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The Dangers of Repetition: Iraq to Syria

27/11/2015 10:29 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Everybody has that one teacher don't they? A teacher you never forget. For me it was Mr Herzog. Because he made history come alive. I remember one week he taught us about the rise of Hitler. We all pretty much figured Hitler was a really bad man, but what was it which made his horrid ideas persuasive to so many? Mr Herzog showed us how to examine the background, the historical context; he described the punitive economic measures imposed on the defeated Germany after the First Word War, he described the crises of hyperinflation, the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the flat lining of the German economy.

He sneaked us into the beer halls of the decaying Weimar Republic, where the ex-soldiers, the bankrupt artisans and the ruined small business owners had come to drink away their woes while exchanging oblique, muttered references to the 'foreigners' who had ruined everything. We could almost scent the stench of beer and anti-Semitism wafting across the bar; the reek of embittered patriotism and a visceral yearning for revenge. Mr Herzog helped us to see that it was in these conditions where Nazism metastasised, that it was here fear and helplessness were translated into something so much more sinister.

As impressed as we were, none of us ever thought to attack what Mr Herzog had said. None of us had the notion of suddenly calling out: 'Hey Mr H, so by referencing the social conditions in which Hitler came to power aren't you really just letting him off the hook? By talking about broader forces you must believe the Holocaust really wasn't his fault?'

There is a reason why nobody said that. It would have been plain stupid. Even as children, we were able to perform an important mental separation. It was possible for us to believe that Hitler was an evil, awful individual while at the same time noting that there was a background, a set of objective social conditions - which helped facilitate his actions. But although this might not seem like the most controversial view to cleave to, its logic - simple, unassailable - is a logic which seems to confound many a journalist or cultural commentator today.

In fact, since the awful attacks in Paris, the same depressing scenario has been played out. A minority has tried to urge caution, has tried to pre-empt a knee-jerk and vitriolic response, and has tried to provide some kind of context which lies behind such horrific atrocities, and the dull, deluded fanatics who commit them. It has sought to draw attention to the involvement of Western imperialism in the Middle East, and the rising tide of Islamophobia which has swept across Europe in the aftermath.

To which a more vocal majority has responded with the type of inflamed rhetoric which brooks no dissent. The attempt to show the importance of the role of western military policy in the formation and development of ISIS is merely another means by which 'the far-Left blame the victim', writes Tim Stanley for the Telegraph. The same motif has rung out across the blogosphere. Explanation is synonymous with justification. Any articulation of the broader relationship between the Western powers and the Middle East can never be anything more than a cowardly alibi for the most heinous mass murderers. How can one attempt to rationalise such evil when the bodies of the victims are barely cold? To think, to ponder, in these circumstances is nothing sort of obscene. Only swift decisive action will do, for only in action do we give voice to spontaneous, authentic grief.

None of this is new, however. It has been played out before. The same tragic pantomime of grief and rage. The same knee-jerk call to arms. It happened after the atrocity of September the 11th in New York. There, the attacks on the twin towers provided the rationale for the Bush' administration's disruption and plunder of Iraq and the awful civil war which succeeded it. And after removing Saddam, the British and American forces installed a Shiite based government which targeted the remnants of the shattered regime, one which belittled and repressed the broader Sunni layers. In effect US and British foreign policy fashioned a weaponised sectarianism which saw thousands of government employees thrown out of work, their pensions and prospects snatched away, alongside the privatisation of key state industries now under the auspices of Shiite control.

In such a scenario the resistance of Sunni Arabs, in particular, was inevitable. It was 'contained' through the creation of check points fortified by nests of machine guns, villages cordoned off by barbed wire, curfews put into effect with lethal force, and the expansion of huge prison facilities - vast concrete fortifications which seemed to spring up from the burning desert sands. It was in these looming, monstrous containments where the dispossessed military men, the bureaucrats of the old regime, the outraged patriots and the fanatical clerics - began to formulate a new political programme. In the baking intensity of the desert heat, Frankenstein's monster began to take shape - Islamic State was called into being.

We can see this quite clearly in retrospect. But none of it means that the criminal, murderous fanatics who did what they did in Paris should be absolved of responsibility. An appreciation of the broader historical current, however, suggests that deepening Western military involvement at this stage is little likely to vanquish the problem especially given such action was one of the factors which created it in the first place. Reacting like a true demagogue, beating the drums of war, French 'socialist' president François Hollande has vowed to intensify the bombardment of an already pulverized Syria. Truly, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. That was something Mr Herzog taught us too.