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Thread: Historians and small wars

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Default Historians and small wars

    I opened this thread as a way of generally discussing how historians study small wars and the ways they can be lost in the shuffle of the larger picture.

    For example, the Frontier period draws a great deal of attention, but in the military sphere it is typically focused on personalities (Crook, Custer, and Miles spring immediately to mind). Only in the past 20 years or so has there been good analysis of individual campaigns and techniques used by the forces in question.

    Likewise, there are aspects of the American Civil War that could be fruitful for examination. I'm not an expert by any means in this area (not even a learned ignoramus, I'm sad to say... ), but operations in the Kansas-Missouri border area both before and during the War, as well as many operations in Kentucky and Tennessee might repay good examination.

    Military historians tend to focus a good deal of their thinking on either personalities or campaigns. More recently there has been a change toward studying doctrine and the ways campaigns are framed and conducted. This is, to me, a boon for the Small Wars community, as many of these conflicts transcend personalities (or overlap many individuals) and cannot easily be sliced into campaigns. In my own study of the Indian Wars I've gotten away from personalities (although Ranald Mackenzie still remains a fascinating study for me) and into patterns of operations. When you do this you begin to see that techniques lauded as belonging to one individual were in fact developed over time by many hands, and the one last on the scene usually grabbed the credit.

    Focusing on campaigns can lend an artificial "start" and "end" time to a conflict that may not be accurate, and the same peril lies in examining events from a strictly personality angle. By way of illustration, George Crook is often credited with being "the first" to effectively fight Apaches on their own ground, as well as being the first to use scouts. Both statements are false. Crook expanded on methods developed by Dragoons before the War, California Volunteers during the War, and two over-worked cavalry regiments after the War. He also took care to have one of his aides prepare a very readable account of his operations, something that his predecessors did not do. Scouts had been a fixture in Arizona operations for some years, and certain California regiments were providing arms to tribal enemies of the Apaches years before Crook came on the scene and did the same thing. It's only when you look at the conflict against the Apache in something close to a whole (1847 or so through the late 1880s) that you see the trends.

    Just a bit of a ramble down my own pet rocks about history and the way it's studied.

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    Council Member zenpundit's Avatar
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    Default Historians and Military Historians

    "Focusing on campaigns can lend an artificial "start" and "end" time to a conflict that may not be accurate, and the same peril lies in examining events from a strictly personality angle."
    Interesting. My area of expertise is diplomatic history and as much as I find that field tends to glaze over the important military implications or action in international events, I sometimes see military history as a field strangely disconnected from the larger picture from which the impetus for war arises.

    While professionals are probably most interested in the campaign details of, say, the Mexican War, that war makes little sense outside of the social, economic and political context that produced the Polk administration's aggressively expansionistic foreign policy.

    This is a very broad generalization on my part, and I readily admit there are many exceptional military and other subfield historians who contravene my observation. Rarely though, can an author masterfully weave together social, cultural, political and military history along with biographical narrative into a seamless garment. (Alan Schom's _Napoleon_ comes to mind, a work that was ten years in the writing) These are though, perhaps the most informative books for the intelligent layman and remain useful on the shelf of the specialist as well.

    More collaboration and research across subfields is in order.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    I would agree, with the observation that there are historians that are getting away from the single campaign model. My experience with military history has been that, if you're to do it well, you need to take a much broader focus than many of the sub-fields of history.

    By way of explanation: wars are extensions of politics and policies (successful or failed), driven by social and scientific forces. If you don't understand how those aspects relate to each other, your analysis of a campaign in a broader context is going to be flawed in some way. A narrow focus also makes it difficult to see how changes in social structure, technology, and political science can and do influence war and warfighting. I feel this broad-based approach is even more important when studying small wars, since these often span many changes in all the above areas and bring in cultural history as well.

    Military history, for good or ill, tends to be dominated in popular (and History Channel) culture by the "big wars," which are often presented as a series of campaigns to be dissected and evaluated over and over. I also feel this may take place due to mainstream academia's rejection of military history (on the whole, anyhow) as a legitimate area of study. Environmental history is fine, but military history somehow is not. This disconnect leads to the compartmentalization of military history and in some cases its focus on the act of conflict alone, divorced from outside concerns and forces.

    There are also the sub-fields within military history that focus more on technology and campaigns or battles. These are, by nature, isolated from outside forces. When studying the implications of Jackson's turning movement during a particular battle, you don't necessarily need to understand the social forces that brought the armies to that field. I do not deny that they have an impact, but for that narrow focus it may not be necessary to add that dimension to the discussion. A larger study of the Valley Campaign certainly should (even must) examine those areas, but a single battle history may not require that broad a picture.

    How does this relate to the study of small wars? My feeling is that for historians to get a good handle on the subject they need to be able to move with ease from the macro to the micro and back again without losing their focus. By this I mean you need to understand the wider issues and forces that brought Marines to Haiti, but it is also important to look at what they did on the ground, what worked and what did not, and then possibly approach the "whys" of those successes and failures. It's also necessary to examine it over the long term, not just a single year or single province within Haiti (although that narrow focus can yield valuable insight and lessons...one of the conundrums of military history... ). Social historians need to understand that military history has a role to play here, as cultural constructs of conflict play a role in any small war, and military historians are well-placed to evaluate the interaction of those constructs on the battlefield.

    Another ramble, but Zenpundit raised some interesting points and got me thinking.

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    Registered User marv's Avatar
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    Just a quick question. What is the definition of a "small" war?

    Compared to Iraq, for example, the US participation in WW1 (but not WW2) would qualify if political, military, and materiel commitments were the sole criteria.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Good question!

    I tend to consider a small war to be something that does not normally (stress on "normally" here) involve major considerations of national survival. A comparison might be the Civil War (which was directly linked to national survival) and the Indian Wars (which were not). In terms of military resources, the Indian Wars consumed the attention of the majority of the Regular Army for close to 30 years (in the postwar period). The bulk of the Army was posted on the frontier, engaged in either population security or direct action missions. But for the majority of US citizens (back in the States as it was then) the Indian Wars didn't even register. Even though the conflict engaged the majority of our Army and consumed a fair amount of money (by the standards of the times) it didn't register in the mainstream consciousness unless a major disaster (like Custer) occurred.

    This isn't a perfect (or the only) definition. There is still a great deal of debate about what should be considered a Small War, but it's the framework I work with. A small war can also be classed based on the level of military force (as in weapons systems) used or the forces engaged in the conflict (based on numbers).

    I'm sure others have their own working definitions, and please feel free to toss them into the ring!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Blair
    ...there are aspects of the American Civil War that could be fruitful for examination. I'm not an expert by any means in this area (not even a learned ignoramus, I'm sad to say... ), but operations in the Kansas-Missouri border area both before and during the War, as well as many operations in Kentucky and Tennessee might repay good examination...
    Steve, along these lines, if you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, by Michael Fellman.

    From the preface:
    ...Guerrilla war, intrinsically ruthless and inconclusive, fails to please either the historian or the reader with much in the way of narrative clarity or a sense of man's honor enlarged. Real war assaults, diminishes, and embitters participants. It challenges them fundamentally - not to rise to triumph, but to survive brutal defeat, to maintain vestiges of their prewar selves. Guerrilla struggle, perhaps the most prevalent form of war in history, is also the most devastating challenge to any notion of civility or virtue in war. In this sense, guerrilla war approaches total war, the war of all against all.

    Though understudied by historians, guerrilla war was quite widespread along the border between the South and the North during the American Civil War. From the hills of western Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, through the mountain hollows of east Tennessee and Kentucky to the wooded, hilly farmlands of Missouri, bands of guerrillas wandered the countryside striking terror in all those around them. I have chosen to discuss Missouri not because it was unique, but because of all the regions it produced the most widespread, longest-lived, and most destructive guerrilla war in the Civil War. Missouri provides a horrendous example of the nature of guerrilla war in the American heartland...

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    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Default Victoria's Small Wars as a Point of Entry.

    I think that the best choice of a period to pick for comparative analysis would be that of Queen Victoria's Empire. We find ourselves today in a situation not unlike 19th Century England--we are the only significant world power and find ourselves forced to uphold "civilization" around the globe. We should probably look a little more closely at the cultural discussions that attend works on Queen Victoria's "little wars" around the globe--Ashanti Wars, Zulu Wars, Opium Wars, Sikh Wars, Operations in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Burma, South Africa--each of these has a lot of interest in terms of how the British were able to maintain the strength of their global presence in the face of a series of conflicts with other, very different cultures.

    While much is different in regards to today's world, we are still looking at how to win in a clash of cultures, just as the Britis did in the 19th Century.

    We could also look at some of the work of the British administrators of that Empire--Orwell's essays, like "Shooting an Elephant," come to mind as a starter; so do Kipling's writings.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi WM,

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    While much is different in regards to today's world, we are still looking at how to win in a clash of cultures, just as the Britis did in the 19th Century.

    We could also look at some of the work of the British administrators of that Empire--Orwell's essays, like "Shooting an Elephant," come to mind as a starter; so do Kipling's writings.
    Well, the Empire won a lot of the clash of cultures by a) operating fairly far outside of the box (most of the Empire was built by private corporations), and b) developing an ideology that supported a global empire. Personally, I happen to think it was probably one of the most effective strategies ever used, but the differences with today are quite stark. First off, there was a lot of internal support for the Empire, despite the creation of the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). Second, a lot of that internal support was based on a teleological stance that is currently considered heretical - the "myth of Progress". Third, there was, in many cases, a massive technological disparity not only in terms of relative killing power, but n terms of usable killing power.

    Marc
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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    I actually think it's better to look beyond the British example. A great deal of what they did in terms of local administrations simply wouldn't be possible today. There are other examples that might repay study, both recent and farther in the past (Rome springs to mind, but it, like all historical comparisons, isn't an exact comparison). It's easy to fix on the British example simply because they used the term "small wars" first, but that doesn't mean that they didn't exist prior to the days of Empire.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Blair View Post
    I actually think it's better to look beyond the British example. A great deal of what they did in terms of local administrations simply wouldn't be possible today. There are other examples that might repay study, both recent and farther in the past (Rome springs to mind, but it, like all historical comparisons, isn't an exact comparison).
    I think that there are some valuable lessons that we can use from the British Empire; politically, militarily, and ideologically. You're right about it not being an exact analogy - then again, nothing ever is .

    I'm not so convinced about the "local administrations" comment, however. Yeah, I would agree that there is probably no way that such a form of administration could be implemented. But some of the administrative "lessons learned" can be, and I think that may be one of the most important lessons the Raj has for us now.

    I think their may be another good reason to look at the Empire, and that is the effects it had on the home country, especially when it was decided to convert it into an official "empire". The Invention of Tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger) has a really interesting take on one of the key dangers of a nation setting itself up as the torch bearer of civilization.

    Marc
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    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Default How really different is today's situation ?

    Marc,
    I'm not sure that two of your alleged differences cut much ice here. Internal support for the British Empire existed in the English-speaking parts of the Empire but much less so in the rest of the Empire--the Boers spring to mind rather starkly, as do the majority of the earlier conquests in India. How many trips did the English have to take into China, the Sudan, Burma, and Afghanistan? They weren't quite as welcomed as your post seems to imply. Regarding the "myth of Progress," I suggest to you a similar myth of progress is driving current efforts by the US. Although it isn't a "White man's burden" per se, Isn't progress largely the thesis of Thomas Barnett's work?
    The third difference is also not quite what you portray. We could nuke Iraq and Afghanistan and turn each into radioactive slag if we wished. Our conventional weapons delivery systems are also more than capable of tuerning most of the habitable parts of each country into rubble in fairly short order The folks on the receiving end have no such ability to respond in kind.
    What the Victorian era British seemed able to do was to identify the enemy and engage it while keeping the "mugwumps" from joining in on either side.
    This did not require overwhelming firepower.

    Steve,
    I find Roman examples compelling as well, but more because of their success than for the situations that caused them to get involved. I did not pick on the Brits simply because the "small wars" moniker was coined in relation to their 19th Century operations. In the Roman world, there was much less of a clash of cultures than existed in the Brits' situations. Additionally, in the majority of their conquests, the Romans tended to be invited guests by at least one party in a dispute over succession to a kingdom. Only after they had sorted out the "rightful" heir did the Romans eventually supplant that heir. In cases of outright conquest--Gaul, Britain, Hither Spain for example--the Romans were no more successful in quickly pacifying the countryside than the French were in Napoleonic Spain or the USA was in the Philippines.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi WM,

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    I'm not sure that two of your alleged differences cut much ice here. Internal support for the British Empire existed in the English-speaking parts of the Empire but much less so in the rest of the Empire--the Boers spring to mind rather starkly, as do the majority of the earlier conquests in India. How many trips did the English have to take into China, the Sudan, Burma, and Afghanistan? They weren't quite as welcomed as your post seems to imply.
    Sorry, I should have been clearer - the support was high in the Empires core - the UK and the Dominions. There was also some luke-warmish support in parts of India as well, Rajastan comes to mind. I never said that the empire was "welcomed with open arms", just that it had a fair amount of internal support.

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    Regarding the "myth of Progress," I suggest to you a similar myth of progress is driving current efforts by the US. Although it isn't a "White man's burden" per se, Isn't progress largely the thesis of Thomas Barnett's work?
    I think that the teleological goals of the current version and the older 19th century version are rather different. I see the key difference as the 19th century version being a "perfectibility" of the species, while the 21st century version being a "transcendence" of the biology of the species. As for Barnett's work, it's outside of my disciplines and I haven't read much about it.

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    The third difference is also not quite what you portray. We could nuke Iraq and Afghanistan and turn each into radioactive slag if we wished. Our conventional weapons delivery systems are also more than capable of tuerning most of the habitable parts of each country into rubble in fairly short order The folks on the receiving end have no such ability to respond in kind.
    And AQ could nuke or dust New York and Washington; the technology is readily available. Getting into a nuke tossing contest would lose the global war faster than almost anything else. At the moment, nukes aren't "usable" weapons systems in the geo-political environment. One of the advantages that the Brits had was the we could use "high tech" weapons effectively in the field without having to worry about an IO backlash at home: all of our weapons systems could be used. Nobody in the London Times or the Globe and Empire (precursor to today's Globe and Mail), would complain if we bombarded Rangoon from gunboats or if we used breech loading artillery and machine guns against the Zulus (or Boers). Since we could use them, and since they were a lot better than what our opponents had, we had a major advantage in both "relative" and "usable" technology.

    That isn't the case today. Consider the ruckus that happens when air strikes are sent into an area to hit an insurgent or Taliban camp. How often do we see pictures and video showing up - in the media, on youtube, etc. - showing civilian deaths? All to often, even if no civilian died.

    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    What the Victorian era British seemed able to do was to identify the enemy and engage it while keeping the "mugwumps" from joining in on either side.
    This did not require overwhelming firepower.
    Nope, but it was still usefull . And, in actuality, it was necessary since a lot of the trick behind identifying and engaging the particular enemy relied on the inherent threat to annihilate anyone who opposes you. Outside of India and China, the Brits certainly had the ability to do this and, more importantly, no other great power would gainsay them and they would have the support of the core populations of the empire.

    Where the Empire truly shone, was in the use of the tactic of indirect rule (as a side note, that was one of Rome's strengths as well). When this pragmatic approach was tied into the myth of progress, especially in its Spencerian form, you ended up with the production of academic disciplines designed to a) understand and b) manipulate cultures; hence the birth of British Social Anthropology.

    The Brits didn't want to annihilate their colonial possessions, they wanted to rule them - and they didn't care who was reigning.

    Marc
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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by wm View Post
    Steve,
    I find Roman examples compelling as well, but more because of their success than for the situations that caused them to get involved. I did not pick on the Brits simply because the "small wars" moniker was coined in relation to their 19th Century operations. In the Roman world, there was much less of a clash of cultures than existed in the Brits' situations. Additionally, in the majority of their conquests, the Romans tended to be invited guests by at least one party in a dispute over succession to a kingdom. Only after they had sorted out the "rightful" heir did the Romans eventually supplant that heir. In cases of outright conquest--Gaul, Britain, Hither Spain for example--the Romans were no more successful in quickly pacifying the countryside than the French were in Napoleonic Spain or the USA was in the Philippines.
    I would second what Marc pointed out: the British were more concerned with control (direct or indirect) of their overseas possessions than they were outright rule. I would also contend that the clash of cultures was just as problematic for the Romans as it was for the British; the Romans tended to assimilate as much as possible (be it through social adaptations like grafting local gods into the Roman pantheon or by settling older Legionnaires in the area and taking control that way) rather than rule by proxy, although they were not timid about doing that, either. The French and Dutch are better examples of failed colonial powers, and they tended to try direct rule first and then make half-hearted attempts to graft local leaders into things.

    And you have to remember that the British were not necessarily successful in pacifying the countryside. It wasn't really one of their concerns. They wanted control of resources and transport. But the British also had the capability to be totally ruthless (witness the suppression of the "Mutiny" or their actions in South Africa). It was a question of correct timing, something they shared with the Romans.

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    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    I'd add Kenya in as an example of Britain's ruthless tactics in counterinsurgency. The entire Kikuyu population was interned in camps or "strategic hamlets", and hangings and torture were widespread (the British hung more in Kenya than the French in Algeria, and abuses included castration, gang rape, severing of ears, and removal of eyes with pliers). Note also that the British were notably unsuccessful in several campaigns --- the Irish Free State, Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt, India, etc.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi Tequila,

    Quote Originally Posted by tequila View Post
    I'd add Kenya in as an example of Britain's ruthless tactics in counterinsurgency. The entire Kikuyu population was interned in camps or "strategic hamlets", and hangings and torture were widespread (the British hung more in Kenya than the French in Algeria, and abuses included castration, gang rape, severing of ears, and removal of eyes with pliers).
    Kenya was definitely a case where things "went bad", and I'm not sure why. Usually, the Brits would get some local faction to do the dirty work; partly for manpower reasons and partly to stop any local opposition from uniting. I've noticed that one the large private companies got out of the empire building business, e.g. the British East India co., the Hudson's Bay Company, etc., things went downhill. I've been tempted to draw the simplistic conclusion over that, but the comapanies had problems too.

    Quote Originally Posted by tequila View Post
    Note also that the British were notably unsuccessful in several campaigns --- the Irish Free State, Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt, India, etc.
    I think that these are special cases. First, Ireland had been held by Britain for most of a millennium. There was a lot of cross-marriage and a lot of cross-colonization that had gone on - the Kingdom of Dalradia, etc. Egypt was co-ruled by both Britain and France - talk about a recipe for disaster! "India" didn't actually exist as a "nation" but, rather, as a collection of nations some of whom were pretty much equally matched with Britain. I'm not sure I really want to get into Palestine - the British Mandate there was for administering the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after WW I.

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    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    Marct - Regardless, let us be clear that whatever the case, the British counterinsurgency campaigns in Ireland, Palestine, India, and Cyprus were failures. They did not succeed in quelling opposition, as occurred in Malaya and Kenya, and in all cases the parties opposing British imperialism took power.

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Default Great points tequila

    Marct - Regardless, let us be clear that whatever the case, the British counterinsurgency campaigns in Ireland, Palestine, India, and Cyprus were failures.
    I had to stop and think a moment about Palestine, b/c from my very limited knowledge, that may be a classic example of a failed COIN situation. The British opponents had a strong ideology to follow, in fact so compelling that they came from far and wide to resettle on the land. There was also a blend of alleged terrorism woven into the fighting (e.g. King David Hotel), and considerable pressure on the home front to be done with the possession and conflict.

    So this makes me ask whether we should be looking not so much at successful COIN strategies, but failed ones, for historical lessons.
    Last edited by jcustis; 02-06-2007 at 01:54 PM.

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Default Other Histories

    Although I am an afficiando of the "Empire" there are other sources out there well worth looking at.

    If you read French, the French and Belgian experience is fascinating. My greatest insights (pre-Stan Reber) on the Congo (Zaire) came from hours of interviewing Frederic Vandewalle, once head of security in the Belgian Congo, advisor to Moise Tshombe in the Katangan Secession and war with the UN and the Congo in the early 60s, and finally the REAL architect of the Belgian cadred, mercenary, and Congolese "army" reconquest of the Congo in 1964-1965.

    VdW as Tam Tam #1 in a Congo veterans association that put out a newsletter under the same title. I used to get copies but I lost touch just before I went to Goma for the refugee festival and then on to Rwanda.

    Best

    Tom

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Let's not forget that both the Portuguese and the Spanish had extensive empires at one time. Granted, the Spanish model could serve as a good example of what *not* to do, but it's there just the same.

    And jcustis, you should look at history for both. One mistake people often make with history is assuming that things will always repeat themselves. They do not, though situations can and do repeat themselves - but with different actors, settings, and bit parts.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi Tequila,

    Quote Originally Posted by tequila View Post
    Marct - Regardless, let us be clear that whatever the case, the British counterinsurgency campaigns in Ireland, Palestine, India, and Cyprus were failures. They did not succeed in quelling opposition, as occurred in Malaya and Kenya, and in all cases the parties opposing British imperialism took power.
    How are you defining "success"? I really think that that is a crucial question. For example, the British held Ireland solidly for 300 years and, I would think, that by any reckoning, that would count as a "success". All of India was held for around 100 years, and parts of it for over 200. And yet you are countering with Malaya and Kenya as "successes"? Neither of them is part of the Empire right now, so I really do have to ask how you define "success".

    Palestine, as I noted earlier, was a mandate for administration of an ex-part of the Ottoman Empire - it was never a British colonial possession. That was a case of surface administration. As for the insurgencies in the Palestinian Mandate, it was similar to Iraq in that it was an absolute hodgepodge of conflicting groups and interests.

    Then again, this is getting out of the time period we were originally discussing which was pre-WW I.

    Marc
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