I have been reading about our troops in Iraq, and the work they are doing there. This is not a very cheering pastime. “US troops are facing a classic guerilla war in Iraq” (Washington Post). “These men [i.e. US troops in Iraq] are exhausted … [Quoting a US soldier:] ‘Our morale is not high or even low. Our morale is non-existent.'” (New York Post). “[T]he bitter dance of an unaccountable occupying force and an unrepresented people.” (The Economist). “Thirty-three American troops have died in such attacks since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat … A typical day brings about a dozen attacks on troops across the country.” (New York Times). “Widespread looting, Shi’ite fanatics filling a power vacuum left by the downfall of the Ba’athists, and the collapse of public services …” (a different conservative magazine, whose name is an anagram of THE CAVEMAN’S VOICE TRAINER).
I’m reading this stuff, and I’m thinking of Amritsar and Londonderry. Now, I am not on board with all the gloom and doom about Iraq’s prospects. Some of those sources I cited above have axes to grind, and in any case you can find optimistic accounts, too, from reporters actually on the ground in Iraq. (This one, for example, or this one.) It is clear, though, that there is organized opposition against us. Most are Saddam loyalists, just possibly under the direction of Saddam himself, or one of his sons. There are non-Iraqi terrorists, too, very probably — infiltrators from neighboring countries, surely including Al Qaeda elements. These people are small in numbers and haven’t much of a constituency among the people of Iraq. To get anything accomplished, they are going to have to leverage themselves into a role as heros, defenders of the Arab people against the barbarous infidels. How can they do that? What options, what gambits, are available to them? That’s what got me thinking about Amritsar and Londonderry.
Neither of those names is as well known in the USA as in Britain, so let me fill in a little historical background.
Amritsar is a city in the Punjab province of northern India. It was the site of a terrible massacre on April 13, 1919. The British government of India had forced through some emergency legislation to deal with rising Indian nationalism. When a crowd assembled in a public square in Amritsar, British troops under Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on them, killing almost 400. The massacre, says the EncyclopediaBritannica, “turned millions of patient and moderate Indians from loyal supporters of the British raj into national revolutionaries who would never again trust to British ‘fair play’ or cooperate with a government capable of defending such action.”
There was in fact more to Amritsar than just an unprovoked massacre. Dyer had earlier that day toured the whole town with a beating drum to warn that any mob would be fired on. In the previous days there had been vicious riots in Amritsar, with banks looted and several Englishmen murdered. Small military units obliged to deal with large angry crowds — Dyer had 50 soldiers, the Amritsar gathering was 10,000 strong — have very limited options, and will not always do the right thing. There was widespread sympathy for Dyer in England, and even in India. (The Sikhs, who had feared that one of their shrines might be destroyed by the mob, made him an honorary member of their community.)
George Orwell reported for duty with the Indian Imperial Police at Rangoon three and a half years later, and in his novel Burmese Days recorded the kind of conversations he heard in the Englishmen’s clubs of that country.
“We could put things right in a month if we chose. It only needs a pennyworth of pluck. Look at Amritsar. Look how they caved in after that. Dyer knew the stuff to give them. Poor old Dyer! That was a dirty job. Those cowards in England have got something to answer for.”
There was a kind of sigh from the others, the same sigh that a gathering of Roman Catholics will give at the mention of Bloody Mary. Even Mr Macgregor, who detested bloodshed and martial law, shook his head at the name of Dyer.
— Burmese Days, Chapter 2
Londonderry is a town in Northern Ireland, the scene of another massacre by British troops. (The very name of the place is an emblem of the divisions in that place. Irish republicans say just “Derry,” objecting to the “London” prefix.) This one took place on the afternoon of Sunday, January 30, 1972. British soldiers opened fire on a republican demonstration, killing 13 people. Again, there is a great deal more to be said. There is, in fact, a vast literature on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” and almost anything you say about it will be heatedly contested by someone, somewhere. (I shall not be responding to e-mails on this, nor even reading them, thanks all the same.) Two policemen had been murdered by IRA terrorists just a few blocks away the previous Thursday. The Sunday demonstration was by no means entirely peaceful; it had in part been a riot, with episodes of rock-throwing against the soldiers and police, etc., etc. It is probable that armed IRA men were present, and fired at the troops; though the question of who fired first has never been satisfactorily settled, and probably never can be.
I can play the part of Orwell on this one, as I was associating with British army officers at that time and shortly afterwards. Their unanimous opinion was the the whole thing had been staged by the IRA to embarrass the British and rally support to their policy of violent resistance (which up to that point had been unpopular with Northern Ireland republicans at large). Just recently there has been new evidence to support this theory. Dierdre McNamara, daughter of one of the IRA leaders at the time, told the London DailyTelegraph in June of this year that the massacre was a response to a carefully planned IRA provocation.
“My father said that the Provies [that is, the Provisional IRA] had deliberately used the civil rights march in Derry as a staging ground to escalate the tensions in Northern Ireland to provoke violence,” she said. “It was used to launch their campaign of violence and cement their standing in the republican community divided by those for and against military action. He gave me to understand that they had provoked the violence.”
Whether or not Ms. McNamara is correct in her recollection, the Bloody Sunday massacre was a huge propaganda coup for the IRA. It turned thousands of patient and moderate Northern Irish nationalists into IRA sympathizers and collaborators, “who would never again trust to British ‘fair play’ or cooperate with a government capable of defending such action.” You see the parallel with Amritsar. There is another parallel, too. At both Amritsar and Londonderry, the troops who did the shooting were elite combat units (Gurkhas at Amritsar, paratroopers at Londonderry), with no training in the policing of civilians.
The parallels stop right there, so far as I know. I have never seen it written that the Amritsar massacre was deliberately, cynically provoked by violent Indian nationalists as a way to turn ordinary Indians against the raj. I don’t think Indian nationalists were like that. The IRA has an icy, ruthless amorality all its own. Nobody who has studied its operations could doubt that soulless ideologues like Gerry Adams (an IRA assassin himself at the time) would certainly consider the murder of 13 unarmed Irishmen a very happy event, if it made for good anti-British propaganda — which, of course, it did. The IRA are still milking Bloody Sunday.
Yet however different the origins of the two events may have been, their consequences were similar. They turned moderate people — Indians, Irishmen — against the authorities in power, and made them believe that violence against those authorities was justified. The massacres made many of them believe, in fact, that there could be no justice for them and their people without violence.
And that is why the situation in Iraq has got me thinking nervously about Amritsar and Londonderry. Crack combat troops with not much training in police methods, weary and frustrated, outnumbered among a sea of civilians … General goodwill from the mass of ordinary people towards the authorities in charge, but that goodwill only an inch deep, and ready to be turned to hatred by some outrage or error of judgment … Ruthless, cynical terrorists eager, eager to incite that outrage or exploit that error … The Londonderry gambit!
If I were running Iraq right now, I don’t think I would permit any large gatherings at all, anywhere at all, for any reason at all.