[Marxism] Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 2 11:51:23 MDT 2017

NY Times Op-Ed, August 2 2017
Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire

OXFORD, England — Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s 
empire in South Asia fought in World War II. But they are missing from 
many British commemorations and accounts of the war — an absence 
reinforced by Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk,” which does not 
feature any of the Indian soldiers who were present at the battle.

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British 
India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army 
Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to 
Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the 
Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. 
They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of 
war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain. Paddy Ashdown, a 
British politician, has spoken of his father’s being court-martialed for 
refusing orders to abandon the Indian troops under his command.

World War II is memorialized everywhere in Britain. The catchy wartime 
slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” appears on greeting cards, coffee mugs, 
doormats. Towns still organize Christmas fairs with a World War II 
theme. Balls and parties that involve dressing up in 1940s styles are 
common on university campuses.

Yet Britain’s fixation with the war doesn’t do justice to the complexity 
of the subject. The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks 
diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the 
globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two 
empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, 
the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits 
the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies 
were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, 
Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never 
more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined 
the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British 
Empire did.

This has real significance for British South Asians. Baroness Warsi, a 
former Conservative Cabinet minister, said both of her grandfathers 
fought for Britain in World War II, a connection that 20 years later 
inspired her father to move from Pakistan to Yorkshire.

But others are unaware that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers 
were involved in two world wars. Generations of British schoolchildren, 
including me, sat through history lessons about World War II and never 
heard about the connection to Asia. British South Asians have only 
tentatively started to see their own place in this “British” story.

There are signs of change. Many historians, including Christopher Bayly, 
Tim Harper, David Olusoga, David Killingray and Srinath Raghavan, have 
written books about colonial soldiers and the war. The Imperial War 
Museum London is constructing new World War II galleries to reflect a 
more global story. Some schoolteachers make imaginative efforts to 
diversify their approaches to World War II histories in the classroom. 
Universities usually teach an even more complex and international 
picture. But the core idea that the British war was an imperial war 
still falls on deaf ears.

Perhaps this is because it is not a rosy, heroic tale of the empire 
coming to the rescue of the motherland. Young men in Asia and Africa 
often joined the army under duress. The war was fought for freedom, but 
Indian political demands were brushed aside in the 1940s, with 
nationalists enduring heavy-handed policing and imprisonment.

The British state bungled food supply in its empire. In Britain, wartime 
food shortages caused hardship and great inconvenience; in India, they 
caused mass starvation. At least three million Bengalis died in a 
catastrophic famine in 1943, a famine that is almost never discussed. 
The famine’s causes were a byproduct of the war, but as Madhusree 
Mukerjee has proved in her book “Churchill’s Secret War,” the imperial 
state also failed to deliver relief. Many soldiers signed up as 
volunteers to fill their belly.

A simple multicultural twist to war commemoration tells just part of the 
story. Histories of the imperial role in the war are convincing only if 
they tell an accurate tale, which is one both of great bravery and 
heroism but also of exploitation, uncertainty and divided politics.

The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is 
a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British 
history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that 
underpin Brexit. A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of those 
surveyed in Britain thought the British Empire was something to be proud of.

Today there is a willful distortion of the empire in the British public 
mind, a strange determination to misremember it. An informed history of 
both World War II and the empire is necessary if we want to understand 
modern Britain. But in post-Brexit Britain, some are more interested in 
turning back the clock.

Yasmin Khan, the author of “Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s 
Second World War,” is an associate professor of history at Oxford.

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