Cassell, the British publishing house, has made it a consistent habit to publish thought-provoking books on the history of warfare. Wars of Empire is no different. Author Douglas Porch first describes the ongoing relevance of colonial conflict and secondly gives a lucid explanation for the European grab of the rest of the planet in terms that will not make ideologues happy. But then ideology has consistently proven itself a poor interpreter of history.
“Imperialism has long proved to be a subject of significant historical controversy,” Porch writes. “”That the origins of the historical debate have their roots in the very wars engendered by European expansion is hardly surprising when one realises that from the beginning, expansion met at best indifference, at worst hostility in the populations of imperial nations.”
Looking at the Boer War and Lenin`s conclusion that
So why the bother? Porch finds three reasons: “political instability in Africa and
“Economic changes soon became political ones as local rulers struggled to control commodities which could be bartered to Europeans. Quite naturally, European nations locked together on a crowded and fractious continent [
In short, many territories were seized because they were there and wars were provoked because the officers and officials to blame could.
Not that the imperialists had it all their own way. The French repeatedly came to grief in
Porch argues that decolonialisation came after World War Two in some places because the home country decided the cost and effort of empire was simply too great. Not an ideal example, but the Germans, late to the imperialist game (starting only in the 1890s) had by 1914 spent £50 in direct subsidies on its few colonies and had made a return of just £14 million – or less than its trade with Norway. In this observation Porch echoes noted historian Paul Johnson`s own take on the colonial question. Of course, not all colonisers were eager to leave and here two Western imports were of help – nationalism and Marxism. Both provided subject people a mechanism to unite and wage successful insurgencies. The absence of ideology had helped make “divide and rule” a strategy during the period of conquest.
And the ongoing relevance of the subject? “The ‘New World Order` pronounced by American President George Bush [the elder] in the wake of the Cold War may be viewed as a revival of imperialism, a softer, gentler version shorn of its racist overtones, but imperialism none the less. That imperialism is enjoying a comeback is hardly surprising. Imperialism was imbedded in notions of the superiority of Western culture and values. The failure of many ex-colonies to create successful political and economic systems, together with the collapse of Soviet Communism, has revived the belief that the spread of democracy and market economies – ‘engagement and enlargement` in the parlance of the
Peace operations are not so much part of the new world order, but the resurrection of the old world order which was temporarily suspended during the Cold War.” A better reason than that for understanding colonial war cannot be given, other than to say peer warfare between to evenly armed or matched armies are the historical exception, counterinsurgency and peace operations are the rule, from the days before the Sumerians ruled Iraq to the years that will follow the American departure from there. Read and understand this important book – it will provide much context to what is happening around us today.
Wars of Empire
Cassell & Co