The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Against Mike Davis

UC Irvine history prof Mike Davis cant write a damn thing without the nuts going nuts. This time, the controversys over an obscure reference to Winston Churchill.

"My sin in his eyes," Davis says, "is not so much that I attack the national fetish of Churchill as that I provide possible ammunition—via Churchill's enthusiasm for terror weapons—to critics of the Anglo-American crusade against Iraq." And while Sutherland never explains how or why he made the leap in logic from Utah to Baghdad, the connection between the two is indeed what has him so vexed.

The irony of all this is that The Guardian's readers don't need Davis to tell them about "Churchill's enthusiasm for terror weapons." On the same morning Sutherland was fulminating, another column in the paper carried a quotation from Churchill when he was secretary of state for air and war in 1919: "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas," Churchill wrote then. "I am strongly in favor of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes." As anyone acquainted with Churchill's career as secretary of state for air and war knows, at the top of his hit list of "uncivilised tribes" were the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and the people of Iraq. In the case of Iraq, as historian Phillip Knightley has shown, Churchill suggested the RAF should draw up plans for what he called "some kind of asphyxiating bombs" to be dropped on the villages "in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes." Only technical difficulties spared Afghans and Iraqis from Churchill's brutal intentions. "In the end," Knightley writes, "the RAF stuck to high-explosive bombs, a method we are still using today."

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Gary Younge, the Guardian columnist who quotes Churchill, doesn't shy away from considering what Churchill's behavior can tell us about those who now invoke him as a moral exemplar to make their case for war against Iraq. And these days, the cult of Churchill is even stronger in Washington than it is in London. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regularly invokes the "Churchillian spirit" to ward off skepticism. The Bush White House contacted the British Embassy for help in finding a bust of Churchill for the president's Oval Office desk. The Brits were happy to help.

Anyone looking to understand Churchill's behavior and what resonance it may have in our current situation could do no better than to start with the chapter in Dead Cities on Dugway's German Village, whose uncanny ruins Davis describes as "reproof to the self-righteousness of punishing 'bad places' by bombing them." Reading that phrase, you can begin to understand why Sutherland thinks a book about the urban West might have an impact on the debate over Iraq.

"The chapter did not have that purpose in mind," Davis says, "although I am grateful to Sutherland for making the connection."

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