How we deny our bloody history – a review of the Imperial War Museum
The stories we tell ourselves define who we are. With this in mind, on Friday, I visited the Imperial War Museum. I am practically pacifist, and certainly anti-imperialist. So I expected to leave angry. But what I found there still managed to blow my mind: a depressing indictment of the British national failure to come to terms with our history. But let me start at the start.
You arrive into a large atrium, allowing a glimpse of each of the floors above. Overlooking them all: “the Lord Ashcroft gallery” – “He who controls the present…”. From then on, it was hard to see the museum as anything but an attempt to shape a distopian future.
The atrium is littered with military hardware: mostly from World War Two, and leads to various exhibitions: one on civilian life in WW2; one on “the secret war” – largely focussing on WW2, a Holocaust exhibition, a collection of WW2 photos by anti-semite Cecil Beaton; a series of WW2 portraits, some recorded interviews with soliders serving in Afghanistan and a film on crimes against humanity.
In the Secret War section, one exhibit in particular stands out. It lumps together groups who M15 saw as a threat in the run up to WW2: the fascists – and from left wing groups calling for “five days a week, eight hours a day, full trade union rights, and holidays without pay”. The Museum chose to entitle them, together: “the menace from right and left”. The James Bond theme blurted in the background.
But that’s not what really interested me. Looking at the list of exhibitions you may notice two things: an astonishing obsession with WW2 over all other wars, and the Imperial War Museum’s lack of any content about any of the imperial wars. I didn’t have time to visit every exhibit. But in the couple of hours that I was there, I couldn’t find a single reference to any of the following*:
the Opium wars; The Carnatic wars; The Anglo-Cherokee war; Pontiac’s rebellion; The Anglo Mysore wars; The Anglo Maratha wars; The American Revolutionary war; The Irish Rebellion; The Kandyan wars; The Anglo-Turkish war; The Xhosa wars; The Ga-Fante war; The war of 1812; The Anglo-Ashanti wars; The Anglo-Burmese wars; Canada’s Rebellions of 1837; The first, second and third Afghan wars; The Anglo Sikh wars; The Flagstaff war in New Zealand – and in fact the New Zealand wars in general; The Anglo-Persian war; The Black war; The Indian Rebellion; The First Taranaki war; The invasion of Waikato; The Bhutan war; The Klang war; Titokowaru’s War; The 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia; The Red River Rebellion; The Anglo-Zulu War; The Sikkim Expedition; The Anglo-Zanzibar War; The Boer Wars; The Anglo-Aro War; The British expedition to Tibet; The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War; the Irish War of Independence; The 1920 conflict between British forces and the Dervish State; the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine; The British–Zionist conflict; the Korean War; the Mau Mau Uprising; the Cyprus emergency; the Suez Crisis; the Border Campaign against the IRA; the Falklands War; and the 2011 Libya intervention.
Perhaps most amazingly of all, the (most recent) Iraq war only merited the odd aside.
I know almost nothing about most of these wars. They are taken from Wikipedia’s list of wars involving the UK. However, I do know the trend: Britain is one of the wealthiest countries on earth largely because, over the centuries we conquered, often by force, a third of the surface of the earth. We committed occasional genocide and regular mass murder. And yet we aren’t taught this in school, and I don’t know of any museum I could go to to find out about this history.
The flip side of this coin is the war to which the museum devotes the majority of its space: the Second World War. Now, I can see a good cultural argument for why this would happen: it was a vast war, fought recently enough that there are still significant numbers of people alive who were directly affected. The Holocaust memorial, in particular, is crucial, and it is quite right that is is there.
However, it seems to me that there is a second reason why the establishment would focus so heavily on WW2 – even to the extent that there were very few mentions of WW1: It is the one war which isn’t controversial. Almost everyone agrees that stopping Hitler was crucial. By talking, almost exclusively, about the one war where our country was clearly one of the goodies – we can build a national myth. We can forget our genocide of the Tasmanians, or of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. We can ignore our colonial history: castrating the Mao Mao and murdering Indians.
This was all underlined by their examination of crimes against humanity – a film, looking only at recent incidents of ethnic violence – from the Bakans to Rwanda. Again, no mention of Britain’s history of mass murder and genocide, it shows non-white people killing each other, and asks us why our troops didn’t stop them.
In this final film, Fergal Keene tells us that countries like Ireland and Bosnia are often said to be too obsessed with their past. But in fact, he argues, they are obsessed with myths about their past. And what they need is the facts, the real history. His voice-over must repeat this every twenty minutes in a museum dedicated to perpetuating a dangerous British national myth: one which denies our bloody and murderous history because we won, and so we were never confronted with it.
For me, the whole experience was summed up by one realisation: In Britain’s main museum about our wars, I couldn’t find a single reference to anyone ever killed by UK armed forces.
*1) I haven’t mentioned in this list the various wars with our European neighbours in which we have been involved in recent centuries
2) It is possible there was the occasional brief mention of one or two of the above – I didn’t scour every inch of the place. But they were certainly never put front and centre.