April 9, 2007

Should The Sailors Sell Their Stories?

The British government has overridden its own rules and granted the 15 Royal Navy personnel released by Iran this week permission to sell their stories to the media. The move comes as the detainees face criticism over their cooperation with Iranians and comparisons to earlier generations of sailors, who only gave name, rank, and serial number:

Two days after they were paraded as heroes with a story to tell, some of the 15 British sailors and marines captured and released by Iran seemed Sunday to have decided they have a story to sell.

In a highly unusual decision, Britain’s Ministry of Defense — normally tight-lipped, to say the least — acknowledged Saturday that it had agreed to permit them to offer their experiences for sale to newspapers and television stations.

Such transactions are common enough among civilians, some of whom have traded the rights to their stories for considerable sums of money. But the notion of active military service members making a profit from their exploits — particularly when thousands of others serving in Iraq and Afghanistan face daily peril and sometimes death — has reinforced the criticism of the 15 Britons’ seemingly pliant behavior toward the Iranians holding them.

“Our armed forces are, I think, the most respected institution in the country pretty much, and they deserve to be after the job they have done in very difficult circumstances in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” William Hague, the opposition Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs, said in a television interview.

“But if, whenever people have been in a difficult situation, they are going to be allowed to sell their story quickly after that, then I think we are going to lose steadily that dignity and respect for our armed forces.”

This is a tough question. I think that Hague has a point. If the British military allows every active-duty member to sell stories about their experiences in the military, the potential exists for a breakdown in discipline and unit cohesion. Men and women in the military hew to the chain of command for communicating their issues, not the media, and the involvement of others in these stories will not go unnoticed by those in their units who may not like how they get portrayed.

However, these particular 15 sailors and Marines find themselves in a unique situation. They have appeared on television, been identified as individuals, and now face public criticism over their actions in Iraq. They should have the opportunity to respond under these circumstances, and some control over the message they want to deliver to the British public. Without the bargaining power that the British military has granted them, they would not have any control over how their words got published.

The best solution would have been to keep their identities a secret from the beginning. The Iranians made that almost impossible through their violations of the Geneva Convention restrictions against using detainees for public humiliation, and the British offered no consequences to Iran for those violations. It wouldn't have happened at all if the British Navy had not left them vulnerable to a few Iranian gunboats without any significant defense. Now that they have been splashed on front pages across their nation for weeks, against their will, they have little choice but to defend themselves in the same manner.

What say CQ readers? Does this bode ill for discipline in the British Navy, or should the sailors and Marines have the right to defend themselves in the most effective way possible?


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