“Those who would forget history…

“Those who would forget history…

… are condemned to repeat it”. Can’t remember who said that, but I was reminded of it when reading a terrific column by Niall Ferguson in today’s Sunday Telegraph [NB: free registration required.] Here’s an excerpt:

“There was amazement last year when I pointed out in the journal Foreign Affairs that in 1917 a British general had occupied Baghdad and proclaimed: ‘Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.’ By the same token, scarcely any American outside university history departments is aware that within just a few months of the formal British takeover of Iraq, there was a full-scale anti-British revolt.

What happened in Iraq last week so closely resembles the events of 1920 that only a historical ignoramus could be surprised. It began in May, just after the announcement that Iraq would henceforth be a League of Nations “mandate” under British trusteeship. (Nota bene, if you think a handover to the UN would solve everything.) Anti-British demonstrations began in Baghdad mosques, spread to the Shi’ite holy centre of Karbala, swept on through Rumaytha and Samawa – where British forces were besieged – and reached as far as Kirkuk.

Contrary to British expectations, Sunnis, Shi’ites and even Kurds acted together. Stories abounded of mutilated British bodies. By August the situation was so desperate that the British commander appealed to London for poison gas bombs or shells (though these turned out not to be available). By the time order had been restored in December – with a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions – British forces had sustained over 2,000 casualties and the financial cost of the operation was being denounced in Parliament. In the aftermath of the revolt, the British were forced to accelerate the transfer of power to a nominally independent Iraqi government, albeit one modelled on their own form of constitutional monarchy.

I am willing to bet that not one senior military commander in Iraq today knows the slightest thing about these events. The only consolation is that maybe some younger Americans are realising that the US has lessons to learn from something other than its own supposedly exceptional history…”