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Book Review September 8, 2006
Another British Genocide
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3

Elkins's prose, research and conclusions are unimpeachable. Niall Ferguson himself, the most powerful contemporary apologist for Victoria's bloodsoaked, shameless meatgrinder, has admitted that. Finicky reviewers might grumble that Elkins is, if anything, too much the standard American academic historian and could have risked a livelier prose style. But that would have been foolhardy. She had to be as conventional as possible, because the Tories' favorite smearing device is to seize on anything they can call a "factual error" and use it to discredit any text that threatens to reveal their crimes.

One of the most bitterly amusing examples of this in recent history came when reviewers for the Tory rags like Telegraph and Spectator had to review the film Michael Collins. There's a scene in the film where, after Collins's flying squads carried out a brilliant simultaneous hit on 19 British intelligence agents in Dublin, the Black and Tans fired into a crowd of civilians at a Croke Park football match in reprisal. The Tory reviewers discovered through their tame researchers that, whereas in the film, the soldier-executioners drive an armored car onto the pitch, in reality they were on foot. They railed about that mistake for paragraphs.

Of course the incident did indeed happen. Civilians were indeed shot and killed at random by enraged squaddies at Croke Park. But those soldiers were on foot, damn it! That makes all the difference! You can't believe any of it, because the armored car never entered the field of play!

I've read so many of these insane English defenses of sheer racist slaughter that I had lost hope anyone would even try to smack the truth in their smug snouts. In fact, shock is still my strongest reaction to this book: how in God's name did Elkins get it published? How did she get a chair in History at Harvard after publishing it?

My only quibble with Elkins's account is that like most American scholars, she seems to know only her damn "field," African History. She lacks any sense of the stunning parallels between the atrocities committed by the British in suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion and those they used in other 20th c. anti-insurgency campaigns, above all the struggle against the IRA, which taught the rest of us wogs how, by using urban guerrilla warfare, we could kill the squaddies at last.

When Elkins writes, "Mau Mau [circa 1950] became one of the first armed struggles of the twentieth century in which where superior Western firepower was no match, at least initially, for...the insurgents' use of hit-and-run tactics," I want to whisper to her, "Psst, Caroline--check out the Tan War! Read some Rah memoirs like, say, On Another Man's Wound!"

But this neglect of the wider context in no way diminishes Elkins's Homeric achievement. She seems to be one of the very, very few American academics who can play by the horrible rules of that mingy, treacherous guild and still fight the good fight. I can only think of a few others, like Miriam Hanson. They all seem to be women, for some reason. All the brave, smart people I knew at Berkeley flamed out long before they could get anything published. The publication of this book is a monument to something, or proof that there's a second, occluded god who helps us from time to time, maybe the same Promethean who gave us opiates and nukes. Homage to him, her, it or them; and homage in full measure to this brave, straightforward professor, the noble Caroline Elkins, who somehow saw what was in front of her.

And you, the rest of little question: where were you? First, you Brits. Now you know I don't credit you with much conscience, but I do find you smarter, on average, than my ex-colleagues in the USA. Those poor bumpkins don't even start their education till they're 18; what can you expect of them? But you knew all of it, didn't you? You knew what Elkins revealed here. Which means you -- you VERY plural -- were silent, complicit, for fifty fuckin' years. You really are utterly without conscience, are you not?

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