Let us all be grateful for our brutal imperial past

'I sometimes wonder if any Western nation can grow up if it has had no experience of colonialism'
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The Independent Online

The witless American movie, Rules of Engagement, has been rightly pilloried over here. It's the story of an American soldier who fires into a crowd attacking the American embassy in Yemen, killing nearly 100 people. He is brought back and court-martialled, but convinces the court that he acted correctly in the face of danger and is let off. God Bless America.

The witless American movie, Rules of Engagement, has been rightly pilloried over here. It's the story of an American soldier who fires into a crowd attacking the American embassy in Yemen, killing nearly 100 people. He is brought back and court-martialled, but convinces the court that he acted correctly in the face of danger and is let off. God Bless America.

Of course, it's an incredible pile of poisonous nonsense, fuelled by what might seem a startling degree of anti-Arab racism if one hadn't seen it 100 times before from the same source. Yet Rules of Engagement, vile as it is, throws up an interesting question. I don't think anyone's noticed that it's closely based on a particular historical incident, with the conclusion altered. The changes tell us a great deal about America's irresponsible view of itself and, indirectly, about the incident it is based on. I'm talking, of course, about the Amritsar massacre.

In 1919, Amritsar was a city on the edge of an explosion. Two leaders of the nascent Indian nationalist movement, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal, had been arrested. A riot broke out on 10 April, and Europeans and European property were attacked. The Raj seemed helpless, and the senior officer in charge of the area, General Rex Dyer, convinced himself that a repetition of the murderous mutiny of 1857 was on the cards. On 13 April, he turned his fire directly on a mass meeting, killing 379 people. Various disgraceful humiliations followed, including making Indians crawl through the streets, but there was no mutiny.

The Amritsar massacre has become such shorthand for the general brutality of the British Empire that it is worth looking at what happened next. There was some considerable support for General Dyer in England - memories and legends of the 1857 mutiny were still very strong, and £26,000 was raised for him by public subscription.

However, the main point is that Dyer was not supported in any way by the authorities. A public inquiry into the events at Amritsar condemned the general, and he was relieved of his post. Parliament concurred, and Dyer died shortly afterwards, in disgrace.

For much of its course, Rules of Engagement follows the events that unfolded in Amritsar in 1919, with two significant alterations. The Dyer figure gets off, and it is clearly intimated that he did roughly the right thing to save the day. That certainly wasn't the view the British Empire took towards Amritsar, apart from an energetic tabloid campaign in Dyer's favour. The government and the public inquiry saw immediately that a dreadful thing had been done, and acted accordingly.

However, the second alteration is so interesting and significant that it makes you wonder whether Americans have understood anything about the meaning and responsibility of empire. Dyer was in charge of the security and safety of a city, with responsibility for all its inhabitants. The soldier in Rules of Engagement, on the other hand, is merely defending the American embassy, with no kind of responsibility for anyone at all, apart from the American citizens within. But it's still all right for him to fire into a crowd, because... because...

The Amritsar massacre was a dreadful thing, and no such act can have any excuse. It has come to acquire, however, an iconic status, as if the British Empire were perpetually massacring people - as if, indeed, the empire were begun for no other reason. And any kind of attempt to understand or sympathise with the brave and intelligent people who, often for very good reasons, went out to India, is automatically greeted with the episode in Amritsar. Astonishing, then, to see an American movie inventing and then defending a brutal and pointless massacre, without any kind of rational excuse - not even what would once have seemed the excuse of a liberal imperialism. The only excuse offered is this: I can do this because I am an American.

I start to wonder whether any Western nation can grow up if it has had no experience of colonialism. America currently has one of the worst human rights records in the world; the existence of the death penalty is bad enough, but when it is exercised for political advantage, it places a nation on a level with Afghanistan and China. There is agrotesquely unfair justice system, disenfranchisement on a massive scale, a concept of "rights" that includes the possession of guns but not universal access to health care.

America never had an empire, and was never brought by its territorial ambitions to contemplate its own responsibilities. The age of empire is over, but one legacy, at least, the British can be thankful for: we, at least, have the ability occasionally to wonder what the world looks like from an angle other than our own.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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