Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India By Shashi Tharoor
Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, August – September 2017 | Issue 2608 – 2609
Over the years, many writers and scholars have challenged the view that the British empire was, in Winston Churchill’s words, a ‘valiant and benignant force in the history of mankind’. Shashi Tharoor’s latest book on British rule in India aims to combat what he calls Britain’s ‘historical amnesia’ over its past atrocities.
Drawing on an impressive array of historical sources, Tharoor claims that, prior to British rule, India was one of the richest countries in the world, with a 23 percent share of the global economy, as large as all of Europe put together (Britain’s share was just 1.8 percent). India’s steel, shipbuilding and textile industries were world-leading and its architectural achievements among the finest.
Then the British East India Company arrived in the 17th century, with its private army and royal backing to ‘wage war’ in pursuit of its aims. It pillaged India’s economy; looting its treasure, stealing its steel manufacturing techniques, dismantling its shipping industry, transferring its textile production to Britain, manipulating its currency, extracting punitive taxes, and fixing tariffs and regulations to favour British industry. Between the East India Company’s conquest and the British state assuming control in 1858, India went from being a mass exporter of finished goods to a mass importer of British wares, heavily dependent on its colonial master for trade. By 1900, its share of the global economy had fallen to just 2 percent. ‘Britain’s industrial revolution’, Tharoor writes, ‘was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries’. He also details the incessant brutality inflicted on Indians by the British. In what he rightly calls the ‘British colonial holocaust’ in India, up to 35 million people died in famines, many of which were induced and exacerbated by British policy.
During the Bengal famine of 1943, British prime minister Winston Churchill, despite pleas from his own officials, not only refused to send aid but continued to ship rice out of Bengal to serve as ‘buffer stocks’ for European soldiers. Around four million in the region, mainly Bengalis, died in the famine, which, according to Churchill, was the fault of Indians for ‘breeding like rabbits’.
Tharoor also refutes the claim, made by historians such as Niall Ferguson, that India has Britain to thank for its democracy, legal system and railways, stating that these supposed ‘gifts’ were, in their colonial origins, established mainly for the benefit of the rulers and not the ruled. The railways, for example, were not built to transport Indians, but to transport troops and goods for British industry, and the colonial courts did not bring justice to all, but were horribly racist against Indians. Moreover, Tharoor points to the fomenting of divisions among Indians and the deliberate policy of ‘divide and rule’ that helped the British consolidate their domination and contributed to the ‘horrors of partition that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority in 1947’. More than a million people are estimated to have died in inter-communal violence between Hindus and Muslims during Partition.
While at times repetitive, sketchy, and prone to the odd sweeping statement – Tharoor does not claim it to be a scholarly work and admits his decision to write it was ‘made rashly’ – Inglorious Empire is nonetheless an impressive collection of historical information, well-written, well-argued and well worth reading.
This article was published in the Morning Star on 25th April 2017. See here.
Despite a distinct absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media declared Assad guilty of chemical weapons use and Trump justified in using air strikes earlier this month
On April 4 2017, reports came from the community of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in an airstrike.
Two days later, on April 6, the Trump administration broke international law by unilaterally launching its own airstrike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the very airbase from which Assad was said to have launched his strike from.
Trump declared: ‘there can be no dispute that [Assad] used banned chemical weapons’.
The Pentagon reiterated, saying that the US response was ‘in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people’.
Unsurprisingly, the British government quickly announced its full support for ‘the US action’ which it said was ‘an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime’.
Thereafter, virtually the entire political and media establishment in both the US and Britain (and beyond) aligned itself with the US government.
Conservatives praised Trump for his ‘presidential’ response, while liberals who’ve spent months deriding him as an incredulous fool and a dire threat to democracy applauded him. Remarkably, only one out of 46 major editorial newspapers in the US opposed his airstrikes, while in the UK, as professor of journalism Roy Greenslade observed, the most ‘identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary’, from both liberal and right-leaning publications, was: ‘Well done Donald’.
Lack of Evidence
Given the near unanimous support for Trump’s airstrikes from all these apparently clever people, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Assad had used chemical weapons and that the US response was therefore justified.
However, the reality is quite different. Aside from the genuinely horrific reports, pictures and videos of victims that came through from Khan Sheikhoun, which prove nothing about who was responsible, no evidence was presented proving Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons, and still none has been presented to this day.
This was pointed out immediately after the events by a number of very credible sources, including Scott Ritter and Hans Blix – both former chief UN weapons inspectors to Iraq – and the former British ambassador to Syria Sir Peter Ford.
Despite this absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media and political elite declared Assad guilty. No enquiry, no questioning of the Trump administration’s official narrative – just pure acceptance of the casus belli.
While the Assad regime is most certainly deplorable, there is, contrary to the mainstream narrative, good reason to believe that it wasn’t responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and that Russia and Syria’s explanation – that Syrian jets struck a rebel warehouse containing bombs and other toxic substances – may have some legitimacy.
For starters, consider the sources. The reports emanating from Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which blamed Assad for the attack and which Western media reported widely, came largely from pro-rebel sources – namely, the White Helmets, an organisation with proven ties to Jihadist rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front.
Verifying any of those sources as ‘independent’ so soon after the attacks would have been very difficult given that the region is occupied by jihadists (yes, the same ‘terrorists’ we’re supposed to be at war with) who’ve been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.
As journalist John Wight wrote: ‘No Western journalist or news crew would dare set foot there, or indeed in any part of opposition-controlled Syria, knowing that as soon as they did they would be kidnapped and butchered’.
Then consider the timing. Why on Earth would Assad risk provoking international outrage by using chemical weapons against the rebels when he was already beating them with conventional ones?
Furthermore, why would he do it just days after the US announced that removing him was no longer their priority, and days before the European Union was set to hold its important doner conference in Brussels on the future of Syria? It would be an act of complete and utter political and diplomatic self-harm.
If anything, Assad had much to lose from committing a chemical attack, while the rebels had everything to gain from its provocation of foreign US intervention against him.
Then there were the inconsistencies with the reports coming out of the rebel-held region. For example, it was reported by Kareem Shaheen in the Guardian that all that remained amongst the rubble was ‘a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket’.
Yet, as the BBC reported: ‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form’.
More questions lay around the lack of protective clothing worn by the White Helmets in the images being fed to Western media.
As former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Scott Ritter observed, if military grade Sarin was used, as reports were claiming, ‘the rescuers would themselves have become victims’. While there were some accounts of this, they were, as Ritter notes, at the site of the attack where claims of a ‘pungent smelling’ chemical were made.
Remarkably, in the face of these legitimate questions, virtually the entire British media and political elite willingly chose to accept the reports of possible Al-Qaeda affiliates and the assertions of the Trump administration, which based its own evidence on the same questionable reports.
We know this because on Tuesday April 11 the White House released a declassified intelligence report outlining why it believed Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.
To the White House’s own admission, the report cited a ‘wide body of open-source material’ and ‘social media accounts’ from inside the rebel-held region, including footage from the White Helmets.
Reviewing the report and alleged evidence against Assad, weapons scientist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Theodore Postol said that it ‘contains absolutely no evidence [emphasis added] that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’.
He added: ‘I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun’.
In a subsequent and more detailed review of the report, Postol concludes that it ‘contains unambiguous evidence’ that the White House made ‘false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts’.
This of course adds credence to the claims that Syrian jets, using conventional weapons, may have struck a rebel warehouse containing toxic substances.
As Jerry Smith, former UN weapons inspector in Syria and the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said to Channel 4 news: ‘if it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population’.
Certainly, it’s not inconceivable that the rebels were storing – or that they even planted – chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in anticipation of the Assad regime bombing the location.
Reports that rebel groups were in possession of and had used chemical weapons in Syria were confirmed back in 2013 by UN special investigator Carla del Ponte.
As a leading member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2013 that was investigating alleged chemical weapons usage by Assad, del Ponte stated that ‘we have no indication at all [emphasis added] that the Syria government had used chemical weapons’.
To the contrary, she added, it appeared that chemical weapons were ‘used by the rebels’. It’s also worth pointing out here that the oftcited example given by media personnel and politicians that Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 is also unproven.
While confirming unequivocally that chemical weapons were used, the subsequent UN investigation into the allegations produced NO evidence that it was Assad who used them, and thus DID NOT conclude such a thing.
This point is highly significant given that so many prominent media and political figures falsely hold up Ghouta as an incontrovertible example of Assad having used chemical weapons in the past.
Let’s be clear, Assad is a despicable dictator. No moral human can defend him or his regime. But this is no reason to abandon rational thought and to cease asking challenging questions about the reasons for bombing an already war-torn country.
While Assad may indeed be behind the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the evidence thus far is flimsy and open to reasonable doubt, something shamefully not reflected in the mainstream.
Has the experience of Iraq taught us nothing?! Indeed, the failure of our political and media elite to ask the simplest of questions regarding the narratives that came from both Idlib province and the Trump administration (which are still being reiterated) betrays the obvious fact that they are utterly incapable of independent critical thought.
As the former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Hans Blix asked following Trump’s airstrikes: ‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away?’
No, of course you don’t. Yet this is exactly what our highly educated cultural and political opinion leaders have done – they’ve gone straight to judgement off of the fanciful claims of the US government and dubious sources without any critical analysis of the evidence – or lack of – in front of them. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605
Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.
Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.
In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.
Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.
Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.
This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.
This article was published in the Morning Star on 8th April 2017. See here.
With Theresa May away pandering to Middle Eastern dictators this week, it’s worth recalling that the British Establishment has always courted deplorable people – from Fascists in the 1930s to Trump in 2017. As long as they serve the commercial interests of British business then they have a place at the table.
Donald Trump, however, seems a world away – he is a public showman, a billionaire, an obvious misogynist who’s bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, he has repressive, warmongering and authoritarian tendencies, and he has shamelessly harnessed racism, xenophobia and division to win the presidency of the United States, among other reprehensible things.
So when asked about how she’ll manage the differences between herself and Trump, what might we expect May to say? ‘He’s a despicable man’, ‘I intend to avoid him at all costs’, ‘Britain will refuse to do business with him because we are a nation of principle’? No, of course not. When asked this very question in January 2017 she responded: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?’
Opposites most certainly do attract, especially when it’s in the commercial interests of Britain for them to do so. In fact, Britain’s commercial interests have always trumped its principles. This is why May and her predecessors have supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, a repressive, authoritarian, human rights abusing regime of billionaires who permit the beheading of criminals, the stoning of women and the funding of Islamic terrorism around the globe.
Or further still, how about Thatcher’s problematic stance on apartheid South Africa, in which she opposed sanctions and condemned Mandela’s African National Congress as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’?
Indeed, it’s important to understand, in the light of May’s kowtowing to Trump and the Queen inviting him on a State Visit, that the British Establishment has always pandered to, and supported, the most despicable people when it has suited the interests of British business.
A most outrageous example of this, which has been tactfully erased from most British history books, came in the 1930s when a large portion of the British Establishment, by way of finance, weapons and diplomacy, supported fascism at home and in Germany and Italy. From the Royal Family to Churchill, fascism was of little concern until it directly threatened British interests. As the renowned British historian AJP Taylor wrote:
‘Every politician extolled the virtues of democracy, especially at the expense of Soviet Russia. Despite this rhetoric […] Ramsay MacDonald wrote friendly personal letters to the Fascist dictator Mussolini; Austen Chamberlain exchanged photographs with him and joined him in family holidays; Churchill sang his praises in newspaper articles’.
Or take Lord Reith, the founding director-general of the BBC. He openly admired both Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1933 he declared that ‘I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again […] They are being ruthless and most determined’. Dare we even remind ourselves of the following footage of a seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor giving a nazi salute with her mother, sister and uncle in 1933. It’s certainly a powerful, if controversial, illustration of just how normalised and accepted fascism was among the British establishment during that period – that is, before it threatened our own national interests.
Last year, Western media and cultural folks vigorously condemned the actions of Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh) for destroying historically significant artefacts and demolishing entire sites of cultural heritage in Iraq. As the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stated:
The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime […] there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage (see Shaheen, 2015).
Historian Tom Holland commented:
It’s a crime against […] Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. The Nazis knew this, and the Khmer Rouge – and the Islamic State clearly understand it too (ibid).
A member of the European Syriac Union, David Vergili, also wrote that ISIS is doing:
tremendous damage to the social fabric of the Middle East […] Preserving cultural and historical heritage in Iraq and elsewhere should be a concern for the whole civilised world (ibid).
Since these remarks were made the issue has without a doubt reached the popular conscious, with articles cropping up here, here, here and here (and many more if one cares to Google). There is now even a Wikipedia page on the topic. Certainly, the preservation of such heritage – any heritage – really should be a concern for the international community, and it rightly ought to be emphasised at every junction that the terror and degradation spread by ISIS in Iraq and its surrounding regions constitutes the most abhorrent aspects of humanity. That being said, it should also be acknowledged that both ISIS and the current turmoil Iraq finds itself in is a direct result of Western intervention in the region; ISIS ‘grew out of our invasion’, as President Obama has officially acknowledged. This is certainly true, although the roots arguably go back much further, an argument that will be be made in this two-part post. Indeed, as the West readily rallies to condemn the cultural destruction committed by ISIS, we might legitimately ask ourselves if we are as ready and willing to openly discuss and condemn the actions of our own governments in the country? Are many of us even familiar with them? Moreover, in the light of what will be outlined, we might also ask whether the preservation of cultural and historical heritage in Iraq is any more of a priority in the minds of our leaders than the human rights of Iraqis have tended to be – unless of course they happen to serve the interests of Western business; namely, the control of the region’s oil.
We ought to consider, for example, that when in 2014 the US Government claimed to be carrying out air strikes in northern Iraq to ‘protect innocent, vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter or other dire humanitarian situations’ (Earnest, 2014), they and the mainstream media failed to mention that ISIS had been advancing toward ‘important oil locations’ in the region (Greenwald, 2014). Commenting on the issue, Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn explained that oil ‘underlies everything’ and is the reason for ‘so much interest in the Middle East […] over the past century’. ‘If it was dates rather than oil’, he rhetorically asked, ‘would there be such acute interest in what goes on in Iraq?’ (Cockburn, 2014). Here it might be useful to review a little history on the matter.
Oil and the Middle East
In his acclaimed history of the oil industry, entitled The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1999), Daniel Yergin outlines the West’s dependence on oil: it has become the ‘power source for the industrial world’ (p. xvi); ‘intimately intertwined with national strategies and politics and power’ (p. xv); and ‘central to security, prosperity, and the very nature of civilization’ (p. xiv). He continues:
[Oil] makes possible where we live, how we live, how we commute to work, how we travel – even where we conduct our courtships. It is the lifeblood of suburban communities. Oil (and natural gas) are the essential components in the fertilizer on which the world agriculture depends; oil makes it possible to transport food to the totally non-self-sufficient megacities of the world. Oil also provides the plastics and chemicals that are the bricks and mortar of contemporary civilization, a civilization that would collapse if the world’s oil wells suddenly went dry (p. xvi).
Given its importance, then, we ought not be surprised that the Middle East – a region containing ‘nearly half of the world’s proven recoverable crude’ (Sorkhabi, 2014) – has been of fundamental interest to Anglo-American governments in the twentieth century. The UK Government’s view of Middle Eastern oil was clearly outlined in 1947 when British planners described it as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’ (cited in Curtis, 2003, p. 16). British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd later noted in 1956 that ‘we must at all costs maintain control of this oil’ (ibid). The US concurred. In 1945, State Department officials described Saudi Arabian oil as a ‘stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history’ (cited in Chomsky, 2003, p. 150). There was also a ‘mutual recognition’ with Britain in the same year that they ought to seek ‘control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world’ (cited in Curtis, 2003, p. 16). The ultimate goal, as planners stated in 1947, was to ‘seek the removal or modification of existing barriers to the expansion of American foreign oil operations [and] promote […] the entry of additional American firms into all phases of foreign oil operations’ (ibid, see also here).
The issue of access to – and control of – oil in the twentieth century was recognised decades prior. Winston Churchill, for example, while head of the Royal Navy in 1911, oversaw the decision to shift from coal to oil power. It was a ‘formidable decision’, he later wrote, because it ‘loomed up the […] intangible problems of markets and monopolies’; namely, that the ‘oil supplies of the world were in the hands of vast oil trusts under foreign control’ (Churchill, 1931, p. 75). The task, therefore, was to secure cheap, reliable access to oil so that Britain could ‘raise the whole power and efficiency of the Navy to a definitely higher level’ (p. 76). As he put it, ‘mastery itself was the prize of the venture’ (ibid).
Persia (Iran from 1935) was Britain’s biggest supplier in these early decades. British business had – through the D’Arcy Concession in 1901 – acquired exclusive rights to search for and exploit the country’s oil for sixty years. When oil was discovered there in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) (now British Petroleum) was established and, seeing its strategic importance, Churchill beseeched the Government to invest in and thereby attain a controlling stake in the company. As he told Parliament in 1914, the Government would provide ‘long-term contracts to assure adequate supplies at secure prices’ and obtain throughout the ‘enormous regions’ the ‘power to regulate developments according to naval and national interests’ (cited in Yergin, 1999, p. 145). This effectively ensured that Britain owned and controlled Persian oil for decades thereafter (see ibid for full details. Alternatively, see here).
It was during this period, as Yergin (1991, p. 157) writes, that the ‘oil potential of Mesopotamia [modern day Iraq] was beginning to loom larger in British military and political planning’. As war broke out, the region became the focus of a bitter struggle between British, French, German and Ottoman forces who were all driven by a ‘common perception […] that the postwar world would require ever-greater quantities of oil for economic prosperity and national power’ (ibid). As secretary of the British War Cabinet Sir Maurice Hankey wrote to Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour:
Oil in the next war will occupy the place of coal in the present war, or at least a parallel place to coal. The only big potential supply that we can get under British control is the Persian and Mesopotamian supply […] control over these supplies becomes a first-class British war aim (ibid).
Accordingly, on May 16, 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed between Britain and France. Pre-empting an allied victory, the agreement dismembered the dwindling Ottoman Empire; that is, Britain and France divided Ottoman-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine between themselves. It is widely contended that when the agreement later became public it – together with the 1917 Balfour Declaration – contradicted an earlier promise made by Britain to the emir of Mecca, which, in return for Arab support fighting the Ottomans (an event inaccurately portrayed in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia), assured him that Britain would recognise Arab independence in the region after the war (see Husayn-McMahon Correspondence). Indeed, no such independence materialised, and as professor of Middle Eastern history at Oxford University Eugene Rogan (2015) observes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was one of many at the time that was ‘concluded solely to advance Britain and France’s [post-war] imperial expansion’. Eminent historian George Antonius (2001, p. 248) described it as a ‘shocking document’ that was ‘not only the product of greed at its worst’ but also ‘a startling piece of [British] double-dealing’. While the extent of this ‘double-dealing’ is disputed (see Kedouri, 2014) and the original Sykes-Picot map was later redrawn at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the accord remains a bitter episode in Arab history with many seeing it as being ‘directly relevant to problems they face today’ (Black, 2015). In 2014, the agreement was drawn into popular Western consciousness when, after having broken through the desert border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS gloatingly tweeted the hashtag #SykesPicotOver (Black, 2014).
Cui Bono? (To Whose Profit?)
One might postulate the view here that Western, particularly British, intervention in Iraq and control of its oil resources was to the benefit of its population. That is to say that our actions were driven by compassion and good intentions; ‘a valiant and benignant force in the history of mankind’, as Churchill saw Britain’s role (cited in Cannadine, 1989, p. 105). Or, as Harold Macmillan (1969, p. 228) wrote, the ‘preservation of peace and the spread of civilisation’ is what the British Empire helped to create. This view, however, could not be further from the truth, especially in Iraq.
Take, for example, when Iraqis and the Kurdish communities in the north revolted en masse against British rule in May 1920. Thousands were killed in a brutal suppression by ‘more than 100,000 British and Indian troops’ who were sent to quell the uprising (Pruszewicz, 2014). These troops were greatly supported by the new policy of ‘aerial policing’, whereby RAF squadrons were deployed to bomb villages of civilians (ibid, see also Glancey, 2003, Vinogradov, 1972 and this documentary). In 1921, RAF Wing Commander J. A. Chamier said:
The best way to demoralise local [Kurdish] people was to concentrate bombing on the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle (cited in Unver, 2015, p. 149).
Squadron Leader Arthur Harris reported after several such raids that:
The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means: within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape (cited in Grosscup, 2006, p. 55)
Only a year prior, in May 1919, the RAF Middle East Command had asked Churchill, then Secretary of State at the War Office, for permission to use chemical gas ‘against recalcitrant Arabs as experiment’. Authorising the experiment, Churchill, the man regarded by millions as the Greatest Briton, exclaimed:
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas […] I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes […] 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 (cited in Brauer and Van Tuyll, 2008, p. 357).
As Beau Grosscup (2006, p. 55), Professor Emeritus specialising in the Politics of Terrorism, writes, despite (or perhaps because of) the ‘savagery’ of the British ‘aerial policing’ employed in the 1920 Iraqi revolt, the actions ‘provided the blueprint’ for future bombing campaigns; the ‘technical and financial advantages’ of it were too great to pass over (certainly, the parallels with modern drone warfare are striking, see Satia, 2014). Despite its effectiveness, however, the blatant savagery of aerial policing was impractical for Britain’s long-term ambitions in the region. As Laming Worthington-Evan, Churchill’s successor at the War Office, recognised in 1921:
If the Arab populations realise that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I am very doubtful if we shall gain [their] acquiescence (cited in Simpson, 2004, p. 74).
A less crass means of subordinating Arabs and Kurds in the region was thus sought. The solution was infamously articulated by then Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon who declared that Britain needed an ‘Arab Façade’ that could be:
ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff […] There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on (cited in Mustafa, 2011).
Accordingly, in 1922 Britain installed the Anglo-friendly puppet regime of King Faisal I of the Hashemite monarchy, who generously facilitated the foreign exploitation and control of Iraq’s oil (see Yergin 1991, pp. 84 ff). In 1925, he signed a 75-year oil concession to what became the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), a foreign-owned consortium in which Britain held the controlling stake and whose headquarters were in London (see Brenchley, 1989, pp. 104-5). Western control of Iraqi oil under a so-called ‘Arab façade’ was crucially secured, at least for the time being.
The British-backed regime of the Hashemite monarchy would rule Iraq until July 14, 1958, at which point they were overthrown in an Arab nationalist revolution led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim. British embassy officials in Bagdad described the event as a ‘popular revolution’ driven by:
pent-up passions of hatred and frustration, nourished on unsatisfied nationalist emotion, hostility to autocratic government, resentment at Western predominance, disgust at unrelieved poverty (cited in Curtis, 2004, p. 81).
Indeed, the British Government was fully aware that the regime it had installed and supported for decades was both undemocratic and vastly unpopular among Iraqis. Only days after the revolution a Foreign Office brief described how the ‘wealth and power have remained concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners and tribal sheikhs centred round [sic] the Court’ (ibid). Weeks prior, Britain’s ambassador in Iraq, Sir Michael Wright, had explained to Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd that not only was ‘the constitutional position in Iraq […] very like what it was in the United Kingdom at the accession of George III ’, but that political opposition could ‘not hold public meetings or express opposition to the regime itself in the press’ (ibid). He further described how the ‘efficiency of the Iraqi security services has increased materially in the last year, thanks largely to British assistance with training and equipment’ and acknowledged that ‘complete political suppression’ had been established (ibid). Expressing his adversity to democracy in Iraq, Wright then told Lloyd that ‘a complete relaxation of present controls on freedom of expression coupled with free elections’ would ‘produce chaos and possibly a revolution’ (ibid). It was much better, then, to support repression and inequality; that is, if it was conductive to British interests.
Interestingly, following the revolution, Qasim was also repressive, often brutal, in pursuit of his political goals. However, his goals were not conductive to Western interests. This became clear in 1961 when he took steps towards nationalising the IPC (meaning that Iraq’s oil would be owned by Iraq and not by foreign companies). In a 1962 memo to the Foreign Office, a British member of the IPC described his ambitions:
[Qasim] wished to give Iraq what he considered political independence, dignity and unity, in brotherly cooperation with other Arabs and in neutrality between the world power blocs; he wished to increase and distribute the national wealth, partly on grounds of nationalist and socialist principle, partly out of simply [sic] sympathy for the poor; on the basis of economic prosperity and justice he wished to found a new society and a new democracy; and he wished to use this strong, democratic, Arabist Iraq as an instrument to free and elevate other Arabs and Afro-Asians and to assist the destruction of ‘imperialism’, by which he largely meant British influence in the underdeveloped countries (cited in ibid, p. 82).
Qasim’s ambitions would not be realised. In 1963, he was overthrown in a coup under General Abdul Arif and Prime Minister Abdul Al-Bakr of the Ba’ath Party. He was quickly tried in a Baghdad radio studio, tied to a chair and shot. What followed has been described as a ‘massacre of extraordinary ferocity’ that was supported and welcomed by the US and British governments (Cockburn, 1997). According to Aburish (1997, cited in ibid), the US Central Intelligence Bureau (CIA) provided the Ba’ath Party with the names of around 5,000 people so they could ‘undertake a “cleansing” programme to get rid of the communists and their leftist allies’. ‘Pregnant women and old men were killed, some tortured to death in front of their children’ (ibid). As Roger Morris (2003), former US State Department official and senior staff member at the US National Security Council (NSC), explains, the Ba’ath Party, with CIA backing, ‘systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite’. Victims included ‘hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures’ (ibid, see also here). The coup was declared a ‘great victory’ by James Titchfield, head of the CIA, who said they ‘really had the T’s crossed on what was happening’ (cited in Cockburn, 1997). An NSC aide also informed President Kennedy that it was ‘almost certainly a gain for our side’ (cited in Aburish, 1997, p. 139-40).
Supporting the ‘Bloodbath’
Collating the now declassified embassy correspondence between Baghdad and London during the coup, Curtis (2004, pp. 85 ff) shows how the British Government indisputably ‘knew of the massacres and welcomed the new regime carrying them out’. For example, a week after his embassy reported mass killings, executions, gunshots and the ‘rounding up of communists’, the British ambassador in Baghdad, Sir Roger Allen, told the Foreign Office that ‘the process of winkling out the Communists in Baghdad and the towns is continuing’ (ibid, pp. 85-6). However, he added, ‘a Communist problem will remain’ and while the new ‘government is doing what it can […] it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself’ because it ‘probably suits our interests pretty well’ (ibid). An internal Foreign Office brief sent out the same day declared that the new Ba’athists had ‘shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot’; they ought to be ‘somewhat friendlier to the West’ (ibid). A month later an embassy official referred to the events after the coup as a ‘bloodbath’ and that ‘we should not wish to be seen publically to advocate such methods’ of suppression (ibid). Nonetheless, it was hoped that there was ‘a chance for a new period in the oil companies’ relations with the [Ba’athist] government’, as another Foreign Office briefing note said (ibid, p. 88).
The correspondence revealed by Curtis is truly shocking. Not only did the British Government support and welcome the so-called ‘bloodbath’ undertaken by the Ba’ath Party; they subsequently sold the regime weapons and ammunition and sent teams of mechanics to maintain the equipment in the months that followed. Among these weapons were 500 Hunter rockets to the Iraqi air force (with another 1,500 delivered by October and 18,000 to follow), ammunition for Saracen armoured cars, mortar bombs, 25-pounder shells, armed helicopters and sterling sub-machine guns (ibid, p. 92). The British Government approved these sales knowing full well that the Ba’athists were using them to massacre the Kurdish people in the north. ‘Iraq’s methods have been brutal and might sustain a charge of attempting to destroy or reduce the Kurds as a racial minority’, the Foreign Office noted in a minute in September (cited in ibid, p. 92). Only two months earlier, before the British Government approved most of the arms sales, the British embassy in Baghdad told the Foreign Office that:
The Kurds tend to be shot rather than taken prisoner. We have had some indications from officials that this may be a deliberate policy […] We have since heard reports of an intention drastically to reduce the Kurdish population in the North and to resettle the area with Arabs and of at least one Arab officer’s disgust with the methods employed as inhumane and ill-advised in the long term. There is no doubt at all of the government’s deliberate destruction of villages […] the government of Iraq […] have resorted to the use of force without the normal civilised safeguards against undue loss of civilian life and perhaps even with some intention of reducing the size of the Kurdish minority in Iraq, or at least cowing it permanently (ibid, pp. 92-3).
As this demonstrates, the British Government knew full well what the weapons they were selling to the Ba’ath Party would be used for, yet they continued to sell them. As Curtis acknowledges, this complicity in the masacre of Kurds and the destruction of their villages ‘was a forbearer of the same British policies with regard to Iraqi aggression in the 1980s and Turkish terror against Kurds in the 1990s’ (ibid). British officials even actively ‘worked to ensure that the UN would not discuss allegations of genocide in Iraq’ (p. 93). A Foreign Office brief to Britain’s delegation to the UN in September 1963 reads: ‘it is obviously HMG’s wish to get rid of this item as quickly as possible’ (cited in ibid). Foreign Office official William Morris proposed that if the issue did come up then ‘our best line would be to abstain from voting’ and to ‘avoid saying anything at all if we possibly can’ (ibid). When another year-long offensive against the Kurds took place in 1965, not only was napalm dropped on villages, which the British Government was fully aware of (see ibid), but it has also been reported that chemical weapons were used (see Aburish, 2000, p. 68; McDowell, 2000, p. 318). When Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson appealing to him to stop arming the Ba’ath Party and to intercede to stop them from ‘carrying out their alleged intention of launching gas attacks against the Kurds’, no reply was sent (cited in Curtis, 2004, p. 95).
Preserving the ‘Façade’
What has been outlined so far reveals how in their efforts to maintain access to – and control of – the region regarded as the ‘vital prize’ in world power and domination (Lloyd), British (and later US) governments have shown a remakable lack of concern for both the democratic and human rights of Iraqis. This, however, is a drop in the ocean compared with what would happen in the decades to follow. Indeed, if the Ba’ath Party sounds familiar, then that is because it is; it is the same party that Saddam Hussein would later come to lead in 1979. As Aburish (cited in Cockburn, 1997) writes, Saddam, who was exiled in Cairo at the time of the 1963 coup due to an earlier failed attempt at assassinating General Qasim, ‘rushed back to Iraq […] to join the victors’ and ‘was personally involved in the torture of leftists in the separate detention centres for the fellaheen [peasants] and the muthaqafeen, or educated class’. ‘We came to power on a CIA train’, said Secretary General of the party, Ali Saleh Sa’adi (cited in Pilger, 2003, p. 68). Saddam’s reign of terror would last until the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was a regime marked by ‘brutality’ and ‘repression’ (Tony Blair) and decades of ‘deceit and cruelty’ (George W. Bush). So far, its crimes against humanity remain vastly greater than those of ISIS, yet there is virtually no overt admition from our governments (let alone much of our mainstream media) that Saddam’s regime was arduently supported by them throughout most of its worst atrocities.
If what has been outlined thus far does not make one question Britain’s alleged commitment to the ‘preservation of peace and the spread of civilisation’ (Macmillan), or that it has been a ‘benignant force’ for mankind (Churchill), then what is to come in part two of this post is sure to have a disturbing effect.
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Aburish, S. K. (1997). A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite. London: Victor Gollancz.
Said K. Aburish. (2000). Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. London: Bloomsbury.
Antonius (2001). The Arab Awakening. San Antonio: Simon Publications.