Notes From the Margins…

Syria and the pith helmeted bombardiers

  • February 28, 2012
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On 2 September 1898 a British expeditionary force in Sudan defeated the armies of the Caliph Abdullah al-Tashi,  the successor to the ‘Mahdi’ Muhammad Ahmad, who had overwhelmed the British garrison at Khartoum thirteen years before.    Armed with artillery, Maxim machine guns and Lee-Metford magazine rifles fitted with dum dum bullets, British troops killed more than 9,000 of the Caliph’s soldiers in a single day.

It was, wrote  the young Winston Churchill, who was present at the battle,   ‘ the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.’     Two days later the British flag was hoist in Khartoum for the first time since the Mahdist siege in which General ‘Chinese’ Gordon was killed in 1885.  Captain Sir Henry Rawlinson, a participant in Kitchener’s expedition,  later wrote how

Where our flag goes up, it does not come quickly down.  But what it meant to me, and I think to most of us, was not that we had added so many thousand square miles to the British Empire, but that we had pledged ourselves to complete the work for which Gordon died thirteen years ago, and to free this land from brutality and tyranny.

The battle of Omdurman was one of many similarly unequal confrontations that took place in the colonial era between technologically superior western armies and their ‘native’ opponents.  Whatever their more  prosaic commercial, economic or geostrategic objectives, these nineteenth century ‘interventions’ were often steeped in philantrophic rhetoric which presented even the bloodiest manifestations of imperial violence as part of the onward march of civilisation and progress.

It was this philosophy that enabled the  corrupt and rapacious King Leopold of Belgium to declare, at an international conference in London in 1876 in which he obtained  approval for Belgian stewardship over the Congo Free State that

To open to civilisation the only part of our globe where it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness which envelops whole populations, it is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.

Leopold was a liar and a fraud and one of the great monsters of history, whose ‘tutelage’ over the Congo was a pretext for the pursuit of personal enrichment, and who presided over one the most genocidal regimes in history.   But many of those who took part in the ‘scramble for Africa’ sincerely believed in this civilising mission and the moral imperative of the ‘ white man’s burden’.

As in Sudan, colonial military conquests were often presented as acts of liberation intended to free newly-subjugated populations from ‘brutality and tyranny’ and pave the way for liberal governance.

Today, in the early 21st century, Western democracies are engaged in a ruthless global ‘scramble’ to dominate and control energy resources, pipelines, and oil supply routes in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond.    As in the nineteenth century, this new militarism is often presented as an altruistic enterprise.

But the new neo-imperialist interventions of our era also draw on humanitarian rhetoric that was largely absent in the nineteenth century.   Today’s ‘liberal interventionists’ don’t celebrate mass slaughter as an act of ‘ vivid and majestic splendour’, as Churchill described Omdurman.

On the contrary, today’s wars are often presented as humanitarian endeavours  intended to prevent atrocities, human rights abuses and ‘genocide’ or stop dictators from ‘killing their own people.’   As in the past, such humanitarian rhetoric invariably conceals more ignoble motives, especially when it is invoked so selectively or when it comes from a cold-blooded apologist for state terror  like Elliot Abrams.

But there are also those who are filled with genuine moral passion in putting forward the argument that ‘we’ must do something or that ‘we’ cannot stand idly in the face of tyranny or atrocity.  Take Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former advisor to Barack Obama and a leading proponent of humanitarian interventionism, who penned an op-ed column  in the New York Times last week on ‘how to stop the butchery in Syria’ .

In it, Slaughter argued that ‘foreign intervention offers the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilising civil war’, and advised against arming Syrian rebels on the grounds that such actions would facilitate such an outcome.   Instead she proposed that foreign special forces from the ‘Friends of Syria’ group of countries should collaborate in the formation of ‘no kill zones’ that would ‘protect all Syrians regardless of creed, ethnicity or political allegiance’. Well not quite all, since

 Crucially, these special forces would control the flow of intelligence regarding the government”s troop movements and lines of communication to allow opposition troops to cordon off population centers and rid them of snipers. Once Syrian government forces were killed, captured or allowed to defect without reprisal, attention would turn to defending and expanding the no-kill zones.

That sounds a lot like a kill zone.  And as Paul Staniland pointed out last week on The Monkey Cage  blog,    these recommendations are completely impractical and unrealisable, and would in fact  intensify the civil war that Slaughter says she wants to prevent, and which has in fact already begun.

There is no doubt that Slaughter is sincere; her MSNBC debate with Jeremy Scahill makes it clear that she is.  But her extraordinarily convoluted arguments suggest that she is oblivious or indifferent to the discrepancy between the humanitarian motives that she espouses and the consequences of such interventions in the past – and also in the future.

Such indifference is not unique to her.  On the contrary,  it is an intrinsic component of the new humanitarian militarism.  Today’s interventionists no longer talk of spreading civilisation to the darker regions of the earth, as King Leopold did, at least not in so many words.

But they often assume that western  governments have a unique and unquestioned right to wage war or undertake military adventures in any part of the world, and that such wars are ultimately benign and altruistic.   These interventionists may be  well-intentioned, but Slaughter’s tortured prescriptions for Syria suggest that sincerity is not always useful when it is unaccompanied by clarity or judgement, and may in fact be quite dangerous.

Because there is really very little that is benign or altruistic about the West’s interest in Syria or any other country in the region, whatever the pith-helmeted bombardiers might think.   And their humanitarian rhetoric – whether they intend it to or not – invariably tends to facilitate new forms of neo-imperialist violence, and a new ‘civilising mission’ in a world that still has more in common with the nineteenth century than you might think.

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  1. Sophia

    28th Feb 2012 - 1:36 pm

    My husband read recently Vargas Llosa’s latest book on Roger Casement and the history of Belgian atrocities in Congo. He was really depressed

    • Matt

      28th Feb 2012 - 1:54 pm

      I’m not surprised. What took place there often beggars belief.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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