A culture of air power exceptionalism has created an environment in which the RAF can operate without fear of public scrutiny or consequence, writes Iain Overton

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How the British love a bit of nostalgia, especially when it comes to the valour and heroism of our Royal Air Force (RAF). 

Anyone above the age of 50 would have been raised on comic book stories of dog-fight courage. Of Spitfires and Hurricanes roaring through the skies, defending this sceptred isle from a Nazi menace. It was enough to make anyone misty-eyed.

But the problem with nostalgia is that it often presents an idealised version of reality, obscuring the less savoury aspects of our past and of our present.

This brings me to a recent report by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a charity I head up. In it, we found that the RAF, as part of Operation Shader, has been responsible for the deaths of at least 29 civilians in Iraq and Syria between 2016 and 2018. This is a far cry from the single civilian death that the RAF admits to and 10 more deaths than previously reported on.

You can almost hear the murmurs of disbelief echoing through the halls of Whitehall: ‘Us? The RAF? Never’. But they, like us, have been spoon-fed the narrative of our air force’s exceptionalism for so long that it has become a stubborn part of our national psyche. It’s a sort of Spitfire nationalism.

One that leads – in the end – to a lack of public scrutiny and a reluctance to learn from mistakes. We perpetuate this image of the RAF as the infallible, untouchable good guys – and the result is that we allow them to operate without proper accountability.

In the Second World War, the RAF was indeed filled with brave and dedicated pilots who fought valiantly for our nation. But that was then, and this is now. We cannot cling to this rose-tinted view of the past while ignoring the realities of modern warfare.

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Iain Overton

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, years of global monitoring of news reports has shown that 90% of those killed or injured are civilians. Despite this truth, and the fact that the UK Government itself signed up to a global political commitment last year to protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns and cities, the RAF is still adamant.  

We may have killed hundreds of militants, it says, but only one of the deaths from our bombs was a civilian one.

In light of this, AOAV’s report raises significant questions about the RAF’s transparency and accountability when it comes to civilian casualties. It took a painstaking cross-referencing of 950 strike reports, Pentagon data, and information from monitoring organisations like the group Airwars to paint a clearer picture of the RAF’s activities in Iraq and Syria. And still, the Ministry of Defence insists that only one civilian death can be attributed to its airstrikes.

Of course, warfare is a messy business and civilian casualties are often tragically unavoidable. But it is the RAF’s apparent refusal to accept responsibility and learn from these incidents that is most concerning. A culture of air power exceptionalism has created a dangerous environment in which the RAF can, to all intents and purposes, operate without fear of public scrutiny or consequence.

It is time to shatter the illusion of our infallible air force and demand transparency and accountability from the RAF. We owe it to the civilians caught in the crossfire and we owe it to the memory of the true heroes who fought and died for our freedom.

As the comedian Dara Ó Briain once said, “nostalgia is heroin for old people”. Let’s not allow the intoxicating allure of our Spitfire’ pilots past heroism blind us to the realities of modern warfare and the urgent need for accountability and truth. Without it, we may have one day be forced to ask ‘are we the bad guys?’


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