My guests today are Will Yates and Joe McCleary. Will is a freelance writer, documentary producer, and investigative researcher for television, film, and radio with more than 18 years of experience producing factual programming for outlets such as The National Geographic, BBC, and the History Channel. Throughout his career, he has spent many years investigating the war in Iraq and recently published his first book titled ‘War Trials: Investigation of a Soldier and the Trauma of Iraq.’
The book is a true account of Joe’s time serving in Iraq as a British soldier in 2003 and his role in the tragic death of a 15-year-old Iraqi boy, which led to multiple war crimes court cases of which he ultimately cleared. Throughout the ordeal, Joe battled with severe mental health issues and tried to take his own life numerous times. This book is the first time a British soldier accused of war crimes in Iraq has opened up unguardedly and in-depth manner. As a result, the book is a deeply moving account of the true nature of war and explores themes of military conduct and the responsibilities of those serving in war zones.
Will and Joe join me today to discuss the book and to dive deeper into some of the issues Joe’s war experience has brought to light. Some of the topics we covered are:
- How and why the book came about
- Details of the tragic incident
- Reality of soldiering in Basra during the first days of the invasion
- The importance of shedding light on soldiers’ experience in war
- Gradual desensitisation to human suffering
- Looting in Basra and second-order effects of adaptability and initiative
- Life as an accused ‘war criminal’ and ensuing mental health challenges
- Investigations and the trial
- Life after the Army
As you will hear, Joe’s descriptions of soldiering and the mental health challenges he faced are very emotional and visceral. Hence, this episode may be quite disturbing to some listeners.
Lastly, for my Australian audience, military and otherwise, if you or someone you know is suffering, help is available. Below are some of the many agencies offering support. For my audience around the world, please look for help. Even if there are no services in your area, the internet has opened up many previously unavailable avenues. As Joe says in the episode, you are important, so please take the necessary first step and look out for yourself and each other.
All-hours Support Line
(1800 628 036 / +612 9425 3878 if O/S)
(1800 624 608)
Defence Community Organisation (DCO)
Defence Family Helpline
1800 624 608
Open Arms (VVCS)
1800 011 046
13 11 14
Suicide Call back service
1300 659 467
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Will Yates And Joe McCleary – On Trial For War Crimes: A Soldier’s Experience
In this episode, my guests are Will Yates and Joe McCleary. Will is a freelance writer, documentary producer, and investigative researcher for television, film, and radio with more than eighteen years of experience producing factual programming for outlets such as National Geographic, BBC, and the History Channel. Throughout his career, he has spent many years investigating the war in Iraq and published a book titled War Trials: Investigation of a Soldier and The Trauma of Iraq.
The book is a true account of Joe’s time serving in Iraq as a British soldier in 2003 and his role in the tragic death of a fifteen-year-old Iraqi boy, which led to multiple war crimes court cases of which he was ultimately cleared. Throughout the ordeal, Joe battled with severe mental health issues and tried to take his life numerous times.
This book is the first time that a British soldier accused of war crimes in Iraq has opened up in an unguarded and in-depth manner. As a result, the book is a deeply moving account of the true nature of war and explores themes of military conduct and the responsibilities of those serving in war zones. Will and Joe join me to discuss the book as well as to dive deeper into some of the issues Joe’s war experience has brought to light. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me.
You’re more than welcome.
Thanks. It’s good to chat.
Will, maybe we’ll start with you. I finished the book and found it captivating. Firstly, congratulations. It’s an excellent read. It feels awkward saying this in front of you, Joe, but I particularly liked how you brought Joe’s emotions through the pages and the torment that he went through. Maybe I can ask you for some context for those who are yet to read the book. Maybe you can give us a quick synopsis of the story and the background of the book.
The book, War Trials: Investigation of a Soldier and The Trauma of Iraq, was a book that came out of my meetings with Joe. That was a few years ago. I first met Joe as part of a TV documentary development that I was involved in. I was developing a possible documentary about British soldiers and the rules of war, which was, even back then, a contentious issue because of the investigations that were underway. There was a government body, IHAT, the Iraq Historical Allegations Team, that was investigating British soldiers over incidents and reports that they’d received over conduct in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
I ended up, during the research and development phase for this possible documentary, meeting a bunch of different soldiers who had served in both theatres. I met with Joe and we sat down for 2 to 2.5 hours. Joe’s story deeply impacted me. It captivated me, what he had been through. His experiences resonated with me growing up in a small town outside Liverpool, the path that led him to sign up with the Army, the training, his time in Iraq, and then what happened subsequently. That is the story of the book.
The documentary, as you know sometimes tends to happen, didn’t go forward partly because the contentious issue meant that the government organisation wouldn’t give us access to what they were doing. They shut it up and wouldn’t allow us to interview them, the IHAT team, or talk to their personnel about what they were doing. That would’ve needed to have been a core component of covering it in a full manner that we would need to do.
Joe’s story stayed with me. It was probably a year later, about the summer of 2017, that I gave Joe a call and said, “Do you remember we met last year? Your story stayed with me. I want to do something with it and explore writing a book about your experiences.” We then met numerous times after that. He was very kind and generous with his time and sharing. The result of that was the book, which was published.
It is a great read and a very captivating read in the sense that it brought the reality of what soldiers on the ground experience. Maybe I can ask you, Joe, if it’s not still too raw for you. There’s one particular incident that the entire book revolves around and that you ultimately were answering for across a number of different investigations and one major court martial for war crimes. Can you give us a quick rundown of what the incident was for context for our audience?War Trials: Investigation of a Soldier and the Trauma of Iraq is a great and very captivating read that brought the reality of what soldiers on the ground actually experience. Click To Tweet
Do you mean the incident with the boy?
That’s right. Ahmed Jabbar Karheem.
Firstly, it was a tragic accident. I get a call on the day over the radio that there were shots fired on the hospital grounds. We guarded this hospital, the Basra General Hospital. Everyone’s tired. We’re so close to going home. We’re peacekeeping at this point. Shots were fired so we go. I was out on patrol and then we come across looters that were looting the hospital.
We detain the looters and the crowd started gathering. All of the local people started gathering around. I’ll never forget it. They were shouting, “Alibaba.” We were trying to control the crowd but the crowd was getting bigger. They were throwing bricks at these people and they’re not small stones. They were in some type of puddle but they were throwing bricks at them.
This is the looters, right? Alibaba means thief.
We got to call in the warrior to come round to collect them and bring them to the front of the hospital. As the warrior comes and collects us, it’s myself and then the other lads. He sat me aside and says to me, “Mount up. We’ll detain the looters.” I looked up and said, “Okay.” I get in the back with myself and another one with these four detainees. We drive for fifteen minutes. I have no idea where I’m going, no whatsoever. You’ve been in the back of an alarmed vehicle. There is that one piece of glass, which is 7 inches thick. You can’t see it.
After fifteen minutes, the door opens on the side of a river, which is bridge four. As the doors open and we let the Iraqis out, he cuts the tires. They probably think I’m going to get shot here but that wasn’t the case. My wife was over my shoulder. I let them go. We went to the water’s edge and swam off to the pillow. Ahmed was at the front. The more we approached him, he pushed himself back. I don’t know whether he was struggling or not. I turned around and see the signal to mount up from my side, which is a round circle. That means double time.
I had left four lads back in the hospital with no arm in the vehicle. Missing four of us, I had to make that choice in the guard. I thought, “They’re getting attacked,” so then I said to the boys, “Mount up.” He had washed to the side there or climbed up and got out, and then he’d gone home. We’d gone back into the vehicle, mounted up, and got back. As I come out of the vehicle, I’ve looked and the lights are fine. It was a tragic accident. There were reports that we were throwing bricks at them. It didn’t happen. This was all falsified statements. When they were asked in court about it, he said, “I’m here for compensation.” He wasn’t there about what happened. He was there for compensation.
We’ll get to that part because that’s part of a much bigger picture.
I understand. Sometimes, I ramble all of it.
Not at all. I am sorry that you had to go through that experience.
I was 20 years of age, turning 21 maybe. If I could take that moment back, I’ll take it back. I’ve suffered massively over it. My heart bleeds for that family. No matter who you are. It doesn’t matter whether you come from Iraq, Britain, or Australia. A father’s loss of his son is humongous. I am so sorry that I never managed to save him. I wish I did. It was a massive absence.
Will, was this what captured you about the story? The tragedy of it that then followed up with Joe being dragged through the courts to relive that decision, that moment, and that image that he described to us, was that what captured you about the story?
To some large extent, what grasped me about the story and compelled me to write it was the theme of the trauma of war and how widespread it is. Joe used the phrase his heart bleeds for the family of the boy that tragically drowned. At the same time, I could understand where Joe was coming from and thinking of the many victims of war, whether they are people who are displaced or those who are killed or their family members.
It is also the soldiers themselves and the scars that they receive, whether they’re physically wounded or, like so many, scarred emotionally and mentally by what they’ve witnessed. It was feeling compassion for Joe and the struggle that he had and that his family as a knock-on effect had been through and trying to help him through that. I was fixated on trying to convey as much as I could through the written words the trauma of war and why the concentric circles of that spread out to impact so many people.The trauma of war spreads out, impacting so many people. Click To Tweet
Joe, I give you full credit for being so vulnerable to speak so freely for the book as well. While your story is so prominent and it became so public, there are many soldiers who suffer in silence. Your story was aired for the world to see, but the fact that you were brave enough to face the media and then subsequently had Will write the book in such a way that showed the human person behind the story. I’ve read the book, so it’s all still right to refresh my mind. This might have been even the last day of your tour, but you’ve had a pretty rough tour because this was 2003, the beginning of the war.
People don’t realise that we sometimes didn’t sleep for two days, especially at the start. I remember standing there at one point on guard and falling asleep. I could have fallen straight over. You had to push your body to the limit every day. There was the heat and the climbing. You didn’t know which one was the enemy and which one wasn’t. You were constantly on pins.
We lost Marley and Muz, two great lads. They were two young soldiers, and one had a family. Another four were shot down and managed to survive. I remember that night. You could hear people knowing that there were men down. There were multiple casualties. Everyone’s trying to get back together. What happened is we were in all-round defence. These masonry soldiers were in the centre of it under sheets of metal. They’d lie there all day. The minute the night fell, they come up and opened fire. They killed Marley and Muz and injured multiple people.
That night, someone came in and covered us after the firefight. We couldn’t even return fire. When we got covered, I remember lying in a room pitch black. It must’ve been 40 of us in my platoon. Every man in there was crying. Every man shed a tear for the lad. That was probably three days in. We were like, “When are we coming home? This is crazy.”
That lasted like that until the end of the tour, whether we went from aggressive to them peacekeeping, and then to try and police it. It was crazy. A lot of time, we didn’t rest. We were on Russian packs, and people don’t realise. People think we eat rations. We’re not as good as the Americans, but for breakfast, we have beans in a bag. We have biscuits and paste for dinner. Later on, we’ll have a chicken. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a dumpling in it. It depends on how lucky you draw. At the end of that meal, it’ll be chicken pudding. No one likes chicken pudding, but you stuff it in because you’re that hungry and that tired. The heat is crazy.
That’s something that people don’t understand, even in the heat of Iraq. We spoke offline before. Most of my audience will know that I’ve spent about eight months in Iraq. I was in Baghdad, not even Basra, where it gets even hotter. You were in body armour and all gunned up.
We had body armour and a helmet.
That in itself is such an uncomfortable feeling. That incident that you spoke about where Marley and Muz were killed struck me. Will, congratulations to you on the way you depicted that because you could feel the terror within it. You were in an all-round defence. In Army speak, that means everybody’s facing out, protecting the circle. The headquarters is generally in the middle. Everybody’s facing out for any threats that are coming in. All of a sudden, for you, the threat was in the middle and shooting up the middle. Unfortunately, that’s where you lost two of your mates from the platoon. From there, you can’t shoot anywhere because there’s a risk of shooting your mates on the other side.
The night after that happened, the very next day, we were up and out. People don’t realise you can’t take a week out. It has happened. We know that has happened. One of the headsets was missing, but it was only a headset where you can speak to each other in a 100-meter radius. You did a little click, and we can speak to each other. That masonry soldier had his headset and was within 100 meters of us. He said, “You bastards, you will all die,” and went dead. It was an Iraqi’s voice. It sent shivers down my spine. As we were lying on the ground, they were like, “Who’s messing around? Who’s the prankster?” It wasn’t us. He had the headset.
It’s a concrete jungle. There are buildings everywhere. In that 100 meters, it could be anywhere. It’s not like it’s a flat surface and we can spot them and then put the rounds towards them. We searched that building. We searched every single one of them and couldn’t find him. It was that one that haunts me. Even then, I was lying on the ground, twenty years of age, thinking, “I’m not coming home from this.” We had to write letters home to our parents. They advised us to say, “If you want to write something to your family, write a little letter home to say, ‘I might not be coming home.’”
Will, have you done any military service yourself before?
I have not. I’ve not served in the military.
The reason I ask that is not to put you on the spot in any way but what led you down this path? This is quite a unique path that you’ve taken to explore these types of stories. Where’s the link for you? What drew you towards these types of stories, which are quite traumatic to try, extrapolate, unpack, and tell the world? What motivated that?
There were a couple of motivations. One of which was I’m interested in history. I’ve done a lot of history programs and read a lot of history books. It’s something that interests me anyway. The major conflict that UK, US, and Australia have been involved in doesn’t seem to be a huge amount written on it. There are some titles but not a wealth of material. It’s important that that conversation continues to be had. I want to add to that conversation.
I was familiar with the Iraq story, having done a documentary drama about two years after the Iraq war about the suicide death of a British former weapons inspector, a guy called David Kelly. I worked on that for about a year and a half or so, which is quite a long time in TV terms. I attended the government inquiry that was into his death, the Hutton Inquiry. I met and spoke to a load of people who were involved in that.
That was an impactful project to be involved in because it was not just looking into why a former British weapons inspector then spoke to a journalist about his concerns about the government’s suggestion that there were weapons of mass destruction and whether or not that was an overinflated evidence. It was one of the first critical examinations of the war in Iraq.
Why is it important to tell these stories? It’s the bigger picture about the war that you mentioned, even going to war, and then Joe’s on top of that.
It’s important. Sadly, history, if you don’t agree that it repeats itself, at least it comes in cycles. There are things that you can look back on and see, sadly, repeated mistakes are being made. You can think, “Try and live in the now. What’s the value of looking at the past?” It’s going to affect what we do now, and it’s going to affect the future.If we don't learn from our mistakes, it will affect what we do today and in the future. Click To Tweet
If we don’t learn from our mistakes and we don’t look back and recognise the fallout of the government sexing up a dossier about its accusations and claims about Iraq, using that to push forward a controversial case towards war in the Middle East, and then all the negative impact from that, then we’re not going to learn from it when it happens next time. If we don’t look at the experiences of strong, important stories like that of Joe, who fought for his country and has been neglected after the fact by those that he served, then what’s going to stop it from happening again in the future? We’ve got to learn these lessons. That was one of my key motivations.
To be honest with you, that’s one of the key motivations of this show as well. Particularly in this Iraq war, I interviewed one of our prominent political scientists not long ago. It’s discussed in the open that Australia went to Iraq purely for our alliance with the US. That’s it. That’s the bottom line. We’re hearing this quite openly from some of our senior leaders.
These are things that we need to discuss because soldiers are going forth, believing in the mission. When you’re not fighting the war that you think you’re fighting, then it all gets a little bit jumbled up, especially when you are not prepared for the war that you are going to fight. Joe, this is a question for you. How well were you prepared for the war that you went to fight?
You think we would train for these things. The training in the Army is fantastic. We had penny pinchers. We went to go and fight in Basra, one of the hottest places in the world. We went to Sennelager where it was minus twenty. We went and did an exercise there.
That’s your pre-deployment training, right?
Yeah. We needed to go back in there. It was by the train. The tracks were cut through the mud. It was concrete and you were snapping. It was minus twenty. We had to get a steel pole and put the pin back in. We were shivering. It got called off in four days. One lad had frostbite. He couldn’t go and stay in Iraq. It was embarrassing that the rifles kept locking up. Everything was done wrong prior to it. The fitness side of it was fantastic. We were okay. Everyone was good twice a day. Prior to it, the actual preparation for going in there was awful. We didn’t have any pre-training. Everything with the Army is like, “We’ll cuff it and do it this way.”
That’s a downfall. We’re bloody good at it. That’s why politicians rely on the military so frequently because they’ll get the job done one way or another.
I know that the lads that were with me were my brothers. No matter what we did, we did it to the best. We had poor food and equipment. We had one set of uniforms for the whole of that tour. I had no underpants. You could see the cheeks of my ass through it. It phased away. My knees were shot. It looked like I had ripped jeans on. My shoulders were ripped. We looked like homeless people but every day, without fail, we were up. We wouldn’t let it derail us. When we were hungry or tired, it didn’t matter. We stuck together. We’d always get some joking in the back. We’d bring them out. We were not equipped at all. We had no night vision.
What about understanding the human terrain or the cultural context that you were deployed to? Did you have any idea of who the enemy was and who was “friendly”?
No, we didn’t. We went out on a lot of training. I spoke to Will about it as well. We did a lot of training and respirators prior to going out there so it was all like chemical warfare. We focused a lot on that prior to going out. It was quite frightening if I’m honest. Especially when you’re giving your pens and sticking it in their leg, you’re thinking, “I’m not sticking that out in my leg.”
It was quite frightening knowing that each pen was going to make you live for fifteen minutes. You got three pens. You got 45 minutes before you can get evac-ed out. It felt like that is what was going on no matter what went on before we went out there and it ended up being different. Thank God there were no chemicals used but that’s what we trained with.
We drank our Kool-Aid in that sense. Will, you’ve investigated a lot more about this on the big bigger scale. Was this the general feel that you get for the rest of the soldiers deployed or was this a unique experience? What are your thoughts on that?
I found from talking almost universally to many soldiers at different levels that logistics understand that that is a massive part of the military effort. When it comes to Iraq, it was massively lacking. There were crates of ammo and defensive plates that should have gone in body armour that were lost on their way through the Red Sea to Iraq. There were boots that were melting because of the heat.
I had one soldier tell me that the boots were in such degraded, bad condition. They ended up finding a huge stockpile in an Iraqi hangar of Iraqi soldiers’ boots they’d left behind and fled. They’re like, “We’ll use some of these boots that are left.” You got British soldiers running around in Iraqi boots. It’s almost farcical. That was one of the things that greatly hampered the soldiers from hearing their stories, which was the logistical problems that they went through and experienced.
The mission is set as well. You bring this through well. It is something you mentioned as well. You talked about the three-block war. On one hand, you were fighting what some might say is a hardened enemy, at least in some instances. On another block, you were delivering humanitarian aid. On another block, you were dealing with looters. Can you describe that a little bit, Joe, and what that meant for you? As a 20 or 21-year-old, how do you deal with all that?
That was one of the toughest things I had to deal with every day, dealing with the locals every day. They were begging for water. It was a country that was in the water. We went from that to do the peacekeeping side of it and to the aid. I remember a vehicle comes in with water. They were throwing babies at me, young, brand-new babies, and I had to catch this baby in my hand. She was on the floor with her legs wrapped around me, screaming for water.
In the end, we had to pull the truck out because we were getting overwhelmed. We couldn’t pull back. The only other way was to push them back to not get in the tank. There were thousands of people that turned up for this aid. We were so unprepared for it. It was unbelievable. Seeing this baby in my arms and I was a young lad, I’m thinking, “You’re that desperate.” People don’t even realise we had to go to the toilet, and they’d be hanging over the fence when you are on the toilet screaming at you, “Please, I miss the water.”
I had to dig a hole. It was horrific. It was constant no matter what. Every single day, it was hard. The people were suffering, and there was nothing there for them. Going from that and then into this policing role, you never knew which role you were doing. We had set days in the end. You go out in quick response, or you go out, and every day, it is the same thing. People were desperate for food and water. It was pushed upon us. It was tiring and heartbreaking at the same time.
That’s the other thing that we don’t talk about. It is tough on the soldiers that are on the ground, having to face this but we often forget the civilians who are seeing you as the only beacon of hope in what is absolute madness and trying to find some way out to help themselves.
We get issued two bottles of water per day. Most of the soldiers, including myself, try and give a bottle away. It is not a waste to drink hot water anyway. You have to get it down your neck. We try and give it to the people that needed it. Sometimes, it was a waste when you did that because it caused murder. They would fight each other for it. You’d realise unless you can pull someone aside and say, “Put it in your back and hide it,” they would kill each other for that drop of water or clean water. You’d sometimes sit on the bed of the night and think, “I want to help, but there is nothing I can do.”
How quickly does one become desensitised to human suffering? That’s one of the offshoots of war. I remembered my time as a kid in Bosnia. The first time close people died, everybody cried. Within a month, you’d hear someone died every day. You’d say, “Such is life. Dead but for the greater good.” How did you find that? Did you find that you became desensitised over time?
That’s a great question because when I look back at some of the stuff in Iraq and some of the incidents that I had to deal with, I tell them sometimes to my family these stories, and they’re like, “You had to deal with that job?” To me, out there, you’re right. I was desensitised because it became normal. Seeing a dead body was normal. It wouldn’t faze me. I pick it up, put it in a bag, and move on. Things like that became a job. It became normal, but when I look back on it, it breaks my heart. I think to myself, “That is so sad,” but I didn’t know it.
Even when I came home, I had no idea. That was what you had to deal with. I wasn’t told, “You have to do this. You had to see that.” It made no difference to me. Pretty much, within three days out there, you are desensitised. Everything is normal. The smell of raw sewage that runs on the road in your nostrils becomes normal. You are standing in it and walking over it. You are getting your rifle up every morning. You could move 3 or 4 bodies in a day or maybe more.
No one loses no sleep. You’d have blood on your clothes and hands, be it a firefight or whatever it was. That was the day. It was probably going to Tescos or The Alley and going shopping. It was no different for me. When a lot of people don’t know about war, that is one of the key factors. You become a part of it. You don’t realise how much it’s had an effect on you. It’s all building up inside. It becomes normal.
I remember seeing a container full of bodies. I remember saying to my mom when I got home, “There were loads of them. They were lying on top of each other. They were thrown in the container.” My mom was like, “Are you sure, son?” I was like, “Yeah. What’s wrong with that? What do you want me to do to them?” I had no emotion. It was part of my job, and it shouldn’t have been like that. I suppose that’s war, though.
Will, from your perspective, you’ve interviewed and spoken to senior officers but also politicians or at least people in government. How well is the image of war? What Joe described, the sounds, the smells, the rawness, and the desensitisation of it, how well is that understood in the “halls of power”? In other words, those that are moving the chess pieces on the board.
I don’t think, from my experience, that the true cost of war is grasped in its great enormity by those that are making those key decisions that are sending the young men and young women out to fight. In 2003, there were about 46,000 British troops out in Iraq. They were predominantly young. They were 19, 20, and 21-year-olds, most of them. The average age was young people. For anyone at any age, these are horrendous things for people to experience, even read about them or hear them.The true cost of war is grasped in its enormity by those making key decisions. Click To Tweet
I remember having sat down with Joe over coffee in Liverpool during the research process. For a couple of hours of hearing his stories, when I’d be walking away after we’d say goodbye, I’d be in almost a daze. This was two hours of asking questions and hearing his stories. Joe and 40,000-plus other young men and women were there, and they experienced this. It has soaked into their lives and permeated their lives of those experiences.
People at the top are the ones moving the chess pieces. They can academically maybe comprehend. They can read the classified and declassified reports of what’s happening. I know they’ve got to see things from all kinds of perspectives but they, I don’t think, are grasping what it’s doing to the young men and women who fight out there.
That drives these types of missions without any clear sense of purpose and translates into not well-thought-out conflicts. Since you set that context, Joe, I want to get back to this idea of looting. This is where the story takes a tragic turn. You’re in Basra. There is a lawlessness. Looting to the uninformed ear sounds like a couple of people breaking into a shop and taking a couple of TVs out. That’s not what we’re talking about here, are we?
No. They took everything.
It was not encouraged but at least allowed from the top down. There was a political strategy behind it as well.
It was anything that you could see yourself. It was the donkeys and the carts. The old carts, they would fill it with everything. You couldn’t stop it. You’d grab one person and the other one’s going to behind you. They were fending for their lives. Each family, whoever it was, every day was in survival mode for them. It was mass throughout the country.
They would steal chairs to sit on or firewood. It was anything you could do and anything to survive like food. It was crazy. You couldn’t look anyway. They were trying to steal. It wasn’t stealing, to be fair. They were fending for their lives. That’s what they were doing. I’m a family man. If this happened to me, I would’ve done the same, and so would everyone because that’s what you do. Trying to deal with it was out of this world.
Will, you wrote about it in the book, or I’m not sure if I read this elsewhere. Certainly, it was the US policy. Let looting occur because it was the payback. Is that right? Did I read that in the book or elsewhere?
That was in the book. One of the chapter titles is Let Them Loot, which is a quote that I took from someone who I interviewed. He was describing the policy that the Americans had toward the Iraqis. The Americans’ view was they were coming to bring democracy to the Middle East, to Iraq. Part of that democracy, the idea that they can choose their destiny, was they were going to take all the reins off. If they chose to loot, let them loot. They can readdress the balance of power that existed between the Sadan, the Ba’ath Party, and between the Shiites and the Sunni. They had the freedom to fight it out and rob and steal from each other. It’s up to them to do what they wanted to do.
Let the people enjoy their freedom.
Exactly, even if that freedom is anarchy. This is something I was told by multiple sources that it was a political development that led to at least the British clamping down on the looters. Even if the commanders weren’t necessarily told how to do it, they were told that they needed to stop the looting.
Can you also finish that off by saying why? At least through the words of your book, there are echoes of politics within it.
It was politics, as I understood it, that motivated me to push to control the looters. In the early days of April 2003, the Iraq National Museum was looted extensively. It was tens of thousands of priceless artefacts dating back to the Babylonian era. Incredible and valuable pieces were pillaged.
It is all of our history.
Part of the amazing thing that drew me to the story is Iraq is an amazingly rich tapestry of history. When the news of the looting started to filter into particularly the British press, that became a big political firestorm developing. Particularly in the UK and other parts of the world as well, there’d been a very vociferous campaign against the war. In February 2003, a month before the war began, there had been a million people marching on the streets of London against the war. That is the context of the British public being a bit hesitant while they supported the troops. They were hesitant that the government was making this push to war.
When the news came out that Iraq and our global culture were being robbed and pillaged, the government said to the Army commanders, “You need to put a stop to the looting. It needs to stop,” as if they could wave a magic wand and make things stop. The British commanders were frustrated at being told to prevent the looting but not being told exactly how they could go about that. That was one of the key failures. It was part of this wider spread lack of planning for the aftermath of the conflict that led to the tragedy that Joe was involved, sadly, in.
When we begin to put it into context, this is what’s happening in Basra. Basra is a one million-plus city. There were 42,000 troops, which were not all frontline troops that did logistics and everything else, that are being asked to try and manage that given the what but not the how. Military being military, we work off that.
We’re like, “Give me the intent. What is the intent that you want me to achieve? I will go and find a solution for it.” None of you were trained for this, I suspect, Joe. This is what then led to a number of creative methods that, at face value, in a way, when I was reading it, makes sense but then, there are the tragic consequences that come with it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Do you mean what we did to the looters?
A lot of the time, in a lot of the places, they were wetting them, driving them out, and making them walk home. It was a 15-mile journey home so they’d be soaking wet. That was like, “If you get caught again, we are going to drive you 15 miles out and you’re walking with your bare feet home.”
It’s shameful in that cultural context.
We did try and detain them inside the camp. We had a cage on the side. We bring them back into the base and put them in there but from there, there was nowhere to take them. What do you do? Within a day, that was scratched because within 45 minutes, 4 vehicles turn up and the cage was full. We have to then think, “What are we going to do with these people? We’re going to have to feed them and water them.” There’s no punishment for them.
It’s not a police force. It’s not like you can hand them over.
We can’t send them in and say, “You’ll be jailed. That is your home now.” I was guarding. I was at the gate. I was with these lads inside. They were sitting there talking to each other. They were thinking, “What’s happening now?” It was ridiculous so there had to be some type of strategy to do the detaining to stop it. There were lots of other ways of doing it with the punishments.
You couldn’t strike them, hit them, or anything like that because they’d come back at you. You’d have to be something where you’d humiliate them. Everyone knew that lad walking back would be a looter. There were so many different methods, and some I don’t even know about. Every day, with trying to detain them, every day, we’d be on the top bases and would think of another plan, and then it filters on the ground. We’d do it.
Going back to that point about desensitised, the more you’re desensitised to the suffering of people, and you’ve got to solve a problem, the wetting method, I don’t know for a fact, but I’m sure that wasn’t the worst of the methods that some people came up with, I would have to imagine.
I agree with that. People have got to understand. People have this view that have never been to war or anything like that that it is a massive factor. Desensitisation is something that I didn’t realise was even happening. It became normal. The looting and the everyday stuff were always normal, and then some of the stuff wasn’t. It becomes a part of the war, unfortunately.
How difficult was it to maintain compassion time and time again for looters, even for everyday people?
I gathered the hospital. My room where we stayed, below was the children’s hospital. They had incubators. They didn’t work, but it kept the flies off the children’s faces. They were all sick. Listening to the parents cry overnight was as bad as being in a firefight. There were screams at 4:00 in the morning because their daughters or their sons died.
Every morning, I went there and liaised with the nurse. I gave all my water away to them. I tried to help as much as I can. If I could get anything, I would bring it in. We tried, but it was awful. It became normal to listen to the screams. When you wake up, you think, “God.” You knew that was someone else. The nurses came in every day unpaid, and I helped them.
I remember one situation in the hospital. There was a drunk male. It’s so frowned upon if you drink alcohol there. He was drunk and had a cut around the back of his leg. It was massive. He was pouring a lot of blood. I managed to wrap his leg up and took his arm. They refused to see him in the hospital and said, “Let him die.”
It was because he was drunk. That’s why. He was smelling of alcohol.
The rule was the doctor will see him as long as I’m in the room with him and another soldier. It was barbaric. There was no anaesthetic, nothing. They put the hook through his leg, pulled the wire, and the skin wouldn’t close because the gash was that big. The doctor had a cigarette in his mouth and the ash was falling off. He put the gloves on and had no sympathy for this fella. It was more like a torture room.
With what was going on, I kept thinking, “Why has the doctor got a cigarette in his mouth?” I didn’t see it. Towards the end, I thought, “This is torture.” I said to the doctor, “Bandage it up. We’ll patch him up ourselves.” In the end, he bandaged his leg and then threw him out. The doctor kicked him and said, “Get out,” because he was drunk.
I’d imagine these are things that contributed in some way toward your mental well-being when you came back. We talked about the actual incident that you were then having to face court martial for. I have no doubt that that compounded. It was post-traumatic stress disorder. You were diagnosed. What did that journey look like for you? Was it when you came back? Did you start experiencing mental health challenges still in Basra?
We came home. We were in Germany. We were locked down for a week instead of letting these lads out. You don’t understand. All these lads want to do is drink, most of them. I thought, “I want to go home.” I got home to Liverpool. My mom would light the street up with flags with, “Joe’s back from Iraq.” There were family and friends but I didn’t want to see anyone. It was so strange. I remember seeing my nan, my granddad, and all these people. They were writing letters. You don’t understand. The letters in Iraq are priceless. I read my granddad’s letter. He was fantastic. I’d read that letter every day. I’d have it in my pocket. I’d pull it out when I was feeling down and read that.
When I got home, I remember drinking one beer and saying to my mom, “Am I okay to go to bed?” I wanted to lie in my bed. It was so noisy downstairs. I didn’t like it. My mom then said to everyone, “Do you mind leaving?” I went to bed and remember crying my eyes out. I was so happy to be home. I came downstairs with my mom and said, “Mom, I’m sorry. I know you went to a massive effort but I don’t want to do it.”
I didn’t want it. It got too noisy. People were asking me ridiculous questions like, “Did you kill anyone? How many people did you kill?” It was constant. Mostly, younger lads ask that question, not my family. Those would be friends because they don’t understand. I was sitting there thinking, “Leave me alone. I got home. I want to sit.” That’s when it started to deteriorate. You are then back at home with laws, rules, and police.
Being at home and waking up overnight as well sometimes, I was thinking I was back there. I am going down the stairs to live in the attic. My bedroom was upstairs, and it had a big skylight in my room. You could hear noise if it was open, like a bang outside and anything like that. You did one bang outside, and I’d be threatened. I’d be like, “Where am I?” I’d be so disoriented. That’s when I started to realise something might be up.
The culture in my life that I have always brought up is I wouldn’t go and give you a hug. I would suck it in and say nothing. If I went to my sergeant, which I did, and say to him I was struggling, when I went back to my battalion, he said to me, “What do you want? A hug? Go away.” Especially as a man, you didn’t want to open up. In the end, I felt this massive weight.In the past, discussing mental health and similar matters was generally not encouraged, especially for men, who often avoided expressing their emotions. Click To Tweet
It was this uncontrollable anxiety and feeling of myself filling up all the time. It was like I couldn’t breathe. Every day, I was putting it behind me. With a soldier, it becomes self-medication. We won’t go to a doctor and talk about our feelings. We’ll drink. We’ll open a beer, talk a load of rubbish with the boys, and drink until I fall flat asleep. That’s how stupid it was. Back then, that’s the way it was. That’s how you coped.
I’m hearing what you’re saying. Things have gotten better, but certainly, both our countries are still experiencing a wave of mental health trauma that our veterans are dealing with for one reason or another. Will, was that part of the aim of this book as well? Was it to try and bring some of that into the social discourse, the trauma that comes not only from the trial that we’ll touch on shortly but also from the actual war?
What people experience in war is something that somebody who hasn’t seen it, a civilian, cannot contextualise. It is like Joe was saying. His mates were like, “How many people did you kill?” There’s this counter-narrative of war or this glorified idea of war. It is this, “Go forth and serve the Queen and the country.” There is an honourable dimension to service that anybody who puts a uniform on is captivated by. There is the cost of that that we don’t necessarily address in our social discourse. Your book does it well, but I wonder if that was the name of what you were thinking.
Bringing home the true long-term cost of the war was one of my aims. To get that conversation going with writing the book, there’s an image that sticks with me that has nothing to do with the book itself but, in some ways, informed me why I wanted to write it. It is about American service personnel. I spent a lot of time and lived for almost a decade in the United States.
I was travelling within the US. I remember sitting in the departure lounge. When the plane arrived, a bunch of passengers were deplaning. We were there waiting to get off that plane when it had been emptied. Coming off the plane here in the States, there was a couple of service personnel in their uniforms with their big duffel bags over their shoulders. As soon as they walked off the plane and the jetway into the departure lounge, everyone stood up and started applauding.
For me, being brought up in the UK for the first 25 or so years of my life, that’s not something that we would ever do. We respect our service personnel and value the contribution that they make, whether it’s serving for our freedom overseas or bagging up sandbags after there’s been a flood. In any kind of context, we appreciate them. The British have a more nuanced perspective of soldiers to some extent, whereas, in the States, there is this veneration of soldiers. It comes from America’s development.
That also spilt over into the way in which I felt soldiering is perceived in the West and the way it can be perhaps a draw for particularly young men. They can be drawn to perhaps a false promise of what joining the Army and potentially fighting in a war could maybe bring them without realising the longer-term impact of what war is going to do to them.
As Joe said, back then, many years ago, there was no attention on mental health or the soldiers’ welfare. I was saying to you offline that one of the senior members of the military, I remember something that he said when they were talking about charities like Help for Heroes that exist to help soldiers. The military’s concern, the higher-ups, with things like that was that the public would perceive soldiers as victims rather than victors. With that idea at the top, if it filters down, it is no wonder they weren’t giving the soldiers help when they were coming out of these awful situations that they were in.
Especially in the face when you even asked for it. That in itself, especially in those days, was a rarity, Joe. I’d imagine that wouldn’t have been easy for you. You must have been on the brink to put your hand up in that environment and then to be told, “You want to hug?” I can’t even imagine what that would’ve been like. It got a lot worse for you as well.
It got well worse. You’re getting rejected from your side. It was heartbreaking. I allowed to show a sign of weakness and he pushed past me. I wanted to shut my doors and was like, “I won’t let anybody in at this point.” I was arrested. I went from that. It’s a whirlwind. I had these two men knock on the door and enter my room. I was sitting on my bed and they said, “Are you Joseph McCleary?”
There was a rumour from a soldier saying that you had to have a TV license via TV. If you get caught, you’ll get an £800 fine. I thought that these two gentlemen were from the TV license so when he was like, “Are you Joseph McCleary?” I was like, “I am not Joseph McCleary.” He’s like, “I know you are.” I was like, “That’s not my television.” I was like, “I have been caught.”
I love that. It’s such a classic, “That’s not me.” That is brilliant.
He arrested me and said, “You are arrested on war crimes for the young lad who passed away.” This fellow was so sure of himself. He stood tall. He was big and aggressive. He couldn’t wait to get me. I was like, “Slow down. It’s got to be a mistake.” My sergeants flew through the door. I was pushing them out.
Was this the military police that came?
He was from the Special Investigation Bureau. It was like the CID of the Army. They were in big, tall suits. They were men in uniform. In the end, he said, “Turn around,” to handcuff me. My sergeant couldn’t understand why. He was saying, “He’s not aggressive. Walk him down.” He was trying to reassure me. There was a lot of hostility. You don’t walk into someone’s company and barge past your side. He had no intention. He wanted it to erupt. He wanted to try and rile me. To be honest, I wasn’t riled. I was scared. I had so many emotions. I probably was a little bit suffering as well from PTSD. I had so much going on.
I remember sitting in the back of the military police car. I was already in London but he drove me into Central London. It was probably only a 3 or 4-mile journey but in London, that would take you half an hour because of the traffic. I remember sitting in the back of the car on my own with the two policemen. I was so scared. He was like, “You killed a kid, you murderer.” I was like, “I didn’t do it.” He’s like, “He was a little kid. You killed a kid.” I couldn’t even wipe my hands because I was in cuffs. I was like, “This is unreal.” I decided to block it out. I didn’t want to rise to it. I didn’t want them to know I was angry or scared because I wasn’t. I didn’t understand it truly.
He got me into the car. There were two big, massive brown gates we went through. It opened up and he drove me into this cobbled court. As he got out of the car, right away, his friend said to me along the lines of, “Tell him you did it. He was a raghead. Don’t worry about it.” I was like, “I’m not going to do this with you. Are you even meant to be speaking to me? I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t do it.” He pushed me away, put me in the cell, and left me there. All of this has happened and I’ve not even stolen a Mars bar before. I’ve got no criminal records. I’m thinking, “What’s going on?”
He brought a representation from the Army to look after me. I remember him coming into the cell and he spoke to me. He didn’t understand it. He was fresh out of school. I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’s a teenager and younger than me. He was like, “I’m here to represent you. What you should do is go along with what they say.” I said, “I’m not sure how all this works but I know you are not for me. No offence but you are wrong.” I even asked him, “Have you done this type of work before?” He said, “No.” I was like, “That is who you’ve sent to represent me?” I was heartbroken.
Maybe, Will, you’ve got something on this. It strikes me as though the military police were unkind but surely, there’s a reason for that lack of kindness. Have you seen that elsewhere? Where were they coming from?
I spoke to 1 of the 2 arresting officers that were part of the RMP, the Royal Military Police. I was like, “Is there an arrested Joe?” I came to my conclusion. This, in no way, is a defence of the way in which Joe was treated by the RMP. We touched on this. The military police were themselves scarred by their time serving in Iraq. A lot of the RMP who end up investigating British soldiers after they’ve returned from Iraq had served in Iraq. They had witnessed firsthand some of the effects of the war themselves. They had their scars.
This is what I mean about how the concentric circles of the pain and trauma of war are so wide-reaching. They say hurt people hurt people. If you’ve got military policemen who got diagnosed with PTSD, they’ve got issues as a result of what they witnessed. We know that in the RMP, there were six royal men policemen who were killed in June 2003 in Al Majar Al Kabir by a massive mob of Iraqis who had got angry at the British.
We know that the RMP was photographing the corpses of dead Iraqis. They were attending to British soldiers who had been killed as they were driving around. They witnessed awful things as well. The conclusion I drew was that they were passing on that same trauma or hurt to the soldiers that they were investigating. I’ve read elsewhere that in other investigations, there were RMP that were using quite harsh tactics when they were investigating. That is one of the things that maybe drove that.
It makes you wonder because they ultimately are products of our environment. What Joe suffered, what he’s seen, what he witnessed, and also what he ended up being a part of is a product of that chaotic environment. You’re compounding that with RMP, the more military police, who’ve also had their trauma and potentially carried that forward.
Gentlemen, I’m conscious of the time but the story is too captivating. If you guys are still happy to keep going, I got a couple more questions if that’s all right. We’re getting to the trial. For you, Joe, the real trauma is only starting because you’re being forced to relieve all of this. Ultimately, you attempt suicide four times throughout this entire episode, which goes over some length of time. It’s not a matter of weeks we’re talking. We’re talking years here.
What happened is I was arrested and then I was released. I went back to my regiment. For about four days, I was soldiering on. The anxiety was crippling me at this point of what was going to happen. I still had no idea that it was going to go to trial. It was like, “You’re going to be prosecuted. It’s going to happen.” The Army sent me home. They were like, “You can go home and wait for your trial.” That wait was two years.
When I went home, I self-medicated myself. I started drinking. I was getting the jingles heavier. The flashbacks were worse. I was having to wear gloves on other nights to sleep because I was scratching myself. My mom then rang them on numerous occasions. He’s like, “My son’s suffering.” They were like, “I’m sure he’d be fine.”
I’m sorry. When you say them, rang who?
She rang the Ministry of Defence a few times on the regiment to tell them, “That’s not my son. He was at home.” It was crippling me. In the end, I was getting drunk enough so I could have the courage to do it. I took a massive overdose. My mom came in to find me and my brother. They took me to the hospital. They pumped my chest out and got me back around. My brother was shouting at me, “You are selfish. What are you doing?” I couldn’t live. They let me go home and then I’d done it again.
On the second time, the hospital said, “We’re going to have to section you under the mental health Act.” I didn’t understand what that meant and then they said to me, “We’re going to lock you away.” My mom was crying. My brother was crying. They put me in the civilian mental institute and locked the door behind me. I was so scared. I was screaming to my mom, “Bring the Army. Let them come and get me more. Bring the Army, please.” She was like, “Okay, son.”
They ended up sedating me because I got into a fight. I was so scared. They put so much drugs in me that I was out for two days. I lie in the bed. My brother came in and I was like, “Did mom bring the Army?” He’s like, “They’re not coming for you.” My mom said, “I’m sorry, son. They’re not coming for you. They said, ‘Let us know when he is out.’” I was like, “I’m still a part of the Army. I’m still a soldier. You still pay me every month. Why is no one coming to get me out of this place?”
I was there for two months nearly. In the end, I had to open up to get out. I had to talk about it and tell them. Even the doctor said to me, “I’m so sorry but I don’t know how to deal with you. You’re different from everybody I’ve got. I don’t understand what you’ve been through.” They tried to ring the military for them to tear me away. Not one officer, not one sergeant, not one person ever came in there to see me and say, “Come here. You’re one of ours. We’re going to help you.” There was nothing.
Have you ever gotten to the bottom of that? Why?
I have asked that question so many times, “Why didn’t you come and get me?” One of the main reasons why I suffered from post-mental stress is I don’t understand why you’re washing your hands. You go to work every day. I was a part of that team. I put my life on the line. I was a good soldier. I was up with the best. I was doing my corporals course. I was ready to be promoted. Everything was going in the right direction. The whole world comes crashing down and not one person from the military came to me. Not one welfare call. They have my mobile number and home address but not one letter. They never spoke to me in two years and it kills me inside.
Have you spoken to anyone since then, anyone from your original unit?
No. They wouldn’t care less, to be honest. They were nice. There were great people in there. If they understood or the message was passed to them directly, maybe someone would’ve come. I don’t know but it drove me insane. I had hatred toward them. I went to them like, “It’s okay. They must’ve made a mistake to try to say, ‘I forgive you. It’s okay, Joe.’” It wasn’t a mistake. They washed hands like, “Let them deal with it. I’m sure that he’s fine with the NHS.”
I was opening up to a man in there, one of the doctors. He couldn’t understand it. He was like, “I wish someone from the military would come and get you because they’d have a better understanding.” There was no Help For Heroes or anything. When I was released, it still didn’t go away, the anxiety, the sleep, and the drinking.
I used to get in fights and not fight back thinking, “Let them hit me on the head. Maybe I’ll wake up and one day, I won’t even be here anymore.” I wanted to die every day. It made me feel guilty. I was questioning myself like, “I didn’t do it.” I’d cry uncontrollably to my mom and be like, “Mom, please, make it stop.” I couldn’t sleep without taking some type of alcohol to knock me out. That was uncontrollable.
When it got to the trial a few weeks before we were ready to go, I’d gone from being this super confident man who stood my shoulders proud. You could throw anything at me and I would tackle it. If you told me to get to the top of that, I’ll get there and fight. Whatever you asked me to do, I would do. I became crippled with anxiety and frightened. If something would bang, I would jump. I wouldn’t understand how to control it. I became scared all the time. My mental health got worse and heavier. The doctors could only do what they could do. I didn’t like taking tablets because I took an overdose. I didn’t like taking them anymore.
What year was all this happening? You were in Iraq in 2003. When was all the court test?
The trial was in 2006 and 2007.
It was a military court-martial. Can you give us some context behind that and maybe Will as well? I’d imagine you would’ve researched this.
It was a general court-martial, which is the highest. There wasn’t ever anything before that. I remember being inside this minibus, driving up to the court. There were thousands of people taking pictures with cameras. Someone threw a towel over my head. I was like, “I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Why did you throw a towel over me?”
I took it off and was like, “I have nothing to be ashamed of. You couldn’t have done any worse to me.” The uniform didn’t fit me. My medals someone had dropped them out in my room. All my uniforms were destroyed. All my locker, my bed space, and everything was stolen as well as my Army kit. They left me behind.
The book tells Joe’s story but is this a unique story, Will?
In terms of its uniqueness, sadly, it’s not. There was one trial and it was the same judge that was a few months before Joe’s trial. That was in some photographs that had been taken, posing dead Iraqis in positions. There was a court case relating to that. Otherwise, Joe’s case was the first court-martial into the conduct of soldiers during the actions in Iraq.
It was groundbreaking in some respects but from everything that I’ve read and other soldiers that I’ve spoken to, they also went through similar traumatic difficulties waiting for a trial. None struck me in terms of the depth of Joe’s experiences. I’ve gotten to know Joe quite well. He is very vivid in his descriptions. There are visceral experiences that he had.
As we touched on, there is a high number of military suicides. There are soldiers that have been massively, detrimentally impacted. Their lives have been ruined by accusations, what they’ve seen, and their experiences in the conflict in the Middle East. This is something that other soldiers, sadly, have had to go through. The Ministry of Defence didn’t step up and recognise the help that they needed.
Joe’s case was the first one but it certainly wasn’t the last. Australia is experiencing something very similar with some of our soldiers facing some pretty significant charges. The Geneva Convention, rules of war, and rules of engagement exist for a reason. A continuous dilemma that I have is, are the rules of engagement or rules of war something that we apply almost clinically in a place of peace or calm without the context?
I’m almost inclined to say that it’s difficult to fight a war without some sense of dehumanisation, which then ultimately will lead to some that I don’t want to call atrocities but some breaches of these rules. I’d imagine Joe has probably seen a whole bunch of different things that people aren’t answering for. I certainly know that there are a lot of things out there that people had witnessed or had been a part of.
Is this something you’ve come across that are also scars that people carry? Maybe this is a better question for you, Joe. Do soldiers carry these scars of things that they ultimately ended up doing and feel bad for but they’re not answering for them because there’s no one asking the question? The nature of war is such that you are in an environment where you’re going to do things that go outside of your moral compass and values. You’re in a place that you don’t understand.The nature of war is that you will do things against your moral compass and values. Click To Tweet
We’ve all got scars. There would be people out there who have done something out there and maybe it hasn’t been investigated. I don’t know but it will haunt them. War, in itself, is horrific. People have done something maybe not intentionally. I don’t mean like, “This fellow has gone off, killed someone, and not known about it.” He has done something to control something. He maybe has hit someone or pushed him away, or he has had to get violent to protect his safety in a way or lay his authority on the ground.
I have read stories out there of the Americans as well. There are stories that I read about these American soldiers who torture the Iraqis or interrogated them in ways. That soldier will feel way along the line because he would’ve been desensitised to that. That would’ve been like, “Hoorah,” as they say in America. They would’ve been all up for it. It’s only then that he probably got home and it will haunt him. I didn’t see any of that when I was there. I didn’t see anything bad like that. No one was tortured when we were there. The stories that I read were bad. I can only imagine what they go through.
We can’t look away as a civilised society. What we have to do, and this is where maybe I’ll get both of your opinions, is we have to be far more scrupulous when we send people to war. War is ugly, and things will go wrong. Things will happen. Good people will go forth and will do bad things for a number of reasons, whether it’s circumstantial, because of the pressure, fear, or three of their mates got blown up next to them, and they snapped and lost a sense of control. Whatever it is, things will happen. Yet, we have this tendency to send people forth to go to war on a whim. Will, you put it eloquently at the start. I’m paraphrasing. It was embellished evidence, to say the least, that we went for. What do you think? Whom do we hold accountable for this?
For me, it would have to be the MOD. In my case alone, the evidence was woeful at best. It was someone’s brilliant mind. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Talk about that in a bit. You mentioned it before but maybe talk about that in a bit more detail. There was a witness that came and spoke. It blew the case wide open.
I had to listen for weeks to how bad I am as a person. The prosecution has gone for me. This lad stands up at my side, came around, and said, “Could you tell me what happened in a way?” He said, “I’m here for compensation. I was promised money.” It was nothing for the welfare of anybody or anything. He kept pointing at me and was saying, “It was him,” to lads, “I want my money.”
The translator kept saying he was after this compensation. He was told by his solicitor. He’s been struck off the solicitor’s role because he was fabricating all the lies. He blew it wide open. I remember sitting there thinking, “I’ve tortured my life for two years. I have gone to the bottom. I sat in hell not wanting to live, and this is what you say? You’re saying all these lies for wealth.” It was crazy. It broke me in half.
I’m sorry that you had to go through that. That sounds horrifying. I have the luxury of looking at this story through my eyes, not having seen it through yours, which I’m imagining is an absolute horror, particularly listening to yourself being described in such terms that you are a cold-hearted murderer. The fabricated evidence was that you were throwing bricks at the young lad who, unfortunately, drowned. Will, I want to put you on the spot. Whom do you think we hold accountable for this? Where should the buck stop?
There is plenty of blame in some respects. The military failed in its duty of care towards Joe in terms of supporting him and providing for his mental health, whether it was checking calls during the run-up to the trial or supporting him and his family during that period. He is still employed by the military even if he wasn’t there in the barracks. There’s a duty of care failure there.
In the wider context, there should be, and there hasn’t been, accountability towards the politicians that took the country to war. They say they did it with integrity or upon the evidence that was presented to them at the time but there was a lot of criticism at the time before the war about the evidence. There were concerns about the motivations for going to war. Around the world, there were up to 100 million people converging in 600 cities or 60 countries against the war. The world was questioning this conflict, whether it was necessary. Governments change politicians. There’s a turnover there but there is still accountability. These questions still need to be asked.
The story has somewhat of a silver lining. It’s easy for me to say that not seeing it all through your eyes, Joe. Ultimately, all four of you were cleared. There were four of you that were court-martialed. There was no evidence. It was a tragic accident as you described at the start. How are you? This is several years ago. How have the last couple of years been for you?
It’s been tough. I still suffer from PTSD. I don’t close the door. I’ve got close people I can speak to about stuff. I didn’t have that back then. After the trial and was found not guilty, it never ended. I was reinvestigated a few times after the trial. I remember them saying to me, “Not guilty,” and the tears didn’t roll off my face. It based my eyes. I could remember shaking uncontrollably. Finally, I thought that was it and I can go and do my life. They said to me, “You are not allowed in the Army. Sign there.” It was awful but I was happy to do that. I was like, “Leave me alone.”
If I look back on it, they bullied me out. I lost my pension and everything. I was too young to even understand it. I was suffering that bad. I didn’t understand all that side of it, what I could have lost. I didn’t even get a resettlement course. I gave them ten years of my life. By law, you have to give me some type of resettlement to go out and have a course. I didn’t get it. I never got anything. They pushed me out the door and were like, “Sign there. There you go, an honourable discharge.”
They reinvestigated me. As I’m trying to build my life up again, the IHAT team went to my wife’s work and was asking questions. I was escorted by an officer in the hospital. One of the lads came up to me and said, “We got these fellows coming around and asking strange questions about your job.” I’m thinking, “What?” I already suffered that badly. It only came to light a little while later that they were sending people out to investigate. What would you have gotten from that? It was stupid.
It was 2016. They dragged me back to London. I was going out with my kids and my wife to the park. The phone rang and it was a woman from the news. She says to me, “How would you feel that you might be going to The Hague?” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re on about. You’ve got the wrong number.” She says, “This is Joe McCleary.” I was like, “I am Joe McCleary.” She was like, “Your trials look like it’s going to get reinvestigated. You could go to The Hague. You have to be recalled to London.”
I ended up giving my name and address to the people in London who were doing the trial. For me to go back to standing there was stupid. I said to them, “I’m going to struggle with this.” They said to me, “Go and ring Help For Heroes. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” I said, “I don’t think you understand. This nearly killed me last time. You’re not doing it to me again. I’m not coming. I don’t want to come.” They said to me, “If you don’t turn up, we’ll go to the high court, get a warrant, and arrest you.” I said to them, “You told me on the phone it was voluntary. I don’t have to turn up.” I chose not to turn up.
I always wish I’d said, “Come and arrest me. You shouldn’t have done it to me. Yet, you are dragging me back into that court.” I can’t think of the judge’s name but he wrote a report and sorted that with me. I was angry when he was asking me questions. I was always going to be angry. This same judge sat in a room with me. I said to him, “I tried to kill myself last time over this.” My friend, Martin, also tried to take his life. He told me to bottom my lip up and get on with it.
This is 2016.
You described the climax of the court martial in 2006. You used the phrase silver lining. It struck me. I’m questioning, and Joe can answer, whether we’re at the silver lining yet or we’re on the way. From talking to Joe, I know that the decade from 2006 to the end of 2016 was a decade in which a good portion of that, Joe endured having to go through repeated investigations. First, it was the IHAT’s investigation that couldn’t find any further evidence. They then passed on the case to what was known as the IFI, the Iraq Fatalities Investigations.
The judge from that in 2016, Judge Newman, was critical of Joe. At the time, Joe was referred to by pseudonyms. The judge, in his report, called the incident a clumsy, ill-disciplined piece of conduct without consideration of the risk of harm. He went on to specifically say that he wasn’t convinced by Joe’s testimony. I know Joe particularly didn’t think that George recognised what these soldiers had been through.
I was touched when Joe was standing up for Martin. George seemed to disregard the mental health struggles that Joe, Martin, and potentially the others there had been through and were still going through. By bringing these memories or issues back up again, it was peeling up. It was reopening those wounds. It continued to have the effect of exacerbating the PTSD. It is awful that they went through that.
Please tell me things are at least somewhat better in the UK, at least the way things are spoken about.
I have a friend who’s an amputee. He’s a great lad. He went on to do massive things as a Paralympian. He said, “I feel sorry for you sometimes. I feel like yours was the making for everybody to get help. We have conversations. I feel terrible.” I said, “You don’t have to feel terrible.” He had loads of help and things are a lot better for them, which is great. It should be. If you put your life on the line for anybody, you should get what your rewards are. Andy is a cracking lad.
You’re also not asking for a reward. You’re asking for a bit of humanity in the way you’re treated but also help to overcome the significant trauma. Have you had any compensation? There’s a court case that’s ongoing.
We’ve got a legal action. There are 30 different soldiers. They are getting represented by the same solicitor, Hilary Meredith, who’s representing us. She’s been fighting this for a long time so hopefully, we’ll get some type of maybe conversation. To be fair, I would love to sit there and ask the person who was in charge, “Why did you leave me when I needed you the most? Why didn’t you say to me, Come on.’”
People have this stigma of men that we can’t do it. The suicide rates are high. I tell people, “Don’t be afraid to speak out. Anyone who’s got issues with mental health has massive support. Open up. Let’s sit down and talk it out. Let’s laugh and cry. Don’t be ashamed. There’s nothing at all to be ashamed of. If you’re suffering, don’t suffer in silence. The last thing you want to do is end up where I was. It’s a horrible, dark place.” If you could take anything else from reading this and you feel like you’ve got a problem, then get in touch with someone or even send me an email. I’ll go and chat with you. It’s no different for me.Don't be afraid to speak out. Open up. There's nothing to be ashamed of. Click To Tweet
I congratulate you on saying that. It does take people like yourself who’ve been through these horrors to speak up and normalise the fact that mental health is an injury. It’s like a broken arm that we can’t see. You get a cast in your heels, but with mental health, we don’t necessarily see those scars.
This is the problem. We don’t see any of these things. These people are hurting inside and are crippled. I spoke to Will for years in different locations. Sometimes, I get upset. In the middle of this restaurant, I could feel tears rolling off my face. A lot of that was probably opening up. Will probably helped me as much as I helped him. It was great. I made a friend and got loads off my chest. It was like I’d come away from it. It was a little bit of a release. It made me feel a bit better. Will has done a fantastic job on the book. It’s amazing.
The book is a fantastic read. It’s important, as we are bringing this to a close, to reiterate that message about reaching out. Even though you’ve been through all of this and you’ve been through four suicide attempts and a decade of being dragged through various investigations and courts, you are back at work. You are married. You’ve got kids. You still got PTSD, but how is life? This is maybe the silver lining part I was prematurely referring to.
I have a great family. I live for my family. That’s what I do. I’m not a big fan of going out with the boys. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m my own man. I got a mortgage on my house. I go to work every day. I still look back and suffer, but I can deal with it. My wife knows when I’m struggling. She knows when I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and sweating. She calms me down with a cup of tea. She’s like, “Breathe it out,” and stuff like that. We then maybe talk it out.
I can promise you, for anyone who is suffering, getting it off your chest is 100% better. Me speaking to Will, I came home a lot feeling a lot better. Over the years, I probably passed it on to him and then he ended up suffering. I don’t know whether that was the case. If you can laugh and I bring some kind of help to somebody, it’s fantastic.
I will always listen. I will always try and help someone else. I’ve been in that situation. I’ve been in the gutter. I was lucky that I have a strong family behind me to pick me up and never let me go. Some people, especially people from the armed forces, come from broken families. They joined because there were no other options for them. They didn’t have that support. Those lads took their lives. Every time I read it, it makes me cry. Sometimes, you think, “If I could’ve got to him or spoken to him.”
A man five doors down from me killed himself. He hung himself. I had to pick him up and knock him off the rope. It was 8:00 on a Sunday morning. His family and kids were screaming. This is a civilian. It tortured me to the fact that I passed this gentleman all the time. I used to say, “Morning,” to him. I didn’t know he struggled. He worked further down the road.
I always said to my wife, “I wish I could’ve seen him.” This was only a few years ago. I was like, “I could’ve gotten at that point with him to come in and have a cup of tea with him. I wish I could have helped him with his struggles.” It was another man who has gone and killed himself. He had a family and a wife. The silver lining is I’m doing extremely well. I am a better person. I cope with my PTSD. I’m still sober. It’s controlled. I have ways of doing it. I have bad days but I take some time out.
One day at a time. Congratulations. This is maybe the last question for you, Will. How has the book been received so far? It’s only been two months or something that it has been out. How’s it been perceived, firstly, by the general public but also maybe more importantly by the military?
There is a preamble to an answer. This is my first book. It is slightly tricky putting a book out there during an aftermath of a pandemic when there are still loads of restrictions. Going out there and doing stuff is somewhat still restricted but I have been trying to get the word out since the book has been launched.
It seems roundly positive, which is nice. I am grateful for the team at Pen and Sword, the publishers. They’re not a massive publishing house but they’re strongly behind the book. It’s good to have it out there. I’ve had some reviews back and they’ve been positive. I’ve had someone who was the company sergeant major for Joe during some of his time. He looked over the book when the section for it was published and he was positive about it. I am not naming any names.
If he reads this, I love you, Brad. He’s a great sergeant major and a brilliant fellow. I truly believe if he would’ve known what was happening to me, he would’ve come and got me. I don’t think he knew about it.
Gentlemen, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I’m speechless. Thank you both so much. This is certainly the first time I’ve done two guests at the same time. I apologise if we jumbled around a little bit, but I thank you both for your patience in trying to juggle that. The story is so powerful. There are so many angles of that story that I was hoping to touch. Thank you for your time.
Will, congratulations again on that book. It was an impactful read for me. I’ll certainly share it with my colleagues. Joe, for you, mate, I take my hat off to you. I’m blown away by your story, your courage, humility, and willingness to be vulnerable, which is, hopefully, a sign of things to come with soldiers like yourself, standing up and owning this space more so than those who seek to suppress these voices. We need to hear them, and those in the halls of power certainly need to hear them. I’ll echo your sentiment from before, Will. They need to be held accountable for some of these things as well. Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
Thanks so much. We enjoyed it.