General Dyer in Iraq

Imperial Western projects to bring civilisation to the East through a White Man’s Burden have a typical unplanned side-effect. The would-be civilisers find that the Easterners resist forced civilisation, and inflict heavy casualties. The civilisers retaliate, and some of them find it expedient to use mass killing, torture and brutality to win the war of civilisation.

This was demonstrated by the British Empire in India, the French Empire in Algeria, and is now being demonstrated by the American quasi-empire in Iraq. While photos of torture and sexual assault of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison are shocking, they should surprise none but the naive.

After the 1857 mutiny, British “hanging groups” scoured the countryside stringing up any Indians they could find. Civilisers in London thought that regrettable but understandable.

Let me not exaggerate. Unlike earlier conquerors, the British prided themselves on high standards. Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were chastened and impeached for financial loot. General Dyer was sacked for mass murder and for making Indians crawl on their bellies in Amritsar.

The Americans too will fine Halliburton and sack Army officers responsible for torture in Iraqi prisons. While apologising, they will emphasise that such excesses are against American values. Just as the British disavowed Dyer. And with just as little effect on locals.

The French used every sort of torture to quell what they regarded as terrorism in Algeria. Abu Ghraib was a picnic compared to what went on in French prisons in Algeria.

Americans say their war on Iraq was based partly on self-defence (arising from delusions of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction) and partly from the beatific vision of Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his neoconservative colleagues to convert the whole Middle East, starting with Iraq, into a democratic paradise. This, say Americans, is not imperialism.

Really? The East India Company started as a trading venture, found troops were necessary for self-defence, and ended up conquering India. A gloss was put on this by unending eloquence (typified by Rudyard Kipling) about bringing civilised values to oppressed people in the East who had known nothing but autocratic repression. Just like Wolfowitz today.

Despite setbacks, Wolfowitz will happily sacrifice American lives to establish democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. He sees it as a noble long-term endeavour. He really should quote Kipling:

“Take up the White Man’s Burden, Send forth the best you breed, Go bind you sons to exile To Serve your captives’ need.”

Wolfowitz will protest that he aims not to make Iraqis captive, but to make them fit to govern themselves as a democracy. He probably does not realise that he is echoing the sentiments of Herbert Edwardes, the British civil servant who helped put down the 1857 mutiny: ‘‘It will be hell to make India fit to rule itself, but it is a necessary hell.” Now, Wolfowitz can say, accurately, that the British Empire had a happy ending. It created a ruling class of Indians who shared the values of the European Enlightenment, believed in liberty-equality-fraternity, and created a genuine democracy. By historical standards, it was an astonishing achievement. The ruler and ruled parted on good terms. Why not in Iraq too?

Mainly because nationalism is a much stronger force today, and so the cost in lives for the occupier today is enormous. Americans naively believed that they would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq. But US opinion polls now show a majority saying occupation is not worth the cost in American lives.

President Bush insists he will stay put in Iraq, but that is a face-saving necessity. It may not last after the Presidential election in November. Wolfowitz may remind us that the US occupied Germany and Japan after World War II. The US experienced as much anti-American hate in these countries as it does in Iraq today. Yet with time and patience, it helped convert both these countries, once regarded as irredeemably militaristic and autocratic, into peaceful democracies. Why not Iraq too?

For two reasons. First, US citizens want to cut and run in Iraq, not stay on as in Germany and Japan. Second, Israel comes in the way. After World War II, the US could legitimately claim to be protecting Germany and Japan from a Soviet threat, and this made American occupation tolerable.

But in Iraq, the US is regarded not as Iraq’s ally but Israel’s ally. From an Arab viewpoint, Israel is a western colonial creation, where white men have driven Easterners from their lands. The US simply cannot bring itself to see events in this light.

It views Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organisations to be crushed, where-as even pro-democracy Iraqis see these outfits as freedom fighters. This does not augur well for a happy ending.

What do you think?