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.

This is the point where Collins learned that the weeping major had filed charges against him for abuse of prisoners, for placing him in illegal custody, and having made him stand in the sun for 45 minutes. In addition, he learned that Abu Nawfel claimed that Collins had pistol-whipped him, re-enacting the scene of his alleged mistreatment with great theatrical flair for three different news channels.

The tabloids quickly followed with a set of new allegations. Collins was accused of dousing a Baath party official with petrol, applying a match, and then shooting him. Another paper accused his men of mowing down nine prisoners of war outside Basra (with Collins's knowledge) and burying them in shallow graves. That latter claim could have been disproved immediately, as Collins and his men had been nowhere near Basra. Instead, an army spokesman stated that, while he believed the accusation to be untrue, "he could not be 100 percent sure"--thus inviting further speculation.

After an exhaustive investigation, lasting a whole year, the case against Collins crumbled. Major Biastre's statements were full of contradictions. He turned out not to be a Special Forces agent, as he had claimed to Collins, but a civil affairs officer, and not a New York City cop but a school career counselor and part-time traffic policeman from Buffalo with a history of filing complaints against his superiors.

Then there is Abu Nawfel. According to the rules of engagement in Iraq, armed members of the Baath party are classed as combatants, against whom the use of force is permitted as long as it is proportional, directed towards the threat, and fulfils a military necessity. Since Abu Nawfel was resisting entry to his house, since the money paid to kill those physicians working with the allies was found in his house, and since he knew where the weapons to be used in the uprising were hidden, all three criteria seemed to be fulfilled.

Thus, in the end, Collins was totally cleared of all charges. He was promoted to full colonel and given the Order of the British Empire for "meritorious" leadership in the Iraq war. The tabloids had to pay damages. But the experience had soured him on the British Army, and knowing his chances for advancement had been ruined, he left it the day of the OBE ceremony.

Collins, known as "Nails" to his men, emerges as the kind of flamboyant, larger-than-life figure who inspires intense loyalty, but also as the kind of man who creates a lot of enemies among those less gifted who happen to be of superior rank. What makes Collins's story worrisome is that his is not an isolated case. In the same area of operations, a female Danish captain of intelligence was put on trial for having violated the Geneva Convention by speaking harshly to a prisoner suspected of firing on coalition troops, ordering him to sit in a stressful position, and denying his constant demands for water and bathroom visits--well-known ploys to avoid interrogation. Her accuser was an interpreter of Palestinian origin who clearly sided with the prisoners.

Rather than support her, the army leadership and the Danish minister of defense, spooked by Abu Ghraib, panicked and allowed the case to go to trial. When a television crew went to Iraq to interview the man she had allegedly mistreated, the camera panned into a backroom--where his friends were seen busily assembling grenade launchers for use against coalition forces! (The captain was found guilty, but later cleared by a higher court.)

Michael Gove, a Conservative MP in Britain, recently wrote that such cases demonstrate "the folly [of having] the armed forces subject to human rights legislation designed for a world in which the only conflicts that ever occur are in court." They also demonstrate why an international criminal court is a very bad idea. Iraq represents a form of warfare unknown to most civilians, a war with no fixed fronts. If the leaders of our armed forces do not stand up for their own when it is justified, it will be increasingly hard to attract the right kind of people to fight for all of us.

Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.

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