Friday, March 30, 2007

Of plastic turkeys and poison gas

There's a predictable enough piece in the Guardian today - arguing basically that Iran's treatment of the kidnapped British sailors is fair enough really because of Guantanamo Bay. I can't be bothered going through it, we know all the arguments already, but there is one point that I've seen repeated use of recently that I'd like to challenge.
We all know in our bones that soldiers and civilians in revolt don't mix. Ask any historian. Ask them about what British soldiers did in Kenya, French soldiers did in Algeria, and Americans in Vietnam. While you're at it, ask them what the RAF did in Iraq under British rule in the 1920s (gassed Kurds, in case you've forgotten).
This leads us to Factchecking Pollyanna's interesting question of whether it's possible to forget something that isn't true. The evidence for British use of poison gas in Iraq in the 1920s is usually taken from a speech given by a US Representative Henry Gonzalez (main claim to fame: a 36 hour filibuster to talk out a bill on segregation). He seems to have based his claim on the fact that planes were used against to put down a revolt by the Kurds and that Churchill considered the use of poison gas - therefore poison gas was used from planes.
However, given that the Italian use of poison gas from planes against the unfortunate Abyssinians was widely documented at the time as the first time planes had been used in such a way, it seems extremely unlikely that, 15 years earlier, British planes were being used for that purpose. In short: there is absolutely no evidence that the British used gas at all against the Kurds, and it is moreover extremely unlikely that gas was deployed from planes. In short, unless there is positive proof that this did occur, it is safe to assume that it didn't.
It makes a nice story though for people like Ronan Bennett, because it fits so nicely with their opinions. Like the infamous plastic turkey - a story that seems too good to be true becomes accepted as fact, even though it isn't actually true.


Blogger MaxMuir said...

Dear Tim,
you might find the following of
Journal of Modern History
December 2009 Volume 81, Number 4
'Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?' by R. M. Douglas.

Research by Colgate professor R.M. Douglas that found that British forces did not use chemical weapons on Iraqis just after World War I. Douglas finds this often-repeated claim, stemming from a 1921 letter written by British Air Ministry official J.A. Webster, to be false.

Best regards,
Max Muir.

1:34 am  

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