Military history



Why Imperialism Carried the Seeds of Its Own Destruction

THE BOER WAR affirmed that the advantage in guerrilla conflicts still lay with European imperialists—but their enemies were closing the gap fast. The same message was sent by an eerily similar war fought at virtually the same time by the United States.

As a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States annexed the Philippines. Many Filipinos had no desire to be ruled from Washington. In 1899 they began a violent resistance that came to be known as the Philippine Insurrection. Like the Boers, the Filipinos fought initially in conventional formations and suffered heavy losses before reverting to guerrilla warfare. U.S. troops, like their British counterparts, engaged in human-rights abuses, including the use not only of concentration camps known as “protected zones” but also of the “water cure,” a form of torture later known as waterboarding, which they had learned from the Spanish. Those abuses caused an outcry at home, as they were doing simultaneously in Britain during the Boer War, from the likes of Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. But the election of 1900 in the United States, as in the UK, delivered a resounding victory for the “prowar” candidate—Theodore Roosevelt. He brought the conflict to a successful conclusion in 1902 following the capture of theinsurrecto leader Emilio Aguinaldo in a daring raid led by Brigadier General Frederick Funston. The successful campaign to hunt down the guerrillas and their leaders, overseen by General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas MacArthur), was accompanied, as in Morocco, by a benevolent campaign of reconstruction, including the opening of schools, hospitals, courts, and other institutions, all overseen by the civilian governor and future president, William Howard Taft. The proclamation of peace was followed, as in South Africa, by the expeditious devolution of self-government so as to reconcile the Filipinos to American sovereignty.

The Filipinos should have had more success than the Boers—there were far more of them (seven million), and they lived amid mountains and jungles, terrain that was far harder for troops to penetrate than the prairies of South Africa. And yet they managed to inflict far fewer casualties on the American forces: 4,234 American soldiers died, mostly from disease. In turn, Filipinos suffered far more heavily: 16,000 fighters killed in battle, another 200,000 civilians dead mostly of disease. The Boers were somewhat more successful in part because of their superior weaponry and greater skill in utilizing it: every Boer had a rifle, whereas many insurrectos had nothing more than a knife. But the Boers’ main advantage was their superior nationalist sentiment. The Afrikaners thought of themselves as a single people and greatly cherished their independence, whereas Filipinos, like Native Americans, were split among numerous ethnic groups. Moreover, unlike Boers or American Indians, Filipinos had no experience of freedom. As a result they had trouble coming together to oppose American occupation.159

Although the insurgents were defeated in both the Boer War and the Philippine War, the two conflicts markedly decreased enthusiasm for imperialism. Casualties were higher than in previous “small wars,” and they fell not just among a handful of professional soldiers but among wartime volunteers whose loss was more keenly felt on Main Street and High Street. As Leo Amery wrote in The Times History of the War in South Africa, the losses inflicted by the Boers were “a shock to a generation accustomed to the cheap glories of savage warfare.”160

Military men who might have been contemptuous of “native” resistance in the past were acquiring newfound respect for the fighting prowess of guerrillas. That was evident in Small Wars: Their Principles & Practice, a popular British handbook that went through three editions between 1896 and 1906, and that would later inspire the U.S. Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual, published in 1940. Its author—widely recognized as the foremost authority on the subject until T. E. Lawrence—was Colonel (later Major General) Charles Edward Callwell, an intelligence officer who had commanded mobile columns against the Boers. He wrote that “guerilla warfare is a form of operations above all things to be avoided. The whole spirit of the art of conducting small wars is to strive for the attainment of decisive methods, the very essence of partisan warfare from the point of the enemy being to avoid definite engagements.”

Callwell offered mainly tactical advice, stressing the importance of “constantly harassing the enemy and . . . giving the hostile detachments no rest,” subdividing “the whole area of operations . . . into sections, each of which has its own military force,” “clearing the country of the supplies which may be useful to the enemy,” and “utilizing the troops available as far as possible for mobile columns” that “should be as small as possible consistent with safety.” He also stressed that no other kind of warfare placed as much emphasis on “self-reliant subordinate officers” or on “a well organized and well served intelligence department.” While he wrote that regular troops had “to resort to punitive measures directed against the possessions of their antagonists,” he also warned, “The enemy must be chastised up to a certain point but not driven to desperation,” and that “wholesale destruction of the property of the enemy may sometimes do more harm than good.”161

This was about as far as Callwell got in acknowledging the political aspect of counterinsurgency, which his British successors would view as paramount. Nor did he make any reference to press coverage, which would loom so large in later insurgencies. Politics and what would now be called information operations were not entirely absent even in the nineteenth century; witness the efforts of Bariatinsky in the Caucuses and of Lyautey in Morocco to court local notables. But such factors were not nearly as important as they would become. At the high noon of European empire, small numbers of Western soldiers armed with Maxim guns and repeating rifles generally could rely on “bold initiative” and “resolute action”162 to crush enemies ranging from Pashtuns to American Indians without having to worry overmuch about placating native grievances—or courting a skeptical press corps.

It helped, too, that most of these conflicts occurred on the periphery of empire against enemies that were considered “uncivilized” and therefore, under the European code of conduct, could be fought with unrestrained ferocity. The very success of the imperial armies meant, however, that future battles would take place within imperial boundaries and that, as one historian notes, they would be “considered civil unrest rather than war.”163 Accordingly troops in the future would find their actions circumscribed by civil law and public opinion in ways they had not been in the nineteenth century.

Imperialism carried the seeds of its own destruction in other ways. By setting up schools and newspapers that promulgated Western doctrines such as nationalism and Marxism, Western administrators inadvertently spurred widespread resistance to their own rule starting in the 1920s. It was not only ideas that Westerners spread but weapons. By manufacturing and distributing all over the world countless weapons, from TNT to the AK-47, Europeans would ensure that in the twentieth century resisters to their rule would be far better armed than their predecessors had been.

Even at the turn of the twentieth century, the heyday of empire, astute observers could see that European dominance could not last indefinitely. The exact contour of events was impossible to predict a half century in advance, but as early as 1897 the eerily prophetic Rudyard Kipling was warning the complacent British public (“drunk with . . . power” after having won “dominion over palm and pine”) that before long “all our pomp of yesterday” could be “one with Nineveh and Tyre”—“Lest we forget—lest we forget!”164 Nineveh and Tyre were, of course, cities in ancient Sumeria that were ravaged by nomadic guerrillas. Kipling almost certainly did not have the threat of guerrillas in mind; he was simply referring to the inevitable decline and fall of all great civilizations. But, seen from the perspective of the postcolonial era, his poetical sally hit home with more accuracy than he could have realized.

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