Thursday, October 26, 2006

 

Mountbatten Mismanagement Provides Iraq Warnings

I've always been a bit wary of rightwing historians like David Starkey et.al. but the comprehensive dismantling of Lord Mountbatten's reputation- both as a military man and politician- by Andrew Roberts in his Eminent Churchillians is, by any standards, a cracker. Roberts' account tells us how the highly ambitious 'Dickie' Mountbatten, utilizing his royal connections to the full, was promoted from wrecking ships under his command to wrecking wartime operations like the suicidial Dieppe Raid and finally, once his incompetence had been fully established, wrecking really important things like the transition of India and Pakistan to independence in 1947.

It is in this last, wholly misplaced capacity, that his much self hyped career offers us some signal warnings. As soon as he was appointed Mountbatten, always hyper actively 'dynamic', set a ridiculously early withdrawal date, refused to listen to warnings regarding potential trouble, provided manifestly inadequate military forces to deal with any trouble; and refused to use what force he had when it was desperately needed. On 15th August 1947 independence was granted to India and Pakistan whereupon a transfer of population occurred of some 14.5 million as those now belonging to minority religions sought to move into their newly defined majority areas. 7.5 m Muslims moved to Pakistan from India while 7.2 m Hindus and Sikhs, mostly in the Punjab, moved the other way. Hostility between the religious groups had been brewing for decades and the vulnerable refugees became victims as the predicted conflict exploded. Figures are inevitably disputed but between a quarter of a million and a million people were slaughtered in the most apalling fashion.

The Iraq parallel should be obvious. We know the hatred between Sunnis and Shias has festered and bubbled for decades; they have divided and are are still dividing in Iraq into viciously warring urban militias; and occupying forces are threatening to withdraw with a speed whipped on by growing political panic. The history of Iraq since 2003 has been grim; the prognosis is more of the same though worse. But the presence of Iran, Saudi Arabia and others close by with related religious sympathies adds a regional dimension which potentially dwarfs anything which has happened in the Middle East to date. We are fed up at our troops being killed and repelled by this unnecessary war, but repeating the mistakes of the subcontinent sixty years ago, risks a similar bloodbath or worse. Neither Blair nor Bush-both no slouches at self hype either- would relish legacies as tarnished and disputed as Mountbatten's has turned out to be in the light of history.

Comments:
What utter, utter rubbish. Mountbatten delayed withdrawal as long as he possibly could - if anything, it was ridiculous late, not "ridiculously early". There simply was no way Britain could have remained in India - even if it had been willing to engage in mass bloodshed, it would ultimately have been driven out and nothing would have been any different. By the time Mountbatten was appointed, it was too late to do anything to alter the course India was on, towards partition, population transition and mass slaughter. That course was decided by British policy in the 1930s, when we worked carefully to create divisions between the Muslim and Hindu communities. We should have got out in 1936, when the independence movement was completely united - if we had, while it's not impossible that there would have been a civil war somewhere down the line, it would more likely have been averted.

Andrew Roberts is a hack, and his "comprehensive dismantling of Lord Mountbatten's reputation" completely ignores the situation before Mountbatten was appointed (to Burma, to India, to his various military posts). More cracked than cracker, frankly.
 
I also think it's rubbish for you to suggest there's a comparrison with Iraq here. We were an imperial force in India, and engineered conflict to retain power, working hard to get the indigenous population fighting amongst itself. Whatever critics of the liberation of Iraq suggest, Britain had no imperialistic motivations for its involvement in Iraq, and we have not engineered the country's current problems in order to keep the Iraqis fighting amongst themselves. A better comparrison would be the cock-up over the Palestinian mandate and the creation of Israel - certainly, we pulled out too early there, although again that was in the face of a mess we'd created by dragging our feet and stoking the flames of internecine conflict during the 1930s.
 
Oh dear Gregg, you do seem more exercised by this rightwing historian than I ever have been. But going back to his text he does offer some pretty convincing evidence:
a) Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who drew up the proposed frontier between India and Pakistan, reckoned he needed two years to do the job properly and yet Dickie's timetable allowed him only 40 days.
b) Sir George Cunningham, former Governor of the North West Frontier, and PS to the Viceroy, reckoned an 'extra eight ot nine months' would have reduced problems enormously.
c) Sir Ronald Harris, PS to S of S for India, thought 'the time limit was too tight. All the senior officials in the India Office were most unhappy'.
d) Lord Ismay, Mountbatten's Chief of Staff thought the timescale far too tight and was not proud of his service at the end of the Raj.
e) Churchill, that great supporter of the Empire, also believed Dickie had pulled out too soon.

Now, that seems to me to be quite a formidable phalanx of support for Roberts' case. Have you qualifications or evidence which exceed those of the above to justify your angry dismissal of his thesis?
 
Re the Iraq comparison, of course there are huge differencees; my point was that a precipitate withdrawal might well make things a lot worse, as Roberts argues they did in India. I agree Palestine is a better comparison from the point of view of the UK role.
 
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