It’s been a year now since Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirkwas released to critical acclaim, public approval and criticism. Much of the criticism arose because the film omitted any mention of the Commonwealth troops who were in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and at Dunkirk. It felt like a missed opportunity to correct an anomaly in the collective memory of Britain and the world: to remember the mule drivers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) who were also on those beaches.
So here’s the missing piece of the story, derived from my research into Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers.
On May 29, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with thousands of British soldiers lined up on the beaches east of the French town, with a giant pall of smoke from the burning oil refinery, with regular sorties by Luftwaffe planes scattering the queues, and with ships large and small taking men off the beaches, Major Mohammed Akbar Khan of the RIASC marched four miles along the beach at the head of 312 Muslim Indians, en route from Punjab to Pirbright.
Complete autonomy in the waging of war is a proud attribute of countries like Australia. It has been so ever since the imperial crown finally got around to delegating this aspect of the royal prerogative to peripheral nations of the British Commonwealth in the wake of World War II. But with power comes responsibility, so the old adage goes, otherwise complacency is allowed to set in, blurring history and politics in the vindication of bellicosity abroad. If this trend cannot be countered with expressions of criticism, then history suggests that we might well have surrendered, for the time being at least, all expectations we might have for pacific reforms of any kind.
Chris Masters, a prominent Australian investigative journalist, has just published a book, No Front Line (2017), which provides a glimpse into the lives of that country’s special forces serving in Afghanistan. Eyebrows have been raised at the description it carries of an incident in June 2006, which saw an unarmed Afghani man gunned down by Australian soldiers fearful of revealing their secret location.
Sadly an affray like this is unexceptional in the scope of any war featuring foreign troops placed into a region and given objectives to defend their positions against elements of the population hemming them in. And its coverage in the book is even-handed, one of many incidents catalogued by the author in a mostly bland way, rescued only by the occasional quotation of soldiers accounting for the performances of their ‘mates’ with unflinching manliness.
What makes the incident noteworthy is Australia’s remarkable inability to separate the politics of war from the commemoration of its victims. Unhelpful here are the apparent aversions, more generally, of senior public servants, journalists, and returned soldiers to articulate with any nuance some of the problems associated with the politicisation and memorialisation of Australian participation in foreign wars. These might be the symptoms of a deficiency of criticism in popular discourse. They might rather suggest an intolerance to history. In any case, here is an ailment that can be treated by insisting upon an observation of war not just as a policy but, more importantly, as an idea plenty quarrelled over, across empires and epochs, and through time and space. Continue reading “War heroes, armchair lawyers, and imperial legacies”→
Paul Doolan University of Zurich and Zurich International School
In July 2012 a Dutch national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos on its front page showing Dutch soldiers brutally shooting and killing unarmed victims in a mass grave. The images were shocking to a nation that prides itself as being upright and humanitarian. Never mind that the photos were nearly 70 years old. Found in a rubbish tip, they were, in fact, the first ever photos to be published of Dutch soldiers killing Indonesians during a war of decolonization that is still euphemistically referred to as a “Police Action.”