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I am writing a book about our need to escape from history--or rather about our inability to escape the effects of the decisions taken by our fathers and grandfathers. My father was a soldier in the First World War or, as it says on the back of his campaign medal, "The Great War for Civilisation''--which is the title I've chosen for my book. In the space of just 17 months after my father's war ended, the victors had drawn the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent all my professional life watching the people inside those borders burn.
I once sat down with old Malcolm Macdonald, Britain's former colonial secretary, to discuss his handover of the Irish treaty ports to De Valera before the Second World War, thus depriving Britain of three great harbours during the Battle of the Atlantic. It was a step which earned Macdonald the undying contempt of Winston Churchill. Inevitably, though, we ended up talking about his vain attempts to solve the "Palestine problem" in the 1930s. In the Commons, Churchill angrily condemned Macdonald for restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. I still have my notes of what Macdonald said to me.
"We have a terrific argument in House of Commons, and when we met in the division lobby afterwards, Churchill accused me of being pro-Arab. He said that Arabs were savages and that they ate nothing but camel dung. I could see that it was no good trying to persuade him to change his views. So I suddenly told him that I wished I had a son. He asked me why, and I said I was reading a book called My Early Life by Winston Churchill, and that I would want any son of mine to live that life. At this point, tears appeared in Churchill's eyes and he put his arms round me, saying, 'Malcolm, Malcolm.' The next day a package arrived for me from Churchill containing a signed copy of his latest volume of the life of Marlborough.''
My father worshipped Churchill, and pleaded with a friend to ask Churchill to sign a book for him; which is why I have in my library today Marlborough: His Life and Times, with the words "Inscribed by Winston S Churchill 1948" in the great man's own hand.
I still take the book out from time to time to look at that handwriting and to reflect that this was a man who sent our armies to Gallipoli, who shook hands with Michael Collins, who stood alone against Adolf Hitler, who campaigned for Zionism in Palestine and sent King Faisal to Iraq as a consolation prize for losing Syria to the French.
"The situation that confronted HM Government in Iraq at the beginning of 1921 was a most unsatisfactory one,'' Churchill would write in his The World Crisis: The Aftermath, of the insurgency against British rule. His friend Gertrude Bell--and here I am indebted to HVF Winstone's splendid and revised biography of Britain's "oriental secretary" in Baghdad--was that same year trying to set up an "Arab government with British advisors'' in Baghdad so that Britain's army of occupation could leave Iraq.
"I don't know what hanky panky the Allies are up to about the mandates,'' she wrote, "but I am all on the side of the League of Nations in protesting that they must be made public ... everyone from the Euphrates provinces says the people there won't accept Sunni officials and the (provisional) Council goes on blandly appointing them ... a Shia of Karbala (sic) has at last accepted the Ministry of Education ...''
Bell attended Churchill's famous--or infamous--Cairo conference where the British decided the future of most of the Middle East. TE Lawrence was there, of course, along with just about every Brit who thought he or she understood the region. "I'll tell you about our conference,'' Bell wrote to a friend in her jolly hockey-sticks way. "It has been wonderful. We covered more work in a fortnight than has been got through in a year. Mr Churchill was admirable ...''
It quite takes the breath away; the British thought they could fix the Middle East in 14 days. And so we laid the borders of Iraq and laid out the future for what Churchill would, much later, refer to as the "hell disaster'' of Palestine. I'll always remember the way that Macdonald, talking to me in his Sevenoaks home 26 years ago, turned to me during our conversation. "In Palestine, I failed,'' he said. "And that is why you are in Beirut today.''
And he was right, of course. Had we really "fixed" the Middle East, I wouldn't have spent the last 29 years of my life travelling from one bloody war to another amid the lies and deceit of our leaders and the surrogates they appointed to rule over the Arabs. Had we really "fixed" the Middle East, Ken Bigley would not have been murdered in Iraq last week.
Can we escape? Can we one day say--both the West and the peoples of the Middle East--"Enough! Let us start again!'' I fear we cannot. Our betrayals and our broken promises--to Jews as well as Arabs--have created a kind of irreversible disease, something that will not go away and cannot and will not be forgiven for generations.
Look, for example, how we egged on Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, how we patronised him for eight terrible years with export credits and guns and aircraft and chemicals for gas. Looking back now, we were doing something else. By supporting Saddam's war, we were helping an entire generation of Iraqis to learn to fight--and die.
I called up my old friend Tony Clifton in Australia this week. He and I reported the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war from both sides. "Just think,'' he said. "All these millions of Iraqis were taught about how to fight a big army. They used to use their tanks as static positions with just their gun barrels pointing over the earth to stop the Iranians. But they weren't allowed to use their initiative. But now Saddam has gone and all those lieutenants and captains are older and can use their initiative and their fighting abilities against the Americans. I think that's why the resistance in Iraq is so successful.''
I suspect that Clifton is right, and that the eight-year war with Iran which we were so keen on is intimately connected to the current insurgency and the savagery with which it is being conducted by the Iraqi gunmen and suicide killers.
And what of the Americans themselves? I've been re-reading Seymour Hersh's stunning 1970 account of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And there's something about the casual attitude to death and cruelty in the way that Medina and Calley did their killings there that I find chillingly familiar.
The Americans have a professional army in Iraq, but it is becoming frighteningly casual about the way it kills women and children in Fallujah, simply denying that its air strikes are killing the innocent, and insists that all 120 dead in their Samarra operation are all insurgents when this cannot possibly be true. What about the latest wedding party carnage, another American "success" against terrorism? Because journalists can scarcely travel in Iraq any more, there is no longer any independent witness to this awful war. What is going on in Ramadi and Hilla and all the other cities where US forces carry out their brutal raids?
Tony Blair still thinks his hideous invasion was not a mistake. He still seems to believe in his own version of The Great War for Civilisation, just as my father once believed in it. And now I wonder what terrors this disaster holds in store for our future generations, who will also ask themselves if they can escape from history.
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