How May We Put it Down?
How May We Put it Down?
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the poet-imperialist Rudyard Kipling's faith in his own country's will to conquer the world (for its own good, of course) had begun to weaken.
He turned towards the fresh shoulder of the United States and urged President Theodore Roosevelt to pick up at least some of the white man's burden. Teddy Roosevelt went ahead and liberated Cuba, although he had to free it from some other white men. When America defeated Spain in 1899 the Philippines came as a bonus. But the latter did not seem that eager to be liberated, and at least some of them waged a bitter guerrilla war against American troops. When the casualties began to rise, the New York World published a ditty:
We've taken up the white man's burden
Of ebony and brown;
Now will you tell us, Rudyard
How we may put it down?
That's always the difficult part: How we may put it down. More than a hundred years later, America still does not have the answer. There is of course the romantic answer, shaped by the extraordinary success that the Americans had in reshaping the fortunes of their principal enemies in the Second World War. Germany and Japan were recreated in the democratic-capitalist mode and became exceptional success stories. But there is a very basic difference between the Second World War and subsequent hot wars that America has either started or become involved in. The Second World War was fought between two alliances that were battling to control the world. It was a war between imperialists. Japan wanted to rule the whole of Asia, and its military effort to do so began much before war broke out in the European theatre. You could date this to as far back as 1905 when Japan stopped a European thrust towards the Pacific with a dramatic naval victory over Russia. But even if we do not link this with later events, then Japanese imperialism certainly takes on a military, and brutal, dimension with its invasion of China. Similarly, Adolf Hitler was carving out an empire for Germany that included Europe of course but also stretched far beyond, towards the natural resources that were critical to the economic success of any empire that promised prosperity to the conquering race. When Hitler publicly offered to sign a peace treaty with Britain after the fall of France, he had only one condition. Britain could retain her empire, he said in a speech, but she must hand over Iraq and Egypt to the Germans. He wanted control over the Red Sea and Suez Canal; and he wanted all the oil of Iraq. Germany wanted the best parts of what the British already possessed. France too was an imperial power and showed no desire to release either Africa or Vietnam from its tentacles. In a sense, America, which kept out of this bloody struggle for the world, changed the ideological dimensions of a war that it was forced to enter after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour when Roosevelt promised freedom to all the nations of the post-war world. If that promise was genuine, then it was overtaken by a second conflict for the world, the 45-year cold war between America and the Soviet Union. The ideological overtones of this conflict were different, but neo-colonialism was not the monopoly of either side. The Americans were happier with democracy among their friends; the Soviets preferred dictatorship. But the existence of two superpowers ensured a balance that permitted space for degrees of neutrality, as evident in the non-aligned movement. It is no accident that the non-aligned movement has fallen into disuse after the collapse of the Soviet empire. It is axiomatic that the United States and Britain would not have invaded Iraq if the Soviet Union were still in business. The risk of response would have been too high.
America is too powerful to be denied victory; and the American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is too brash to be denied his wars. But you must understand the nature of the war you are engaged in if you want to declare happy closure. There is no evidence that either George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld have fully understood what they are up against in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was toppled on 8 April, but was that the end of war or the beginning of one?
Suddenly American troops are discovering an army, or organised armed resistance, that they say they had decimated in April. One hundred days after Saddam's statue fell in Baghdad, Iraq seems to be swarming with what the Americans call his supporters. Whether the armed resistance comes from Saddam supporters or not, there are real battle conditions in cities like Balad and Fallujah to the north and west of Baghdad. At least two hundred Iraqis have been killed within 48 hours as I write this, and the real figure could be much higher as the American forces are moving into civilian areas. Inevitably, Iraqis believe that most of those killed are innocent, and the resentment bubbles even higher. There are enough complaints about homes being ransacked and property looted. The Pentagon accepts that 49 US soldiers have been killed since 1 May, and if you include the casualties since 9 April you reach the startling conclusion that almost as many Americans have died in the war improper as died in the war proper. One war has merged into another, even as in nearby Afghanistan the Taliban resurfaces to harass and battle the Americans. The body count is hurting.
Bush knows that he cannot carry this burden into an election campaign, and has therefore come up with the bright idea of leasing out his war to countries like ours. Before some bright sparks convince the government of India that the world runs on arithmetic, and that if India sends one division of insurrection-hardened Rashtriya Rifles some endless treasure from Alladin's Cave (which was once located in Iraq, but has now been transferred to Wall Street) will start flowing into Delhi and Mumbai. This is nonsense. The real consideration is different. Whether the White House has taken this into account or not is immaterial. India must ask itself a question to which there may be no easy answer: has the war against Saddam given way to a war against Iraqi nationalism? Has the Anglo-American invasion rekindled memories of colonisation and 37 years of rule by a three-generation Hashemite monarchy that was more loyal to Britain and America than it was to the people of Iraq? Memories are fashionably short, but when the British conquered Iraq (using the Indian Army) during the First World War, they thrust a monarchy on the country. Winston Churchill, then minister for colonies, picked up Faisal, son of Sherif Husein and handed over the throne of Baghdad to him. The only trouble was that Faisal had never seen Iraq before.
On 14 July 1958 when a group of Army officers overthrew the dynasty, they massacred every single royal in the palace: the wife of the regent Abdullah survived only because the rebels left her for dead amid the pile of corpses. Abdullah's body was put on public display, while parts of the prime minister Nuri Said's corpse were distributed as trophies by the mobs. The only bit of respect was shown to the 23-year-old king, Faisal II: his body was given a secret burial. Why? Not because of him but because his father, Ghazi, king between 1933 and 1939, was the only monarch to challenge the British. The British had him assassinated in 1939.
The tyranny of Saddam should not obscure us to Iraq's past, and its history of anger against colonialism. Iraq has seen more than one intifada and its streets have heard gunfire before. Iraqis know that this war is for control of oil. Oil and nationalism are synonymous in the Arab world.
Saddam Hussein usurped that nationalist platform for over two decades, and his absence may have created space for a more genuine and therefore more powerful nationalist movement. It will not have the structure of a regular army, or an organised political force. But, as in Afghanistan, anger against the enemy and a dream of independence will sustain the challenge through every frustration. America's allies on that field will not be excused from battle in what will inevitably be called a jihad. The Pentagon is already reporting that many of the fighters in Balad and Fallujah are not local Iraqis but Arabs who have come from elsewhere. Shades of Afghanistan are already on the horizon. It stands to reason. If Arabs could come all the way to Afghanistan to fight a jihad, there is no reason why they should not fight one in their own land.
The letter allegedly written by Saddam Hussein demanding that American troops leave by June may or may not be a fake, but that does not matter. It expresses a sentiment that is strong on the ground, and gets stronger with each battle against the occupying forces. Should our Rashtriya Rifles get caught in such a crossfire?
America has consciously picked up a burden. It must learn how to lay it down.