The much-hyped conceit about Britain’s soft military touch in Iraq vanished on a road south of Baghdad one November morning, when an Iraqi car accelerated toward a British checkpoint and a young gunner fired a blizzard of bullets through its windshield.
The soldiers from Scotland’s Black Watch regiment didn’t stick around to determine whether the dead driver was an aspiring suicide bomber or just impatient to get through the backed up traffic.
In postwar Iraq, contrasting images have percolated through media coverage of the alliance: the martial Americans looking to crush the insurgency through force and the world-weary British, choosing accommodation over provocation. The inference was that British soldiers were better suited, by tactics or temperament, than Americans to cope with the insurgency here.
The October deployment of the Black Watch to these badlands controlled by Sunni Muslim extremists provided the first chance to compare the two countries’ operating styles under the same level of danger.
Until the Black Watch moved north, the British military had been operating exclusively in southern Iraq, where the violence has never matched the mayhem in the American-occupied sector around Baghdad. The relative calm allowed the British to adopt a less bristling posture on patrol, to wear their soft regimental berets instead of Kevlar helmets and keep their weapons lowered rather than peer at Iraqis through gun sights.
It also gave rise to a certain smugness among British officers and media, which cast the contrast as one between the “heavy-handed” American approach and the less hostile tactics of “the lads.” There were jokes over beers in Basra that, to an American, the concept of winning Iraqi hearts and minds meant one bullet to the heart, one to the head. The British media even coined a phrase to describe the British style: “softly, softly.”
The Black Watch tried to bring that culture north with them when they merged operations with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit based south of Baghdad in a deployment that ended Saturday.
The British began the assignment patrolling in their berets. They handed out leaflets in Arabic explaining they were a “Scottish” regiment in case Iraqis mistook them for Americans, and proclaimed they had only come to help build a safe and free Iraq.
Insurgents responded with two suicide car bombings and a roadside bomb in the first week of operations, killing four British soldiers and gravely injuring two.
The shooting of the Iraqi driver at the checkpoint occurred just an hour after the second car bomb had blown the legs off two of the Black Watch gunner’s colleagues.
“The threat here is at the other end of the spectrum from what we faced in Basra,” said Black Watch Capt. Stuart MacAulay, sitting on the edge of a bunker at Camp Dogwood with a map of the area spread in front of him.
“After the suicide bombings against us, I went to an American soldier I know here and put my hands up. I said, ‘I confess, I was one of those who sat around in Basra criticizing your approach.’
“And I’m embarrassed that I criticized American tactics without ever being here and without having met them.”
He was hardly alone. The British self-perception of superiority to the Americans took hold in the first days of occupation, feeding on outrage over the handful of British deaths by U.S. friendly fire during the March 2003 invasion.
The feisty British media did the rest, turning modest differences in style into a clash of military cultures.
Critics characterized American troops as testosterone- fueled products of a congenitally xenophobic culture, unable or unwilling to absorb the complexities of the country they had invaded.
The British, in contrast, were portrayed as scarred veterans of an imperial history that demonstrated the futility of trying to suppress national uprisings. In particular, the 30-year war against the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland had taught them that paramilitary groups couldn’t be crushed by force alone.
In Iraq, the words “Northern Ireland” became code for the British conviction that the American approach was doomed to fail.
American commanders grew increasingly resentful of suggestions that Iraq could be sorted out if only the Yanks would behave more like the Brits.
“The one thing I quickly learned during my time working with the Americans is that you don’t mention Northern Ireland,” said British Lt. Col. Ben Bathurst, who worked in strategic planning under U.S. command at coalition headquarters in Baghdad and has seen the cultural divide from the other perspective. “It has very little relevance in Iraq, and I found that any American you mentioned it to immediately switched off.
“The British media has promulgated a perception that is not subscribed to by any thinking person in the military. ‘Softly, softly’ is not even a phrase we use in the military. It’s a media term.”
Not that the media image lacks basis. Ride in a British patrol through the south and you’ll see Iraqi civilian cars passing the military vehicles at high speeds, the drivers sometimes waving, sometimes glaring or leaning impatiently on the horn.
Elsewhere in Iraq, most drivers have long since learned to pull way over to allow an American convoy to pass. Those who don’t yield quickly are treated to a burst of warning gunfire or have what Marines call a “flash-bang” stun grenade tossed at their vehicle.
But all the armchair-general chatter about the superior British approach is a gross oversimplification, U.S. commanders say.
“It only comes up because the media and the outside world think we’re failing here, so they are all looking for another solution,” said Col. Ron Johnson, who commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, under which the Black Watch fought.
“But there’s no British solution or French solution or American solution. Iraq is not Malaysia or Northern Ireland or Vietnam. It’s like a cookbook: You mix different ingredients to get your dish.”
To American soldiers here, the more laconic British style and the boasting that goes with it are founded on nothing more than the good fortune of being based in southern Iraq, populated by Shiite Muslims who hated Saddam Hussein.
Come to the Sunni Triangle, U.S. troops would tell their British counterparts with an edge in their voices, and you’ll see the real Iraq.
In October, the British did, and found themselves on a steep learning curve.
“For the IRA, the biggest part of the plan was the escape route after they attacked us,” said Cpl. Jay Kinge, a British paratrooper who served in Northern Ireland and joined Marines on 11 joint patrols south of Baghdad in November. “The difference between the insurgents here and the IRA is that these guys are willing to die to hit us.”
Kinge described himself as a soldier not afraid to look for a fight and pointed out that many British soldiers scoffed at the concept of treading softly.
And the record shows they have hardly kept their guns holstered in Iraq. When Shiite extremists in British-controlled Maysan province rioted during the summer, British troops responded with a barrage of fire. In August, soldiers from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment fired 100,000 rounds during battles that left several hundred Iraqis dead, according to British defense estimates.
But the absence of British journalists in remote Maysan, and the reluctance of the British government to draw a skittish public’s attention to the fighting, meant the bloodshed received little attention at home.
Bathurst, who now commands the Welsh Guards in Maysan, said the troubles encountered by the Black Watch have made many in the British military realize that firing a warning shot is sometimes being prudent, not trigger-happy, and that the principle of not allowing civilian vehicles to approach your convoy can be practical, not paranoid.
“The fact is, most people in Iraq don’t like us because we’re in their country,” Bathurst said. “And I really don’t believe that an insurgent makes any distinction at all between a foreign soldier who wears a beret and a foreign soldier who wears a helmet. To that Iraqi, we are the same enemy.”