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An Argument for Immediate Withdrawal from Iraq

David R. Applebaum, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Member - National Steering Committee - Historians Against the War

Sudipta Sen's analysis of "History as an Imperial Lesson" begins with a story about Sir James Mackintosh. As an early 19th Century administrator and historian, Mackintosh claimed the voice of "the main body of civilized men." He worked to "levy contributions of knowledge" in order to "gain victories over barbarism." By revealing the "monstrous detail of evil," "infernal character of Asiatic governments" Mackintosh's goal was to "bring a blessing to the inhabitants of India." The orientalist project outlined by Mackintosh for India at the beginning of the 19th century is analogous to the agenda shaping contemporary U.S. policy.

The United States claims the mantle of speaking for all civilized men. "Asiatic" for Mackintosh was a reference to Islamic Regimes (the Mughal's) and resonates with the viewpoint of the moment about the Middle East developed by Bernard Lewis, a historian who contributes to the architecture of U.S. policy. Barbarism is frequently used in the rhetoric of the administration. The "blessings" of political and economic liberalism are the cornerstone of the contemporary American project.

The Anglo-Indian Wars, beginning with the myth of "the Black Hole of Calcutta" and ending with the atrocities of committed by the British during and after the Mutiny of 1857 undermine claims to the mantle of civilization. Similarly, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, rested upon myths and fabrications. Photographs from Najaf and Fallujah, the stories told by members of Iraq Veterans against the War, and testimony from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo paint a clear picture of acts of human barbarism. National security, rather than shame, is used to explain away pervasive patterns of unacceptable behavior that contradict national values. More importantly, they generate new expressions of pleasure in killing and rationalizations of an unrepentant embrace of joy in bestiality - notwithstanding Pentagon repudiation of such statements.

The British political system of the 19th century was unabashedly liberal and fundamentally anti-democratic. Extending "blessings" to India meant replacing social property with private property, destroying networks of kin and community and installing local collaborators with the tasks of refashioning the fabric of Indian society. A combination of Anglicized civil administrators and military auxiliaries competed for and shared in the patronage of the "blessed system." The United States has privatized Iraqi social property. The last two years produced massive social dislocation, unemployment, and material destruction. Like the British in India, there effort by Paul Bremer and Ambassador Negroponte focus creating coalitions of traditional elites into civil administration along with a fraction of the dispossessed into military service.

Insurgency and resistance are attributed to reactionary forces. The dynamics of repression and resistance of English history between "King in Parliament" (documented by E.P. Thompson) and the laboring poor provides a more accurate picture of the interplay between imperial expansion and domestic transformation. The consolidation of power in occupied areas was a component of a combined agenda for change - then and now - overseas and at home. War and privatization in Iraq has multiple and overlapping connections to the privatization of social security in America. Both are components of the "imperialism of free trade."

Print journalists played an important role in telling the story of India to the British during the 19th century. Contemporary media plays a parallel role in relating events in Iraq. The graphics of the past have been replaced by video. "Official stories" then and now are challenged by marginalized critics.
British imperial policy was, in part, a safety valve, which reduced the pressures of domestic problems. A sub-population of the dispossessed - in Scotland and Ireland and England - was siphoned into civil and military work outside the country. Recruitment was facilitated by the construction of nationalism with strident, racialized appeals to honor and pride. Similar efforts to draw the unemployed, underemployed and dispossessed into the U.S. military are at work today.

Historians are still in the process of unraveling the complex role and relationships among corporate leaders, bankers, and highly placed politicians in orchestrating the development of the British Empire. We are faced with a research agenda that can be informed by the British case.
The analysis offered is part of the argument for calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. I am convinced that the goals of democracy and social justice, abroad and at home, can only be achieved if we put a stop to the Bush Administration agenda. Withdrawal will allow the Iraqi people to create a democracy. Elimination of the billions of dollars being used to create a neo-liberal regime of collaborators competing for the spoils of U.S. patronage will allow Sunni, Shia and Kurds to draw upon the democratic values and traditions embedded in Islam. At the same time, the potential for democracy in the United States will be greatly enhanced. Programs for basic needs in healthcare, education, and housing - along with challenges to the privatized patronage politics within our society can be realized. Withdrawal from Iraq is the linchpin of change. It is the challenge of the moment.