Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories

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A suspected ‘Mau Mau’ fighter is taken away by a private of the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry for interrogation. © IWM (MAU 864)


Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories:

The brainchild behind the Imperial War Museum, Sir Alfred Mond, said on its launch in June 1920: “The Museum was not conceived as a monument of military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.” He included in this dedication, “the people of the Empire, as a record of their toil and sacrifice through these fateful years” of the First World War. And, yet, the new Museum’s Board of Trustees was filled with government appointees and a handful of representatives from colonial or dominion governments. The ‘people’, whether of the Empire or Britain, had no direct say in how their toil and sacrifice was depicted. Ninety-three years on, IWM now spans five branches and a remit of covering all conflict involving Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War – but the challenge remains as to how the Museum accurately and openly records peoples’ experiences of conflict.

IWM’s ability to fulfil its role is coming under severe pressure from cuts to its annual public grant – its main source of income as a national museum. Whilst the government has done much to publicise its financial support for IWM London’s new First World War galleries, in preparation for next year’s WW1 national centenary events, what is barely mentioned, however, is the 21% cut to IWM’s real value total grant that is planned by 2014-15, compared to 2011-12.

Despite these cuts, David Cameron, wants IWM London to be, “a centrepiece of our commemorations for the Centenary of the First World War”, and to inspire new generations with the “incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.” Thus, IWM is clearly not only under increasing financial pressure but, also, real political pressure as to how to portray conflict.

The IWM has set its own independent agenda in its Annual Report 2011/12: “to be recognised as the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact – focusing on Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present… IWM should be a place where, regardless of knowledge or experience, our audiences can make sense of conflict, understand its causes, course and consequences and see how it affects human behaviour for good or for bad.”

To meet this vision IWM must have the editorial independence to examine the historical record critically. The Museum Associations’ , states that museums should “strive for editorial integrity and remain alert to the pressure that can be exerted by particular interest groups, including lenders and funders.” (Code 9.10). [Now, expressed more strongly in the updated Code of Ethics as: “Ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.” (Code, 1.2)]

IWM insists it has this independence – decision-makers are ‘neutral’ and funders have no influence over how they exhibit their subject matter. Yet, whether the Museum has enough of an accountable democratic senior management structure to be able to preserve editorial integrity itself is highly doubtful. The IWM Board of Trustees is highly unrepresentative of British society, appointed by Cabinet ministers with wealthy figures from the military and corporate sectors. Of the 22 trustees, only two are women – former corporate director and current journalist, Bronwen Maddox, and the lawyer and academic, Dame Judith Mayhew. In terms of political, social and professional backgrounds, the Board of Trustees has more in common with IWM’s state and corporate sponsors than the visitor to the Museums.

IWM’s choices of subject matter casts doubt upon its editorial integrity and independence. There is a distinct lack of critical analysis of British military activity, demonstrated by the lack of inclusion of the perspectives of the victims and dissidents of militarism. IWM London will re-open this year (29th July) with a new photography and art programme called ‘IWM Contemporary‘. This will be kicked off by Omer Fast’s video piece, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best,’ based around the experiences of a former US drone operator. Following this will be an exhibition of reportage and photographs taken by US and UK soldiers in Iraq 1991 – 2012 (Mike Moore and Lee Craker) and an exhibition on the “personal and environmental legacy of military structures” by the British photographer and film maker, Donovan Wylie. IWM London’s new family exhibiton will be Horrible Histories: Spies.

There will continue to be few spaces for the voices of the victims and dissenters of British military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the new IWM London. IWM North has featured an exhibition of powerful photographs by the Guardian’s Sean Smith that does depict some of the devastation of Iraq – but this exhibition is certainly in the minority across IWM’s five national branches.

Coverage of past British military activity tends to be similarly edited. A revealing example comes from an online collection of personal stories about “conflict, belonging and identity” put together a few years ago by IWM called “Through My Eyes.” The collection included three stories from ‘Kenya in Conflict’ – Britain’s merciless repression of the rebelling Kikuyu tribe, known as the Mau Mau uprising. The British government only recently paid a limited amount of compensation to the surviving victims. None of the three stories told in the Kenyan part of IWM’s exhibition were from the Kikuyu. Thus, the primary Kenyan victims of incredible British imperial brutality, including tens of thousands killed and virtually the entire 1.5 million Kikuyu detained, were not given the chance to tell their story.

Corporate Vested Interests

The British government is IWM’s most powerful interest group as provider of public funds and selector of most of the positions on the Board of Trustees. This dual influence by one interest group hampers the possibility editorial integrity, making reform of the Board essential. However, the government is at least elected by voters and its decisions are open to influence by the general public. The same cannot be said for private corporations who are filling the void left by growing cuts to IWM’s public funding.

The Museums major source of income has been the annual ‘grant in aid’ from the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Last financial year, IWM received £21.96 million, down from £23.91 million in 2011. The cuts will continue; by 2014-15, the Museum expects its total grant to suffer a real reduction of 21.4%. The Museum will become predominantly privately funded, with 53% of its income planned to come from self-generated commercial activities.

These quiet cuts, behind the fanfare of the First World War Centenary, will ensure that IWM becomes ever more dependent on corporate sponsors, partners and donors, such as those from the arms trade, including BAE Systems and Boeing UK, who both feature in IWM’s 2011/12 Annual Report as donors of at least £10,000.

The arms industry, or ‘defence industry’, are, along with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), already deeply entwined with the Museum. The “Annual Defence Dinner”, a major networking event for arms manufacturers, MOD officials and foreign defence attachés has been held annually at IWM London for several years now. The most recent sponsor of the event, Chemring Group, is a supplier of explosive ingredients for US Hellfire drone rockets. And, the key speaker of their event is the government’s defence secretary – it was Philip Hammond MP in 2012 – demonstrating the interchangeable nature of the corporate defence industry and the Ministry of Defence. Recently, the MOD secured for IWM a Honda motorbike allegedly used by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The motorbike will go on show in the Museum’s ‘War Story’ exhibition, which tells the modern service stories of British forces.

Editorial Integrity

If IWM had editorial independence and a critical scholarly approach it would use the WW1 centenary to examine the warring nations’ motives. It would also look at the evidence and arguments produced by those who say that it was a bloodbath occasioned by government and business leaders’ competing for wealth and power – a claim supported by the sharing of the colonial ‘spoils’ by the victors afterwards. It would certainly not engage in any ‘celebration’ of Britain’s role in what Harry Patch, the British WW1 veteran who outlived his peers, described as “legalised mass murder”, and instead would critically reflect on the war and its consequences.

A critical record of the ‘war to end war’ that cost millions of lives would recognise in it the germs of bloodshed to come – the real ‘horrible histories’ from Britain’s recent past. Not just WW2 but the more immediate repression against reviving independence movements that followed in Ireland, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, giving rise to horrors such as the ‘Amritsar massacre’ of hundreds of defenceless Indian protestors in 1919; or the 1920 ‘Bloody Sunday’ random shooting into the crowd at a Croke Park football game in Ireland; or the ‘Egyptian Revolt’ of 1919 in which 1,000 Egyptians were killed, more than 1,500 imprisoned and 50 Britons killed as Britain fought fiercely to maintain ownership of Egyptian resources and prevent independence.

We should know of the atrocities suffered by the British and their commonwealth mercenaries, as much as the atrocities committed and authorised by Britain. In this knowledge, we should see how imperial exploitation is a repression that is unsustainable and makes inevitable bouts of bloodshed and inhumanity – with the subjugated people enduring the bulk. Knowledge of the dynamics of imperialism will enable us to understand more clearly the arguments made today that British support for the US in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone attacks follow the pattern.

The absent voices

The most important voices for our understanding of British imperial history are those that are kept quietest – the voices and stories of the victims and the dissidents. IWM London will re-open this year with exhibitions that largely exclude these voices. Highly suggestive from this is that the Museum is not, as it claims, editorially independent from its funders and trustees, nor a true authority on the course and effects of conflict. If cuts to its public funding are permitted to be enforced, this situation will only get worse.The onus is on us, the public, to support the Museum to assert its independence. We can do this by challenging the government’s damaging cuts to its public funding, upon which any hope of editorial integrity rests. At the same time, we must demand that the Museum justify its public funding by opening up to the voices of victims and dissidents of British military action.

BBC Two: “The Iraq War: After the Fall” Review

Iraq War: After the Fall, Brook Lapping/BBC

The Radio Times summarises this Brook Lapping Production for the BBC (in collaboration with several international media corporations) well enough in this sentence: “Senior decision-makers explain the logic of their choices in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussein, with former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell describing the clashes they had about who should seize control of Iraq and the actions that led to yet more violence.”

As I pointed out with regards episode one, ‘Regime Change,’ there is very little effort in the programme to verify or critically analyse most of the assertions made by these decision-makers. By way of example, Dick Cheney is shown in the programme claiming to have been an advocate for “establishing a democratically elected government as soon as possible.” The producers chose not to critique such a statement, even though Cheney’s commitment to democratic principles was proven totally suspect as one of the fiercest advocates for invading Iraq regardless of legal principle or international consensus.

All the senior US decision-makers enjoy this non-adversarial approach to their claims and actions, including George Bush, and are thus effectively exonerated by the producers from real responsibility for the crimes, errors and mismanagement described to have lead Iraq into disaster. If any US culpability is hinted at in the programme it is with the “men on the ground” such as Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator from May 11, 2003, to June 28, 2004. Bremer is, for example, depicted as acting without orders in deciding to disband Saddam Hussein’s army and, as a result, creating a new deadly enemy for the US forces.

Good faith mismanagment and error are the most serious accusations put at the US door by this programme. The producers made no attempt to investigate and analyse internal documents to establish US and British intentions. There is absolutely no consideration of the contracts secured in Iraq, after the invasion, by major Western corporations, such as Dick Cheney’s Halliburton oil corporation.

Aside from a brief mention of US torture of Iraqi detainees, no consideration is given to the full extent of potential crimes committed by US and British forces. There is a depiction of the first US onslaught on Fallujah after the killing of four US contractors; an attack that is said to have increased the insurgency against the occupation. However, no mention is made of the more brutal second onslaught of November/December 2004, in which US forces used the chemical weapon white phosphorus. 800 civilians are thought to have been killed and the heavy urban bombardment has left a devastating legacy of child cancers and congenital birth defects – a rate of toxic contamination reportedly worse than that caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The fundamental presumption at the heart of this Brook Lapping/BBC series is that the Iraq invasion and occupation was a good faith mistake – with the occupation mistakes largely made by maverick administrators, not the senior politicians and military decision-makers. The credibility of this presumption depends on a critical look at the internal documentary evidence of the governments. The producers of this series choose not to critique but, largely, take the deciders on face value. This is not real journalism.

BBC Two: “The Iraq War: Regime Change” Review

Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, BBC 2 considers the question ‘how did the US and Britain become convinced that Saddam possessed WMDs?’ This is the tag line for part one, Regime Change, of the three part series produced by for-profit company, Brook Lapping Productions. It immediately reveals the programme producers’ (including a number of international media co-producers) underlying presumption – the US and Britain became convinced of WMD, rather than concocting the pretext.

Such a presumption of innocent intent on behalf of British and US leaders is hard to justify on the facts that have since been exposed. The programme largely gets around this problem by avoiding examining the evidence in any detail. There’s no serious consideration of the falsified British intelligence dossier. Instead, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Jack Straw, Colin Powell and various US and British advisers and officials appear to give their earnest accounts and the viewer is left to wonder who the insidious rogue forces were in the intelligence department that mislead their leaders so.

Perhaps the most glaring and blatant omission of the programme is the overlooking of the evidence of internal government documents that has since come to light. Take just one comment and consider the light it sheds on the intentions of the government: Peter Ricketts, Political Director of the Foreign Office, wrote to Jack Straw: “To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing… ‘regime change’, does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD…This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law.”

By failing to critically examine the evidence and, rather, filling the programme with self-serving comments of officials, with intermittent counter-claims from Iraqi officials, the programme depicts Blair, Cheney, Bush and Co. as embroiled in a confusing and somewhat ambiguous situation. From this perspective, as Lucy Mangan of The Guardian writes, it might be possible to sympathise, to some extent, with the aggressors:

“But whatever the – probably irrecoverable – objective truth of all the matters, the programme’s great service was to re-complicate the story and humanise it. Humanise it not in the sense of softening, excusing or making it more appealing, but in the sense of reminding us that our leaders are people and that even the most dramatic and far-reaching decisions are born out of a webby mass of opinion, estimates, best guesses, personal as well as political alliances, and trust misplaced and justified that gathers round a few granite chips of evidence and hard fact. You were left to feel horrified, sympathetic or some swirling mixture of the two as you chose.”

The programme downplays or, even, omits certain key facts. There is no mention of the illegal bombing campaign that Britain and the US were engaged in against Iraq well before the ground invasion in March 2003 or any official declaration of war. Such attacks and the threats of attack against a nation that did not pose a credible imminent threat clearly violated the UN Charter – as much as the ground invasion. But, as is typical of our media, international law is considered to be a compulsion on others, not our states. Jack Straw makes it quite clear in his comments that the British efforts to push for UN resolutions before invasion were attempts at mere legal cover. Blair could not go to war without a UN resolution on Iraqi weapons inspection because it would not have been seen as “lawful,” that is, British public opinion would absolutely not stand for it – not for any moral reason.

There is, inevitably, no mention of the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials in which Justice Robert Jackson, prosecuting, stated that “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Ten years after the invasion and with British and US troops withdrawn (though mercenaries and diplomats remain en masse), it is inevitable that the war could not be outright defended with any seriousness. The public knows too much. But, the bombardment of official statements in the programme somewhat drowns (or, ‘humanises’) some of the fundamental lies that has lead to untold death and devastation. Saddam Hussein had no links to Al Qaeda and no operable WMD. This was well understood in intelligence communities. Though admitting doubt about the accuracy of the claims, the programme does not try to investigate who was doing the deceiving that caused Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, to state in a memo “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of regime change, “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD”. Dearlove’s memo is not mentioned in the documentary. There is no mention that an invasion without self-defence or UN authorisation is a war crime.

Whilst giving plenty of platform to Blair and Co., as well, to a lesser degree, Saddam Hussein’s ex-officials, there is no room for historians or researchers who may have turned a critical eye on the subject matter. No room for reflective opinions of ordinary Iraqis (who have survived the ten-years of bloodshed) or anti-war activists, no room for anti-war politicians, except for a few lines from French officials about their encounters with the US.

The documentary is largely a public broadcast for the aggressors, on one side, and Saddam Hussein’s officials, on the other. Without much serious analysis from the producers, it should be no surprise that the result is a somewhat confusing and incomplete series of conflicting statements which does little to contribute to genuine understanding. To try and exonerate Bush and Blair as victims of intelligence misinformation seems to be the primary objective of this documentary.