velvet glove, iron fist

Though I'm American by birth, I am ethnically Indian - my parents immigrated to Chicago from Bombay/Pune during the 1970's. I have therefiore always had a window into the psyche of the generation who grew up under the rule of the British Raj (my grandparents) and those who were born around the time of independence (my parents). From their stories, the picture that emerges of British rule is that of a sometimes cruel, sometimes benevolent, always condescending hand - the stereotypical velvet glove, fist of iron. Even the most partisan defenders of India's independence will admit without hesitation that the British did connect with their subjects in a way that perhaps we Americans simply cannot fathom - and that deeper current is why lawn clubs, tea time, and a thousand other facets of English society still remain and will forever remain entrcnched in the Indian middle and upper classes. My visits to Pune (a booming city that plays Forth Worth to Mumbai's Dallas) have always been punctuated by agonizing visits to the Pune Club, where my well-meaning relatives drag us to experience the horror of rattan chairs and manicured, unused lawns and sipping tea and Gold Spots while chatting about the weather. Thank god for Channel Z.

These second-hand experiences with the legacy of British colonialism (which was far more benevolent than French colonialism in Africa, it must be admitted) shape my reaction to reports from Basra about the British troops interacting with the Iraqi populace. A few days ago, a group of Brits had their bobbies handed to them on the soccer field:

The British soldiers suffered defeat on the dusty streets of Umm Khayyal, when they took on the local football team. A thousand spectators came from all ends of the town to watch the match, with the players wearing full strip, boots and squad numbers. The home side was rallied to a 9-3 victory by throngs of screaming men and children, who marked out the boundaries of the pitch.
"We turned up to play and there was no one around, just a few kids messing about," he said. "Then suddenly, out of nowhere, came this kitted-up football team together with a referee and two linesmen. The boys thought they must be the Iraqi international side or something. In truth, they thrashed us."
Amid a dusty old market square, 11 of 42 Commando's K Company's finest struggled to gain supremacy in stiflingly hot conditions. There were no jumpers for goalposts here - even the referee had a whistle and cards in his pocket, two linesmen proudly carried flags. Hundreds of children chanted, some sporting the red shirts of Manchester United or Arsenal, carrying playing card pictures of David Beckham and David Seaman.

This is quintesential British behavior - closer to Europe in its style than to America. A Washington Post story delves into more detail, explaining how the British experience with colonialism has shaped their attitudes:

"First, we have football matches, then we have tea parties, and then somehow our soldiers go out and meet the local ladies," said Philip Wilkinson, a retired British army colonel who teaches at the Center for Defense Studies at King's College. "It's amazing how quickly they do that. You can't go into a single military base back in Britain and not meet wives who have been brought back from the countries we've served in."

From the beginning of the war, British soldiers in Iraq have appeared more willing to run risks when it comes to civilians. The first British soldier to die from enemy fire, Sgt. Steven Roberts, 33, was shot last week after he stepped down from his armored vehicle in Zubair to tend to an agitated group of civilians.

Still, last Tuesday, Lt. Col. Mike Riddell-Webster of the Black Watch regiment traded his helmet for a tam-o'-shanter, ditched his sunglasses and took his men to patrol the streets of Zubair on foot. It was, reported the Daily Telegraph, "a quintessentially British moment."

"You can't win hearts and minds from the back of an armored vehicle," Goldsworthy said. "You've got to get down, take off your helmet and deal with people on their own level."

Contrast this with the American troops - and keep in mind that the reason for the difference is because America has experience with wars of liberation and conquest, but not of imperialism and colonialism (until now) :

British analysts contend U.S. forces have much to learn. Some British officers disparagingly refer to Americans as "Ninja Turtles" because they are covered in body armor, helmets and Ray-Bans. "There's a warrior-wimp syndrome in the U.S. Army," Wilkinson said. "The Americans treat civil affairs [relations with local civilians] as a specialization, and you have specialized civil affairs battalions to do the touchy-feely stuff. Your warriors stay as warriors and perceive themselves as warriors.

"We don't have those kind of resources. Every single soldier has to become an agent of the civil affairs program. . . . We teach our young officers and soldiers all of this touchy-feely stuff right from the beginning."
U.S. officials tend to treat the British viewpoint skeptically. "They like to think of themselves as Athens to our Rome," one official said. "The idea is that they bring quality and character to a rougher-hewn America. It's not quite a myth, more like an ideal."

But some American military leaders have acknowledged that in some areas the British have an edge. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a BBC program last Sunday that British operations around Basra were "absolutely magnificent."

"I can assure you that U.S. forces have leaned heavily on our British counterparts, who have a lot of experience in this area," he said.

Britons who have served alongside American forces say U.S. troops tend to stay in fortified bases, surrounded by high walls of barbed wire, holding local populations at bay. "With the United States, force protection is all about body armor, helmets and moving at speed in closed armored vehicles," said Garth Whitty, a retired 25-year veteran officer who also works at the services institute. "With us, it's more about engaging with the local population to get them on-side and minimize hostility and casualties."

These are actually attitudes that are well-familiar to American police forces in major cities - but from a military standpoint, there is still much to learn. Given the route by which we arrived at war, the barrier to winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi public will be much higher. The British experience will help, but it will only take a single application of the heavy hand to erase all the gains in trust that the British have painstakingly been building in Basra.

(the Washington Post article has also been posted to UNMEDIA list. The list archives are publicly available for browsing and searching)

No comments: