Why are there so few brown and black faces in ‘Dunkirk’?

Soldiers from the French African colonies holding a position at Boucle du Doubs, near Besancon, France, winter of 1944.

135,000 Senegalese troops fought in Europe during World War I and over 30,000 died. De Gaulle’s Free French Army in World War II was largely composed of troops from the French colonial empire, including conscripts and volunteers from among the colonized populations. The Nazis executed several thousand French colonial POWs from Africa, driven by their racial animus towards black peoples.

Over a million Indian troops served overseas during World War I. Undivided India (most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) was part of the British Empire at the time. During World War II, the Indian Army expanded to include 2.5 million troops in uniform. The bulk of the force was deployed in Asia to stop the Japanese advance into Burma, but numerous divisions served in the Middle East, Africa and in Europe. Six of the fourteen Allied divisions in North Africa were from the Indian army.

So why are there so few black and brown faces in the new movie about Dunkirk?

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

There were also four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on those beaches. Observers said they were particularly cool under fire and well-organized during the retreat. They weren’t large in number, maybe a few hundred among hundreds of thousands, but their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war. Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.

— www.slate.com/…

Sunny Singh, writing in the Guardian writes that these omissions have a broader impact. White-washing the two world wars (and colonial history more generally) aids right-wing ethno-nationalists by erasing the sacrifices other peoples made to ensure French, British and American freedoms.

[…] it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.  […]

A vast, all-white production such as Nolan’s Dunkirk is not an accident. Such a big budget film is a product of many hundreds of small and large decisions in casting, production, directing and editing. Perhaps Nolan chose to follow the example of the original allies in the second world war who staged a white-only liberation of Paris even though 65% of the Free French Army troops were from West Africa. […]

Why is it so important that the covering fire be provided by white French troops rather than North African and Middle Eastern ones? Those non-white faces I mentioned earlier – they were French troops scrabbling to board British boats to escape. The echoes of modern politics are easy to see in the British-first policy of the initial retreat that left French troops at the mercy of the Nazis. In reality, non-white troops were at the back of the queue for evacuation, and far more likely to be caught and murdered by Nazi soldiers than their white colleagues who were able to blend into the crowd.

— www.theguardian.com/…

Oh, and that insistence on a whites-only liberation force for Paris? It was part of a policy called ‘blanchiment’, literally “whitening” of the liberating units.

In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.

“This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”

At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war. […]

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish. […]

For France’s West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate. Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes’ welcome in Paris.

— news.bbc.co.uk/…

@subirgrewal | Cross-posted at NotMeUs.org & TheProgressiveWing.com

A stark contrast as Corbyn and May visit site of London fire

A fire at the Grenfell Tower in London on Wednesday may have killed a hundred people:

As the confirmed death toll rose to 30, there were reportedly as many as 70 people unaccounted for since the blaze, which police fear was so devastating that some victims may never be identified. The official number of deaths has sparked anger and confusion within the local community, where people believe the true number is considerably higher.  — Guardian

Labour Party leader James Corbyn visited the complex on Thursday, meeting with survivors. He comforted those searching for loved ones.

Corbyn comforting a woman holding missing person flyers for a 12 year old

After his visit, Corbyn discussed housing survivors in luxury apartments nearby. The neighborhood is one of the wealthiest in London, with many apartments owned by foreign buyers which sit unoccupied for most of the year. Corbyn had earlier said that austerity cuts for public housing and Conservatives’ failure to update safety regulations might be partially responsible for the fire.

As if those criticisms weren’t bad enough, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May compounded the crisis by failing to meet with survivors when she visited the site on Thursday as well. She opted to survey the location with first responders.

PM Theresa May surveying the scene with first responders

May was almost immediately excoriated by the UK papers for the stark contrast with Corbyn’s visit:

In contrast, Corbyn was lauded by the press and survivors for his visit. The Independent quoted one resident saying “he’s one of us”. The criticism got to be so bad that PM May returned on Friday to visit survivors at a church being used as a shelter. As she left that visit escorted by police, she was heckled by protesters who shouted “shame on you” and “coward”.

London mayor Sadiq Khan, Queen Elizabeth and Prince William who also visited the site, did meet survivors.

In 2009, a fire at a public housing complex in South-East London killed six people, including three children. An investigation found the local authorities failed to maintain the building up to fire code.

There were blog posts  yesterday that chronicled the repeated attempts by residents at Grenfell Towers to have management fix sprinklers, fire alarms and other equipment in the building.

— @subirgrewal

Labour under Corbyn posts biggest gain in popular vote since 1945

Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour won a bigger portion of the popular vote than it has in the past 15 years. Turnout was the highest it’s been over the past 20 years. The improvement over the prior result is the best for Labour since the post-war 1945 election.

1964 48.0% 41.9% 8.5% 75.8% + 3.9% 2.3%
1970 43.1% 46.4% 7.5% 72% – 4.9% 2.8%
1974 37.2% 37.9% 19.3% 78.8% – 5.9% 2.7%
1974 39.2% 35.8% 18.3% 72.8% + 2.0% 2.7%
1979 36.9% 43.9% 13.8% 76% – 2.3% 6.0%
1983 27.6% 42.4% 25.4% 72.7% – 9.3% 13.5%
1987 30.8% 42.2% 22.6% 75.3% + 3.2% 11.7%
1992 34.4% 41.9% 17.8% 77.7% + 3.6% 9.4%
1997 43.2% 30.7% 16.8% 71.3% + 8.8% 7.7%
2001 40.7% 31.7% 18.3% 59.4% – 2.5% 5.2%
2005 35.2% 32.4% 22.0% 61.4% – 5.5% 4.7%
2010 29.0% 36.1% 23.0% 65.1% – 6.2% 7.7%
2015 30.4% 36.9% 7.9% 66.4% + 1.4% 5.5%
2017 40.0% 42.4% 3.0% 68.7% + 9.6% 4.7%

* Starting in 1981, the old Labour party allied with and eventually merged with the SDP. Unemployment data is for Jan of each year.

Labour under Corbyn has done this while being almost universally maligned by the media and much of the party itself, including former party stalwarts from the Third-Way/centrist/New-Labour/Blairite wing. Much of the Labour establishment has spent the past year trying to brand Corbyn as unworthy of being Prime Minister. Over the past couple of years, Labour MPs have said he’s a union radical, an anti-semite and supports terrorism. Some are bothered by Corbyn’s unabashedly left-wing economic agenda, others by this anti-war stance, yet others by his criticism of western intervention and colonialism. A Labour donor and former candidate said Corbyn and his “arriviste followers” were  like Nazi Stormtroopers.

Until recently, most of the British center-left establishment was gleefully anticipating an electoral disaster, privileging their intra-party factional objectives over even a pretense at unity. The forced a leadership vote in 2016, which Corbyn won by over 60%, thanks to solid support from rank-and-file grassroots members.

There are multiple lessons US progressives can learn here:

  1. An unabashedly left-wing plank can be more compelling than one trying to pivot to the center.
  2. The entire third-way wing of your party punching left in unison can slow you down, but it won’t stop you.
  3. Authenticity matters. When people heard Corbyn unfiltered, he outperformed their expectations.
  4. Conviction matters. Voters can smell poll-tested positions or policies of convenience from miles away.

Some focus groups found that voters appreciated Corbyn’s apparent openness, in contrast to more than May’s relatively safe and sterile approach, which saw her rarely deviate from a limited palette of approved catchphrases. — www.theguardian.com/…

— @subirgrewal


UK general election polls close at 5PM EDT. Where to follow results…

I know we’re all focused on the Comey hearing, but there is another major political event underway. The UK snap general election is today! It’ll determine the composition of the 650 member House of Commons.

Since Theresa May called the election on April 19, she has seen the Conservative party’s lead over Labour collapse by 10-15%, with a small rebound last week.


As always, final result will depend on turnout. Exit polls have been historically accurate in the UK, so we should have a good idea right after polls close, as to whether or not Labour has been able to make up the big gap. Pollsters will be watching to see whether younger voters turn out for Labour.

538 has gamed out three scenarios and odds-makers have a 15% probability that the Conservative party loses its Parliamentary majority (i.e. wins less than 326 seats).

The 2015 election results and current House of Commons are below:

Source: Wikipedia

Some parties (Sinn Fein, DUP) aren’t reflected in the table above. Liberal Democrats are polling around 9%, UKIP and the SNP are both around 5%. The UKIP’s support seems to have largely collapsed.

The Guardian has live coverage

The Telegraph will also have live coverage.

— @subirgrewal

Bernie Sanders says Jeremy Corbyn is “doing exactly what I am trying to do”

James Corbyn’s proved himself to be a tenacious leader. He was chosen by rank and file members to be the Labour party’s leader after their disastrous showing in the 2015 general election. Though Labour’s centrist MPs mounted a no-confidence campaign against Corbyn after the EU referendum, he won the leadership position again, with an even larger portion of the vote.

Now, Corbyn faces his first general election contest. When Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May first called the snap election (reversing her own public statements), Labour was down over 23 points to the Tories. It looked like the Labour party was heading for a historic defeat.

There is little love lost between Corbyn and Labour’s third-way wing. Tony Blair suggested in April that Labour voters should consider voting for the Conservative party or Liberal Democrats.

He also praised Theresa May, arguing: “She’s very sensible, she’s a very decent person, she’s very solid, I agree with a lot she says.”

Mr Blair has previously admitted that he “wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform” like Jeremy Corbyn’s, “even if I thought it was the route to victory”.

Continue reading “Bernie Sanders says Jeremy Corbyn is “doing exactly what I am trying to do””

Silly Palestinians, if only they’d accepted the state offered in 1947.

Ron Prosor (Israel’s man at the UN) wrote an Op-Ed in the Times on March 31 titled The U.N.’s War on Israel. I found it extremely annoying, but after a few deep breaths I managed to channel my annoyance into something useful.

Prosor is right to note that at times it seems the UN has no other business but to pass resolutions condemning Israel. But why? Are there any reasons for this unseemly obsession? I can think of a handful:

  • Most UN member-states are former European colonies. In fact, the whole non-European world is except for five countries. So as a group, member-states of the UN don’t much like colonialism and naturally empathize with the Palestinians.
  • There are a lot of Arab/Muslim countries that have to support Palestine (or find it convenient to do so). They control resources that many other countries need, and so it goes.
  • The UN has some institutional animosity towards Israel, thanks to the assassination of a UN appointed mediator (Folke Bernadotte), ordered by a sometime terrorist who went on to become PM of Israel.
  • Israel has repeatedly ignored UN resolutions on its West Bank settlements, its administration in the Occupied Territories, and with respect to the various conflicts it has been involved in over the years. Many of today’s resolutions are useless re-iterations of prior resolutions that have been ignored by successive Israeli governments.
  • In many ways, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a problem created by the UN, early in its history.

The last point is what I want to discuss in this super long post. It will involve wading into a thicket of post WW-I maneuvering including the McMahon Hussein Letters, the Sykes-Picot agreemeent, the Balfour Declaration, the Peel Commission, and finally, the UN Partition Plan of 1947.

Towards the end, I’ve quoted, in full, the remarkable statement made by Henry Cattan, representing Palestinian interests, to the UN committee working on the partition plan. Cattan was a Palestinian lawyer who happened to have been Christian. He went on to write a number of books on Palestine, including The Palestine Question. His statement is below the fold and I’d highly recommend reading it when you get to the end. It’s at once both illuminating and tragic.

Since this is such a long post, I’ve marked key sections in bold for those who want to skim it. All emphasis throughout the post is mine.

Continue reading “Silly Palestinians, if only they’d accepted the state offered in 1947.”

Weekend read: Excerpts from UK House of Commons debate on Palestinian statehood

The House of Commons debate on recognizing Palestinian statehood is striking in both quality and content. I would recommend reading it in full. Perhaps we should send some members of our House of representatives across the pond to see how it’s done.

Most of the US coverage centered on Sir Richard Ottaway’s speech, he’s the one who said:

Throughout all this, I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior Israeli politicians and urged peaceful negotiations and a proportionate response to prevarication, and I thought that they were listening. But I realise now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the west bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent….

I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the Government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.

But there were so many other excellent comments that I wanted to collect them here. Some excerpts follow (all emphasis is mine).The question before the house was whether the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.

There was a lot of discussion about the impact such a resolution would have, and whether it would further a just peace.  Most of the contributions were from Labor MPs and their supporters (including the Welsh/Scottish Independence parties). Almost all Conservative MPs abstained from the vote and few of their back-benchers spoke.

Continue reading “Weekend read: Excerpts from UK House of Commons debate on Palestinian statehood”