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June 02, 2009

From the Oubliettes of History: the Negligibles

By: Bernard Chazelle

In the early seventies, the US decided to take control of Diego Garcia from the Brits, who naturally said, How high? (By protocol, a US request to the British government is always formulated as "Jump!")

One ever-so-minor detail was that on that beautiful island lived what's commonly referred to as "people." Well, not by everyone. As Jonathan Freedland puts it:

Best of all, the population was such that it could be written off, in CIA-speak, as NEGL: "negligible."

Once the Negligibles were negliged away, the island became a crucial military outpost for the empire,

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.

Meanwhile, the Negligibles

were forced to board crammed cargo ships for a nightmarish crossing—sleeping on decks slick with urine and vomit— to Mauritius or the Seychelles where they were dumped, with no homes to go to and no compensation to make up for the possessions and livelihoods they had been forced to leave behind. From then until now, they have lived among the corrugated tin shacks of the slums of Port Louis in Mauritius, their lives scarred by extreme poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and diseases unknown in their previous island home.

The US military was at the time busy committing worse atrocities in another part of Asia. But it's worth pausing over this episode of ethnic cleansing in the proud tradition of the trail of tears (if not the middle passage). With always the same motivation: to steal someone else's land.

And now a nice touch that will endear our glorious military heroes to all the children gathered around the campfire:

[T]he commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as it was now renamed, gave the order for the islanders' pet dogs to be killed; after US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to shoot them all, the animals were gassed as their owners looked on.

The gas-vs-bullets thing, that's one neat trick we got from the Germans in the forties.


Diego Garcia minus the Negligibles

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at June 2, 2009 12:28 AM

hi Bernard,


the wiki folks list the UK as the "owner" and the US Navy as the "operator"

Posted by: grimmy at June 2, 2009 12:47 AM

IF ONLY they had chartered an offshore bank and a liquor store before the Navy got there.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 2, 2009 01:51 AM

I'm reading David Vine's book, "Island of Shame", reviewed in the article you linked to. Excellent, highly recommended. Astounding for the sense it gives you of the true size and power of the American Empire. You get the impression that we basically get our way by physical intimidation and war.

Posted by: Guest at June 2, 2009 02:22 AM

I was not unaware of the situation of the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, but the linked review was interesting and I think the book will be even more so. However, the plaintive call to the current imperator at the end of review made me snort in derision: "But one likes to think that if Barack Obama were somehow to stumble across a copy of David Vine's fine book, he would instantly realize that a great injustice has been done—one that could easily be put right."

Ugh, one might "like to think" that, but one would be living in a world of delusion.

Posted by: Rojo at June 2, 2009 02:56 AM

Professor: Fine post, and nice observation about the word "negligible." Funny how a word can say so much. (Vines book looks good too.)

The feisty old badger Winston Churchill started the "How high?" policy, but I don't think the Brits are as passive as they may seem. Strangely, although WC certainly did always say "How High?" when we asked him to jump, it was actually often his idea that we ask him to jump in the first place. (Those Brits are sneaky.) The Brits started using the US as muscle a long time ago, just as the Romans once upon a time started using the barbarians as their own army. Not that the Brits are in control now, but they're not without influence. A good look at how skillful they were at helping get the US into WWII is Desperate Deception by Thomas Mahl about British covert operations in the US during the years immediately before Pearl Harbor. of course, that was a long time ago; i'm sure the world is completely different now!

Guest: "You get the impression that we basically get our way by physical intimidation and war."

hmmmm, i'd say that's worth considering.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 2, 2009 08:32 AM

The very best part about the whole thing was the justification used by the FCO: you see, they decided that the archipelago simply couldn't have a permanent population and therefore anyone living there was just a temporary squatter, because the archipelago was an uninhabitable hell-hole. An uninhabitable hell-hole which I believe US service-members now refer to as "Camp Paradise"...

Posted by: Dunc at June 2, 2009 09:43 AM

You get the impression that we basically get our way by physical intimidation and war.

You're only just now getting that impression?

The feisty old badger Winston Churchill started the "How high?" policy

Yes, well, that was after Britain had left twisting in the wind for two years fighting the Nazis basically on its own, and bleeding its own Empire dry in the process. Finally, after losing a couple of thousand sailors in Hawaii, Uncle Sam saddled up, rode to the rescue, and (single-handedly, of course) Saved the Day.

Churchill, no stranger to imperialism himself, realising that Britain was essentially bankrupt, and knowing where the real power lay after the war, made the statement that the UK must forever after go along with the Americans. That was a mistake, but an understandable one. Especially given that, during Suez, the US repaid its former ally (whom it was, by the way, forcing to pay back its loans from WWII, with interest) by engineering the collapse of Sterling. The lesson appears to have been learned.

Anyway, if you want another good take on the Diego Garcia mess, try John Pilger's documentary, Stealing a Nation, which is included in his boxed set, Documentaries That Changed The World .

Posted by: NomadUK at June 2, 2009 10:16 AM

And, of course, by 'former ally' I mean 'soon-to-be battered crack whore'.

Posted by: NomadUK at June 2, 2009 10:21 AM

Jonathan Freedland sounds about seventeen years old here:

Vine's evidence casts a fresh light on the ongoing debate over whether or not the US can be said to constitute an empire and, if so, how it might compare with its historical predecessors. It had previously been fashionable to regard the US empire as exceptional, a break from the past in that its influence is almost entirely indirect and economic, since it refuses to join the Romans or British in ruling over colonies directly.

Thanks to the work of scholars such as Chalmers Johnson and now Vine, we can see the weakness in that argument.

Gosh, I guess those thousand bases were just a rumor until Chalmers Johnson wrote about them five years ago. I mean, until scholars publish, it's just a subjective impression. Our "defense" budget has been bigger than the next fifteen countries combined for thirty years, but hey... you don't want to jump to any conclusions.

Posted by: Nell at June 2, 2009 10:26 AM

A good look at how skillful they were at helping get the US into WWII is Desperate Deception by Thomas Mahl about British covert operations in the US during the years immediately before Pearl Harbor.

Not Exactly, also this book:

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant
I get the impression from reading around that virtually everyone in the British upper classes was a spy for someone at one time.

Guest, thanks for rec of Vine book. To day I've only known about Diego Garcia through John Pilger.

Posted by: catherine at June 2, 2009 12:27 PM

NomadUK: After WWII, once the Empire was "saved," WC tried to carve out more British independence, and he even had the audacity to criticisize US practices with regard to napalm, saturation bombing and nukes, but as you point out with regard to Suez that sort of independence was penalized. I don't think WC or the Germans or the Russians or even the US at that time expected the US to stay in Europe FOREVER. Or for that matter to stay EVERYWHERE forever opening more and more burger stands.

catherine: good catch! How could i forget my favorite spy, that peach-loving playboy Roald Dahl!!!! The US has had some surprising intel pros too, like Julia Child. i think we had as many spies during the cold war as the brits had before wwii. i'm sure glad we don't know that we're doing that now!

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 2, 2009 01:20 PM

"I don't think WC or the Germans or the Russians or even the US at that time expected the US to stay in Europe FOREVER. Or for that matter to stay EVERYWHERE forever opening more and more burger stands"

I couldn't disagree more. The whole "Grand Arena" strategy as envisioned by the Truman administration and codified in NSC 48 all but demanded such an outcome.

Posted by: Coldtype at June 2, 2009 01:45 PM

The story about the dogs is so bizarre, but if you read this Sept. 13, 2007 "Postcard from Diego Garcia" in Time, you'll find DOD spokesperson Commander Jeffrey Gordon saying the US gassed "some dogs but only for humanitarian reasons".

I'm not sure about how to do links but here's a stab at it:,9171,1661696,00.html

I followed the Chagossians' case through the UK courts for quite a while. I think they ultimately lost, didn't they?

Posted by: Aunt Deb at June 2, 2009 03:25 PM


Good observation, and i guess by "at that time" i was referring to the 1950s, after NSC 48. So my statement was too broad. I concur that the US military has always wanted a permanent US presence everywhere. That was true from the get-go, and that's why it hasn't happened.

1945 Statement of General of the Army George Marshall (six months after FDR's death):

"Just a few months ago the world was completely convinced of the strength and courage of the United States. Now they see us falling back into our familiar peacetime habits. They witness the tremendous enthusiasm with which we mount demobilization and reconversion, but they see as yet no concrete evidence that we are determined to hold what we have won--permanently. Are we already at this early date inviting that same international disrespect that prevailed before this war? Are we throwing away today what a million Americans died or were mutilated to achieve? Are we already shirking the responsibility of the victory?" -- Speech to the New York Herald Tribune Forum, October 29, 1945

But i doubt that even the JCS would have predicted with much confidence that we would actually keep bases everywhere forever. There has been a war against what Marshall called "our familiar peacetime habits" ever since, and the military seems to have won that war too.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 2, 2009 03:31 PM

Diego Garcia has been a refueling site for at least two CIA renditions to torture, recent investigations confirm; Andy Worthington has more information. This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence of highest-level UK complicity in the Bush-Cheney administration's torture program.

Posted by: Nell at June 3, 2009 10:36 AM

I followed the Chagossians' case through the UK courts for quite a while. I think they ultimately lost, didn't they?

Actually, they won pretty much consistently in the courts. The Government was forced, ultimately, to go to the House of Lords which, to its great shame, overturned the most recent High Court ruling in their favour.

(Those who favour an elected upper house are welcome to try to argue that a Labour-controlled Lords would have voted against the Government in this case.)

The Chagossians are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. There's no appeal from their decision, so that'll be it, unless the Government wants to simply ignore a decision if they don't like it. That might be difficult.

According to Wikipedia, there's evidence that the whole agreement over Diego Garcia was essentially a trade by the UK government in exchange for discount prices on Polaris missiles, in which case we have another example of the sacrifice of innocents on the altar of Britain's sad desire to maintain its membership in the nuclear weapons club and to stay joined at the hip to the US.

Since the island is still a British Crown territory, the solution to the Chagossians' problem is trivial: tell the US to pack their bags and get the hell out. Oh, and, by the way, get your NSA goons out of Cheltenham whilst you're at it. And don't let the door hit your arse on the way out.

Posted by: NomadUK at June 3, 2009 11:33 AM

NomadUK: You wrote: "get your NSA goons out of Cheltenham whilst you're at it."

I get the feeling that once the ever-expanding realm of "National Security" is entered, neither "our" nor "your" (as in 'your NSA goons') are too accurate. We'll probably have to live to be 3oo years old to get the exact story about what happened as to Diego Garcia from some super super secret memo, though obviously finding completely uninhabited real estate (and such lovely real estate) to use to rendition people and store nuclear waste and the like is useful to those serious-minded big kids who play with the toys of power.

I think it's way beyond outrageous that they (both "us they" and "you they") can stamp any damn thing top secret on national security grounds and keep 8 generations of the ancestors of the victims and former residents of Diego Garcia guessing why they don't live where their ancestors used to live, as well as keep the whole world in the dark about what's going on, but people collectively tolerate it, so that's what we get. or maybe we don't tolerate it but that's what we get anyway. probably some of both.

this only gets worse with regard to other issues like international terrorism, where the "our" and "your" references strike me as a trick to keep everyone really confused and very much fooled. i think it's more accurate to just abandon those quaint plural possessive pronouns, because our "they" and your "they" and quite a number of other "theys" are working together pretty well on a host of issues, especially about things like energy and international banking, and none of them seem to me to be listening to us here or us there or us anywhere else.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 3, 2009 02:27 PM

Not Exactly: Perhaps "they" don't hear YOU is because YOU are not talking to "them". YOu are at present talking to US who have little political influence or funds to buy said influence. Might I suggest SOMEONE WHO HAS political power-Pelosi @1-202-225-0100.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 3, 2009 07:18 PM

Mike Meyer: Alas, i count Pelosi as more one of US than one of THEM. Case in point torture. Pelosi was lucky to get a few facts in dribs and drabs with her staff out of the room and no right to even tell them, her own staff, what she was told. Oh yes, and it seems she may have received an occasional menacing audience with the Dark Lord (you know, the VPOTUS) to fill her with fear for her mortal soul. Look how effectively she was neutralized by the CIA--that was easy for them.

Seriously, in connection with what we're talking about--whether it be what secret deal was cut to screw the inhabitants of Diego Garcia and turn the island into a military base, or international renditions to there and elsewhere, or interrogation practices--Pelosi is almost as much an observer as we are, and i think without that much more information. Same for the rest of Congress, regrettably. I think the political Right does not want to confront this ugly reality
because many of them secretly believe it to be beautiful, as they are fascists at heart, and I think the political Left does not want to confront that ugly reality because it makes them feel powerless, is demoralizing, and does not lead to constructive political activity like calling Pelosi. Sorry.

Ironically, posting this is talking to the THEM i was referring to more than calling Pelosi would be, because i feel sure the Total Information Project (remember that) is out there alive and kicking under some other name. (Not that this sort of communication is a threat to anyone in power in any way.) I just believe, based on some study, that many of the various national security bureaucracies, which are heavily wed to multinational corporations, work very closely, and they aren't too effectively constrained by democratic representatives of the people of the nations of the world. Actually, i guess i'd probably say they aren't effectively constrained by any democratic representatives anywhere right now.

And that is a very, very bad thing, not just because of what happened to the Negligibles of Diego Garcia, but because the political consequences of the Enlightenment are in serious jeopardy of being effectively reversed in most meaningful ways, with the result that we and, more importantly, our children might all end up Negligibles faster than you can say Diego Garcia.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 3, 2009 10:42 PM

Noe Exactly: Are YOU saying that some NSA spy is possibly going to read this and therefore Congress will be informed as to YOUR opinion?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 4, 2009 11:29 AM

"Noe Exactly: Are YOU saying that some NSA spy is possibly going to read this and therefore Congress will be informed as to YOUR opinion?"

no, no, no--reading is a little passe except for olf-fashioned types like me (us?) who don't matter that much. NSA SORTS and collects data; they probably almost never even use most of it for anything, let alone read it. But i'm sure they round it up with their fancy schmancy algorithms and electronically file it in those humongous supercomputers they have. You know, just in case they ever need it for anything. I'm sure on occasion all that overkill comes in handy, including (especially?) in dirty underhanded ways. For the good of the country, of course.

Congress probably wouldn't be informed as to MY opinion even if I called them and gave it to THEM. (I like all this capitalizing of YOURS!) But i think what Congress says or thinks just doesn't matter much right now with respect to these National Security issues. Maybe we'll get back to primus inter pares and some of that will spill over into natioal security issues, but i'm not holding MY breath.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 4, 2009 03:31 PM

Not Exactly: Sorry for the typos, THANX about the caps. IF YOU speak to Congress often enough THEY will hear YOU, sooner or later. IF YOU never speak directly to them "they" will only hear those that DO talk to them, money involved or not. Notice that on C-span that ALL representatives speak DIRECTLY to Speaker Pelosi when on the floor. Pelosi and NO ONE else BUT the record. Congress IS the only way to change the course of things, the course of the Nation.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 4, 2009 03:43 PM

Mike Meyer: For me, the question about the role of Congress in changing the course of the nation is less clear. What you say should be true, but historically it hasn't been except very rarely. Congress almost always has been easily corrupted and controlled. Presidents actually have been more independent, and also braver, though too much independence has typically preceded political ruin, disability, or death, and without much delay. I think Congress reacts to change when forced, after dragging its feet, and after the public at large will tolerate nothing else. So if i had advice to you, it would be to call yoru friends and neighbors and tell them to call other friends and neighbors. Congress will listen when it has no choice. Until then it will do what a money-based system demands.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 4, 2009 04:58 PM

Not Exactly: Hell, TRY IT one time, just for shits&grins, ANY subject. (1-202-225-0100 DC business hours)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 4, 2009 08:13 PM

'Not Exactly: Hell, TRY IT one time, just for shits&grins, ANY subject. (1-202-225-0100 DC business hours)'

--oh, on other stuff it is good to talk to them. it's even nice to meet with them. there are some fine folks working on the hill.

Posted by: Not Exactly at June 4, 2009 09:26 PM

Not Exactly: I hear ya. I call about ALL sorts of things that come to mind each day, JAY BYBEE, AIG, GITMO, 2BIG2FAIL, etc. I started with just IMPEACH but that seems a lifetime ago at this point.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 4, 2009 10:38 PM