One of the most helpful features of Niall Ferguson's narrative is how it gives one a new and clearer perspective on modern American imperial policies by seeing them through the lens of another empire's actions more than a century ago. Kinda like Nathan telling David the story of the rich man stealing the poor man's beloved sheep--you find yourself thinking, "Wow, that's horrible...oh wait...that's us."
For instance, Ferguson tells of how popular the Empire was in pop culture--in young adult fiction (e.g., G.A. Henty), in advertising, in newspapers and magazines--in particular, how much the public loved to read about smashing imperial victories over half-clad natives half a globe away. All of which, when you think about it, is rather pathetic...I mean, how could any self-respecting Brit feel a swelling sense of national pride and triumph by reading about British troops with machine guns obliterating hordes of Africans with spears who are trying to defend their homeland? How's there any glory in that? I mean, c'mon, pick on someone your own size.
Perhaps the most appalling example of this was the Battle of Omdurman, 1898.
Here Lord Kitchener's 25,000 British and Egyptian troops, with several batteries of Maxim machine guns, engaged a force of 52,000 Dervishes, armed with swords or primitive rifles. In a five-hour long massacre, Kitchener lost only 400 dead or wounded; the Dervishes suffered, by some reports, 95% casualties. The battle was considered a glorious triumph for British arms, a sensation in the press. And you ask yourself, "Why? Didn't they feel just a little bit awkward about fighting with such an unfair advantage?"
Until you remember the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How many Americans (including myself) were glued to the TV to watch with glee, triumph, and national pride as the largest air force in the world dropped thousands of tons of explosives on a country that had essentially zero air force, in a intentionally theatrical "Shock and Awe" campaign? Weren't we so proud of our good ol' boys for crushing a bunch of poorly armed foot soldiers in the desert? The memory made me feel a bit sick when I recalled it after listening to Ferguson's account of the Battle of Omdurman.
In fact, the parallels go much deeper. Omdurman was the culmination of an invasion that aimed to take care of unfinished business from 13 years before, when a British force sent to relieve George Gordon had never properly "revenged" his death, unseated the Arab dictator in power, or taken control of the country. Hence the national excitement after the victory. Sound familiar? (The 1st Gulf War began in 1990; the 2nd in 2003.)
A lot of valuable lessons to be learned here, though unfortunately Ferguson fails abysmally to draw them (a later post to come on this).