Read Llewellyn's bio and previous columns
November 12, 2007
American Finds Out:
Its No Longer So Easy to Conquer and Rule
In the 19th Century, numbers really did not matter. In the 20th Century,
they began to matter. And in this century, they matter a lot. I am
talking not about mathematical abstractions but populations.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, European powers, led by Britain,
captured vast swathes of the globe without regard to the territory size
and population density. Hence Britain's annexation of India, which
included what is now Bangladesh and Pakistan. Numeric superiority just
did not matter.
What did matter was the control of the technology of war. And the
colonial powers held their armaments close. So Britain was able to
dominate several hundred million people worldwide with a mixture of
superior armaments, moral certainty, and enlightened systems of justice.
All three were required, but the control of firearms was essential.
Very few dissidents with firearms can change the balance very fast. The
American Revolution would have failed if the colonists had not been well
armed. In that early struggle, the British and other colonial powers
realized if they were to hold territories in Asia, Africa and Latin
America, small arms had to be controlled.
Where weapons were largely controlled most of Africa, a lot of Asia,
including Indochina, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and Ceylon liberation
had to wait for the upheaval of World War II. When the colonial power
was slow off the mark, the Soviet Union supplied the arms that fed the
uprising, as in Algeria, Angola, Indochina, Mozambique and, eventually,
America's National Rifle Association has long held that wide gun
ownership is a bulwark against oppression. In the sense that an armed
populace can, in theory, rise up against an oppressor, it is right.
Whether this works against a domestic usurpation of power is
The second challenge to colonial hegemony was democracy and the
supremacy of population numbers. Imperialists and their strategic
planners had to start counting people, which they never had to do when
the Maxim machine gun could adjust for a lot.
The opponents of colonialism embraced democracy for others, even when
they themselves did not. The Soviet Union and many liberation movements
used democracy as a means to an end totalitarian control after
independence. In Africa, this fake embrace of democracy affected every
country north of South Africa and south of the Sahara. It also affected
more sophisticated emerging countries like Burma, Indonesia, Malaya and
So numbers count for nothing in assuring democracy. Big India has made
it, as has little Finland, but not big China or little Belarus.
More important is how a few rebels are able to create chaos if they have
plenty of small arms the story in Algeria and Northern Ireland. The
Algerian uprising, which eventually drove out 1.5 million French
settlers, was initiated by a few hundred rebels, who picked up numbers
as the French tried to meet brutality with brutality. In Northern
Ireland, the British Army has been pinned down for nearly 40 years by
around 300 active IRA gunmen.
None of this suggests anything good about either winning in Iraq or
extending the military option in the region too many weapons and too
many recruits to use them. These are the numbers that subvert high
The military option is no longer the one that existed for thousands of
years conquer and rule. Great powers like the United States can hit
another country, largely with air power, but there is a limit to the
extent we can influence circumstance on the group.
watched the last throes of colonialism in my homeland, Rhodesia, now
called Zimbabwe. Liberal thought the world over championed democracy
that is to say, majority rule and the Soviet Union and its surrogates,
like Cuba, provided the arms and trained the guerrillas. Nobody won, but
the numbers spoke.
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