Carthaginian Air Strikes: Iraq and the Mind of the Interventionist

David Cameron on The Andrew Marr Show, 28/09David Cameron on The Andrew Marr Show, 28/09
The Chinese do not adopt either our theoretical or our practical ethic. They admit in theory that there are occasions when it is proper to fight, and in practice that these occasions are rare; whereas we hold in theory that there are no occasions when it is proper to fight and in practice that such occasions are very frequent.
Bertrand Russell, ‘Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness’.
The British parliament is once again doing what it does best: Voting in overwhelming numbers to conduct air strikes on a Middle Eastern country, fighting an enemy so cautiously integrated into civilian infrastructure that such attacks can only bolster local support for them. The arguments against military intervention in Iraq have been made numerous times before, like here, here, here, here and here. But as of Friday Britain has now committed the RAF to conduct air strikes on IS targets in northern Iraq, while the Observer and BBC continue to regurgitate the Con-Dem line about Britain’s ‘duty’ to intervene whilst glorifying high-tech killing equipment. The Iraqi government has ‘asked for help’, but suggestions for non-militaristic forms of aid – humanitarian, diplomatic, educational – were astonishingly absent during Friday’s Commons debate. As were any deadlines or standards for success. ‘Operation Shader’ can proceed so long as Britain’s resource and strategic interests are under threat. Nick Clegg, for instance, was asked in the Commons how it would be possible for him to know when Shader had succeeded or not. Dropping his usual chirpy hey-how-you-doing-pick-a-card-any-card kind of demeanor, he responded simply by saying that such matters are hard to determine on the ground, too vague and gray, so Britain can consequently act unimpeded by international law. Given that mission creep seems all too inevitable, the priority has now shifted from debate to action. Numerous demos and rallies are being held this coming week around city centres and university campuses which need as much support as they can get.
Along with activism, an understanding of the mentality behind the decision to vote and support intervention (which, thanks to the mainstream media’s universal support of the bombing, has grown considerably in recent weeks according to Gallup polls) is crucial if any counter-arguments are to be successful. The justification of state violence is nothing new. Kennedy liberals, writes Geoffrey Wheatcroft, ‘would have been unable to sleep at night if they had not intervened [in Vietnam] on behalf of civilisation and justice,’ since they were only trying to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ (‘Send forth the best, ye breed,’ New Statesman, 5 July 1999). The political cartoonist David Low once remarked: ‘I have never met anyone who wasn’t against war. Even Hitler and Mussolini were, according to themselves’ (New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1946). In reality though, as Woody Allen writes, ‘any government or large corporation’ is structured like a ‘group of gangsters’ who look after their own interests – unless coerced otherwise (The Complete Prose of Woody Allen, London: Picador, 1997, p. 155).
Influenced by Wilson’s Red Scare and the Anglo-American propaganda systems during the First World War, Hitler’s speeches leading up to the invasion of Poland also evoked notions of the vital need to preserve the high peak of western civilisation and culture which his country epitomised. His sensibilities of his public persona were not unlike Goethe’s: ‘We have indeed been properly cultivated for a century; but a few centuries more must elapse before so much mind and elevated culture will become universal amongst our people that they will appreciate beauty like the Greeks, will be inspired by a cultural song; before it will be said of them, ‘it is long since they were barbarians’’ (Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, trans. John Oxenford, ed. J. K. Moorhead, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998).
Similar explanations are put forth by today’s journalistic elites to defend a policy of neoliberal expansionism, both of the corporate and military varieties. The French’s ‘civilising mission’ in North Africa was, to its elites, just as noble as the ‘white man’s burden’ carried by the British in India. The ‘Christianizing’ of Latin America spearheaded by Spanish and Portuguese invaders was portrayed as magnificently as the Japanese imperialists who brought their benevolent technology to the savages of East Asia. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin understood in 1948 that the untamed lands of Africa ‘contain everything we need,’ primarily labour and minerals. He added that ‘there must be a grand design for African development as a whole,’ with Britain directing the continent’s path since the African ‘is a complete savage and is quite incapable of … developing the country himself’ (Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, London: Vintage, 2004, p. 131). The parallel with Tony Blair and Cameron’s attitudes towards the Iraqi people is clear.
In 1847, the New York Herald gave an eloquent description of its nation’s brutal conquering of half of Mexico: ‘It is a gorgeous prospect, this annexation of all Mexico. It were more desirable that she should come to us voluntarily; but as we shall have no peace until she be annexed, let it come, even though force be necessary, at first, to bring her. Like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravishers’ (New York Herald, 8 October 1847, cited in Richard R. Fagen, ‘An Inescapable Relationship,’ The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, Summer 1979, p. 142).
Another historical universal which statesmen are quick to defend is that both official sides in a conflict are always fighting in ‘self-defence.’ ‘Defence must always be maintained,’ claim the men in Whitehall and their school mates writing for the elite journals and newspapers. Even when Kennedy tried to persuade the Mexicans to enact hostile measures to defend themselves against the Cubans and their hatred of the free world, a Mexican diplomat explained that his country could not conform to US demands because ‘if we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, forty million Mexicans will die laughing’ (Ruth Leacock, Requiem for Revolution, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990, p. 33).
Across the Atlantic, J.S. Mill often confessed how Britain’s ‘liberation’ of India was a noble thing. The incursion into foreign lands proved the Whitehall elites to be ‘the novelty of the world.’ He believed that ‘colonies should not be thought of as civilizations or countries at all, but as agricultural establishments whose sole purpose was to supply the larger community to which they belong’ (Mark Curtis, The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order, London: Pluto Press, 1998, p. 72). Even after Britain adopted a free trade policy in 1846, forty percent of its textiles were shipped to India, acting as a less violent way to destroy local markets and starve the population into serious and dreadful famine.
The English historian Herman Merivale presupposed that the colonial power of Britain had the interests of the Indian people at heart when, lecturing at Oxford in 1940, he praised the ‘British policy of colonial enlightenment’ which ‘stands in contrast to that of our ancestors’ who did not care ‘about the internal government of their colonies, and kept them in subjection in order to derive certain supposed commercial advantages from them.’ He assured his affluent audience that the respectful Pax Britannica, however, ‘[gives] them commercial advantages, and tax ourselves for their benefit, in order to give them an interest in remaining under our supremacy, that we may have the pleasure of governing them’ (Fredrick Clairmonte, Economic Liberalism and Underdevelopment, Bombay and London: Asia Publishing House, 1960, p. 92). He failed to mention that the Indian textile industry was wiped out as a result of embargoes and import duties, but another liberal, Horace Wilson, writing in 1826, reassures us that, ‘Had this not been the case, the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in their outset, and could scarcely have been against set in motion, even by the power of steam. They were created by the sacrifice of Indian manufacturers’ (Ibid., p. 87).
‘The Indian weaver,’ writes John Darwin in After Tamerlane, ‘would go to the wall for the sake of Lancashire profits’ (After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, London: Penguin, 2008, p. 9). The revered Earl Grey argued in 1852 that ‘the surest test for the soundness of measures for the improvement of an uncivilised people is that they should be self-sufficing’ (Allan McPhee, The Economic Revolution in British West Africa, London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1926, p. 208). Grey’s principle of maintaining open economies for the benefit of Manchester’s industry is one example of cheap agribusiness starving out the population of an oppressed nation, indicative of the standard state capitalist policy of socialising costs but privatising profits. The foremost imperial propagandist of his time, Frederick Lugard, believed ‘We hold these countries because it is the genius of our race to colonise, to trade and govern’ (The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, 3rd ed., London: Blackwood, 1926/1922, pp. 618-9). Though he later became a strong supporter of slavery and the Confederacy after being exiled to the US, the Irish revolutionary John Mitchel, radicalized by the Irish famine, held a different view, calling the British Empire ‘the Carthaginian sea-monster’ (John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, London: Bookmarks Publication, 2006, repr. 2010, p. 46).
The defence of British colonialism in India can be compared with New Labour’s dystopic 2003 Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World, which explained that ‘the UK has a range of global interests including economic well-being based around trade, overseas and foreign investment, and the continuing free flow of natural resources’ (MoD, 2003 Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World, ch. 2.1, p. 4). Translation: Whitehall and the corporate sector have a range of private interests including the exploitation of the natural resources of poorer nations (freely flowing into the pockets of CEOs) to protect investor rights and open up foreign markets to British business interests.
Elite priorities have not changed dramatically since the time of Britain’s Nazi-style conquest of India, which served as an episode of some of the most courageous unity amongst conflicting religious groups in pursuit of freedom against a far greater enemy. In 1857 the East India Company’s Sepoy Indian troops rebelled against their officers after they were ordered to use cartridges greased with beef and pork fact (against Hinduism and Islam, respectively). The population, becoming increasingly bitter by this and other dismissals of their religious convictions, was two hundred million strong with an army of two hundred thousand, being ruled by only forty thousand British troops: ‘Within weeks mutineers had seized control of a huge swathe of northern India, killing those British officers and officials they could lay their hands on and besieging the remainder in a few isolated fortified posts. Hindus and Sikhs forgot any animosity towards Muslims, installing an heir of the Moguls as emperor in the historic capital of Delhi.’ But the rising was brutally crushed, and a ‘panicking government rushed British troops to the sub-continent, and officers succeeded in persuading Indian soldiers in Madras and Bombay to put down the mutineers in the north’ (Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium, London: Verso, 2008, pp. 357-8).
Not long after, Disraeli proclaimed Queen Victoria Empress of India, spreading the Conservative party’s love of democracy and self-determination. The early 1920s saw over two hundred spectacular strikes against British rule in India, with up to 1.5 million workers participating. A government report records ‘unprecedented fraternisation between the Hindus and the Muslims … Even the lower classes agreed to forget their differences. Extraordinary scenes of fraternisation occurred. Hindus publically accepted water from the hands of Muslims and vice versa’ (cited in ibid., p. 455).
As with the Sepoy Indians, at the end of the 1930s Churchill and Eden believed Germany to be a significant threat to their empire. Some of the ruling class entered the Second World War reluctantly, and contrary to many propaganda cartoons, British elites ‘did nothing to help the Poles – although they did evacuate a section of the Polish army to serve their own purposes later on. Britain then spent the vital winter of 1939-40 backing a German-supported Finnish government in a war against Russia’ (ibid., p 523).
Even after the Battle of Britain, Whitehall still marginally favoured Hitler; indeed, its objection to the Hitler-Stalin pact was merely that it gave Stalin too much power. Furthermore, between the spring of 1940 (the fall of France) and 1943 (the Allied landing in southern Italy), the British army fought the majority of their battles in northern Africa. Churchill was deeply concerned about the safety of Suez Canal and the region’s oilfields, along with Saudi Arabia, which he sought to keep from Roosevelt’s influence. The traditional view of the war, however, is a picture of democracy versus fascism, good versus evil. But this was not the motivation for the Allied leaders, as Chris Harman notes:
‘The Churchill who demanded a no-holds-barred prosecution of the war was the same Churchill who has been present during the butchery at Omdurman, sent troops to shoot down striking miners in 1910, ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in British-ruled Iraq, and praised Mussolini. He had attacked a Conservative government in the 1930s for granting a minimal amount of local self government to India, and throughout the war he remained adamant that no concessions could be made to anti-colonial movements in Britain’s colonies, although this could have helped the war effort’ (Ibid., p. 536).
At the Yalta Conference, Churchill informed Roosevelt and Stalin that ‘While there is life in my body, no transfer of British sovereignty will be permitted’ in India (Terry H. Anderson, The United States, Great Britain and the Cold War, 1944-1947, University of Missouri Press, 1981, p. 6). His stubbornness over the issue was so extreme that in 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad, ‘thousands of British troops were brutally crushing demonstrations in India instead of fighting the Nazis, and that an Indian “liberation army” was formed to fight on the side of Japan. It also led to a famine which killed three million people in Bengal’ (Harman, p. 527).
As historians like Chris Harman and Danny Gluckstein have documented, the Second World War was comprised of two wars; one ‘from above’ and one ‘from below.’ It is the only war whose ‘reputation was positive from start to finish and it remains untarnished even now,’ unlike the First World War and the wars in Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq (Danny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance versus Empire, London: Pluto Press, 2012, p. 1). In a typically hypocritical act of pseudo-internationalist policy formation, during the war ‘from above’ in August 1941 Roosevelt and Churchill pledged to respect, in one of the principles of the Atlantic Charter, ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’ (Ibid., p. 4). Applying different standards to his own actions, Churchill later stressed, when presenting the Charter to the House of Commons, that it did ‘not qualify in any way the various statements of policy which have been made [regarding] the British Empire,’ since it only applied to ‘the States and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke’ (The Times, 10 September 1941). The war was consequently ‘a quarrel between Allies and Axis governments about who should dominate’, and not a battle against world domination (Gluckstein, p. 9).
As early as the fall of Singapore in 1942 plans were already being made in Whitehall to reclaim parts of the empire, with the examples of Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong and Nigeria being the most notable. Churchill even drew up a plan, vetoed by the US, of taking over Thailand (J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990, London: Longman, 1993, p. 275, n. 35; p. 276, n. 36). He also issued a stern instruction to Anthony Eden towards the end of 1944: ‘hands off the British empire is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue’ (Jane Bowden, ‘Development and Control in British Colonial Policy, with Reference to Nigeria and the Gold Coast, 1935-48’, University of Birmingham Ph.D. thesis, 1981, p. 246). Labour had long confessed a principles opposition to imperialism, though had a change of heart after assuming office in 1945, supporting the renewal of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act and the establishment of ‘an administrative structure staffed by a few generation of education colonial subjects’ (Cain and Hopkins, p. 276). As Ernest Bevin modestly put it, ‘our crime is no exploitation; it’s neglect’ – where ‘neglect’ should be understood in its proper sense of ‘more exploitation’ (Robert D. Pearce, The Turning Point in Africa: British Colonial Policy 1938-1948, London: Taylor and Francis, 1982, p. 95).
In 1936 the Greek king appointed General Ioannis Metaxas as a fascist dictator, who sought to bring about a ‘Third Hellenic Civilisation.’ A British liaison officer sent to wartime Greece, Woodhouse, believed Metaxas to be ‘benevolent,’ having ‘high-minded motives for undertaking supreme power’ (C. M. Woodhouse, The Apple of Discord: A Survey of Recent Greek Politics in their International Setting, London: Hutchinson, 1948, pp. 16-7). Britain supported Metaxas because, as a different liaison officer explained in 1944, three after the dictator’s death, the Greeks ‘are a fundamentally hopeless and useless people with no future or prospect of settling down to any form of sensible life within any measurable time’ (Gluckstein, p 39). Any remnants of the Atlantic Charter had by now been long discarded from political consciousness. The Allies proceeded to bomb Athens in order to destroy the Greek resistance movement, EAM (the National Liberation Front) and its military arms, ELAS (the National Popular Liberation Army). During the war, ‘Areas under EAM control organised self-government on a grand scale. Villagers elected municipal councilors and judges in mass assemblies,’ while expensive lawyers were dispensed with and ‘natural justice prevailed’ (Ibid., p. 43).
‘Communist’ Russia also declined to support EAM/ELAS, and ordered the resistance to merge with the government of the king. In an effort to dominate as much of the country as possible, Churchill’s coup later overthrew the Greek government while also suppressing the communists. Churchill informed General Scobie, in language to match that of any of the century’s great dictators, ‘Do not hesitate to fire at any armed male in Athens who assails the British authority or Greek authority … [A]ct as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.’ He later informed parliament of his view on EAM/ELAS, preferring collaborators to anti-fascists: ‘The security battalions came into existence … to protect the Greek villagers from the depredations of some of those who, under the guide of being saviours of their country, were living upon the inhabitants and doing very little fighting against the Germans,’ unlike the ‘security battalions’ deployed by the Greek government who pledged loyalty to Hitler and who, according to Churchill, ‘did the best they could to shelter the Greek population from German oppression’ (cited in ibid., p 51).
Post-war Greek persecutors also worked alongside US counterinsurgency forces. Whereas Russia allowed the Nazis to crush the Polish communist resisters, the AK, Churchill actively sought the destruction of the Greek anti-fascists. In 1947 the American New Republic reported that ‘Churchill’s victory is complete – and neatly underwritten by hundreds of millions of American dollars. It could only be slightly more complete if Hitler himself had engineered it’ (New Republic, 15 September 1947). Like the US, Churchill also approved of Mussolini. After visiting him in 1927, Churchill once again picked up his pen to confess how he ‘could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise’ (Extract from press statements made by Churchill, January 1927, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/82 B). When Mussolini fell in 1943, Churchill promised that ‘Even when the issue of the war became certain, Mussolini would have been welcomed by the Allies’ (cited in Gluckstein, p. 98).
Earlier in the 1920s, Churchill had proclaimed his passion for justice when, speaking about his favourite toy against the Kurds and Afghans, he confessed that poison gas would be an excellent weapon against ‘uncivilized tribesmen and recalcitrant Arabs.’ His boyhood dream was in clear violation of the Hague Declaration of 1899, calling on all adherents to refrain from ‘the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’, which Britain eventually agreed to sign in 1907 (Declaration (IV,2) concerning Asphyxiating Gases, The Hague, 29 July 1899). During the Second World War, he added that ‘It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women’ (Winston Churchill’s Secret Poison Gas Memo, ‘Prime Minister’s Personal Minute,’ photographic copy of 4-page memo, cited in Guenther W. Gellermann, Der Krieg, der nicht stattfand, Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 1986, pp. 249-251).
Expressing his deep concern for the British people, he continued in a secret memo: ‘If the bombardment of London became a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fell on many centres of Government and labour, I should be prepared to do [underline] anything [stop underline] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying bomb starting points. I do not see why we should have the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. There are times when this may be so but not now’ (Ibid).
Britain engaged in what Churchill called the ‘absolutely devastating’ tactic of ‘area bombing’ of German cities instead of hitting specific military targets. Because of the power of aerial bombing, as Prime Minister Baldwin had explained in 1932, ‘The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves’ (cited in Gluckstein, pp. 100-1). During the later years of the war, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris took this message to heart more than any other RAF commander. He took pride in the fact that his Bomber Command has ‘virtually destroyed 45 out of the leading 60 German cities. In spite of invasion diversions we have so far managed to keep up and even exceed our average of two and a half cities a month’: i.e., in spite of the existence of actual military targets to hit, we continue to wreak unnecessary and horrific damage on the German people (cited in ibid, p. 101).
On February 13th 1945, the Allies initiated the bombing of Dresden, and act which only hardened the resolve of the German military and encouraged it to step up its armaments productions: ‘British and US bombers generated a firestorm that destroyed Dresden’s cultural centre, the Altstadt, along with 19 hospitals, 39 schools and residential areas. Key military and transport installation remained intact. Between 35,000 and 70,000 people died, of whom just 100 were soldiers’. The only reason the bombing stopped was because Churchill realised that a completely devastated Dresden would leave no spoils, such as ‘housing materials … for our own needs’ (Ibid., p. 101). Two years earlier after the end of the Battle of Britain in May 1941, Churchill had wept over the ruins of the House of Commons, though not, strangely, over the deaths of thousands of Londoners.
After the Siege of Sidney Street in January 1911, in which Churchill, Home Secretary in the Liberal government, directed police to attack two jewelry robbers who had left three policemen dead the previous month in Houndsditch, the building the robbers were in ended up in flames and all three were killed. Lindsey German and John Rees comment in A People’s History of London: ‘Churchill reveled in such confrontations, and exploited the furore over the killing and the emerging popular press’s witch-hunt of anarchists to stoke up his own reputation and justify repressive methods overall. In fact the dead men were not anarchists but Latvian social democrats, engaged in what was called an ‘expropriation for the cause’ (London: Verso, 2012, p. 167).
Consequently, because of Churchill’s authoritarianism and the media’s assault on anarchists, Latvians and Russians, one anarchist noted that ‘Anyone who walked along in a Russian blouse was considered a suspicious character and sometimes assaulted’ (Ibid). With Blair, Brown and Cameron’s equally dignified fight against terrorism to follow in his wake, the British Bulldog (voted ‘The Greatest Briton’ in a 2002 BBC poll) had earlier outlined in May 1919, after the establishment of a colonial government in Iraq, a theme of bold and persistent violence which would appear again and again in the decades to follow: ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected’ (Winston Churchill: departmental minute (Churchill papers: 16/16) 12 May 1919 War Office, cited in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, London: Heinemann, 1976, Volume 4, Part 1).
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