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.