Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Johann Hari Channels Nicholson Baker

In a column last week, Johann Hari of the London Independent holds forth on “our infantile search for heroic leaders.” Using the sacred cows of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Winston Churchill, Hari makes the (unremarkable) point that collectively venerated figures are not perfect, and their faults should be studied and understood along with their virtues. Yet in the course of listing Churchill’s supposed faults, Hari writes:

In the 1920s, Iraqis rose up against British imperial rule, and Churchill as Colonial Secretary thought of a good solution: gas them. He wrote: “I do not understand this squeamishness . . . I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” It would “spread a lively terror”

It seems that Hari found this quote in Nicholson Baker’s poisonous (no pun intended) new book Human Smoke (reviewed in COMMENTARY by David Pryce-Jones). For, like Baker, Hari reports this quote utterly out of context. Here’s Andrew Roberts setting the record straight in the New Criterion:

Similarly, Baker rips two sentences from a letter from Churchill to the head of the RAF, Hugh Trenchard, to imply that Churchill wanted mustard gas used to kill Britain’s enemies in Iraq in 1920. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” Baker quotes, but if one returns to the original memorandum, found in the Churchill Papers in Cambridge, it goes on to make it clear that the idea was not to use “deadly gasses” against the enemy, but rather ones aimed at “making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory [i.e., tear] gas.” Churchill goes on to write: “The moral effect should be so good as to keep loss of life reduced to a minimum” and “Gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror yet would leave no serious permanent effect on most of those affected.” Can one imagine Hitler writing such a thing to Himmler? Anyone who can’t tell the difference between tear gas and Zyklon B should not be writing history books, and The New York Times should have given this book to an historian rather than a novelist for review.

Hari concludes, “We will never reach a point where we find the good leader and can sigh, sit back, and relax. If you care about the state of the world, you have to keep watching and pressuring and fighting, forever.” Amidst all that “watching and pressuring and fighting,” perhaps Hari could pause a few minutes to do some research.



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