x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

History is not a subjective narrative to be manipulated by those who shout loudest

Jonathan Gornall argues that history should never be erased, because by doing so you deprive future generations of perspective

Baghdad's North Gate Cemetery where 7,000 casualties of the First World War are commemorated. Andrew Henderson / The National
Baghdad's North Gate Cemetery where 7,000 casualties of the First World War are commemorated. Andrew Henderson / The National

In 2011, I was in Baghdad on assignment for The National when I ventured a few kilometres north from the Green Zone to discover how the British dead, left behind in the city after the First World War, had fared during two decades of strife between Iraq and the West.

Baghdad North Gate Cemetery was founded in April 1917. Some 6,889 British, Indian, Arab and other troops are remembered here, among them their leader, Lt Gen Sir Frederick Maude, who succumbed to cholera in November 1917.

Maude is remembered chiefly for his proclamation in Baghdad earlier that year that “our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators”.

Liberators, that is, intent on protecting British oil interests and heading off the threat of a pan-Islamic solidarity that might destabilise British India. It was, as the historian Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted in his 2014 book, The First World War in The Middle East, imperialist double-speak that “eerily foreshadowed” that of Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair nine decades later.

Although the graveyard was in bad repair, I was struck by how little damage had been done. Yes, weeds grew tall and many gravestones had toppled over in the thin soil, but it was otherwise untroubled.

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Contrast this curious respect extended to the legions of the enemy dead by the repeatedly shocked and awed people of Baghdad with the current mounting hysteria in the US over memorials and statues to the Confederates of the Civil War.

On the one hand, an apparent recognition not only that history, no matter how distasteful, cannot and should not be erased by revisionist acts of destruction, but also that a nation is the product of that history, shaped by every national experience, good and bad.

On the other, an irrational exercise in purging the past of truth, which threatens not only to whitewash American history but also to deprive future generations of vital perspective.

Is it possible that Iraqis, despite all their problems, have somehow been able to hold on to a national understanding of the role of history in the shaping of national destiny that is now deserting Americans?

How else to explain the extraordinary decision by Saddam Hussein in 1997 to move – to move, mind, not bulldoze – the Basra Memorial? This 75-metre-long imperial edifice, bearing the names of over 40,000 British and empire dead from the Mesopotamian campaign of the First World War, was originally sited on a quayside on the Shatt-al-Arab, north of Basra. By the 1990s the area had become a busy naval dockyard and the memorial was in the way.

It was moved, notes the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with more than a hint of awe, “by presidential decree”. The move, carried out by the Iraqi authorities, “involved a considerable amount of manpower, transport costs and sheer engineering on their part”. The memorial was re-erected in its entirety, stone by stone, 32 kilometres along the road to Nasiriyah.

In America, meanwhile, crowds of activists are attempting to destroy all physical evidence of the nation's single most important back-story. In Durham, North Carolina, last week, in a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003, by a mob aided and abetted by US servicemen, one such crowd dragged a statue of a soldier from its pedestal, kicking and spitting at it once it lay on the ground.

There are other alarming parallels to be drawn. The world was rightly shocked by the destruction of ancient symbols of belief and culture by the Taliban at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, and by Isis in Mosul in 2015. But, intellectually, is it possible to condemn such actions while supporting the destruction of iconography currently unfolding in America?

And where are America’s intellectuals as the madness escalates? Disappointingly, right in there braying with the mob.

One intellectually bankrupt episode stands out from the past few days. Overnight the University of Texas at Austin spirited away three statues of leading Confederate figures, including one of general Robert E Lee. The university, acknowledged its president, had “a duty to preserve and study history”, but “those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values … do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the [university]”.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is removed from the University of Texas campus, Aug. 21, 2017, in Austin, Texas. Eric Gay/ AP
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is removed from the University of Texas campus, Aug. 21, 2017, in Austin, Texas. Eric Gay/ AP

America isn't the first country to struggle with its past – British prime ministers seem to be forever apologising for the colonial acts of their forebears. But while politicians may bend with the wind, it falls to academic institutions to uphold the intellectual and moral rigour with which it is essential to equip future generations of leaders.

In 2015 Oxford University found itself targeted by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, an International movement of students determined to see all trace of British empire builder and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes removed from academic institutions. Oriel College, a major beneficiary of Rhodes’ will, stood firm.

“People have to face up to facts in history which they don’t like and talk about them and debate them,” said Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University. If students weren’t prepared to do so, he added, “then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere”.

Do memorials commemorating the Confederate dead stand today for the suggestion that slavery is acceptable? No, of course they don’t. They stand as waypoints marking out the evolutionary route by which the United States of America as we know it today came to be.

As University of North Carolina law professor Alfred L Brophy wrote in 2015, during a previous wave of attempts to purge America of this troubling aspect of its past, such objects “teach important lessons” and removing them would serve only to “erase an unsavoury – but important – part of our nation’s history”.

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After gaining independence from Britain in 1922, the Irish embarked on a frenzy of similar destruction. After the Irish army blew up an obelisk, erected in 1736 to commemorate the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the Irish Times expressed reservations about such conduct that has resonance for Americans today.

“Is history to be for Irishmen nothing save perpetual irritant?” It asked in an editorial in 1923. “Can it not teach them something of the process by which they have become what they are now, of the quarrels they have survived, of the slow blendings and absorptions that have united Celt and Norman, Ironside and Hessian, of time's transformations and severances?” Every Irishman, the paper concluded, “is the poorer by any deed which weakens Ireland's links with her past”.

History is not - or ought not to be - a subjective narrative to be edited by whichever group is currently shouting the loudest. The past whispers in our ear, to remind us where we are from. We drown out that voice at our peril, and risk losing our way.

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