April 6th, 2004

Don’t 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 I’m writing in light of the latest developments.

I’m 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 good.

Many defenders 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 here’s some reasons why.

First reason: 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.

Second reason: colonial rebels lacked access to communicative methods for mobilizing and coordinating unrest over larger areas, which is not true in Iraq today.

Third reason: 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 there’s 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).

Fourth reason: 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 consequences—but 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 can’t 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 civilians.

Fifth reason: 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.

Sixth reason: 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 then.

Seventh reason: 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 nevertheless.

Eighth reason: 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 Iraq—you cannot assert indirect rule through bombing campaigns, artillery assaults, or nuclear deterrents. You can only do it with ground troops—and 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.