With 12 nations bombing Syria Brian O’ Boyle investigates the brutal history of Imperialism and explains that war is terrorism on a massive scale.
Western Imperialism is the world’s biggest terror outfit. It involves using capitalist state power and military superiority to oppress foreign populations, occupy their land and exploit their assets. Over the course of its gruesome history, Western Imperialism has terrorised the world’s population in two main ways.
In colonial countries, Imperialism has been directly responsible for killing millions of people, whilst leaving countless others to die through oppression. In the developed world, competition between Imperialist blocs unleashed two world wars, the brutality of fascism and the horror of the Holocaust.
America may have proclaimed itself the great liberator of Nazi Germany. Yet since the end of World War II, the US has become the world’s greatest Imperial butcher. Estimates put the death toll from US wars at between 20-30 million people since 1945, making organisations like Islamic State look positively amateurish by comparison.
Wherever it goes, death and destruction have always followed, but when did Western Imperialism first come into being?
From the 1860’s onwards, Britain and France built up enormous Empires, subjecting hundreds of millions of people to foreign rule on every continent. Realising the economic and strategic advantages of these Empires (resources, markets, ports etc), Germany, Japan and the USA were quick to follow suit.
Initially Imperialism provided the Empires with outlets for investment, relieving pressure on their profit rates at home, but as the costs of formal Empire rose Imperialism continued as a means capturing raw materials and cutting out a rival’s control of strategic areas.
At home, these imperialist adventures relied on whipping up nationalism and racism against ‘inferior people’ who needed to be civilised. In the colonies, it involved a playbook of oppressive strategies to control what were inevitably hostile populations. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First off, successful Imperialism has always relied on violent repression to keep the locals ‘in their places’. In the Belgian Congo, for example, 10 million Congolese were either murdered or worked to death by King Leopold’s private army. Over the same period, women were systematically raped and people’s hands were chopped-off for minor dissent.
In Indochina, the French were no better, hammering pins under the fingernails of their victims and cutting furrows into their legs before filling the wounds with burning cotton. Much the same treatment was meted out by the French in Northern Africa. Reflecting on the occupation of Algeria for example, liberal theorist, Alex de Tocqueville proclaimed that his countrymen had finally perfected the art of torture.
Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison was even more direct arguing that “from 1840 until 1962 (independence), the physical body of the “Arab” [was] used as a terror instrument on which the colonial power never ceased engraving the marks of its almighty power”.
British Imperialists favoured much the same tactics against the Irish – exacerbating the famine, unleashing paramilitary violence (The Black and Tans) and regularly shooting innocent civilians. During the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the British infamously terrorised the local population with rape, torture and castration. In response, the Queen awarded many of her soldier’s medals of honour for their service to the Empire. American Imperialism is virtually identical.
According to the Global Policy Forum for example, US-led occupation forces have committed numerous atrocities in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, with Haditha, Hamandiya, Sadr City, Samarra and Ishaqi becoming synonymous with murder, rape and the multiple killing of civilians. Oppressing entire populations is no easy matter.
Imperialist armies must dehumanise their victims in order to succeed, and this, coupled with fear of reprisals, is enough to unleash the brutal forms of oppressor violence listed above. Mass violence is particularly effective for the Empires in periods of rebellion, but it becomes difficult to sustain over longer periods. For this reason, the second key Imperialist strategy involves an ability to divide and conquer.
Divide and Conquer
When Imperialists first invade a region they invariably look to foster local divisions based on ethnicity, geography, religion or tradition. Creating internal divisions weakens the potential for united resistance by trapping populations in local conflicts.
Two of the Imperialists favourite tactics in this regard are (1) reconfiguring geographical areas into new states with manageable populations and, (2) selecting one part of the local population for favoured status. At the end of World War One, the French and the British carved up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into a patchwork of new states under Imperial ‘protection’.
Following the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, they each wanted control over Middle Eastern oil and strategic access to their respective empires (Britain in India, France in North Africa). To achieve these goals, they divided the region into British controlled Palestine and Transjordan and French controlled Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon was a totally new state with a sizable Christian population- the Maronites.
The French calculated that Christian’s would be more loyal to Imperial power and so they favoured them for official posts. This helped to create the sectarian conflict that raged in Lebanon for decades. When the British faced rebellion in Ireland they relied on similar tactics, stoking up sectarian conflict amongst Catholics and Protestants and eventually dividing the country to suit the Empire. American policy in Iraq has been no different.
From the moment they invaded in 2003, the US has tried to strike a ‘sectarian balance’ between the majority Sunni and minority Shia and Kurdish populations. To undermine any alignment between Sunni and Shia militias the US propagated the idea that the Shia had to organise separately to secure power in the emerging structures of the previously Ba’athist State.
Much the same pattern happened across Sub-Saharan Africa. In Rwanda for example, the Belgians purposely propagated the idea that the Tutsis were superior to their Hutus neighbours. This eventually created a conflict of unimaginable barbarity as almost a million people (mostly Tutsis) were massacred. In Nigeria the British pursued a similar policy, stocking up conflict between the Igbo and the Hausa populations to keep control of the wider area.
In apartheid South Africa, the state used those it classified as ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Indians’ as a buffer between themselves and the even more oppressed black majority. The results of these tactics are still being felt in Africa today, as war and destruction have been the lasting legacy of Western Imperialism. Indeed, no less than 28 Sub Saharan states have been at war since 1980, often on the basis of land and resources that were arbitrarily divided to suit Europeans.
Ruling through local Reactionaries
The final tactic used by Imperialists involves drawing on the power of local reactionaries. Occupation is ultimately a costly business and even the best resourced Imperialists may eventually choose to project their influence from afar. This type of intervention inevitably takes on a variety of forms. Sometimes it means working with anti-democratic forces already in a region, often through arms deals, access to Western finance and/or political support on the international stage.
On other occasions, it involves imposing reactionaries through external intervention and/or military coup’s. In the post WWII era these tactics have been particularly favoured, with the US involved in no less than 17 attempts to change regimes in their interests. In 1953 for example, they worked with the British to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. Their own representative (the Shah) subsequently supported US policy until he was himself overthrown in the Iranian Revolution.
In 1965 the US were at it again, this time helping Mobutu Sese Soko grab power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire). As a dictator, Mobutu ran a one party state which allowed him to amass a personal fortune of $5 billion. He was also extremely brutal, regularly killing political opponents at rallies of up to 50,000 spectators. Be-that-as it may,
Mobutu had a strong relationship with the US ruling class, particularly Reagan, who invited him to Washington three times. In the wider Middle-East the US currently sustains its incredible influence through a nexus of deals with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Since 1950 for example, the US has given an incredible $80 billion worth of military equipment to the Saudi Arabian Royal family. This accounts for 20% of all US arms deals in that period to a regime ranked at the very bottom of the Human Rights Watch list.
Women, children and the poor are particularly oppressed with arbitrary detention, torture and imprisonment used to keep the population under control. For its part, Israel is currently the world’s greatest apartheid state, holding millions of Palestinians in open air prisons in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel is also responsible for mass genocide against the Palestinian’s, last year killing more than two thousand people in Operation Protective Edge. This willingness to use brutality has always impressed the US ruling class who provided $55 billion worth of military aid to the Israeli Defence Forces between 1949 and 2007.
As for Egypt, President Mubarak was one of Washington’s greatest allies until he was toppled in 2011. Over the course of thirty years, Mubarak consistently proved himself a vicious dictator, unleashing terror against his own population on a number of occasions.
Yet from the US perspective, this was always part of his charm, particularly as he held down the Egyptian working classes and protected US interests in the region. In return the Egyptian ruling class was given $19 billion in military equipment and $30 billion in non-military aid. Moreover, since 2014 the US is once again backing the dictators, renewing billions of dollars of military aid for Al –Sisi and the other butchers of the Egyptian Revolution.
Imperialist’s always try to take the moral high ground. As European colonialists were butchering millions in their ‘Scramble for Africa’, they told the world that they were really on a civilising mission known as the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Alternatively, they insisted that God needed them to spread the word of Christianity.
In the United States whole populations were systematically wiped out by people proclaiming to be lovers of peace and freedom. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need for parliamentary representation at the same time as they enslaved the black population and massacred the Native Americans.
Looking back, few people would accept this as in-anyway progressive, and yet, we are encouraged to believe that bombing people in the Middle-East will somehow improve humanity today. This is nothing more than dangerous propaganda.
Imperialism is a ruling class strategy designed to use overwhelming force to protect the interest of capitalist elites. It is not designed to protect humanity, nor to improve conditions for the people in the colonies. Indeed, it is by far the biggest block on bottom up forms of democracy and genuine liberation. To cover their tracks, imperialists must lie to their populations as the wreak havoc on foreign soil.
France, the US and the UK have been in the Middle-East for over a century and yet their Imperial adventures have not brought peace or stability to the region. Rather, they have significantly exacerbated all manner of local divisions whilst keeping the masses in poverty and terror. To support humanity is to oppose Imperialism without exception.
Imperialism is the world’s greatest monster, groups like ISIS merely their deranged off-spring. If we want real liberation we must look to the revolutionary self-activity of the Arab masses not the bombs and bullets of their Imperialist oppressors.
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