In an impassioned warning about the rising power of the jihadis in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, Maruf Khwaja makes a glancing reference to two other conflicts: “With Afghanistan and Iraq ruined forever…”. It’s a bleak dismissal: sweeping, perhaps exaggerated, but clearly expressing deeply felt emotions welling from the still bleeding wound of partition. Those events 60 years ago culminated in a betrayal of the secularist idealists who fought for a unified, multi-ethnic, multi-religious India, and Pakistan was established on the basis of what Khwaja calls “brittle, tenuous religious identity”. Don’t try to create a nation artificially on the basis of such precarious ties, he cautions. It can’t work.

We must hope for the sake of the millions there, and ourselves, that Iraq is not “ruined for ever”. But Khwaja’s stark statement does at least cut through the spin phrases so beloved by politicians – “up-swings”, “surge success” or “stay-the-course strategies”. Instead, it forces a recognition of just how disastrous the outcome of the invasion has been. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to support his dire prognostications. In the past weeks alone there have been the single worst suicide bombing in the region, claiming 500 lives of the Kurdish Yazidi sect, the news that 190,000 AK47s destined for Iraqi security forces have been “lost” en route, and the admission that the British army, having given up trying to intercede in the violence between Shia factions in Southern Iraq, is moving rapidly toward an ignominious withdrawal.

Even President Bush appears to have recognised the hopelessness of the debacle. In a speech to military veterans in late August he insisted that leaving Vietnam too early had been a factor in causing the killing fields of Cambodia – curiously, since the US administration has habitually denied any comparison at all with that great misadventure.

And now, in some quarters, especially among certain Democratic candidates for the US presidency including Hillary Clinton, there is renewed talk of partitioning Iraq along religious and ethnic lines: Shia, Sunni and Kurd. This would be a betrayal of the majority of the population who, according to a recent survey, identify themselves first as Iraqis and only secondarily, if at all, by their religious affiliation. The lasting and devastating effects of partition of the subcontinent should be warning enough that such divisions can only lead to yet more destruction.

Elsewhere in this issue are more examples of history as tragedy. Francis Beckett tells the story of the boys abused at Catholic schools run by the Salesian order and the long battle to get justice in court, while Rahila Gupta points out the irony of celebrating the abolition of slavery while domestic servitude and forced labour are on the rise in Britain.

But there’s plenty to laugh about, too. Laurie Taylor reports on our recent debate about the humanism of humour, which features Jonathan Miller, Martin Rowson and Natalie Haynes. On other pages you can discover how to use cheese as a weapon, how to lose your virginity gracefully, how aliens have got into your TV, and who are the front-runners to win our coveted Bad Faith Award.