Iraq: History Takes a Long Time

British soldiers during the Boer War.

In the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, many journalists are looking back with regret on their earlier support of the war (although some, like Christopher Hitchens refuse to make apologizes, which can be taken as a sign either of strong principles or of a stubborn unwillingness to learn).

I was an opponent of this war from day one, although I was ambivalent on the earlier adventure in Afghanistan (which I now wish I had questioned more searchingly). I don’t see any reason to regret my stance, but stock taking is always useful. And in fact there are a few developments in the last few years which have taken me by surprise.

As a historian, I saw the war through the prism of the past. For me, invading Iraq was merely the latest example of Anglo-American imperialism in the tradition of earlier efforts to subdue the peoples of Asia, Africa and South America. Unlike historians such as Niall Ferguson, self-congratulatory celebrators of the West, I don’t see Anglo-American imperialism as a benign force in history. While history is full of contradictions and complexity, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that empires almost always degrade and impoverish the native populations while also, more subtly, corrupting imperialist powers themselves (who become haughty and indifferent to the suffering of those they rule).

Aside from my moral and political objections to empire, there is also a prudential consideration that weighed on me: the age of empires flourished when there was a vast discrepancy of military power and organization between the West and the poor peoples of the world. As Hilaire Belloc astutely noted in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got

The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

But of course, that’s no longer true: “they” have guns as well now (or improvised explosive devices, as it turned out). And “they” are much more organized politically, possessing ideologies of national and religious pride that make it difficult to simply submit themselves to the Sahib’s will as the good natives of the past used to.

In early April of 2003, I wrote an article for the National Post drawing parallels between the Iraq venture and the Boer War that took place a century earlier:

The war … was rooted in a debate about how sovereign a territory could be within an imperialist system. For decades before 1899, the Dutch settlers of South Africa (known as Boers or Afrikaners) had fought for an independent homeland. The British colonial officials in the Cape Colony and the Natal struggled mightily to subdue the Boers, but had to settle for a policy of mutual forbearance.

All this changed when gold (the oil of the 19th century) was discovered in South Africa in 1886. Suddenly, such wealthy adventurers as Cecil Rhodes were able to convince the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, the Boers needed to be conquered. The British put increasing pressure on the Afrikaners until war broke out in October, 1899.

As fighting started in South Africa, the British turned to their colonies for aid. Laurier’s initial instincts were to be wary. As he told the editor of the Toronto Globe in a private conversation, Laurier hated the “jingo spirit” and did not want to participate “in all the secondary wars in which England is always engaged.” Laurier’s anti-war sentiments echoed those of his French-Canadian compatriots, many of whom regarded the war as an unnecessary imperialist adventure and sympathized with the nationalist aspirations of the Afrikaners…

In all, more than 7,000 Canadians signed up as volunteers to fight in the Boer War….

Unfortunately, the glory of combat was overshadowed somewhat by the brutality of the tactics used by both the British and the Boers. Responding to the fierce resistance and guerrilla tactics of the Boers, the British resorted to building concentration camps, where more than 20,000 Afrikaners (mostly civilians) died of disease and malnutrition. The horrors of the Boer War, says historian Niall Ferguson, led to the creation of a strong anti-imperialist movement in Britain, ultimately contributing to the dismantling of the Empire.

In evoking the Boer War, I was expressing my expectations of what the Iraq war would bring: a deep divide in popular opinion between pro and anti war forces, a fierce guerrilla resistance, massive reprisals by the western powers, the use of torture against a recalcitrant enemy, a refugee crisis, the deaths of countless civilians, and ultimately the weakening of the imperial power that launched the war.

In none of these fears was I wrong, although the timing of events turned out differently than I expected: I thought the Iraq refugee crisis would start immediately in the summer of 2003 but in fact it took a few years longer to develop. (As the United Nations High Commission for Refugees noted in the summer of 2007: “The situation in Iraq continues to worsen with more than two million Iraqis now believed to be displaced inside the country and another 2.2 million sheltering in neighbouring states.”)

But I don’t want to simply pip myself on my own cleverness. In the spring of 2003, I thought the war would lead to a tremendous rise in global anti-Americanism, a resurgence of Arab nationalism, and the destabilization of pro-American regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

This wasn’t totally wrong: by any reasonable measure, anti-Americanism has been stoked by the war (certainly few in the world think better of the United States now than they did in 2002). And certainly there have been signs of trouble in Pakistan (and Egypt as well, although that gets less covered in the press).

But I was wrong to expect a united Arab front in opposition to Anglo-American imperialism. The sad fact is that the countries of the Middle East are strongly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines: the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis (not to mention the many lesser squabbles between various ethnicities and factions) trumps any sense of a larger Arab identity. These internal divisions in Arab society have allowed the United States and its allies to continue to dominate the region, using the old imperial strategy of divide and conquer. In the last five years, the US has played this game well, variously allying itself with different factions inside Iraq in order to prevent any united nationalist movement from emerging.

My biggest mistake was impatience: I thought this would all be over quickly. In 2003, I didn’t expect America to be in Iraq for another five years. I was anticipating a quick bloodbath and a hasty exit. Instead we’ve had a long slow bleed. I underestimated the stubbornness of the Bush administration, their willingness to keep fighting no matter what the cost and consequence. As a historian, I should have known that history takes a long time. Half a century separates the Boer war from the end of the British Empire. The Iraq War will probably lead to the end of the American empire, but not immediately: there is more blood and treasure to be spent.  

4 thoughts on “Iraq: History Takes a Long Time

  1. Good retrospective, Jeet. I was a supporter of the “long slow bleed” prediction, as it happens, based on my admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculation that sustaining an anti-American insurgency there would cost its backers perhaps $50 million to $100 million a year (if I remember that figure rightly) — chump change for most of the countries in the region. And that’s after accounting for the immense amount of weapons made available by the dissolution of the Iraqi military.

    Times have indeed changed since the 18th and 19th centuries. Pity our modern empire-builders did not consider that.

  2. “As a historian…”

    some historian not knowing the difference between Boer resistance fighters and British soldiers. lol

  3. Iraq: History Takes a Long Time. I must disagree. I do not believe the photo is of British soldiers. Those are Boer soldiers.

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