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What Happened on Diego Garcia?

May 5, 2009

At the New York Review of Books, a long discussion about the island of Diego Garcia and of the uses to which the United States put this small outpost in the Indian Ocean. What America has done there, according to the Jonathan Freedland in his review of Island of Shame, by David Vine is

one of the more shocking tales of modern-day imperialism. It is a story of an old empire passing the torch to the new, Britain handing over one of its furthest-flung territories to the United States and expelling the native inhabitants to make way for the construction of a military base that has since become central to US control of the Indian Ocean and domination of the Persian Gulf. It is the tale of how a remote island idyll was simply emptied of its people, allowing for the creation of a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit,[1] a key staging post in George W. Bush’s war on terror, both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 “stealth” bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA’s rendition system, a “black site” through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.

The article makes the claim that depopulating the island of the Chagossian people who lived there puts the US into the category of Spain, Britain and Rome for their “brute conquest” of the island and dispossession of its people. He further describes

a meticulously researched, coldly furious book that details precisely how London and Washington colluded in a scheme of population removal more redolent of the eighteenth or nineteenth century than the closing decades of the twentieth. It reconstructs, memo by memo, how the deed was plotted, how it was done, and how it was denied through lies told to both politicians and public.

If any significant portion of this is true, the activities of the American government and military–even prior to the use of the island to secretly interrogate prisoners–are cause for embarrassment. But there is a reference to the author that, while not necessarily undermining the conclusions reached by the book, clearly call for a more skeptical reading of it:

[Vine was] hired by lawyers for the Chagossian people to set down, for the first time, a detailed account of their fate. He has not let them down. He has raked through the archives in the United Kingdom and the United States, reading diplomatic cables and internal Defense Department memoranda. But he has also embedded himself in the slums of Mauritius where many of the islanders were first dumped and where most now live—only a small minority went to England—and mastered the distinct Chagos Kreol dialect in which the older survivors of the expulsion still recall their lives.

The lawyers, beneficent though their intentions may have been, by definition had a duty to present the plight of the Chagossian people in the light most favorable to them and, not inconsequentially, in a light that could lead in the end to financial recompense for both the lawyers, the author and the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia.

I’m not, I should repeat, defending any illegal or bullying tactics used by the US to transform the island for its military purposes. I’m only noting that the author of the book about these tactics had a responsibility to find them illegal and bullying. As a consequence, it is very difficult–if not impossible–to rely on his presentation of the events.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert McElroy permalink
    May 5, 2009 4:54 pm

    You raise a good question-the purpose of the book.

    I haven’t read Dr. Vine’s book but did some research into declassified documents related to Diego Garcia and world events of the time. My impression is that then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did not see any reason to take on Diego Garcia or participate in a new, joint base project with the UK further up the coast of Africa. In McNamara’s mind, the island was too far off the path of oil tankers the US would want to protect or serve. It was less expensive to deal with any problems from other US bases in southern Africa rather than take the tankers off course. there was also some resistance in the US House regarding funding such a base but the Senate seemed more compliant.

    From what I can gather, the UK was being drained of its resources through its presence in the Middle East and just when the US was about to pass on Diego, announced it was withdrawing its forces from “East of the Suez”.

    The US took notice because it relied on the UK forces to handle some of the matters in the Middle East. You will recall that Russia was very actively expanding in that whole region and India was keeping its options open as a port for foreign vessels.

    In the end it was and is about oil.

    I’m not sure where Dr. Vine got his information about US troops gassing dogs and livestock after the Chagossians left. It is my understanding that the UK’s roll was to prepare the island for development as a base.

    In the absence of any vessel documentation it appears that the UK hired a large boat to transport the Chagossians to Mauritius. The Chagossians hold that they were literally dropped of on the dock and left to their own devices. It apparently didn’t go well for some of them who fell into depression and alcohol abuse. Others found their way and others, once they became UK citizens, moved to Great Britain.

    England did compensate the Chagossians on Mauritius but, apparently it wasn’t much or was ineffective in drawing them out of their despair and poverty. I also understand that the matter has been given some legal attention by the UK government but not to the satisfaction of the Chagossians who want to return to Diego or its out-islands.

    Then there is some conflicting data-The Chagossians want to return to an island that may not be able to sustain them but which holds their roots, their graveyards and memories but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. On the other hand their is quite a bit of talk of developing the island(s) into a very high-end eco-resort where the Chagossians could live nearby and have retails shops or work for the resort.

    I think, if finger pointing is the intention of the book, that the UK is the big culprit in this one. there is possibly something murky going on if Dr. Vine is trying to lay the whole thing on “US imperialism”. Considering the documents I have read, I wonder why?

  2. May 5, 2009 4:59 pm

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  3. May 6, 2009 12:06 am

    Nice blog about book reviews.

  4. May 6, 2009 10:28 am

    I appreciate the detailed response. Thanks for taking the time to write. I have to admit that, other than taking a look at the article and some discussion of the island’s defense role back in college, my knowledge of Diego Garcia is limited. But my curiosity is always peaked when I see evidence of bias (or, at least, unacknowledged bias…we all have our own points of view, don’t we?) and it seemed to me that the impetus for the creation of this book about the Chagossian experience legitimately called the authors motives into question.

  5. May 6, 2009 11:17 am

    “it seemed to me that the impetus for the creation of this book about the Chagossian experience legitimately called the authors motives into question”

    Well, being hired by the group who represents the displaced peoples would not be unusual if, as Freedland suggests, it was to set down the history of the matter for the first time. And you can’t really know what is in a person’s mind or if there was some underlying message about how the book would be used.

    If Dr. Vine assumed the US was guilty as a starting point, there was probably a moment or, perhaps, several when he read a declassified memo that may have disputed his premise. As a matter of fact, I know there are memos that would dispute his premise. The question is did he legitimately explain them away or ignore them? (Still haven’t read his book)

    The advance on the book interested me. It got a lot of attention from the Socialist Party in the UK and, for a brief time was discussed on Pacifica radio and, I think someone put something up on Huffington Post or DailyKos, maybe AltNet. Maybe because of the 2008 elections coming up and Bush stuff it just never gained any traction.

    What raised my skepticism was that the advance work on the book and Freedland’s review tend to throw a whole bunch of hot buttons into association. Bush’s war in Iraq, CIA interrogations and the like are associated with Diego Garcia. So, if you can’t get excited about a couple of thousand relatives of 1200 people who were displaced in the late 60’s you can about current events that might stir you.

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