Why Haditha Reminds This Historian of an Awful Chapter in British History

News Abroad

Mr. Watenpaugh is an historian and Associate Professor of Modern Islam, Human Rights, Peace at the University of California, Davis. He is author of Being Modern in the Middle East (Princeton, 2006).

While many historians and commentators are drawing parallels between the alleged slaughter of unarmed civilians by US Marines in the Iraqi town of Haditha last year and the My Lai Massacre of the Vietnam War, a better guide – in terms of scale and cultural context - for how reaction to this atrocity might play out in both America and Iraq may be the Dinshaway Incident of British-occupied Egypt in 1906.

In the summer of that year, a group of British Army officers went on a pigeon hunt near the Nile Delta town of Dinshaway. The British had occupied Egypt in the 1880s, in part to control the most strategic asset of those days, the Suez Canal. British soldiers had a reputation for showing little regard for the safety and property of Egyptians and were rarely concerned with what we would call now, local culture and values. It came as no surprise then, that during the pigeon hunt, an errant gunshot set fire to the village’s wheat supply.

Enraged as they watched their precious grain go up in smoke, villagers tried to seize the offending gun and a riot broke out during which several people were hurt and two of the British officers were wounded. As they tried to escape, one officer died from heatstroke.

The British response was brutal. Returning in force to the village, a military tribunal convicted 52 of the villagers of pre-meditated murder; though most were just beaten, four were hanged.

As news of this outrage spread throughout Egypt, it served to unite traditionally disparate aspects of society – the urban middle class, college students and intellectuals, and the country’s peasants and farmers – in opposition to the British occupation and laid the groundwork for a vigorous nationalist movement that would eventually force the colonialists from the country.

In Britain the incident also made front-page news. British leaders had always claimed that they were in Egypt to help the Egyptians. That was now a very hard case to make and public support for the occupation began to wane.

Lord Cromer, the imperious and arrogant British viceroy in Egypt was forced to retire. His replacement was charged, in part, with figuring out a way to get Britain out by turning more administration and local control over to Egyptians.

The several incidents under investigation now make Dinshaway seem quaint by comparison; but its lesson is how quickly and unpredictably reaction to these kinds of outrages can be transformed into larger movements and major political shifts both “over there” and here at home.

This is doubly so when the perpetrators are seen to have escaped justice.

Belief in widespread American atrocities are now commonplace amongst Iraqis. How the US chooses to punish those responsible for the killing of civilians – even if they are cleared by internal military investigations - will, among other things, bear on any chance of success in Iraq, and also on how credible the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will appear in the eyes of his constituency.

Were those responsible not punished properly for misconduct, murder or conspiracy, the Iraqi government will be seen as an impotent puppet regime, rendering it even more illegitimate in the eyes of many Iraqis, accelerating the country’s descent into civil war.

Beyond Iraq’s borders, what has happened will galvanize broader Arab support for the Sunni resistance, confirming in the minds of those in the region that we are there as the new colonialists.

And here at home, any illusions that we are there for the Iraqis will disappear altogether.