History not taught

Feb 7th, 2008 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Our parish community is a great cross-section of Irish society, so on our parish bookstall (paperbacks €1, hardbacks €2 – best value in town) all sorts of stuff turns up. Amongst the Cathy Kellys and Cecelia Aherns on Sunday, there was a book from the American writer and academic Noam Chomsky. Power and Terror: Post 9/11 Talks and Interviews was published in 2003.

Reading it while eating porridge this morning, this passage struck forcibly. Chomsky is talking about the Americans using such force as they deemed necessary to run the world and says,

. . . when the British were running the world, they were doing the same thing.

Let’s just take the Kurds. What was Britain doing about the Kurds? Here is a little lesson in history that they don’t teach in the schools in England. But we know it from declassified documents. Britain had been the world domi­nant power, but by the time of the First World War, it was weakened by the war. After the war, if you look at the internal secret documents, the British were considering how they were going to continue to run Asia, now that they didn’t have the military force to actually occupy it.

The suggestion was that they should turn to air power. Air power was just coming along at that time at the end of the First World War. So the idea was to use air power to attack civilians. They figured that would be a good way to reduce the costs of crushing the barbarians. Winston Churchill, who was then the colonial secretary, didn’t think that was enough. He got a request from the Royal Air Force office in Cairo asking him for permis­sion, I am quoting it now, to use poison gas “against recalcitrant Arabs.”

The recalcitrant Arabs they were talking about happened to be Kurds and Afghans, not Arabs. But, you know, by racist standards, anybody you want to kill is an Arab. So the question was, Should we use poison gas? And you have to remember, this is the First World War. poison gas was the ultimate atrocity at that time. It was the worst thing you could imagine.

Well, this document was circulated around the British empire. The India office was resistant. They said, If you use poison gas against Kurds and Afghans, it is going to cause us problems in India, where we are having plenty of problems. There would be uprisings, and the people would be furious, and so on. They’re not going to mind in England, of course, but in India they might. Churchill was outraged by this. And he said:

“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 …. [W]e cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilisation of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier. It will save British lives. We will use every means that science permits us”.

So that is the way you deal with Kurds and Afghans when you are the British. What happened afterwards? Well, we don’t really know exactly. And the reason we don’t know exactly is that ten years ago the British gov­ernment instituted what it called an Open Government Policy to make government operations more transparent, you know, to move toward democracy. So people will fig­ure out what their government is doing.

And the first act of the Open Government Policy was to remove from the Public Records Office-and, presumably, destroy-all documents having to do with the use of poi­son gas and air power against the recalcitrant Arabs, that is, the Kurds and Afghans. So we can be happy that we will never have to know exactly what the outcome of this lit­tle Churchillian exercise was.

The British did succeed. There were a lot of disarma­ment treaties at that time. In those years after the end of the First World War, there were efforts to reduce war and so on. The British succeeded in undermining every attempt to bar the use of air power against civilians. And great British statesmen were very pleased about this. Again, in the internal record, the famous and greatly honoured states­man Lloyd George praised the government in 1932 for having, once again, blocked any barrier to the use of air power.

He said, “[W]e insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers.”

Is Chomsky correct? Are the Americans simply following the example set by the British a century earlier? If the documents don’t exist, then how would anyone know what they said? If there is no evidence, then one can infer whatever one wishes and no assertion can be denied.

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  1. Problem is anyone can make any claims they like providing they can be neither proved nor disproved.
    As with journalism front page banner headlines, if they are proved incorrect two small lines at the bottom of a collumn on the back page as an apology

  2. I don’t doubt it may have been discussed as a possible scenario and I believe that Churchill did contemplate the use of Mustard Gas on the ‘arabs’. Lets face it, foreign entities have been assisting governments in the middle east for ever on one way or another. I’ll have to get me history books out! Peter’s right, unsubstantiated claims still get published and it’s no big deal to retract in 5 point times roman.

  3. And on an entirely different subject… Congratulations! Am really pleased – all the hard work is suddenly worth it!

  4. Just because the British used those tactics in another time does it give the Americans the excuse to use them a hundred years later, are the yanks justifying what they are doing by blaming us? Peter you are right, power of the press to brainwash the masses!!

  5. Chomsky is against US involvement in Iraq and cites the British stories to attempt to show that America’s main partner laid the foundations for American policy.

    But he admits that there are no documents to show the British did what Churchill suggested (and Churchill could have suggested all sort of things when he had had a couple of glasses) and the quote from a by then ageing David Lloyd George doesn’t add much to the case.

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