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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Whose finger on the trigger?

Review by Ben Soton

Anthony Boyle in Danny Boy. Danny Boy: BBC2 2021; currently available on BBC iPlayer. Director: Sam Miller. Writer: Robert Jones. Stars: Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, Alex Ferns.

ONE OF THE ironies of British imperialism is naming a checkpoint in southern Iraq after an Irish folk song. The irony being that Ireland was the first acquisition of the British Empire and Iraq one of the last.

The ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ took place close to the city of Amarah in southern Iraq, on 14th May 2004, between British soldiers and about 100 Iraqi militiamen of the Mahdi Army. Some 28 Mahdi Army militiamen were killed in the fighting. Some of the British troops were wounded but none were killed in the action. Brian Wood, who led a bayonet charge during the battle, was awarded the Military Cross.

The battle is named after a local British checkpoint in Iraq called ‘Danny Boy’. Its repercussions are the subject of the BBC2 drama of that name that was shot nearer to home in fields made to look like the Iraqi desert just outside Watford whilst scenes set in Turkey were filmed in a Turkish restaurant in north London.

The question of what constitutes a war crime is a touchy subject for the ruling class. The trial of two former British paratroopers accused of killing an Official IRA commander in 1972 collapsed after the judge found that the soldiers’ statements were inadmissible because they had not been cautioned, and campaigners argue that the new Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 risks undermining key human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respect. Now a coroner’s report has concluded that all those killed by British troops in the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre in northern Ireland had been innocent and that the killings were “without justification”.

Danny Boy is set in the more recent conflicts in the Gulf. It focuses on the decorated soldier, Brian Wood (played by Anthony Boyle), who is accused of war crimes and a human rights lawyer, Phil Shiner, who is played by Toby Jones.

Wood is portrayed as a family man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder ; although it shows the guilt of a man who should have realised that the Arabs his men mistreated were not insurgents but simply farmers caught in the cross-fire.

Shiner is portrayed in a less sympathetic light, although it is pointed out that he represented more soldiers than any other lawyer. What is interesting are Shiner’s motivations. He is no anti-imperialist; he simply takes the view that the British army should adhere to higher standards than other imperialist powers. War-crimes are something done by the Germans on the Eastern front, Japanese in Korea, the French in Algeria and obviously the Americans in Vietnam. The truth is what should we expect of an imperialist power in a foreign country fighting a population who don’t want them there?

Former soldiers abandoned by the army often find themselves living on the streets or in prison. Some even say that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, with horrific injuries and damaged minds, are, in fact, also victims of imperialism.

The key word here is imperialism, which is a system. This raises the question of should individual soldiers be put on trial for what are, after all, crimes of that system? It could even be argued that the actions of the likes of Shiner, who has since been barred from practising law for acting dishonestly, simply obscure the issue.

Although Danny Boy was first shown on 12th May, it is available on iPlayer for the next 11 months.