Tuesday, June 06, 2006

If the UK knew Ireland better the Iraq invasion might not have happened

George Monbiot is prompted by the UK media's bashing of Ken Loach's latest film (despite these critics not having seen it) to conclude that if the British "knew more about Ireland, we might never have invaded Iraq" I haven't seen it either so can't comment on the film other than to say it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Monbiot says:

"There is no question that the IRA also killed ruthlessly - not just police and soldiers but also people they deemed to be informers and collaborators. But Loach shows this too. (I have seen the film.) The press hates him because he admits that the people who committed these acts were not evil automata, but human beings capable of grief, anger, love and pity. So too, of course, were the British forces, whose humanity is always emphasised by the newspapers. Ken's crime is to have told the other side of the story.

The other side - whether it concerns Ireland, India, Kenya or Malaya - is always inadmissable. The torture and killing of the colonised is ignored or excused, while their violent responses to occupation are never forgotten. The only aggressors permitted to exist are those who fight back.

Does it matter what people say about a conflict that took place 85 years ago? It does. For the same one-sided story is being told about the occupation of Iraq. The execution of 24 civilians in Haditha allegedly carried out by US marines in November is being discussed as a disgraceful anomaly: the work of a few "bad apples" or "rogue elements". Donald Rumsfeld claims "we know that 99.9% of our forces conduct themselves in an exemplary manner", and most of the press seems to agree. But if it chose to look, it would find evidence of scores of such massacres...

Why should we be surprised by these events? This is what happens when one country occupies another. When troops are far away from home, exercising power over people that they don't understand, knowing that the population harbours those who would kill them if they could, their anger and fear and frustration turns into a hatred of all "micks" or "gooks" or "hajjis". Occupations brutalise both the occupiers and the occupied. It is our refusal to learn that lesson which allows new colonial adventures to take place. If we knew more about Ireland, the invasion of Iraq might never have happened."

There is an untapped well of ignorance about foreign politics in the UK (I should say this is not unique to the UK, of course) which makes the kind of ill-informed media critiques Monbiot is complaining about potentially quite dangerous, because of the kind of (anti-Irish in this case) xenophobia they can whip up. In the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings in the 1970s my aunt was paying for some goods in a shop. When she said thanks to the lady at the checkout, in her dulcet Irish tones, the man next in line spat in her face and launched into a rant about effing Irish murderers. To this day she doesn't hold a grudge against her assailant, though I wonder if he has lost his hatred of those who are different to him.

And Monbiot is correct. Authorities ignore the atrocities of war and occupation at their own peril and that of future generations. You can't send young people with guns into volatile situations where they believe their lives to be under constant threat and expect them to behave rationally and ethically in all circumstances. That's not seeking to excuse massacres of the type that happened at Haditha allegedly carried out by US marines. There are no clear good guys with white hats and bad guys with black hats in a warzone, just ordinary people who have got caught up in engaging in extraordinary violence to pursue some cause, follow orders, defend themselves and their colleagues or family, purge some hatred, engage in revenge... Soldiers and other ordinary people in such situations have a tough enough job without pretending that they are saints. Ordinary people make mistakes. Unfortunately mistakes and loss of control in a war zone mean people get badly injured or killed.

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