European empires from conquest to collapse, 1815-1960 (Fontana history of European war and society) Hardcover – January 1, 1982
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No doubt it was an interesting read upon publication in 1982, but the continued pertinence of Kiernan's observations and apposite quotations, in light of more recent imperial adventures can hardly be doubted. During Britain's Burma campaign of 1886, an imperial functionary remarks that it is Government policy to try "to win over the population of the newly acquired territory more by kindness than severity" - an early stating of the "Hearts and Minds" philosophy? The official then goes on to state that it is not possible for the soldiers to follow this thinking to the letter.
Later, we have Kiernan's observation with regard to another British imperial campaign, this time in what is now Sri Lanka: "It was marked by two miscalculations that Britons frequently fell into: they expected to be welcomed by people groaning under a hated yoke, and they tried to set up an unwanted pretender to the throne as a puppet." Shades of the United States and Britain's recent Mesopotamian adventures? And for confirmation of the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun, we have the Bush administrations policy on "unlawful" combatants stated with regard to "New Zealand in 1869 [where] Prendergast, Attorney General and later Chief Justice, argued that laws of war amongst civilized nations could not apply to a contest with the Maoris." Along with those observations on the past that are relevant to the present, Kiernan book is fill with gems of observation, and facts such as his observation on the concept of prestige: "This curious word, signifying an entity almost apotheosized as tutelary deity of empire, came into English in the seventeenth century, through French, from a low Latin term for a deception, or a conjuring trick". Deception? Conjuring trick? Wasn't protecting Nato's "prestige" one of Blair's favourite exhortations with regard to that organizations adventures in the Balkans?
A brilliant book, briskly traversing a century and a half of imperialism, full of quotations from the people on the spot, summaries of campaigns that have been long forgotten, observations on the differences and similarities of different countries imperial warfare within a broad context that includes social, cultural and political factors. Not only does Kiernan cover imperial wars, he finds space to summarize the Liberation movements in the post 1945 world. If there is a weak point it is the occasional harshness that Kiernan exhibits with regard to the Natives and their difficulties in standing up to the European empires, but as an antidote to imperial nostalgia from the likes of Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Gordon Brown this book is priceless, and well worth reading.