[A-List] Iraq: parallels with UK imperial history

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Mon Oct 25 22:46:04 MDT 2004

The colonial precedent

The growing brutality and deception of the Iraq war mirrors Britain's recent
imperial history

Mark Curtis
Tuesday October 26, 2004
The Guardian

The redeployment of British forces in Iraq to support a US assault on
Falluja marks another stage in a creeping return to the colonial era, when
popular revolts against occupation were routinely suppressed by overwhelming
force. These past episodes, revealed in declassified British government
files, provide numerous parallels with Iraq, and suggest a pattern of future
blunders and atrocities. Those in Britain who like to regard more recent
military interventions as humanitarian might dwell on those parallels as the
latest phase of the Iraq war unfolds.

British ministers' claim to be defending civilisation against barbarity in
Iraq finds a powerful echo in 1950s Kenya, when Britain sought to smash an
uprising against colonial rule. Yet, while the British media and political
class expressed horror at the tactics of the Mau Mau, the worst abuses were
committed by the occupiers. The colonial police used methods like slicing
off ears, flogging until death and pouring paraffin over suspects who were
then set alight.

British forces killed around 10,000 Kenyans during the Mau Mau campaign,
compared with the 600 deaths among the colonial forces and European
civilians. Some British battalions kept scoreboards recording kills, and
gave £5 rewards for the first sub-unit to kill an insurgent, whose hands
were often chopped off to make fingerprinting easier. "Free fire zones" were
set up, where any African could be shot on sight.

As opposition to British rule intensified, brutal "resettlement" operations,
which led to the deaths of tens of thousands, forced around 90,000 into
detention camps. In this 1950s version of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, forced
labour and beatings were systematic and disease rampant. Former camp
officers described "short rations, overwork, brutality and flogging" and
"Japanese methods of torture".

Guerrillas resisting British rule were routinely designated "terrorists", as
now in Iraq. Britain never admitted that it was opposing a popular,
nationalist rebellion in Kenya. Similarly, leftwing Malayan insurgents
fighting British rule in the 1950s had strong popular support among the
Chinese community but were officially called "terrorists". In secret,
however, Foreign Office correspondence described the war as being fought "in
defence of [the] rubber industry", then controlled by British and European

But under the banner of fighting communism, British forces were given free
rein in Malaya. Collective punishments were inflicted on villages for aiding
insurgents. A shoot-to-kill policy was promoted, tens of thousands of people
were removed into "new villages" and used as cheap labour, and British
soldiers had themselves photographed holding guerrillas' decapitated heads.
The idea that the revolt was ended through "winning hearts and minds" is a
myth; it was crushed by overwhelming force, such as massive aerial bombing.

The brutality needed to be kept secret, a key theme in suppressing revolts.
After Britain intervened to crush a rebellion in Oman in 1957, an internal
Foreign Office minute stated that "we want to avoid the RAF killing Arabs if
possible, especially as there will be newspaper correspondents on the spot".
The British army commander in Oman later noted that "great pains were taken
throughout the Command to keep all operational actions out of the press".

The reason for this was that Britain committed numerous war crimes in Oman,
including the systematic bombing of civilian targets such as water supplies
and farms. These attacks "would deter dissident villages from gathering
their crops" and ensure "denial of water", officials stated in private.
Bombing was intended to "show the population the power of weapons at our
disposal" and to convince them that "resistance will be fruitless and lead
only to hardship".

Britain was defending an extremely repressive regime where smoking in
public, playing football and talking to anyone for more than 15 minutes were
banned. Yet Harold Macmillan told President Kennedy in a 1957 telegram that
"we believe that the sultan is a true friend to the west and is doing his
best for his people".
As Blair and Bush claim to support democracy in Iraq, it is as well to
remember that London and Washington have almost always opposed popular,
democratic forces in the Middle East, preferring strong regimes capable of
bringing "order".

Britain's stance on the US war in Vietnam offers other useful lessons. Just
as Tony Blair poses as providing a brake on US tactics in Iraq, Harold
Wilson claimed to do the same over Vietnam. Yet Britain secretly backed the
US in every stage of military escalation.

In July 1965, when the US doubled its ground troop numbers in Vietnam,
Wilson privately reassured President Johnson of his support for US policies
"in the interests of peace and stability".

The Wilson-Johnson correspondence highlights a shocking level of connivance
between No 10 and the White House to deceive the public. When the US first
bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in June 1966, Wilson issued a statement
disassociating the government from the bombing. Yet this statement had been
passed to the US for approval while Wilson assured Johnson that "I cannot
see that there is any change in your basic position that I could urge on
you." The myth in Iraq that Britain is not complicit in US brutalities has
its precedent in Vietnam. Declassified files show that, in 1962, Britain
covertly sent an SAS team to south Vietnam under "temporary civilian
status", to help train soldiers of the dictatorial regime of President Diem.
Britain secretly provided arms and intelligence support to the US to improve
US bombing.

Moreover, brutal US "counter-insurgency" programmes were based on prototypes
developed by British advisers. Britain's "Delta Plan" for the south
Vietnamese regime, described by the Foreign Office as intended "to dominate,
control and win over the population" in rural areas, became the US
"strategic hamlets" programme, which forced millions of Vietnamese peasants
into fortified villages that resembled concentration camps.

As in Iraq, the publicly proclaimed search for peace was largely a charade.
A senior Foreign Office official wrote in 1965: "The government are fighting
a continuous rearguard action to preserve British diplomatic support for
American policy in Vietnam. They can only get away with this by constantly
emphasising that our objective, and that of the Americans, is a negotiated

These episodes highlight the gulf between what ministers have told the
public and what they have understood to be the case in private. The
declassified secret files point to some harsh truths about current policy in
Iraq: that the war is not about what our leaders say it is (democracy), is
not primarily against who they say it is (terrorists) and is not being
conducted for whom they say it is (Iraqis).

Iraqis are in practice regarded as "unpeople" whose deaths matter little in
the pursuit of western power; the major block on committing atrocities is
the fear of being exposed and ministers will do all they can to cover them
up. The public is the major threat to their strategy, which explains why
they resort to public deception campaigns. If, as must be expected,
atrocities now multiply in Iraq - with Britain complicit - we cannot claim
we were not warned.

· Mark Curtis' new book, Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, is
published next month by Vintage.

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