April 6th, 2004
Dont Play It Again, Sam
I never dreamed
when I started my current book project in 1997 that writing about the British
system of indirect rule in colonial Africa as a central issue would turn out
to be relevant not just to understanding how African societies like Zimbabwe
got to where they are today, but also to understanding how current events in
another part of the globe are unfolding minute by minute.
But here we are.
The United States is trying to get an approximately colonial system of indirect
rule up and running in Iraq after June 30th, one more limited in its conception
and at least notionally shorter in its projected lifespan than the early 20th
Century British equivalent, but one nevertheless. It certainly makes me feel
like I had better finish my project as soon as I can before I feel compelled
to once again rethink what Im writing in light of the latest developments.
Im very hesitant
about casual comparisons and analogies, like most historians, but this general
resemblance seems to me to be unmistakable. This resemblance also clarifies
for me why I do not view Iraq and Vietnam as strongly analogous. Cheap rhetoric
aside, Vietnam was not an imperial war, and US power in South Vietnam was not
a form of colonial rule. The configuration of political authority, the nature
of the military conflict, the rhetorical framing of the struggle, the developmental
timeframe of the war: they were all quite different. The Cold War was its own
distinctive moment in the history of the 20th Century. So too is today, but
it is closer to the colonial past than any other moment since the 1960s.
The fighting in
the past week has been unnerving in its intensity, and seems today as if it
will get worse with news of a major ambush of US Marines in Ramadi. The question
is, does the analogy to British indirect rule help us understand what is happening
now and what may happen in the future? I think yes, and the news is not very
of the current war say that the critics have too short a time frame for assessing
success, and they may have a point. British rule in Africa (and elsewhere) was
pockmarked with short-lived uprisings and revolts which seemed briefly significant
at the time, but which never really threatened British colonial authority fundamentally
until the 1940s and the simultaneous challenge of major labor strikes, mass
nationalist protest and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, at a time when British
economic and military strength was at relatively low ebb and the nature of international
politics and morality had fundamentally shifted against empires.
So can the US simply
endure these small rebellions similarly, by taking the long view? Well, probably
not, and heres some reasons why.
the British could simply ignore African resistance at times: lack of mass media
and a global public sphere meant that many uprisings or acts of unrest were
known only to local authorities until considerably later, and left more or less
alone to burn out without fear of public reaction.
colonial rebels lacked access to communicative methods for mobilizing and coordinating
unrest over larger areas, which is not true in Iraq today.
overt racism among British authorities and British society meant that they regarded
Africans in so dehumanizing a manner that they usually did not have to worry
officially or publically in public debate about what Africans thought, felt
or desired, a rhetorical option no longer as open to the United States government
today, though theres certainly some hint of this now and again. (Official
white supremacist practice contradicted by implicit liberalism under British
rule has transited to official, explicit liberalism contradicted by implicit
racial or cultural categorization of colonial subjects).
the British were restrained by some humanitarian considerations in exerting
their power, and when those constraints were egregiously overstepped, as in
Amitsrar in India, there were consequencesbut still, and particularly
in the early history of colonial rule, it was possible for British forces to
retaliate very openly with enormous force and with relatively little regard
for due process or rights against even suspected rebels or dissidents. The US
probably cant do the same thing, both because the world has changed since
1890 and because massive retaliation against suspected sources of rebelliousness
carries the risk of further inflamation of resistance among previously neutral
Iraqi society is much more plugged into regional and global networks that can
reinforce and amplify resistance to US occupation in comparison to most African
societies in the early 20th Century.
British indirect rule, for all its rhetoric of the civilizing mission,
was ultimately much more modest in its ambitions in most cases than American
rule in Iraq is today. The bar for declaring success was much lower
British indirect rule existed in an international system dominated by European
state that normalized imperial authority in general and racial hierarchy in
specific. American indirect rule in Iraq exists in a world that is largely mobilized
against imperial ambitions, often insincerely or instrumentally, but mobilized
The direct relation of American popular opinion and elections to the continuance
of an imperial policy is structurally very different than what pertained in
Britain from 1880 to the 1930s. What was sustainable then politically is not
sustainable now without an even more seismic shift in American culture and society.
Ninth reason, and perhaps the most importantly concrete; British military power in relation to non-Western societies in 1890 was the most technologically asymmetrical that the world has ever seen: there was an unbridgeable distance in terms of firepower, logistical capability, and much else besides. Britain rarely exerted this power directly after the initial era of conquest in Africa and elsewhere, but when it did, there was simply no question of armed resistance succeeding. This is no longer the case today. American military power is still massively asymmetrical to the military power of armed insurgents in Iraq, but in ways that are of no use in exerting indirect rule authority over Iraqyou cannot assert indirect rule through bombing campaigns, artillery assaults, or nuclear deterrents. You can only do it with ground troopsand here automatic weapons and homemade explosives in the hands of insurgents coupled with the ability to vanish into the general population are enough to bring Iraqi combatants up to the point that they can exert meaningful force against American authorities. You can leave aside all the other comparisons but I think this alone is a devastating difference between the world of 2004 and 1890. Now "they" do have the Maxim Gun, more or less.