How the invasion of Iraq has stood a world view on its head
In the last month I have been feeling my world turn upside-down. On the world stage Britain was supposed to be one of the good guys. Now we are the bad guys — and I don’t mean from the perspective of the Iraqis or the nations opposed to the Iraq war, I mean from the perspective of many British citizens.
We were all brought up with the taken-for-granted belief that Britain was a decent place, perhaps one of the international definitions of decent. We were told that Britain’s near-solitary stand against fascism in 1940 was a defining moment in our history. British empire building seemed too distant to have any relevance on our lives and anyway after the Second World War, we gave back the empire, didn’t we. It is a point of pride for many that our government resisted US attempts to get us involved in Vietnam.
Our biggest military misadventure, the invasion of Egypt in 1956 could be written off as an aberration due to bad leadership and it seems impossible to find anyone who thinks the Egypt campaign was a good thing. We were the good guys who once hiccupped.
The conflicts over the Falklands, the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan were not universally accepted at home or around the world, but the sceptics could find some small mitigation that someone had attacked someone else first. We could still displace our concerns by focussing on bad leadership. We were the good guys with wonky halos.
Now Britain in the company of the most powerful nation on earth has invaded a much weaker nation, and we have done this against the expressed wishes of much of the planet and for reasons that to many people appear fabricated. Worse, the invasion will cost many innocent lives.
Suddenly, we find we are unable to invoke our old standby: aberration of leadership. True, a large proportion of the population do not support the war but the act is too heinous to allow the sceptics to distance themselves from it. Britain has made an unprovoked assault on another nation. In a cowboy movie we would be the guys in the black hats.
I happen to live in Japan where more than 80 percent of the population oppose the current war and where the media has been very focussed on the plight of the ordinary Iraqi people. The mass-circulation Mainichi Shinbun for example has been running daily features on conditions inside the country for more than a month now.
It was just such a feature with half-page photos of Iraqi civilians under the bombing that a Japanese woman and two teenage children were reading when I boarded the train for work on Saturday. They eyed me warely as I sat down. I wanted to walk away and sit in another carriage. I wished I had some kind of anti-war placard secreted in my bag to wave at everyone. I was not only self-conscious I was acutely embarrassed to be British. I was ashamed that the devastation shown in the newspaper and distress in the faces of the Iraqi people were in part the doing of my countrymen. If anyone had raised the subject of the war, I think I would have claimed I was French.
I have heard this sudden shame of nationality expressed by a great many people recently on internet bulletin boards, in private email and in muttered conversations in the office. It is not just British people, but Americans and Australians too. An American colleague Matt Kaste from Minnesota, now living in Osaka, Japan amplified his feelings. “I am disgusted by the angry, ignorant majority in our country that have been tricked into believing this war is a good idea, or inevitable or a way of protecting America …The history books will not look kindly on [Bush], but many will suffer and die because he was President.”
That is the angry sound of a man who feels he has been thrust into the wrong by his government.
Returning from work on Saturday I passed a Muslim woman, one of a community of south Asian women in my small town. The alarm in her face when she saw me was quite evident. Impulsively I told her in Japanese I was not American. She smiled in a mixture of sympathy and embarrassment. However, I knew my comment had been disingenuous, that I had both hidden and denied my nationality. I am not used to being one of the bad guys and I really miss that halo, however wonky it was.
March 23, 2003