Basra: Imperial Deja Vu?
There always seems to a point in British military operations in what is now euphemistically called by the Americans "operations other than war" when one ill-considered act of violence serves to undo months or years of hard (if not always effective) work in the arena of trying to avoid confrontation and build civil institutions. History shows us that the British have not always had more than superficial success in building inclusive and indigenous engines of civic involvement, but that is a subject for another time. What is pertinent here is that the British have long believed that if you provide the framework for civil institutions the locals will bally well do the right thing and form a jolly splendid police force, local government, and so on. Ah, god bless short term amnesia in Whitehall. And god damn the itchy trigger fingers of the British high command.
For those who have been riding a wave of supposed British tactical superiority in regards to the American operations in the Sunni north (always a more tricky proposition given that this was Saddam's patronage heartland: imagine a miltary presence trying to install Ted Kennedy as governor of Texas and you get the picture) this week's violence in Basra was a rude awakening. It should not have been.
Post war or quasi-peacetime governmental control of civilian areas by British military authorities have invariably involved one defining event that has turned a fearful or apathetic general population into a seething mass of resentment and opposition (1945 Germany is a notable exception, and mostly because total war meant that destruction, hunger, demoralization, and draconian laws supported by the British at home left the Germans in no position to argue. And a bloody good thing too, frigging Nazis). I'll leave analysis of the British occupation and this week's events to a later date (and better pundits) but let me flesh out this post with some previous examples:
1773: Lexington, Massachusetts. British troops fire on American militia. Many of those that previously considered England the motherland now saw her as the blood enemy.
1919: Amritsar, India: The shootings of peaceful protesters and then the humiliation of civilians under martial law saw British general Reginald Dyer hand Gandhi the tools he needed to ultimately drive the British out of India.
1972: Londonderry, Ulster: Paratroopers fire on a peaceful crowd of catholic civil rights marchers, killing 13. The British conceit of their troops being honest brokers in the conflict between Ulster's two christian sects evaporated in the eyes of the catholics and many at home, leading to an explosion of IRA miltiary action that continued for decades. Peace still hangs in the balance.
The situation in Basra too hangs in the balance. One thing is certain however; trust- always weak- is now badly damaged between the locals and the British, and berets will be replaced with helmets for a long time to come. We may not recall the British occupation of Iraq after the First World War, but the Iraqi folk memory surely does (no less than America recalls the Revolutionary War) in in the minds of the people of Basra province we are beining to emulate our grandfathers and the previous occupation. For a people with a long memory the leap from bashing in jail walls with APCs (no matter who turns out to be in the right) to aerial bombardment by Hawker Hind biplanes in the 1920s is not too great a one to make. The British military has a small window to fix this disaster. Alas, given the holes in their previous policy and the complacent smugness that has blinkered actions so far, it is doubtful that the nettle will be siezed with sufficient alacrity.