most promising officers, Col. Tim Collins, commander of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.

On the eve of the Iraq war, Collins won international fame for his "eve of battle" address to his men, defining their mission in Iraq. In Churchillian cadences, it stressed that the allied armies had "come to liberate, not to conquer," admonished his troops to "be ferocious in battle and magnanimous in victory," and, above all, to "tread lightly." The moment was captured by embedded journalists, and hailed as one of the greatest speeches since Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt--a kind of credo for the modern warrior for democracy.

In the war, Collins's orders were to secure an area containing vital oil installations which he achieved without losing a single man. In fact, his battalion captured more territory than any other British unit, and he seemed destined for greatness, when disaster struck: Out of the blue, Collins was accused of war crimes by an American officer. And that was only the beginning of his nightmare. When the army investigators started digging, people practically drew numbers to unload on him. Inevitably, some of the accusations were leaked to the press and Collins was hung out in the British tabloids as a murderer and torturer. Despite his sterling record, he received no support whatsoever from the army leadership, and was left to fend for himself, another sacrifice on the altar of political correctness.

Colonel Collins's memoirs are one of those books that leave the reader shaking his head in disbelief. A life of conflict it has certainly been. Collins grew up in Belfast in the 1970s; at 22 he joined the army and went to Sandhurst to become an officer. He spent the first Gulf war with the 22nd Special Air Service regiment, served in Northern Ireland (which, among other things, teaches troops to show restraint under provocation), and he spent two years as a commander in the SAS, Britain's elite Special Forces, where, among other things, he went to Sierra Leone to fight the West Side Boys, a gang whose specialty was chopping off their victims' arms and legs. He was also in Sarajevo during the 1994 siege.

In short, he was well prepared for the challenges of Iraq.

What brought about his downfall was an episode in the village of Al Rumaylah, where Collins and his men had been working hard to establish a fragile return to normalcy. A plot to kill three medical functionaries at the local hospital, and then start an insurrection, had come to his attention. He was discussing this with his commanding general, when a convoy of U.S. humvees came blasting into the main square of Al Rumaylah. While throwing food at children and civilians, the Americans started negotiating with a group of looters who were trying to get their confiscated booty back. A crowd of threatening young men began to gather.

Collins's experiences in Northern Ireland told him that this could develop into a riot, and he went out to intervene. He gruffly ordered the major in charge, a reservist named Re Biastre, and his men to stop immediately and clear the hell out. Biastre, feeling the need to assert himself in front of his men, refused to acknowledge Collins's authority. Collins took the major aside and let it rip. Biastre's bluster immediately collapsed, and to Collins's astonishment the man started to cry, promising never to interfere again. Having let the major cool his heels for awhile, Collins let him go thinking that was the end of that.

That same night, Collins arranged a raid on the men suspected of involvement in the plot, among them the Baathist school headmaster, Abu Nawfel, who also held the position of "deputy head of internal security"--that is, the local enforcer, and one of those charged by Saddam Hussein to fight on against allied forces. A quick search of his house, during which Abu Nawfel knocked his head in the dark, unearthed a sum of money that corresponded exactly to the going rate for three murders, plus two rifles. Knowing the game was up, Abu Nawfel proposed a deal: In exchange for his freedom, he would round up the weapons in the village. The next day, 130 rifles were duly delivered, the three medical personnel had been saved, and a rebellion averted.