Rewriting History

A few months after Coalition forces successfully secured control of Baghdad and toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Fardus Square before the world’s media, Tony Blair referred to way future historians will remember the liberation of Iraq. It is certainly possible to construct a version of history in which the US and UK armed forces liberate a country condemned to years of tyranny by a murderous despot and then proceed to build the foundations of a new liberal democracy extending both wealth and freedoms to the majority of ordinary Iraqi citizens, but sadly hampered by a growing insurgency fuelled by the forces of intolerant Islamic fundamentalism and funded by external powers. Fox News succeeds fairly well at convincing a large section of the American viewing public that whether or not the Coalition forces ultimately succeed in defeating Al Qaeda, they are a force for good, but to do so they have to suppress glaring facts on the ground, not least the ninety years of Anglo-American intervention in the Middle East, overthrowing democratically elected governments, installing despots and arming client regimes, and more important a medium term plan to seize control of the largest concentration of the world’s remaining cheap oil and gas reserves. Fox News’s rewriting of recent history differs little from that deployed in the Stalinist Soviet Union or in the short-lived Third Reich, except for their reliance on private capital rather than a state monopoly to ensure the masses only receive filtered information and all dissent is methodically sidelined and ridiculed.

Some may recall the debate within the self-defined liberal left on the free speech we should afford to rightwing political extremists. Broadly speaking we may distinguish the Voltairean position preferred by the likes of Noam Chomsky with the militant anti-fascist position preferred by the ideological hard left, but intriguingly also by a number of national governments. The latter position, popularised as no platform for fascists, has two variants, one relying on the state to ban neo-fascist views and the other relying on militant antifascists to silence any murmurings of fascistoid historical revisionism, e.g. staging demos outside David Irving’s lectures. I discussed this in Free Speech and Hate Speech, analysing the thorny issue of the intellectual freedom of Nazi holocaust deniers or revisionists (as nobody admits to denial). The subtle point many on the left fail to gauge is that historical research and debate does not need state protection, indeed as soon as the state outlaws certain versions of history, effective debate ceases. Thus currently it is illegal to call into question the official version of the Nazi holocaust in Germany, Austria, Poland, France and Israel, but apparently in Turkey and Israel it’s fine to downplay the extent of Armenian holocaust. Naive leftists would extend the interpretation of the French Gaissot Law to outlaw denial of the 1918-19 Turkish slaughter of 1,500,000 Armenians (that’s the usual estimate, but the Turkish government revises this down to 300,000), the victims of slavery (as many as 50 to 60 million) and the victims of Stalinism and Maoism (also in their tens of millions). As the Armenian case exemplifies, truth does not need state protection as long as historians on all sides of the debate with different cultural biases are allowed to continue their endless research and debate. When dealing with tragedies on the scale of the afore-mentioned massacres one can never be very exact with numbers, 100,000 soon becomes 1 million and 10 million can soon become just a few hundred thousand.

Out of the blue the neolaborite Guardian reports on Amaresh Misra’s ‘War of Civilisations: India AD 1857 claiming the occupying British administration was responsible not for just a few hundred thousands deaths during the Indian Mutiny, but a deliberate policy for the eradication of as many as ten million Indians, a forgotten holocaust occurring 88 years prior to the Nazi Shoah, but seldom taught in modern British schools. Now let’s have a quick reality check. Ask a random group of 20 British teenagers of their understanding of the Nazi holocaust and then ask the same question to 20 Germans in the same age group. Surprisingly most will give fairly similar answers, though I’d hazard that the German group would be a little more precise in their rendition of the official facts. Now ask the same teenagers what they know about the Indian mutiny and with one or two possible exceptions you’ll meet with blank faces. Why? Because the history of British colonisation is mainly written either by British academics or by the descendants of a highly anglicised Indian ruling elite, educated in English-medium schools. To limit the death toll atributed to British loyalists to just 100,000 (the orthodox figure usually cited in history books) is tantamount to revising the horrendous murder count of the 1994 Rwandan democide by only considering official death certificates or possibly corpses counted by Red Cross personnel, both of which are undoubtedly much lower than the usual estimate of 800,000 to a million. Anyone visiting the country in the aftermath of the slaughter could not fail to appreciate the scale of the atrocities, whatever the exact composition or ethnic identity of the perpetrators and victims might have been.

Two key factors tend to muddy the waters when in comes to the historical truth of human death and desctruction. One is time itself. The further back in history a mass slaughter is buried, the harder it is to prove the exactitude of rival claims. The second is the powers of persuasion and social control. Most of us who have grown to like much of modern North American culture, myself included, may struggle with the notion that elements of the US ruling elite are responsible, either directly or indirectly, for millions of killings.

Let's fast forward to the controversy over varying Iraqi body counts. Figures range from 650,000 as estimated by the Lancet October 2006 household survey to just 70,000 as estimated by Iraqi Body Count on the basis of press reports and other official sources. The former survey used the same cluster survey method deployed in Rwanda and not dissimilar at all from the population sampling techniques used to obtain figures for other mass slaughters of the last two centuries and much more accurate than wild exaggerations of enemy atrocities sometimes used to justify intervention, most notably during the 1999 Kosovo airstrikes when a UK government minister announced as many as 100,000 Kosovans had been gone missing and feared dead at the hands of Serb security forces, without any scientifically valid surveys on the ground to back up the claim. Later estimates fail to show more than 3000 deaths during the conflict. Yet when our rulers are responsible for mass murder, we are expected to believe only the lowest estimates.

Neil Gardner