What I saw in Fallujah

Dahr Jamail set out to report the truth about the US invasion of Iraq and its terrible impact on dai

On the day martial law was declared, US tanks began rolling into the outskirts of Fallujah, while war planes continued to pound the city with as many as 50,000 residents still inside. Iyad Allawi, the US-installed interim prime minister, laid out the six steps for implementing his "security law". These entailed a 6pm curfew in Fallujah, the blocking of all highways except for emergencies and for government vehicles, the closure of all city and government services, a ban on all weapons in Fallujah, the closure of Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan (except to allow passage to food trucks and vehicles carrying other necessary goods), and the closure of Baghdad International Airport for 48 hours.

Meanwhile, in the US, most corporate media outlets were busy spreading the misinformation that Fallujah had fallen under the control of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was no available evidence that Zarqawi had ever set foot inside the city. It was amply evident that the resistance in the city was composed primarily of people from Fallujah itself. However, that did not deter the establishment media, which portrayed the assault on the city as a hostage intervention situation.

As they had done during the April siege, the military raided and occupied Fallujah general hospital, cutting it off from the rest of the city. On 8 November 2004 the New York Times reported, "The assault against Fallujah began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Fallujah General Hospital and seized it within an hour." Of course, this information was immediately followed by the usual parroting of US military propaganda, "At 10pm, Iraqi troops clambered off seven-ton trucks, sprinting with American Special Forces soldiers around the side of the main building of the hospital, considered a refuge for insurgents and a centre of propaganda against allied forces, entering the complex to bewildered looks from patients and employees."

Harb al-Mukhtar, my interpreter and driver, arrived at my hotel the next morning in a sombre mood. "How can we live like this, we are trapped in our own country. You know Dahr, everyone is praying for God to take revenge on the Americans. Everyone!" He said even in their private prayers people were praying for God to take vengeance on the Americans for what they were doing in Fallujah. "Everyone I've talked to the last couple of nights, 80 or 90 people, have admitted that they are doing this," he said as I collected my camera and notepad to prepare to leave. Out on the streets of Baghdad, the anxiety was palpable. The threat of being kidnapped or car bombed, or simply robbed, relentlessly played on our minds as Harb and I went about conducting interviews that had been prearranged. We tried to minimise our time on the streets by returning to my hotel immediately on completing interviews. The security situation, already horrible, was deteriorating further with each passing day.

That night, when Salam Talib arrived at my hotel to work on a radio despatch with me, he had a wild look in his eyes and sweat beads on his forehead. "My friend has just been killed, and he was one of my best friends," he said staring out my window. Salam went on to tell me that a relative of another of his friends had been missing for six days. "This morning, his body was brought to his family by someone who found it on the road. The body had been shot twice in the chest and twice in the head. There were visible signs of torture, and the four bullet shells that were used to kill him had been placed in his trouser pockets. This news has driven me crazy, Dahr. The number of people killed here is growing so fast every day," he said, his hands raised in that familiar gesture of despair. "When I was a child, it was common to have some family member who was killed in the war with Iran. But now, it feels as though everyone is dying every day."

Not yet one full week into the latest assault on Fallujah, the flames of resistance had engulfed much of Baghdad and other areas in Iraq. In Baghdad alone, neighbourhoods like Amiriyah, Abu Ghraib, Adhamiya and al-Dora had fallen mostly under the control of the resistance. In these areas, and much of the rest of Baghdad, US patrols were few and far between, since they were being attacked so often. People we interviewed showed no surprise at fighting having rapidly spread across other cities. It was expected, because the general belief was that the resistance had fled Fallujah prior to the siege. Most of the fighters had melted away to other areas to choose effective methods to strike the enemy. Fighting had thus spread across much of Baghdad, Baquba, Latafiya, Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul, Khaldiya and Kirkuk just days into Operation Phantom Fury.

Media repression

Media repression during the second siege of Fallujah was intense. The "100 Orders" penned by former US administrator Bremer included Order 65, passed on 20 March 2004, which established an Iraqi communications and media commission. This commission had powers to control the media because it had complete control over licensing and regulating telecommunications, broadcasting, information services, and media establishments. On 28 June, when the US handed over power to a "sovereign" Iraqi interim government, Bremer simply passed on his authority to Iyad Allawi, who had long-standing ties with the British intelligence service MI6 and the CIA. The media commission sent out an order just after the assault on Fallujah commenced ordering news organisations to "stick to the government line on the US-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action". The warning was circulated on Allawi's letterhead. The letter also asked the media in Iraq to "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear".

On the ground, aside from the notorious bombing and then banning of al-Jazeera, other instances of media repression were numerous. A journalist for the al-Arabiya network, who attempted to get inside Fallujah, was detained by the military, as was a French freelance photographer named Corentin Fleury, who was staying at my hotel. Fleury, a soft-spoken, wiry man, was detained by the US military along with his interpreter, 28-year-old Bahktiyar Abdulla Hadad, when they were leaving Fallujah just before the siege of the city began. They had worked in the city for nine days leading up to the siege, and were held for five days in a military detention facility outside the city.

"They were very nervous and they asked us what we had seen, and looked through all my photos, asking me questions about them," he said as we talked in my room one night. He told me he had photographed homes destroyed by US war planes. Despite appeals by the French government to the US military to free his translator and return Fleury's confiscated camera equipment and his photos, there had been no luck in attaining either. (When I had last seen Fleury in February 2005, Hadad was still being held by the US military.)

The military was maintaining a strict cordon around most of Fallujah. As I could not enter the city, I set out to interview doctors and patients who had fled and were presently working in various hospitals around Baghdad. While visiting Yarmouk Hospital looking for more information about Fallujah, I came across several children from areas south of Baghdad. One of these was a 12-year-old girl, Fatima Harouz, from Latifiya. She lay dazed in a crowded hospital room, limply waving her bruised arm at the flies. Her shins, shattered by bullets from US soldiers when they fired through the front door of her house, were both covered by casts. Small plastic drainage bags filled with red fluid sat upon her abdomen, where she took shrapnel from another bullet. Her mother told us, "They attacked our home, and there weren't even any resistance fighters in our area."

Victims' testament

Fatima's uncle was shot and killed, his wife had been wounded, and their home was ransacked by soldiers. "Before they left, they killed all our chickens." A doctor who was with us looked at me and asked, "This is the freedom. In their Disneyland are there kids just like this?"

Another young woman, Rana Obeidy, had been walking home in Baghdad with her brother two nights earlier. She assumed the soldiers had shot her and her brother because he was carrying a bottle of soda. She had a chest wound where a bullet had grazed her, but had struck her little brother and killed him. In another room, a small boy from Fallujah lay on his stomach. Shrapnel from a grenade thrown into his home by a US soldier had entered his body through his back and was implanted near his kidney. An operation had successfully removed the shrapnel, but his father had been killed by what his mother described as "the haphazard shooting of the Americans". The boy, Amin, lay in his bed vacillating between crying with pain and playing with his toy car.

Later, I found myself at a small but busy supply centre in Baghdad set up to distribute goods to refugees from Fallujah. Standing in an old, one-storey building that used to be a vegetable market, I watched as people walked around wearily to obtain basic foodstuffs, blankets or information about housing. "They kicked all the journalists out of Fallujah so they could do whatever they want," said Kassem Mohammed Ahmed, who had escaped from Fallujah three days before. "The first thing they did was bomb the hospitals because that is where the wounded have to go. Now we see that wounded people are in the street and the soldiers are rolling their tanks over them. This happened so many times. What you see on the TV is nothing. That is just one camera. What you cannot see is much more."

There were also stories of soldiers not discriminating between civilians and resistance fighters. Another man, Abdul Razaq Ismail, had arrived from Fallujah one week earlier and had been helping with the distribution of supplies to other refugees, having received similar help himself. Loading a box with blankets to send to a refugee camp, he said, "There are dead bodies on the ground and nobody can bury them. The Americans are dropping some of the bodies into the Euphrates River near Fallujah. They are pulling some bodies with tanks and leaving them at the soccer stadium." Another man sat nearby nodding his head. He couldn't stop crying. After a while, he said he wanted to talk to us. "They bombed my neighbourhood and we used car jacks to raise the blocks of concrete to get dead children out from under them."

Another refugee, Abu Sabah, an older man in a torn shirt and dusty pants, told of how he escaped with his family, just the day before, while soldiers shot bullets over their heads, killing his cousin. "They used these weird bombs that first put up smoke in a cloud, and then small pieces fell from the air with long tails of smoke behind them. These exploded on the ground with large fires that burned for half an hour. They used these near the train tracks. When anyone touched those fires, their body burned for hours."

This was the first time I had heard a refugee describing the use of white phosphorous incendiary weapons by the US military, fired from artillery into Fallujah. Though it is not technically a banned weapon, it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to use white phosphorous in an area where civilians may be hit. I heard similar descriptions in the coming days and weeks, both from refugees and doctors who had fled the city.

Several doctors I interviewed had told me they had been instructed by the interim government not to speak to any journalists about the patients they were receiving from Fallujah. A few of them told me they had even been instructed by the Shia-controlled Ministry of Health not to accept patients from Fallujah.

That night I interviewed a spokesman for the Iraq Red Crescent, who told me none of their relief teams had been allowed into Fallujah, and the military said it would be at least two more weeks before any refugees would be allowed back into their city. Collecting information from doctors in the city, he had estimated that at least 800 civilians had been killed so far in the siege.

The second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity made in the United States of America. Like the Spanish city of Guernica during the 1930s, and Grozny in the 1990s, Fallujah is our monument of excess and overkill. It was soon to become, even for many in the US military, a textbook case of the wrong way to handle a resistance movement. Another case of winning the battle and losing the war.

Conquerors' truth

I would like to say that I decided to go to Iraq for philosophical reasons, because I believe that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of any healthy democracy. But I went to Iraq for personal reasons. I was tormented by the fact that the government of my country illegally invaded and then occupied a country that it had bombed in 1991. Because the government of my country had asphyxiated Iraq with more than a decade's worth of "genocidal" sanctions (in the words of former United Nations Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday). The government of my country then told lies, which were obediently repeated by an unquestioning media in order to justify the invasion and occupation. I felt that I had blood on my hands because the government had been left unchecked.

My going to Iraq was an act of desperation that has since transformed itself into a bond to that country and so many of her people. There were stories there that begged to be heard and told again. We are defined by story. Our history, our memory, our perceptions of the future, are all built and held within stories. As a US citizen complicit in the devastation of Iraq, I was already bound up in the story of that country. I decided to go to learn what that story really was.

While the vast majority of the reporting of Iraq was provided by journalists availing themselves of the Pentagon-sponsored "embed" programme, I chose to look for stories of real life and "embed"myself with the Iraqi people. The US military side of the occupation is overly represented by most mainstream outlets. I consciously decided to focus on the Iraqi side of the story. The story of the many oppressed peoples of the world is rarely recorded by the few who oppress. We are taught that the truth is objective fact as written down by the conquerors.

The above is extracted from "Beyond the Green Zone: Despatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq" (Haymarket Books, £13.99), which is available from 8 November

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered

PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS
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David Cameron's fatal insouciance

Will future historians remember the former prime minister for anything more than his great Brexit bungle?

On 13 July 2016, after a premiership lasting six years and 63 days, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time. On the tarmac outside the black door, with his wife and children at his side, he gave a characteristically cool and polished parting statement. Then he got in his car for the last journey to Buckingham Palace – the picture, as ever, of insouciant ease. As I was watching the television pictures of Cameron’s car gliding away, I remembered what he is supposed to have said some years earlier, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. True or not, his answer perfectly captured the public image of the man: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”

A few moments later, a friend sent me a text message. It was just six words long: “He’s down there with Chamberlain now.”

At first I thought that was a bit harsh. People will probably always disagree about Cameron’s economic record, just as they do about Margaret Thatcher’s. But at the very least it was nowhere near as bad as some of his critics had predicted, and by some standards – jobs created, for instance – it was much better than many observers had expected. His government’s welfare and education policies have their critics, but it seems highly unlikely that people will still be talking about them in a few decades’ time. Similarly, although Britain’s intervention in Libya is unlikely to win high marks from historians, it never approached the disaster of Iraq in the public imagination.

Cameron will probably score highly for his introduction of gay marriage, and although there are many people who dislike him, polls suggested that most voters regarded him as a competent, cheerful and plausible occupant of the highest office in the land. To put it another way, from the day he entered 10 Downing Street until the moment he left, he always looked prime ministerial. It is true that he left office as a loser, humiliated by the EU referendum, and yet, on the day he departed, the polls had him comfortably ahead of his Labour opposite number. He was, in short, popular.
On the other hand, a lot of people liked Neville Chamberlain, too. Like Chamberlain, Cameron seems destined to be remembered for only one thing. When students answer exam questions about Chamberlain, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t writing about the Holidays with Pay Act 1938. And when students write about Cameron in the year 2066, they won’t be answering questions about intervention in Libya, or gay marriage. They will be writing about Brexit and the lost referendum.

It is, of course, conceivable, though surely very unlikely, that Brexit will be plain sailing. But it is very possible that it will be bitter, protracted and enormously expensive. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum, the United Kingdom could be reduced to an English and Welsh rump, struggling to come to terms with a punitive European trade deal and casting resentful glances at a newly independent Scotland. Of course the Brexiteers – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan et al – would get most of the blame in the short run. But in the long run, would any of them really be remembered? Much more likely is that historians’ fingers would point at one man: Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the prime minister who gambled with his future and lost the Union. The book by “Cato” that destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation in July 1940 was entitled Guilty Men. How long would it be, I wonder, before somebody brought out a book about Cameron, entitled Guilty Man?

Naturally, all this may prove far too pessimistic. My own suspicion is that Brexit will turn out to be a typically European – or, if you prefer, a typically British – fudge. And if the past few weeks’ polls are anything to go by, Scottish independence remains far from certain. So, in a less apocalyptic scenario, how would posterity remember David Cameron? As a historic failure and “appalling bungler”, as one Guardian writer called him? Or as a “great prime minister”, as Theresa May claimed on the steps of No 10?

Neither. The answer, I think, is that it would not remember him at all.

***

The late Roy Jenkins, who – as Herbert Asquith’s biographer, Harold Wilson’s chancellor and Jim Callaghan’s rival – was passionately interested in such things, used to write of a “market” in prime ministerial futures. “Buy Attlee!” he might say. “Sell Macmillan!” But much of this strikes me as nonsense. For one thing, political reputations fluctuate much less than we think. Many people’s views of, say, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair have remained unchanged since the day they left office. Over time, reputations do not change so much as fade. Academics remember prime ministers; so do political anoraks and some politicians; but most people soon forget they ever existed. There are 53 past prime ministers of the United Kingdom, but who now remembers most of them? Outside the university common room, who cares about the Marquess of Rockingham, the Earl of Derby, Lord John Russell, or Arthur Balfour? For that matter, who cares about Asquith or Wilson? If you stopped people in the streets of Sunderland, how many of them would have heard of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan? And even if they had, how much would they ­really know about them?

In any case, what does it mean to be a success or a failure as prime minister? How on Earth can you measure Cameron’s achievements, or lack of them? We all have our favourites and our prejudices, but how do you turn that into something more dispassionate? To give a striking example, Margaret Thatcher never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote, was roundly hated by much of the rest of the country and was burned in effigy when she died, long after her time in office had passed into history. Having come to power promising to revive the economy and get Britain working again, she contrived to send unemployment well over three million, presided over the collapse of much of British manufacturing and left office with the economy poised to plunge into yet another recession. So, in that sense, she looks a failure.

Yet at the same time she won three consecutive general elections, regained the Falklands from Argentina, pushed through bold reforms to Britain’s institutions and fundamentally recast the terms of political debate for a generation to come. In that sense, clearly she was a success. How do you reconcile those two positions? How can you possibly avoid yielding to personal prejudice? How, in fact, can you reach any vaguely objective verdict at all?

It is striking that, although we readily discuss politicians in terms of success and failure, we rarely think about what that means. In some walks of life, the standard for success seems obvious. Take the other “impossible job” that the tabloids love to compare with serving as prime minister: managing the England football team. You can measure a football manager’s success by trophies won, qualifications gained, even points accrued per game, just as you can judge a chief executive’s performance in terms of sales, profits and share values.

There is no equivalent for prime ministerial leadership. Election victories? That would make Clement Attlee a failure: he fought five elections and won only two. It would make Winston Churchill a failure, too: he fought three elections and won only one. Economic growth? Often that has very little to do with the man or woman at the top. Opinion polls? There’s more to success than popularity, surely. Wars? Really?

The ambiguity of the question has never stopped people trying. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to “Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”, which incorporates two surveys of academics carried out by the University of Leeds, a BBC Radio 4 poll of Westminster commentators, a feature by BBC History Magazine and an online poll organised by Newsnight. By and large, there is a clear pattern. Among 20th-century leaders, there are four clear “successes” – Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher – with the likes of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath scrapping for mid-table places. At the bottom, too, the same names come up again and again: Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home and Major. But some of these polls are quite old, dating back to the Blair years. My guess is that if they were conducted today, Major might rise a little, especially after the success of Team GB at the Olympics, and Gordon Brown might find himself becalmed somewhere towards the bottom.

***

So what makes the failures, well, failures? In two cases, the answer is simply electoral defeat. Both ­Arthur Balfour and John Major were doomed to failure from the moment they took office, precisely because they had been picked from within the governing party to replace strong, assertive and electorally successful leaders in Lord Salisbury and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. It’s true that Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election, but in both cases there was an atmosphere of fin de régime from the very beginning. Douglas-Home probably fits into this category, too, coming as he did at the fag end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Contrary to political mythology, he was in fact a perfectly competent prime minister, and came much closer to winning the 1964 election than many people had expected. But he wasn’t around for long and never really captured the public mood. It seems harsh merely to dismiss him as a failure, but politics is a harsh business.

That leaves two: Chamberlain and Eden. Undisputed failures, who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamities in our modern history. Nothing to say, then? Not so. Take Chamberlain first. More than any other individual in our modern history, he has become a byword for weakness, naivety and self-deluding folly.

Yet much of this picture is wrong. Chamberlain was not a weak or indecisive man. If anything, he was too strong: too stubborn, too self-confident. Today we remember him as a faintly ridiculous, backward-looking man, with his umbrella and wing collar. But many of his contemporaries saw him as a supremely modern administrator, a reforming minister of health and an authoritative chancellor who towered above his Conservative contemporaries. It was this impression of cool capability that secured Chamberlain the crown when Baldwin stepped down in 1937. Unfortunately, it was precisely his titanic self-belief, his unbreakable faith in his own competence, that also led him to overestimate his influence over Adolf Hitler. In other words, the very quality that people most admired – his stubborn confidence in his own ability – was precisely what doomed him.

In Chamberlain’s case, there is no doubt that he had lost much of his popular prestige by May 1940, when he stepped down as prime minister. Even though most of his own Conservative MPs still backed him – as most of Cameron’s MPs still backed him after the vote in favour of Brexit – the evidence of Mass Observation and other surveys suggests that he had lost support in the country at large, and his reputation soon dwindled to its present calamitous level.

The case of the other notable failure, Anthony Eden, is different. When he left office after the Suez crisis in January 1957, it was not because the public had deserted him, but because his health had collapsed. Surprising as it may seem, Eden was more popular after Suez than he had been before it. In other words, if the British people had had their way, Eden would probably have continued as prime minister. They did not see him as a failure at all.

Like Chamberlain, Eden is now generally regarded as a dud. Again, this may be a bit unfair. As his biographers have pointed out, he was a sick and exhausted man when he took office – the result of two disastrously botched operations on his gall bladder – and relied on a cocktail of painkillers and stimulants. Yet, to the voters who handed him a handsome general election victory in 1955, Eden seemed to have all the qualities to become an enormously successful prime minister: good looks, brains, charm and experience, like a slicker, cleverer and more seasoned version of Cameron. In particular, he was thought to have proved his courage in the late 1930s, when he had resigned as foreign secretary in protest at the appeasement of Benito Mussolini before becoming one of Churchill’s chief lieutenants.

Yet it was precisely Eden’s great asset – his reputation as a man who had opposed appeasement and stood up to the dictators – that became his weakness. In effect, he became trapped by his own legend. When the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden seemed unable to view it as anything other than a replay of the fascist land-grabs of the 1930s. Nasser was Mussolini; the canal was Abyssinia; ­failure to resist would be appeasement all over again. This was nonsense, really: Nasser was nothing like Mussolini. But Eden could not escape the shadow of his own political youth.

This phenomenon – a prime minister’s greatest strength gradually turning into his or her greatest weakness – is remarkably common. Harold Wilson’s nimble cleverness, Jim Callaghan’s cheerful unflappability, Margaret Thatcher’s restless urgency, John Major’s Pooterish normality, Tony Blair’s smooth charm, Gordon Brown’s rugged seriousness: all these things began as refreshing virtues but became big handicaps. So, in that sense, what happened to Chamberlain and Eden was merely an exaggerated version of what happens to every prime minister. Indeed, perhaps it is only pushing it a bit to suggest, echoing Enoch Powell, that all prime ministers, their human flaws inevitably amplified by the stresses of office, eventually end up as failures. In fact, it may not be too strong to suggest that in an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, surging populism and a general obsession with accountability, the very nature of the job invites failure.

***

In Cameron’s case, it would be easy to construct a narrative based on similar lines. Remember, after all, how he won the Tory leadership in the first place. He went into the 2005 party conference behind David Davis, the front-runner, but overhauled him after a smooth, fluent and funny speech, delivered without notes. That image of blithe nonchalance served him well at first, making for a stark contrast with the saturnine intensity and stumbling stiffness of his immediate predecessors, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith. Yet in the end it was Cameron’s self-confidence that really did for him.

Future historians will probably be arguing for years to come whether he really needed to promise an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, as his defenders claim, to protect his flank against Ukip. What is not in doubt is that Cameron believed he could win it. It became a cliché to call him an “essay crisis” prime minister – a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system. And yet he never really managed to banish the impression of insouciance. The image of chillaxing Dave, the PM so cockily laidback that he left everything until the last minute, may be a caricature, but my guess is that it will stick.

As it happens, I think Cameron deserves more credit than his critics are prepared to give him. I think it would be easy to present him as a latter-day Baldwin – which I mean largely as a compliment. Like Baldwin, he was a rich provincial Tory who posed as an ordinary family man. Like Baldwin, he offered economic austerity during a period of extraordinary international financial turmoil. Like Baldwin, he governed in coalition while relentlessly squeezing the Liberal vote. Like Baldwin, he presented himself as the incarnation of solid, patriotic common sense; like Baldwin, he was cleverer than his critics thought; like Baldwin, he was often guilty of mind-boggling complacency. The difference is that when Baldwin gambled and lost – as when he called a rash general election in 1923 – he managed to save his career from the ruins. When Cameron gambled and lost, it was all over.

Although I voted Remain, I do not share many commentators’ view of Brexit as an apocalyptic disaster. In any case, given that a narrow majority of the electorate got the result it wanted, at least 17 million people presumably view Cameron’s gamble as a great success – for Britain, if not for him. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, most British academics are left-leaning Remainers, and it is they who will write the history books. What ought also to worry Cameron’s defenders – or his shareholders, to use Roy Jenkins’s metaphor – is that both Chamberlain and Eden ended up being defined by their handling of Britain’s foreign policy. There is a curious paradox here, ­because foreign affairs almost never matters at the ballot box. In 1959, barely three years after Suez, the Conservatives cruised to an easy re-election victory; in 2005, just two years after invading Iraq, when the extent of the disaster was already apparent, Blair won a similarly comfortable third term in office. Perhaps foreign affairs matters more to historians than it does to most voters. In any case, the lesson seems to be that, if you want to secure your historical reputation, you can get away with mishandling the economy and lengthening the dole queues, but you simply cannot afford to damage Britain’s international standing.

So, if Brexit does turn into a total disaster, Cameron can expect little quarter. Indeed, while historians have some sympathy for Chamberlain, who was, after all, motivated by a laudable desire to avoid war, and even for Eden, who was a sick and troubled man, they are unlikely to feel similar sympathy for an overconfident prime minister at the height of his powers, who seems to have brought his fate upon himself.

How much of this, I wonder, went through David Cameron’s mind in the small hours of that fateful morning of 24 June, as the results came through and his place in history began to take shape before his horrified eyes? He reportedly likes to read popular history for pleasure; he must occasionally have wondered how he would be remembered. But perhaps it meant less to him than we think. Most people give little thought to how they will be remembered after their death, except by their closest friends and family members. There is something insecure, something desperately needy, about people who dwell on their place in history.

Whatever you think about Cameron, he never struck me as somebody suffering from excessive insecurity. Indeed, his normality was one of the most likeable things about him.

He must have been deeply hurt by his failure. But my guess is that, even as his car rolled away from 10 Downing Street for the last time, his mind was already moving on to other things. Most prime ministers leave office bitter, obsessive and brooding. But, like Stanley Baldwin, Cameron strolled away from the job as calmly as he had strolled into it. It was that fatal insouciance that brought him down. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and columnist for the Daily Mail. His book The Great British Dream Factory will be published in paperback by Penguin on 1 September

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser