Monday, 28 March 2011

Memories of Libyan Interventions Past.

As the rebels push westwards towards Tripoli, it is clear that Gaddafi still retains much genuine support there. An interesting essay by Mark Mazower provides some essential historical background to show why the Libyan dictator might be able to draw on popular sentiment should the bombing go on.

The full version is here ( Libya remembers, we forget: these bombs are not the first The Guardian Friday 25 March 2011 )
Almost exactly one hundred years ago, the world's first aerial bombing campaign took place – in Libya. In September 1911, desperate for an empire of their own, the Italians invaded.

When the airman Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane on to the enemy outside Tripoli, little damage was done: indeed the practice of priming and then dropping live bombs by hand was nearly as hazardous to the Italian pilots as it was to the Turkish troops below. Nevertheless, a staff officer, Major Giulio Douhet, had seen enough to formulate the arguments that would make him the century's foremost advocate of war from the skies. A decade later, Douhet argued in his classic study The Command of the Air that the sheer terror induced by mass bombing of civilian targets would shorten conflicts and save lives; outrage was thus misplaced, for total war was humane. The western way of war had been born in the north African desert.

Faced with a popular insurrection, they retaliated through the deliberate destruction of villages, wells and herds with force. Nearly 100,000 people were interned or deported, and thousands died of disease or malnutrition in labour camps. Italian planes once again bombed the country, this time dropping mustard gas in defiance of the 1925 Geneva protocol.

Memories of anti-colonial resistance helped to legitimise Libya's new British-backed king, Idris, who as head of the Sanusi order had been a figurehead for the struggle against the Italians. But such memories also helped bolster the 27-year-old Colonel Gaddafi when he accused the king of selling out to latter-day imperialism, toppled him in a coup and set up the republic that he continues to rule to this day.

The majority of Libyans may hate Gaddafi and wish him gone as quickly as possible. But they will remember what we have forgotten – that these planes are not the first, that there is a long history of overwhelming western might being deployed on north African shores, and that western power generally comes professing good intentions. If the west wishes today to underline the differences that surely exist between its intervention now and earlier ones, a precondition for persuasiveness is to familiarise ourselves with what we have forgotten, to understand why this history does matter despite everything that the Gaddafis of the world do with it, and will matter more and more the longer the regime hangs on.

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