Associate Professor of History Priya Satia B.A., B.S. ‘95 delivered a talk entitled “The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia” Thursday at Annenberg Auditorium. The talk was part of the Ethics and War Series sponsored by the Bowen H. McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.
Satia discussed the British invention of air control as a military surveillance tactic in Iraq during the interwar years. She said British perceptions of the region, which they called “Arabia,” allowed British officials to reconcile their ethical scruples with the violence of the tactic, and she added that these British experiences in Iraq have influenced Americans’ thinking about the region today.
Once proven successful in Iraq, Satia said, the tactic was exported to the rest of the British Empire and eventually found a place in conventional warfare.
Satia began her lecture discussing the League of Nation’s 1919 establishment of the mandate system after the First World War, focusing on the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (Iraq), which cobbled together the former Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra in 1920.
Iraqis began resisting the British involvement almost immediately, at a time when mass nationalist resistance had started threatening the British Empire at large, Satia said.
“Historians tended to emphasize [British] ‘peaceableness’ between the wars…compared to the more openly violent rivals on the world stage at the time,” Satia said. “This indulgent view takes British self-perceptions about the period a bit too much at face value.”
Satia contended that the “violent system of aerial policing” implemented by the British in Iraq was one of the solutions the British used to counter the Iraqi rebellion.
Air control entailed policing Iraq through Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons patrolling the country, coordinating information with ground forces to bombard subversive villages and tribes. The tactic, Satia said, was invented by the British in Iraq.
The way in which British officials managed to run a “successful public relations” campaign to ensure public ignorance of, or support for, the air campaign was a main focus of Satia’s talk.
“[Positive public perception was] part of a mode of imperial statecraft that the British designed to cope with the fact that they were pursuing empire in an increasingly anti-imperial world,” Satia said.
Satia added that cultural reasons related to the British idea of Arabia — a romanticized construction, rather than a geographic or cultural reality — explained why the unprecedented air control scheme was first devised in Iraq.
“Arabia was deemed a spy space…a space where professional, methodological and ethical standards did not apply,” Satia said, following an exposition on the British explorers of Arabia, including T. E. Lawrence.
This perception allowed the Air Force and officials to recast the air control tactic as a humanitarian, morally scrupulous act, guided by the empathy the British explorers had for the Arab tribes.
“Willful ignorance at the outcome [of bombing campaigns] made air control sit more easily in the British mind,” Satia said. “Only in Arabia did such fecklessness make sense and thus make air control acceptable.”
Satia relied heavily on primary sources of explorers and actors of the period, shocking the audience at points with quotes from British military on the positive effect bombing the Arabs had on them.
“The transposition of real Arabia into the Arabia of myth made bombing palatable,” Satia said. “[As not] merely a simple racist dehumanization of Arabs but also of long-circulating ideas about Arabia as a place exempt from…‘this worldliness.’”
“At the end of the day, this claim to empathy was based literally on sand,” Satia said.
Satia went on to argue that the United States learned the “wrong lessons” from the British experience in Iraq, highlighting U.S. use of drones.
“Air control was a mechanism of control for a region where a more overt form of control was a political impossibility,” Satia said, drawing parallels between the British experience and the American.
On Feb. 7, the New York Times reported that the number of staff in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — 16,000, costing $6 billion annually — would be slashed by as much as half.
The article mentioned Iraqi suspicion that the decision indicates a U.S. move towards a discreet presence in Iraq.
“It’s 1932 all over again — another chapter in the long history of covert empire,” Satia said, reflecting on the development. “The very thinness of the U.S. presence continues to stoke widespread suspicions about a hidden man guiding their country’s forces.”