West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Where you lead, I will follow, even blindly…

I thought a lot about the testimony I heard yesterday during the enquiry. The witness was retired Lt. Colonel Andrew Sewell, who was the JDF officer in charge of one of the battalions due to work with the JCF in trying to enter Tivoli Gardens in May 2010 to arrest Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. One feature that has become commonplace in much of the testimony of officials is the degree to which they seem to have relied on expectations of lines of communication and decision-making without using them or verifying that they were in fact being used. To some degree, this is not out-of-place for organizations with clear and long-established lines of commands and ranks, like the police and the army. But, it is not necessarily a good thing.  

Retired Lt. Colonel Sewell, giving testimony (courtesy of JIS News)

We heard, for example, yesterday, that the commander of ground troops was not informed beforehand by his chief of defence staff, now-retired Major General Saunders, that mortar rounds would be used in the area in which or near where the troops were due to operate. Naturally, this caused some surprise from the Commissioners and attorneys seeking to question the witness. Lt. Colonel Sewell gave answers that suggested clearly that he felt that the established principle that a leader would have uppermost in his or her mind the safety of the men (and women) in his charge  was good enough for him to say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that he did not think he needed to have been forewarned. This seems to be a bit too loyal, to my mind.

Many things happen in the ‘heat of battle’, so to speak, and Lt. Colonel Sewell sought to allay concerns by saying that soldiers are used to loud bangs and explosions, so would not necessarily be daunted by hearing or seeing evidence of bombs or mortars or such like in the area of operations. He then sought to put the Tivoli incident into context. He said that troops hearing a 21-gun (or however many) salute while parading would not be ill at ease. I agree. But, that’s largely because it is a known part of the ceremony, and is to be expected. If an explosion occurred in an area not near where the ceremonial cannons were, I defy the soldier to say that the troops parading would be all la-de-dah about it. I think they, would quickly start to take up defensive postures. In Tivoli, when the troops were due to encounter ‘criminal elements’ known to be violent and well armed, it seems illogical that a series of explosions occurring in the area of operation would be seen or thought of as ‘friendly fire’. So, like the residents who were expected to be disoriented by the explosions of mortars, I’d surmise that the troops, too, would be put ill-at-ease. What was more surprising, though, was that Lt. Colonel Sewell did not say that he received any communication once the mortar firing had begun to confirm to him that it was indeed friendly fire, and that he and his troops need not panic or think they were under attack. That seems either careless or reckless on the part of his superiors. At that stage, the so-called ‘need to know’ ought to have included the active troops (and by extension, the JCF officers with them, who could not be expected to be as familiar with such explosions).

It’s worth reading the text of the exchange during cross-examination on this:

Senior legal counsel to the commission, Garth McBean, QC, asked a series of questions and as reported by the Gleaner today, ‘Sewell revealed that it was the sound of “loud explosions” in a section of the west Kingston community that alerted him to the use of mortars’:

“When did you become aware of that (the use of mortars)?” asked McBean.
“During the operation,” Sewell replied.
“How did you become aware of that?” McBean pressed.
“I heard loud explosions, exceedingly loud explosions,” Sewell again replied. “They appeared to have been coming from several areas, including within Tivoli (Gardens),” he continued.

Responding to a question from McBean, Sewell maintained that the former army chief [retried Major General Saudners] had no duty to inform him of the use of mortars and insisted that himself and the men and women under his command were not at risk because of it: “I do not think it would have been the purview of the then chief of defence staff to have put his men at risk,” he testified.

Maybe, he was right. It never cost the soldiers any loss of life, but it could have gone very badly, very easily.

I admit, freely, that I thought of Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade (my stress in verses 2 and 3), when I listened to those words above:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them,Cannon in front of themVolley’d and thunder’d;Storm’d at with shot and shell,Boldly they rode and well,Into the jaws of Death,Into the mouth of HellRode the six hundred.

The charge of the Light Brigade
The charge of the Light Brigade

It’s ironic that this poem came to mind. It was there, at Balaclava, in The Crimea, that the now-famous ‘helmet’ of that name was first used, or came to fame. It was then more for keeping heads warm. Now, they are used for disguise–also, now famously, by the JDF during their activities in Tivoli Gardens.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

3 thoughts on “West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Where you lead, I will follow, even blindly…”

  1. I appreciate your comments, and Sue Goffe’s blow by blow accounts of the CofE, as I really haven’t had time to follow it at all since it resumed. Some great insights.


      1. It is very difficult to pull anything out of it. Everyone on the defensive – “oh, I didn’t know,” “I was very surprised,” etc…


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