From the June 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard
There is nothing the press loves so much as a bogy man. Whenever Great Britain is in dispute with another country, almost without exception the newspapers spill their inky venom in caricatures of the "enemy” leader, showing him as stupid, or bloodthirsty, or power mad, or in some other, equally unpleasant, way.
So it is at the moment with President Nasser, who, ever since he first pressed the claims of Arab nationalism against the entrenched British interests in the Middle Past, has been one of the principal stand-bys for the headline writers and editors of Fleet Street.
"Get Out! Says Nasser” bellows one headline, and workers in bowler hats and boiler suits all over Great Britain feel their hackles rise as they read a carefully bowdlerised, pepped-up version of a speech by the Egyptian ruler. How dare he, they fume. It's about time we sent in the paratroops. A pity we stopped at Suez when we did. What he's asking for is an H-bomb on Cairo. And so on.
In this atmosphere, the story of the beheading of two English soldiers by the rebel Radfani tribesmen—who are said to be armed by the Egyptians—found a hysterically receptive audience. Big, slashing, screaming headlines, supported with the boy-next-door pictures of the soldiers and details of their families, blazoned the story across the nation's breakfast tables.
It did not seem to occur to any of the newspapers that, even if the story were true, they were adding an intolerable burden to the grief of the men's families by their eager publicising of it. Or, if this did occur to them, the papers ignored it. They, after all, had a job of muckspreading to do and in that great enterprise what concern can there be for an unimportant detail like human feelings?
This was one of the most squalid aspects of the affair, in which not only the press but the men's commanding officer and the government were implicated. For the alacrity with which the first story was accepted, without checking by reliable observers on the spot, suggests that those who noised it may have suspected its total veracity—but had objects in mind other than publishing the truth.
The story started at a Press conference given by Major General John Cubbon, the General Officer Commanding British Land Forces in the Middle East. General Cubbon, who seems to be one of the less subtle of military minds, said that the report of the decapitation was based on “reliable information”. And he went on to hint at the reason behind it all; “If this is true . . . It will have a profound effect on our troops."
As it turned out Gibbon's story was only partly true, which caused a lot of red faces for a time but did nothing to put the affair in a better light. General Cubbon, with his musing upon the effects which atrocity stories are likely to have on his troops, is only the latest in a long, undistinguished line. The world is accustomed by now to the methods which are used to inflame the patriotism of the working class - although unhappily it is not inured to those methods.
There was, for example (and we shall probably be hearing more of this during the next few months), the atrocity myths which came out of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. The usual "reliable sources” reported that the German soldiers were running amok, raping women of all ages, bayoneting babies and cutting off children's hands.
(At the same time, the German ruling class were feeding their workers on similar lies. In their version, Belgian soldiers made a sport of tearing out the eyes of wounded German soldiers. Entire hospital wards were said to be filled with men who had suffered this fate and one small boy was reported to have seen a bucketful of gouged out eyes.)
These stories probably did their evil work effectively enough and persuaded many a man, who later in the trenches came to doubt the truth of what he had been told, into khaki. In fact, there was no reason at the time to believe the stories. In 1914, when the British propagandists were weeping crocodile tears over "poor little Belgium”, the world had only just recovered front the shock caused by the revelation of the atrocities which the Belgians themselves had committed in the Congo. The extent of the outrages are difficult to ascertain, but there is no doubt—and there was none in 1914 -that literally millions of Congolese natives had been murdered, with the active connivance of (he Belgian government, in the mad hunt for the Congo's rubber.
All of this was forgotten. There was no real evidence to support the 1914 atrocity stories, hut nobody bothered about that. In their hysterical patriotism the working class were eager to gobble up any rubbish. As late as 1917, Belgium was still considered good for a propaganda theme. An American poster of that year showed a lecherous, helmeted Prussian dragging an innocent young maid off to a fate worse than death, all silhouetted against burning houses and topped by the caption- "Remember Belgium.”
This sort of propaganda finds a lush breeding ground in the basic ignorance with which most people regard Capitalism. It is this ignorance which persuades many of them so readily to see the inevitable conflicts of capitalism in terms of the personalities of national rulers. It persuaded them to see 1914/18 as a consequence of the Kaiser's imperialist ambitions, 1939/45 as a result of Hitler's murderous insanity, and the endless small clashes in the Middle East as the fruits of President Nasser's insatiable conceits.
This ruinously naive conception does not permit of the asking of any penetrative questions. The British worker who regards Nasser as a comical, but dangerous, dictator does not ask himself why the Egyptian ruling class is nowadays so often in conflict with their British counterparts. He does not ask why British troops are in the South Arabian Peninsula, in the same way as his father did not ask, in 1914, why the Britain which had so recently fought the small Boer Republic became suddenly protective of the rights of poor little Belgium.
So let us ask the questions for him.
It is difficult to unravel the politics of the Arabian Peninsula, complicated as they are by the feudal structure of a multitude of sheikdoms and sultanates. It has long been British policy to exploit these complications—to play off one ruler against another and to conclude deals with some of them, if necessary helping them to stamp out any republican or embryonic trade union movements.
If Egypt is at the moment the big threat to British interests in the Middle East it is only because the Egyptian ruling class want to unite the various countries there in a common stand against foreign domination. Several attempts at formal unity have largely come to nothing, which has meant that the workers and the natural resources of the area are to some extent still exploited by foreign capitalists, instead of exclusively by a native ruling class.
A glance at any map shows the strategic importance of the Arabian Peninsula, standing as it does at the outlet of the Red Sea, which is part of Great Britain's vital sea route to the Far Fast and Australia. Another sort of map will show up the peninsula's abounding oilfields, which are by no means a pacifying ingredient in an area which would have been inflammable enough without the discovery of thick, black, vital ooze beneath the hot sands. All of this explains the existence of the British base at Aden, and the deep and longstanding British interest in what is incorrectly called the Aden Protectorate—incorrectly because the troops are not there to protect the people of Aden. They are there to safeguard the interests of the British capitalist class, which means that they might be used in all manner of enterprises which have nothing to do with protecting anybody.
Many of the Arab rulers are insecure, faced as they are with the rumblings of nationalist, republican movements. Even King Saud of Saudi Arabia, who was once thought to be safely cushioned by thick wads of Yankee dollars, has been virtually deposed by his brother. The constant dream of British governments has been to stabilise the peninsula under rulers who are amenable to Whitehall's commands. So it was that in 1962 the South Arabian Federation was imposed on the Aden area, part of the border of which faces the Yemen Republic.
The Yemen is one of the Middle East’s young republics whose ambitions are being encouraged and exploited by the Egyptian government. The country has its own internal troubles, in the shape of a dissident royalist movement but this has not, apparently, prevented it supporting the rebel tribesmen just over its border.
The British government has complained that the rebels are supplied with arms by the Yemen, which gets them from Egypt, which gets them from the Soviet Union. The Yemenis in turn charge that the British-supported sheik of Beihar, whose territory borders on the Yemen, has been supplying weapons to the royalist rebels in the Republic.
Both stories could well he true. The Middle East is in jus! the sort of mess we might expect in an area which, ruled by a lot of feudal aristocrats, is of enormous economic and strategic importance to the great powers of capitalism All sorts of despots are propped up by Western arms and money. and many rebel movements are nurtured by material expressions of sympathy from more developed lands.
It is an explosive situation.
And all of this because industry and transport need oil and because Western Europe needs its trade routes to the Far East. Because capitalism, inevitably, has split the world into competing nations and factions, all of them striving lo get the cushiest concession on an oil field, all of them out for the easiest, fastest selling market. These are the basic reasons for the ugly, violent mess which is the Middle East today.
Capitalism causes war and war itself is an atrocity. And part of its atrociousness is the lying which both sides always indulge in, and the receptive ignorance which ensures that the lies are believed—at any rate for the critical period. The story of the beheadings in the Yemen was gruesomely distressing. But there should he no surprise that the propaganda machine fed it out so eagerly.
Instead, there should he disgust—a fruitful disgust—at it all, at the lies and the cynicism and the ignorance which are so essential a part of property society. At such times we see capitalism for what it is and it is not pleasant to look upon.