A Series of Atrocities

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All Colonial Wars Are Alike

by Eric Margolis

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News of the massacre by an American soldier of 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, made me reflect on the 14 wars and colonial conflicts I've covered. Horrible but not surprising.

It illustrates what I call the Iron Laws of Colonial Warfare:

  • Pick a good pretext to invade a country that you covet. France invaded Algeria in 1830 after its ruler supposedly flicked the French ambassador with a fly whisk. During the 19th century colonial era, Britain and France provoked incidents, then claimed their invasions were to bring the light of Christianity and western civilization to Africa and Asia. There was the notorious Gulf of Tonkin incident that sparked the Vietnam War. During the Bush era, spreading democracy was the claim.

    Today's pretext du jour is humanitarian rescue missions. Oil-rich Libya was a prime example. Britain, the US and France stirred up a revolt in Benghazi, then intervened militarily.

  • Divide et Imperia (divide and conquer) as the Romans said. Pick a disgruntled or rebellious minority, favor them against the majority, making them your allies in colonial rule. Good examples: Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan who first backed the Soviets, then Americans, against majority Pashtun. Tamils in Sri Lanka, favored by the British Empire; or Christian Ambonese in Indonesia used by the Dutch to enforce their brutal rule.

  • Build a native mercenary army. Imperial Britain used Gurkhas and sepoys in India; the French used Senagalese troops in North Africa; the US employed tens of thousands of mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain's Indian Raj was made possible by scores of cooperative princes. The Soviets ruled Eastern Europe through local communists and their security forces.

  • Denounce all those opposing foreign rule as: religious fanatics; terrorists; savages; bandits (favorite Soviet term). Western media dutifully denounced independence leaders as "mad mullahs;" "arch-terrorists;", "Hitler on the Nile (Nasser)" or today's favorite, "Hitler in Tehran."

  • The longer your occupation army remains, the more it will first despise, then hate the local population, regarding them as savage and sub-humans.

    Collective punishments of civilians by angry, frustrated, fearful foreign troops will become the norm. Atrocities will increase. Think of Vietnam's Mai-Lai massacre, the infamous Amritsar massacre in India, India's repression in rebellious Kashmir, Japan's savagery in China, the US marines at Falluja, or Russians in Chechnya.

  • Colonial occupations increasingly rely on brutality and intimidation, then torture and secret executions. France's Army was deeply corrupted by its crimes in Algeria and lost its honor. The United States is repeating this terrible precedent in Afghanistan. Italy used concentration camps and poison gas to subdue Libya in the 1930's. The USSR killed 1.5 million Afghans. All colonial wars are dirty.

  • Colonial troops find themselves surrounded by a hostile civilian population, under attack from all sides, betrayed even by their nominal native allies. They become increasingly brutalized, vindictive and prone to drug use and rape. Surprise attacks, booby traps, mines and other explosive devices cause widespread fear and depression.

    Russia now suffers a lethal heroin epidemic from its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. The use of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan is spreading back to US law enforcement. Many former soldiers who served in these third world neo-colonial wars return home to join police forces and government agencies.

    A sense of betrayal dominates. The Soviet's supposed local Communist Afghan allies often kept secret links with the mujahidin resistance and warned them of impending Red Army operations. Today, many members of the US-installed Afghan government secretly cooperate with Taliban and its allies.

  • Foreign occupation and garrisons inevitably spread corruption, prostitution, junk culture, and venereal disease. The foreign troops increasingly keep to fortified bases, sallying out to take reprisals and show the flag. The notion that 20-year old soldiers from the bottom of western society can win hearts and minds of Afghan tribesmen is one of the most ludicrous myths of our times.

  • Occupying armies quickly transform themselves into colonial forces: lightly armed, mobile police units. When a real war comes, they are not ready to fight a modern opponent. In 1914, Britain's imperial forces were slaughtered in the trenches of Flanders. The US has reconfigured its army for colonial warfare. But its next war may be with China or North Korea.

Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.

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