In the week that the Chilcot-lead Iraq Inquiry report is published, I am revisiting my own attendance giving evidence at the Inquiry six years ago. The introductory chapter to my book, A Better Basra: 100 days in Iraq coping with men, media and militias sets out how the Inquiry inspired me to write my story.
A few weeks ago I joined about 70 others at the QEII Conference Centre opposite Westminster Abbey in Central London. Together we shared stories, some cried, all laughed, and some simply gazed into the distance. A diverse range of civil servants and consultants, we had one thing in common – we had all served in Iraq at some stage between 2003 and 2009. This was the first time we had ever been gathered together to talk about the successes and failures of our Iraq experience – and the first time many of us had felt listened to. Our hosts and facilitators were Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues, who made up the Iraq Inquiry – and I thank them for providing the opportunity to reflect.
I was only in Iraq for 100 days and next to veterans of years I felt somehow that my experience was inadequate and perhaps that I had over-dramatised it in part – but I was wrong. I soon understood that in the context of the six years that Britain and her allies occupied Iraq, the short time that I had been there, had been quite exceptional in terms of danger – and not least, frustration. There was a realisation too that the civilian effort was often forgotten about and – as I found out first hand as a government Press Officer – was of no real interest to the media. Civilian presence in Iraq was after all dwarfed by the military.
It is for this reason that in June 2010, I searched my hard-drive for the part -finished story of my time in Iraq that I had hastily scrawled a year or so ago and bottom-drawered for future generations of Jaines. But I see now that the story of an ordinary civilian in extraordinary times should be heard by more and not lost. The mere few months I spent living in Iraq proved to be a huge catalyst for change in me, both personally and professionally – but it has taken me several years to realise that I have an interesting story to tell and that I needn’t be shy of telling it.
I have written and blogged about freedom of expression – but I now understand that I have been my own worst censor. I joined the Foreign Office in my mid twenties and even as a fledgling diplomat, I bought into the culture that one just didn’t write about one’s experiences. It just wasn’t cricket. The likes of Craig Murray and Christopher Meyer were held up as examples of how NOT to behave, yet many of us would scuttle up to Waterstones on Trafalgar Square to buy their words (core reading for those about to be posted to Washington or Uzbekistan).
I realise of course that I am no Murray, I am no Meyer. I am not about to shine a spotlight on a controversial human rights issue nor offer jaded insight into British/US relations (although maybe a fleeting glimpse on the latter). In Iraq, I was neither an Ambassador nor High Priestess. I was just a woman in a warzone. A mother of three, with honourable – if possibly naïve – intentions, separated from her loved ones for the first time in 13 years and thrown into a world of mortars, rockets and defence correspondents. I am not claiming that I was anything but average. I never saved anyone’s life with my bare hands, nor did I patch up a wounded soldier under mortar attack. I didn’t crumble, I didn’t shine, but I did operate reasonably well in extraordinary and life threatening circumstances and I’m sure that being a female of the species helped me to some extent.
There is another reason for writing this – one which may well be revealed by the Iraq Inquiry – and that is that many civilians are ill-prepared for sharing life in a military theatre.
On a “Hostile Territories” course we were shown real life videos of captives being beheaded, we were chased around woodland by armed men, and mopped up fake blood from the spurting wounds of convincing actors. But it is a bit like reading books on parenthood in preparation for becoming a mum – it is difficult to know exactly how you will behave when the responsibility is with you, when it is actually yours. The more exposure and training you can get before deploying on such an assignment, the better. Reading briefings, going on political courses, and attending meetings are all good – but nothing really prepares you for the experience of living in fear, of co-habiting with the culture of uniform, of “compound” mentality – nor of what to expect from yourself as “normal” when exposed to hyper-stress or physical danger. It is hoped that this account proves to be relaxed and entertaining, but also a useful preparation for anyone (perhaps particularly women) considering volunteering for civilian assignment in a war zone – and I can’t help but think of Afghanistan as I write this.
It should be noted however, that as we nibbled polite sandwiches (and some of us gnashed teeth) with our Inquiry friends at the QEII Centre, Sir John quite rightly observed that everyone in the room had a very different story to tell. Those in Maysan and Kirkuk experienced a very different civvy Iraq than those stuck in the bureaucratic hub that was Baghdad. Some felt isolated and frustrated at the lack of ability to meet Iraqis – others enjoyed regular outside contact and a high level of responsibility. Some had witnessed violence first-hand; others had enjoyed their mission from the Embassy bar. Much depended on where you were, when you were in Iraq and more often the personalities you worked with. One thing that can be said is that it was an experience that none of us will forget.