Voices of Victims and Dissidents

General Reginald Dyer ordered the Amritsar massacre on 13 April 1919.

Some defenders of British imperial crimes argue that empires have always existed and, if the British hadn’t been dominant, someone else, perhaps, even more brutal, would have. Empire and its engine of aggression and exploitation, is, they imply, a fact of life. Be grateful it was the British rather than the Soviets or the Germans. Just as now, be grateful it is the Americans, rather than, for example, Putin’s Russia.

But, who said that exploitation by the strong amongst nations is inevitable? The nature of imperial exploitation has changed dramatically, even in recent times. Whereas, for example, the US could once brutally attack Vietnam without so much as a peep from the US population, the proposal to invade Iraq drew unprecedented crowds opposing the aggression. As a result, US actions in Iraq, vicious as they have been, have been restrained compared to the wild assault on Indochina.

The terrible crimes of the empires are fact which only silence can make inevitable to be repeated. As with most empires, British aggression was driven by dominance and desire for economic exploitation and expansion. That some sections of subjugated populations derived some benefits from this domination cannot feasibly justify the repression. If the primary intent is to dominate and extort, incidental benefits, whatever their size, cannot change the moral character of the crime.

The subjugation of people for self-gain in the systematic way it occurs with empire can only be disguised as benevolent by keeping quiet the victims and dissidents. This sadly goes on, today.

Many people have heard of the Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919, in which a crowd of Indian protesters were fired upon on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, killing hundreds of defenceless individual – in ten minutes of shooting.

But how many of us know the context of the Amritsar massacre? World War 1 had a great toll on India. Some 43,000 Indians died fighting for the British and trade in the region was disrupted. The resulting fall in living standards and renewed drive for independence gave rise to a surge in social unrest and trade union militancy.

The British sought to placate to dominate in 1918 with limited provincial self-government reforms and the Rowlatt proposals of greater police repressive powers, including two years imprisonment without trial.

Indians, lead by Gandhi, revolted against the Rowlatt proposals in a series of strikes which lead to clashes and deaths. John Newsinger describes the lead up to the Amritsar massacre in his excellent book, “The Blood Never Dried:

“When Gandhi was arrested (he was soon released) to stop him travelling to Punjab, however, serious rioting broke out. In Ahmedabad the textile workers took to the streets, fighting with the police and burning down government buildings, offices and police stations (51 buildings were destroyed). By the time the police had regained control of the city, 28 people had been killed including a British police sergeant. There was a two-day general strike in Bombay on 10 and 11 April (1918) that went off without violence, but in Calcutta on the 12th troops machine gunned a crowd, killing nine people.”

“In Amritsar, in Punjab, the general strike on 6 April had been peaceful. When news arrived of Gandhi’s arrest on the 10th, however, large crowds took to the streets and clashed with troops, who opened fire. After between 20 and 30 people had been killed, an outraged crowd set about destroying British property, killing five Britons (three bank managers, a railwayman and an army sergeant) in the process. A British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten and only rescued by the parents of some of her schoolchildren. An uneasy calm returned to the city and the protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally and without any warning opened fire on the 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes with Dyer only ordering a ceasefire when they were nearly out of ammunition. By the time they had finished the bodies were piled ten to twelve deep around the exits. Dyer made no attempt to help the wounded and dying. Indeed, the curfew came into effect soon after he ceased shooting so the wounded and injured were left screaming, moaning and dying all through the night.”

The official estimate of 329 dead, including 42 children, is likely to be too low. Nonetheless, Dyer was unrepentent, stating that it was not simply a case of dispersing the crowd but inflicting “sufficient moral effect” to terrify the Punjab into obedience.

Dyer went on to order that any Indian seek to pass through the street in which Marcella Sherwood had been attacked must do so crawling on their bellies, on pain of death. A regime of public floggings, reprisals and bombings were also instigated in Punjab.

The context of the Amritsar massacre is not simply 13th April 1919 or even the events of the years, 1918-19. The fuller context of all imperial crimes spans the entire history of the particular empire. It would be inaccurate to view General Reginald Dyer as a mere ‘bad apple’ – even if the Amritsar massacre did cause something of an outcry in Britain. What the perpetrators and defenders of police brutality in the British Raj in the 20th century kept repeating fearfully was the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, in which a violent uprising in India was put down with great brutality by the British. The 1857-58 rebellion had its own General Dyers, or worse – such as Colonal James Neill who conducted a mass pillage and hanging campaign of hundreds, including children. The death count of his troops finally stood at 6,000 – far outweighing the violence committed by the rebels, including the Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacre in which a small British force was massacred after a negotiated settlement for them to evacuate had been agreed, after which the rebels killed the 180 survivors, mainly women and children.

Imperial history should acknowledge the crimes of all concerned but, in doing so, a truthful account cannot but find the crimes of the subjugated population to pale in comparison to that of the aggressor. The aggressor doesn’t just aggress but creates an environment from which anger and violence is bound to unleash, engulfing innocent civilians. As British commander and chief, Henry Rawlinson, put it in 1920: “You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu (secretary of state for India) calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not.”

The Amritsar massacre would be followed by a further 28 years of British rule before India won independence on 15th August 1947. This would be another 28 years of strikes, riots, imprisonments and police brutality which successive British governments had direct responsibility for.

The 20th century atrocities of the British Empire occurred in India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaya, Palestine, Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. The repressed people of the empire were not prepared to accept continued direct domination and exploitation by a foreign government. Imperial exploitation continues with the US relegating Britain to a junior role but peoples’ resistance has made it more awkward for acts of open brutality and criminality to occur.

That the British empire is still held up by some as benign or, even, admirable, reveals our ignorance of the history of the victims and dissidents. Likewise, the acts of imperial aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The victims and dissidents continue to be kept largely silent. The Imperial War Museums must do more to tell the truth about the victims of the massacres, revolts and resistance created by the repression of the British empire.



Are We Ready to Hear from the Drone Victims?

Syed Wali Shah killed in August 2009 by a US strike on the village of Dande Darpa Khel. Photo by Noor Behram, 2009 via Wired

IWM London’s forthcoming video art exhibition, ‘5,000 feet is the best’ by Omer Fast, will present the functioning and psychological suffering of drone operators killing remotely. Is it not right that the British public is also given the chance to view the other perspective – that of the people who live with the terror, night and day, of being murdered or maimed by drone missile?

Noor Behram is a Pakistani photojournalist from the remote tribal region, North Waziristan, who has spent several years capturing images of Pakistani drone victims, particularly, children. The US has been firing drones in the remote regions of North West Pakistan for nearly ten years as part of what White House spokesman, Jay Carney, described “as exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted” counter-terrorism operations.

The photographs of murdered Pakistani children captured by Noor Behram, like the investigations by the British-based, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, undermine the US claim. In nine years, an estimated 411-884 civilians in Pakistan have been killed and up to a total of 1,472 people injured. The remoteness of the region, its lawlessness and Taliban presence means that verifying the figures is difficult and the figures could possibly be higher.

In June 2011, the US’s counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely asserted that “in the last year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death.” He claimed that, “if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.” Investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered 40 civilian deaths that year – the Bureau’s count only including individuals they could verify by name.

Noor Behram has worked with Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer representing families of drone victims, and the British charity, Reprieve, to get his images out to a wider international audience. Behram’s photographs have featured in Wired.com, the Huffington Post US, the Guardian, in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “UNMANNED: America’s Drone Wars” and been previously exhibited in the UK at the Beaconsfield in an exhibition titled, “Gaming in Waziristan“.

If the British public is to be genuinely informed about the consequences of it’s government’s support for the US drone assassination campaign, they must hear and read the stories of the drone victims. Perhaps, the public will decide that they approve of drone assassinations against the terrorist threat, despite the civilian terror inflicted, despite the radicalising effect and potentially counter-productive nature of the strikes and, their use in indiscriminate “double-tap” follow-up strikes that hit rescuers and funeral-goers.

It might be argued that Behram’s pictures of dead children and destroyed homes are exploitative propaganda. Before publishing a selection of the images, Wired.com, undertook investigations to verify their authenticity to justify the feature but warned: “We don’t know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.”

Nonetheless, Wired, like the Guardian, MSNBC Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post, concluded in deciding to publish that many of the images were authentic depictions of civilian casualties of US drone attacks. One photograph showing Pakistani children holding fragments of an apparent drone was examined by three US ordnance experts who concluded that the pieces belonged to a Hellfire missile, fired from US drones and helicopters, according to Wired.com

Behram and his supporters have an agenda, Wired warned, however: “Also be aware that (they) came to us with an agenda: discrediting the drone war. ‘I want to show taxpayers in the Western world what their tax money is doing to people in another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent victims, children,’ Behram says.”

This is the agenda of all true war journalists, to produce authentic evidence and reporting of the consequences of war. An exhibition of Behram’s photographs of death and destruction needs to be contextualised, of course. We need to put it alongside the claims made by the US and British government about drones – as well as the findings made by individuals and entites such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the law schools of New York and Stanford universities.

We cannot go on without looking at the full spectrum of evidence on drone attacks if we are to understand what is being done in our name. Noor Behram’s photography would be ideal for a slot in “IWM Contemporary”, the Imperial War Museum’s upcoming art programme.

Residents of Datta Khel, Pakistan, hold up wreckage from a US strike which killed 6 people. Photo by Noor Behram, 2010 via Wired.

‘5,000 Feet is the Best’ by Omer Fast: IWM tackles drone operation

Fictional Former Drone Operator from Fast’s film (art-agenda.com)

Yesterday, I wrote about the necessity for the Imperial War Museum to address the issue of drone warfare; Britain is stepping up its use of both armed and surveillance drones. By 2030, the MOD plans for a third of the RAF’s aircraft to consist of pilotless drones. And, yet, the civilian casualties and terror wreaked by armed drones, particularly by US drones in their global assassination campaign, has been condemned widely as being legally and morally doubtful and threatening international stability.

I’ve learnt that IWM will at least start to address armed drones when IWM London partially re-opens on Monday 29th July. As part of the new art programme, ‘IWM Contemporary’, the Museum will be showing a video art piece by Omer Fast called, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best.’ You can watch a 10 minute segment of the 30 minute film online (Vimeo clip embedded below) and there are also a number of online reviews of the film from prior screenings.

The film is not a documentary that seeks to discuss the true story of drone warfare; it is a piece of art which primarily explores the perspective of US drone operators. Two central characters are interviewed, an apparently real former US drone operator who talks technical and a fictional one who talks in allegories.

The film, to its credit, does, in at least one segment, attempt to consider the perspective of the victims of drone warfare when it imagines an apparently American family being struck in an imagined occupied US. But, as this particular review reiterates, the story is always told by one side – the former drone operator: “He speaks at length about the details he could see on his targets, even at a height of 5000 feet—the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture. Indeed, despite the distance between him and his targets, the pilot struggles to convey his own war wounds in light of witnessing the personalities of the people he killed.”

The part that is omitted are the true stories of the major victims of drone warfare – the innocent “bug splat” (a military slang for drone victims). This includes the civilians massacred, maimed, dispersed and, generally, terrorised in several countries, from Pakistan to Somalia by US and, to some extent, British armed drones. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports an estimate of 411-884 civilians killed in Pakistan by drones (168-197 dead children) and 1,173-1,472 injured.

As Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon explained, this is the real terror: “I don’t doubt that some drone attackers experience some psychological stress from knowing that they are eradicating human beings with their joysticks and red buttons (though if it’s only “bugs” who are being splattered, why would the stress be particularly burdensome?). But that stress is nothing compared to the terror routinely imposed on the populations in numerous Muslim countries who are being targeted with these attacks.”

The true story of drones involves US and British governments acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner – drawing up secret kill lists and going after individuals without having to justify, explain or report themselves. A recent documentary called “Dirty Wars” considered the unexplained 2011 assassination by the US of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16 year old US citizen in Yemen.

Contrary to the claims of drones being focused and clinical, their application has been brutally indiscriminate. The US has, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, targeted rescuers and funeral goers in follow-up strikes: “Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud escaped unharmed, dying six weeks later along with his wife in a fresh CIA attack.”

According to a report by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools, the presence of armed drones, “terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”

The study goes on to doubt the productivity of the drone campaign: “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best … The number of ‘high-level’ militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% [of deaths]. Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks … One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”

Such claims reiterate those made by some senior former officials, such as Michael Boyle, former security adviser to Barack Obama. He said that drones are “encouraging a new arms race that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent.”

5,000 feet might be the best height for a drone strike but 5,000 feet is not the best, to state the obvious, to establish the full story of US and British drone warfare. Omer Fast’s film seems to have merits, including sympathy for “bug splat” victims but we need to hear the stories, voices and faces of the true victims of drones to understand the truth.

IWM’s Drone Test

RAF’s earthbound Pilots (telegraph.co.uk)

Update 1 below

IWM insists that it has complete editorial independence from its funders. Therefore, the £10,000 or more annual donations and event hire contracts accepted by IWM from arms manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing UK will not influence their work. Nor, by the same logic, will the £20 million or so annual grant from the British government sway IWM to favour British military actions.

A test of this policy will be IWM’s approach to covering drone warfare. The arms industry is increasingly involved in the manufacture of sureveillance and armed drones. In 2009, 1 in 20 missiles fired by Coalition forces in Afghanistan came frome a drone. In January 2013, it was 1 in 5. Chemring Group, a company involved in producing munitions and pyrotechnics, supplies chemical explosives for Hellfire missiles fired from US drones. Chemring is the most recent sponsor of the “Annual Defence Dinner” staged at the Imperial War Museum’s main branch in London.

If IWM is truly unbiased it will frankly examine the “huge implications” of killing “remotely from a leafy suburb in your own country…” as Lord West of Spithead, former security minister and current IWM Trustee put it, in a call for international regulations on drone warfare.

Britain is stepping up its use of armed drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan; At the end of April, the MOD announced that for the first time, missile-carrying Reaper drones have been operated from the UK, using the newly built RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire.

The British military has had armed drone capability for five years and has been operating them from the Creech airforce base in Nevada, US. The Stop the War coaltion reports that 350 British drone weapons have been fired in Afghanistan, including Hellfire missiles. Now these Reaper drones, along with a further five purchased by the RAF, can be operated directly from the UK.

Britain has also been partnering with US drone strikes actions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan by “embedding” pilots with the US to fly US armed drones. ‘This muddies the waters completely, risks turning the people of Afghanistan against us, and creates a joint liability for both the UK and US governments,’ Rehman Chisti, Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham said.

Drone warfare is often presented as a no-brainer option for the military, saving soldiers’ and civilian lives through clinical strikes against known terrorists. The evidence contradicts this. Drones have been used to assassinate mere suspects, rather than known terrorists. Sometimes, the suspicion is based on suspicious behaviour, rather than identity, in what are known as “signature strikes” carried out by the US (and, possibly, embedded British pilots).

The US has conducted follow-up strikes which have struck at rescuers and mourners of the initial victims. The inevitable outcome is mass civilian casualties and injuries. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates civilian deaths in Pakistan, where CIA drone strikes in the last decade have been most intense, may range between 411-884, with over 1000 injured.

Naturally, drone attacks and their “collateral damage” are radicalising populations. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” according to General Stanley McChrystal, former ISAF commander in Afghanistan, in charge of US drone warfare.

British officials insist that their drones are used predominantly for surveillance in Afghanistan; and where they are fired, it is in support of British troops fighting the Taliban. Such claims come free of concern, let alone evidence of the effects, psychological and physical, for the lives of civilians who cower whenever their hear a drone flying overhead. Moreover, British claims rarely discuss the currently unclarified role they play in the US’ targetted assassination campaign in a number of countries, including Afghanistan.

Lord West claims that repatriation of British drone operations to Lincolnshire will enable better control over them. However, he said: “The same issues of legality, authorization and appropriate levels of decision-making remain.”

If the Imperial War Museum is to fulfil its public duty of recording and informing on the course and consequences of war, unedited by funders, then it would seriously examine the drone war issue.

Update 1

Since writing this piece, I have learnt that when IWM London partially re-opens, on 29th July 2013, it will be showing a video art piece from the perspective of a former US drone operator entitled “5,000 Feet is the Best“. The film, created by artist Omer Fast, is the first showing in IWM’s new ‘IWM Contemporary’ arts programme. Embedded below is a 10 minute excerpt from the 30 minute film.

Having watched the excerpt and read two online reviews (by Lucia Simek and Alex Chatelaine) it seems quite clear that, whilst it is to be welcomed that drone warfare is on IWM’s radar, this artistic piece does not tell the full and necessary story of US and British drone warfare.

The first thing to note that is that it is an artistic piece, not a factual documentary. Using an interview thread, it splices together fiction with reality. It is from the point of view of an apparently real former US drone operator who refuses to talk about ‘live fire’ missions, instead, focusing on technical aspects – and a fictional operator who, filling the gaps, does discuss more, but in the form of parables.

Crucially, the film does not give a voice to the real major victims of drone attacks – civilians who have been murdered and maimed. The focus of the film, the reviews would suggest, is the pain inflicted on the drone operator. As one of the reviews says: “The stress suffered by these pilots is often frowned upon seeing as they are in no actual danger. The fact of the matter is, even though they are no danger, they live, feel and participate in the same war as the other soldiers. They see death and bring it to the enemies and sometimes to harmless civilians (unintentionally). These pilots are put through the same things as any other foot soldier who travel to these war zones. The risk of death is lower which may decrease the intensity of their PTSD, but nonetheless, they are put through and deal with a great amount of stress and fear.”

And, Lucia Simek’s review: “He (the former drone operator) speaks at length about the details he could see on his targets, even at a height of 5000 feet—the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture. Indeed, despite the distance between him and his targets, the pilot struggles to convey his own war wounds in light of witnessing the personalities of the people he killed.”

Even when the film does depict murdered civilians (in a fantasy world where the strike occurs in the US) the actual drone strike is shown to have been aimed at genuine terrorists – in a far away place where definite terrorists with guns are planting, it is suggested, an IED. The civilians were, sadly, just in the wrong place at the wrong time as the drone operator struck at the bad guys.

The reality is that drone strikes strike homes and target people who are far from proven terrorists. As mentioned above, US “signature strikes” attack suspects on the basis of mere suspicious activity – their names need not be known. All drone assassinations violate any number of legal principles, not least, when they hit the intended target, the right for individuals to receive a fair trial. One of the most notorious drone assassinations carried out by the US was the murder of 16 year-old US citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen, in 2011. He was the son of a radical Islamic preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, also killed by US drone in Yemen. The assassination of the father was controversial but the killing of the son went further, for no evidence has ever been presented that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki held any extremist views whatsoever. The US continues to refuse to explain the killing.

Again, it is a small step forward that IWM is considering the heinous effects of US and British drone warfare. But it is obliged to go beyond Omer Fast’s piece and critically consider Britain’s role and the impact on the victim populations of Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are the major victims, not drone operators.