Nightline broadcast on June 8th a remarkable piece of historical journalism, English Lessons, about the 1920s British occupation of Iraq as a precursor and predictor of the U.S.’ current failure. (Boo to Nightline for not making neither a URL screen nor video footage of this segment available on their website. The link above is to a transcript of English Lessons which I purchased from Nightline.)
While I’m not clear who produced or created the segment, Robert Krulwich, one of TV’s finest journalists/analysts, participates in it and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the creative and intellectual force behind English Lessons.
Here is a taste of a few of the high points of English Lessons:
Krulwich: During World War I, the British invaded Iraq, then known by its Biblical name, Mesopotamia, moving pretty much up the route the Americans took 86 years later. At the time, this area was ruled by the Ottomans, the Turks. But the British, fighting on, among other things, bicycles–this is a bicycle brigade–were able to rout the Turks and declare Iraq a free country. Said the conquering British General, Stanley Maude, in his first proclamation from Baghdad …
“Our armies do not come in your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. I am commanded to invite you to participate in the management of your own civil affairs.”
KRULWICH: The mission, said the General, was to prepare Iraq for statehood and democracy. But once the British took over, there were problems. The locals weren’t all that cooperative. The British weren’t all that sensitive. Whatever the reason, after two years, there had been no new constitution, no new election. And then, when the British proposed a tax, the Iraqis said no. Instead, they fought the British.
TOBY DODGE (MIDDLE EAST HISTORIAN): The issue was how you liberated us in 1918 and you’re still here. The issue was, you promised democracy and we see no evidence of that. The issue was, you know, if you’re doing this for our benefit, why are you taking so much money in tax.
ROBERT KRULWICH: In London, the government was caught by surprise. They’d imagined the Iraqis would be grateful. They didn’t have enough troops on the ground. And worse, the revolt quickly began to spread.
BRIAN JENKINS (RAND CORPORATION): Roads are being attacked. There is sabotage. There are kidnappings, murders. It’s a bad business. A very bad business.
Dodge: Incredibly expensive. Imagine how the British population felt. It was the end of the first World War. And the British economy was at on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of the first World War. And then what happens? There’s a revolt in a very far-flung country that no one had ever heard of.
ROBERT KRULWICH (ABC NEWS): And when it doesn’t go so well, and casualties start to mount, bills get bigger, public opinion changes.
“Does anyone suppose that the taxpayers of this country will consent to spend 30 million pounds annually on 2.5 million Arabs who do not want us and to whom we have promised independence. The question answers itself,” said the London Daily Mail.
The segment goes on to describe an ingenious British strategy to withdraw from Iraq while retaining the oil access and military bases which they viewed as necessary to their worldwide colonial strategy.
They appointed a new king, Faisal, who was from Saudi Arabia and had no previous affiliation with Iraq. He in turn, appointed minoirty Sunnis to control the military and political apparatus and completely shut the Shi’as out of the levers of power for the next 80 years. This, of course, was a colonial strategy perfected by imperial England (in India, Iraq and elsewhere) and other colonial powers (France used the same strategy in what is now Rwanda and Burundi, which in turn contributed to genocide in the 1990s).
This in turn informs the current political debate among ethnic and religious communities within Iraq and influences every move that Shi’a leaders like Moktada al Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani make. Every Shi’a seeks to ensure that they don’t lose once again what they first lost in 1921–an opportunity to assume their legitimate role as the majority community.
A fascinating and prescient history lesson.