Book Review: Wars of Empire


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 Rhodes` imperialism constituted the highest form of capitalism, Porch argues that “the economic dynamism of imperialism was far more evident during the early empires… And even these old empires were largely barren of profits for the nations, even for the merchant companies, which conquered and maintained them.”

So why the bother? Porch finds three reasons: “political instability in Africa and Asia, European rivalries played out in a wider world, and officers and officials driven by patriotism and personal ambition, eager to claim vast stretches of territory for the fatherland. All of these factors were interrelated. Imperialism, was, among other things, the creation of a global economy. The demands for certain commodities – slaves, spices, gold … touched off economic revolutions in the hinterlands of vast and hitherto self-contained continents.

“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 [Europe], searching for advantage over their neighbours, however marginal, came to view the wealth of the imperial world as a force multiplier, like alliances or technology. … Dynastic rivalries became national ones, and national competition soon personalised into vendettas of honour, ambition and greed among vain and proud men. Imperial expansion, and the wars it spawned, was a cultural clash, certainly. But it was also an enterprise of supremely personal dimensions, a magnification, frequently a mutilation, of the human spirit. Personal ambition – self-confident, gnawing, desperate – became not merely a factor in imperial expansion, but in many cases it was imperialism`s primary engine.”

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 Algeria and Morocco and even in Mali. The Chinese defeated them at Lam Son, today on the Vietnamese-Chinese border in 1895. The British also had their bad moments, Isandlwana and the Boer War being just two; and the Germans did not have it all their way in Namibia.

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 Clinton administration – is in everyone`s interest… many modern soldiers decry peace operations … as perversions of the military`s true role, which is to fight and win its nations` wars. However, peace operations would strike men like Hoche, Gallieni, Lyautey, or Funston very much as business as usual, either as stand-alone or as part of counter-insurgency strategies.

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

Douglas Porch

Cassell & Co