Friday, August 31, 2007

"honour's a name"

posted by k

When I was growing up - even in the 1960s - the British Empire was treated as a source of pride. We were the good rulers, bringing decent values and proper order to a savage world. Atrocities were barbaric. They were what the other side did - never the British.

In comics and books, imperial rule was mapped onto a mythical class system in which grateful servants and peasants tugged forelocks and lived vicariously through master and mistress. At the end of their lives, they would be looked after.
There were almshouses for peasants, a tiny flat for nanny and ... something or other for colonial soldiers who fought abroad and imposed order on their fellow subjects in other lands coloured pink on the map.

Gradually the tales of atrocity emerge. The latest evidence tells of Indian soldiers used in experiments. They weren't killed - at least, not instantly - but they were sent into gas chambers to be burnt with mustard gas.

It wasn't just the Indian soldiers who were used. Between 1916 and 1989 20,000 soldiers of the Empire (most British-born) were subjected to trials of chemical weapons. In the 1930s there was an attempt to discover whether mustard gas caused more damage on Indian or British skin. The tests were continued through the Second World War. In 1942, a British scientist reported on the frequency of severe burns:

Severely burned patients are often very miserable and depressed and in considerable discomfort, which must be experienced to be properly realised."

Had this happened in Germany, our soldiers and scientists would have been put on trial. But no-one prosecuted the victors.

We had our torture chambers too. After the Second World war, as the Nurmberg trials proceeded, British soldiers systematically tortured Germans suspected of Nazism or Communism. Some were starved to death. Our soldiers took photographs to chart what they had done.

During and after World War 2, in breach of international law, prisoners of war were kept in a dungeon in Kensington known as "the London cage". For most of this time, the cage was kept secret from the Red Cross. The Red Cross would have complained because the cage was used for torture. At first, torture was just for soldiers - members of the SS. Later civilians were captured and brought to join the soldiers. The Red Cross didn't have to be informed because civilians, it could be argued, fell outside the rules of war.

In today's tangled world, in which we're supposed to be bringing freedom and democracy to other nations, we routinely neglect those who work for us. The soldiers from the old empire who still fight for us, retire to neglect and disdain. Campaigns may help the interpreters who work with British troops and whose death receive little attention in the British press.

It's so tempting to speak of our responsibility to the people of Iraq - for we really are responsible. But with our history, what moral authority can we claim? Why should anyone trust Britain?

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