Johnny Mercer – 2016 Speech on the Iraq Inquiry Report

Below is the text of the speech made by Johnny Mercer,  the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View, in the House of Commons on 14 July 2016.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this opportunity to speak in the debate. The Chilcot report, published last week, made sobering reading. Many things have been said already on the issue—I shall not repeat them—and the chief protagonists at the time have received, in my view, fair criticism. I am in the fortunate position of both having been in the Army at the time of the Iraq war and now being a Member of this place. I did not serve in combat in Iraq; my theatre was another unpopular war, in Afghanistan.

At the time of the Iraq invasion, the Army was a strange place to be, particularly if you were just beginning your career. It is difficult to be positive about a mission when over 1 million people march against your deployment just before you go. But it is testament to the character and professionalism of the UK armed forces that the initial operation was the success that it was, despite cruel losses—including from my own regiment on 23 March 2003, when Ian Seymour, Les Hehir and Welly Evans of 29 Commando were killed during the insertion into southern Iraq.

However, what happened following the initial operation in that country and for the following seven years—indeed, perhaps right up to today—has been a tragedy for Iraq. I visited the country last autumn and met the President. It remains a place of extreme violence, heavy corruption and deep division. It was a challenge to return from a visit to Baghdad with much of a sense of optimism, although recent changes in the Iraqi security forces, and the international coalition’s mammoth efforts in the fight against Daesh, give real cause for hope, and I want to pay tribute to all UK forces engaged in that fight today.

How did we get to this point? I absolutely understand the public rage. The actions of some of those at the top of Government at the time—and yes, at the top of the military—were negligent. I am concerned, however, that the public’s fixation on Tony Blair could make us miss some of the learning points that must be taken from Sir John’s comprehensive work. Those learning points are the whole point of this process. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister who left office yesterday say that it would be impossible for these events to happen again today because of the structures he and his team had put in place, and I commend him and the Secretary of State for Defence for that.

However, there is a deeper issue here—one of basic moral courage—that I have found most distressing. In the military, that moral courage can be a rarer and therefore more treasured commodity in an organisation configured to imbue and nurture physical courage in the face of the enemy. That ability to stand up for your men in the face of a seemingly unstoppable sequence of events, and to speak truth to power, is an integral part of the military’s duty to this nation. We drill it into our subordinates and we preach it to anyone who will listen. So where was that courage in the build-up to this disastrous war?

It is inconceivable to me to allow a political Administration in this country to hamper preparations for war because they did not politically want to be seen to be making those preparations. It is inconceivable to me to allow soldiers out of patrol bases and into contact with the enemy without body armour, not as a tactical decision or a result of enemy action against a supply route, but simply because of bad planning. It is inconceivable to me continually to allow patrolling in Snatch Land Rovers when they were known to provide no protection whatever to our men and women against a well known and obvious threat from improvised explosive devices. But those things happened, and they directly cost UK military lives. These lessons must not be missed amid the almost visceral fixation of hatred on Tony Blair, lest we do a further disservice to our men and women who serve.

The Prime Minster does not make tactical decisions. She does not plan logistics; she is advised by those who do. I cannot in all honesty conceive of a time when I, as a very junior and insignificant commander in another unpopular war in Afghanistan, would ever have sanctioned an operation knowing that it lacked the equipment required to protect my men from a threat that I clearly knew about, because I was not prepared to say no. I find it hard, as do many of my cohort, to understand why that was sanctioned, yet it was.

We as a military betrayed the individuals who lost their life in this conflict as a direct result of equipment shortages. That is the point that really sticks in the craw. The political arguments and the strategic comings and goings will be debated ad infinitum, as they must be, to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again, but the military and tactical lessons must also be learned. What happened in Iraq had a profound effect on my whole generation of junior commanders in the military. We grew up with a deep sense of distrust in our superiors as a result of their actions, or lack thereof, during the Iraq war. That affected many of us at a formative stage in our career.

Finally, I want to speak strongly against the idea that the lives of British servicemen and women were somehow wasted in this war, or that they died for nothing. I simply cannot reconcile it with my not insignificant personal experience of commanding men in combat that lives lost in the pursuit of protecting the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy in this country were lost in vain. For the families, many of whom I know intimately, nothing—no mission, no cause—can be worth losing a loved one. As a soldier, however, I feel that I must represent the intimate conversations we shared, and the deep motivations that we fell back on to get through yet another day in the sweat, heat, blood and dust of these recent wars. We soldiers are drawn from all backgrounds, races, religions, colours and creeds. We all have different views—usually much more informed than anyone gives us credit for, and no doubt crafted by our own personal experiences—but we wear one uniform, with one Union Jack on our sleeve. We sign up to the same core value of protecting this nation, in exactly the same tradition of immense sacrifices as our forefathers, who wore the same cap badges and were under the same flag.

The truth is that, when a soldier leaves his patrol base in the morning, he is not thinking about how his particular contribution that day will help to advance the cause of Iraq’s future prosperity or Afghanistan’s place in the world. He is not thinking about whether we should have believed the dossier about weapons of mass destruction or whether he is going to stumble upon Osama’s house in downtown Sangin. He is thinking of calling his wife later, of covering his arcs and of trying not to blink in case he misses something. He is making sure he has some spare batteries for his radio. He is more frightened of letting his mates down than he is of the enemy. He is more focused on doing his section, his platoon, or his battalion proud than whether he should be there in the first place. In those endeavours he is showing that courage, that fortitude, that resilience, that commitment, that discipline and that humanity that we all aspire to on the most revealing stage of all: warfare, where norms do not exist and brutality and raw human emotion are everywhere.

We aspire to those things because they are good, because they are noble, because they are to be desired, and young men and women made sacrifices demonstrating such qualities, which those of us who witnessed it and were lucky enough to return refuse to remember as futile. They did make a difference. They saved comrades’ lives through their bravery. They shielded civilians from a brutal enemy intent on showing the very worst of humanity. They improved individual communities and made them safer and better—perhaps not on an overall strategic level, but it was not all a waste. That courage, that resilience, that discipline, that commitment, they are what we must remember from these conflicts. They cannot and must never be forgotten, for that would be an even greater betrayal than the ones laid out in the report. The lives were not wasted; they were engaged in noble pursuits in the generational struggle of our lifetime.

In conclusion, let us learn these painful lessons. Let us not fixate on Tony Blair—he is yesterday’s man. Let us not commit to things that we cannot fulfil and pass the buck to the lower end of the command chains.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his powerful speech. One thing that has always worried me about the Iraq war debate is the idea of the military as victims who were forced to go to fight when they in fact were trained and wanted to do so. What they did not want, however, was bad equipment, and they do not want bad equipment today. Does it not behove this House and its Members to be much more interested on a daily basis in what we are providing service personnel with, rather than just focusing on past decisions?

Johnny Mercer

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We have come an extraordinarily long way. The processes at the time were simply unacceptable. Under this Government and this and previous Defence Secretaries, we have made real progress, but she is right that we do not want sympathy. We want a little more empathy and understanding of what we are doing. There is sometimes too much sympathy. We sign up and are proud to do so, but we do not expect to be ill- equipped or to be part of a mission that is ultimately badly planned and resourced.

Let us never lose the courage to speak truth to power—no matter our rank or position in life. Let us remember with humility the courage and sacrifice of our servicemen and women in Iraq. Let us make sure that we learn the lessons for the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives on either side, civilian or military. The human race can only evolve if we learn, and I sincerely hope we do.