THE REDS & THE WHITES & THE BLUES
Waving the flags of empire in the 21st century
by Michael Moorcock
Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)
“It’s not easy to get everyone against you.”
Imran Khan, Pakistani cricketer, April 2002
“What God hates most is arrogance. And what I see in the United States is sheer arrogance.”
Mullah Anar M. Anif, Peshawar, Pakistan, April 2002
“Chap in a dishdash coming through.”
British officer in Iraq, March 2003
BLOOD RUNS DOWN the camera lens. The American plane has shot up a column of Kurds, US Special Forces and a BBC TV crew. “A scene from hell,” says journalist John Simpson, whose interpreter has just been killed. Some of the footage, sans the blood, is shown on American network TV for a few seconds. Most of these scenes from hell, of course, are not filmed. They are happening to people who don’t own video cameras.
Sitting here in Texas watching BBC TV on my computer reminds me that there is no film from Amritsar except the fictional reconstruction offered in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. That hypocritical piece of imperial self-serving posed as an authentic account. The massacre was portrayed as an aberration rather than the norm. I also start thinking of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s powerful piece of romanticized imperial history. I recall how disgusted I was by Attenborough’s other essay into whitewashing middle-class liberal sensibilities, Cry, Freedom, about the murder of Steve Bitko in South Africa. The British are good at this kind of misleading sentimentality. They’re subtler than Americans who crudely rewrite history to show themselves or versions of themselves as simple heroes, whether it’s Errol Flynn single-handedly ‘liberating’ Burma in WW2, Mel Gibson defeating the British in The Patriot, Mel Gibson pretending to be a Norman baron gone native in Braveheart, the falsifications of Blackhawk Down, or Americans (rather than British) discovering how to beat the Germans with the Enigma machine. The British are ultimately more persuasive, I suspect. They’ve had more practice at this kind of patriotic propaganda than the Americans, by and large. Everyone’s learned from Goebbels, whether they know it or not, of course.
“Chap in a dishdash…”
Those of us still alert to the language of Empire remember the teenage soldiers coming home to Britain to tell stories of the tricks they played on brown civilians across the globe in the 1940s and 50s as the British slowly gave ground to angry freedom fighters in, for instance, Burma, Malaya, Kenya, Palestine and Cyprus.
I’d forgotten about dishdash, which in the language of British imperialism is used as a generic for almost any Middle Eastern garment, though I hadn’t forgotten about ‘imshi’, for instance. I’ve written a bit about British colonial occupations in, my book Breakfast in the Ruins (available free on the net at RevolutionSF off the SF Site, if you’re interested). My book A Nomad of the Time Streams also dealt with the idealism of Empire and how it gets decent people to do its dirty work (that isn’t free, but it’s pretty cheap, second hand). All my writing life, in fact, I’ve been addressing the matter of Empire and I’d rather hoped I was seeing the end of that particular aggressive folly…Continue reading