Comment : Eamonn McCann - Imperialism's legacy in Libya

Eamonn McCann - Belfast Telegraph.

Eamonn McCann explains how proclamations about "humanitarian" intervention have been used as a cover for imperial domination in Libya.

A HUNDRED years ago, for the first time in human history, bombs were dropped from the air. On November 1, 1911, a young fellow with a big moustache, Giulio Gavotti, leaned out from his Taube monoplane, yanked out the pins from four grenades with his teeth and tossed them onto a group of Turkish troops on the ground just outside Tripoli.

The grenades exploded, but caused little damage. The soldiers below, however, were seen to scatter in chaotic panic.

Giulio was already known as a sportsman and a daredevil pilot back in his home city of Genoa, where he once landed in a square to impress a girl he had his eye on. The headline on the wire service report of the innovative bombing caught the note: "Aviator Lt. Gavotti Throws Bomb on Enemy Camp. Terrorized Turks Scatter upon Unexpected Celestial Assault."

A few years later, the Italian military's main strategist, Giulio Douhet, published what was to become the bombers' bible, Command of the Air.

He argued that the wars of the future would be won not through ground battles, but through aerial assault; the specific thesis being that civilian populations would be plunged into such terror by explosives plummeting from the sky that they would cry out for peace at any price.

A number of Douhet's declarations retain a distinct resonance today: "To conquer the command of the air means victory; to be beaten in the air means defeat...The one effective method of defending one's own territory from an offensive by air is to destroy the enemy's air power with the greatest possible speed."

The Italians had gone to war in Libya in order, they said, to liberate the Libyan people from the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. But when the Turkish Empire was reduced to rubble in the First World War, Italy was left as the occupying force. Now, aviation technology having greatly advanced, bombers dropped not only explosives but mustard gas on "rebels" who continued to oppose a foreign presence.

Thus, began a ferocious war in which Libyans, led by their great national hero Omar Mukhtar, fought to expel the Italian forces. A hundred thousand people were interned--from a population of about 1.25 million. Tens of thousands died in squalor in barbed-wire camps in the desert from torture, disease and malnutrition. Thousands of others were massacred with machine guns.

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IN A museum in Benghazi today (unless it's been removed since I was there), there's a montage of photographs of a scaffold with a capacity, at the pull of a lever, to hang 12 people at a time.

And there's a grainy picture of al-Mukhtar, aged 73, being brought to court in Benghazi in chains for a one-day trial, after which he was hanged in front of ragged rows of his interned followers, marshaled by Italian soldiers in formal, gleaming uniforms. It is a story which, as historian Mark Mazower wryly remarked in the Guardian last week, has "vanished into oblivion."

When tales are told of the heroism and sacrifice of resistance to fascist occupation, there's rarely a mention of Libya. Hardly anyone in the West has heard of Omar Mukhtar. A well-regarded film of al-Mukhtar's life, Lion of the Desert, starring Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Irene Papas and Oliver Reed, appears never to have had a cinema release in the UK.

After the defeat of the Axis powers in the Second World War, the victorious Americans and the British took their turn as occupiers.

When Qaddafi came to power in 1969, his first moves were to close their bases and boot out the remaining Italian settlers. He was hugely popular as a result--which, paradoxically, may have been a factor in sowing the seeds of his destruction. Seeing his regime, and himself personally, as the personification of the Libyan nation, all opposition was deemed treason and dissidents regarded as traitors deserving of death--not a uniquely Libyan scenario.

We are entitled to be told of the rottenness that has corroded the Qaddafi regime.

We are also entitled to know something of the history which has brought the Libyan people to their present predicament--if only for the light that that throws on the real considerations in the minds of the NATO powers as they pick and choose which tyrannies to intervene to overthrow and which they carry on arming so that tyranny can continue the suppression of dissidents who dare to seek democracy.