Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green

(Book Review)

"In a major Arab nation, a secular tyranny is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers.
Caught between interventionists at home and radical Islam abroad, a prime minister flounders. His ministers betray him, his alliances fall apart, and a run-away general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the Armies of God clash on an ancient river, and an accidental empire arises.
This is not the Middle East in the twenty-first century.
It is Africa in the nineteenth century...."
--from the Introduction.

When I first saw this book on the library shelves, I was slightly worried it be a repeat of "Napoleon's Egypt" by Juan Cole. And although the time periods don't overlap at all (this book covers 1869-1899) there are no doubt similar themes. Both books seek to put some historical perspective on current US foreign policy.

And yet I'm extremely glad I read this book. It was absolutely fascinating. (If you're interested in history, I think you'll find both books are well worth reading).

In the introduction to this book, Dominic Green very clearly and explicitly draws some parallels between the 19th century Victorian quagmire, and our own present day. And he does so again in the conclusion. But the good news is that in between he does not repeatedly hit you over the head.

In the actual meat of the book, Green is not concerned with making a political point. Instead, like any true history geek, he is simply a story teller, in love with history for the sake of history. (In fact, I almost wonder if the introduction and conclusion were forced on Green by an editor.)

Green wants to tell an interesting story, and bring to life all the colorful characters of the past.
And he does this remarkably well. A truly skilled writer, this is one of those history books that almost reads like a novel.

Although a slender book (280 pages) it manages to cover a lot of disparate ground: the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and "Eastern Question", the Crimean War, the rivalry between British prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli, the Chinese Taiping rebellion, Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his last stand in Khartoum, the rivalry between the British and the French, Ferdinand De Lesseps--architect of the Suez Canal, and even young Winston Churchill (an officer involved in the Sudanese expedition).
All of this is interwoven with the story of Egypt during the late 19th century.
However, Green is able to weave many different characters and events seamlessly into a single narrative.

Since this book covers so much ground, I'm not going to attempt to summarize it here. I'll just comment on a few of the things that struck my interest.

***I had already known a bit about the Gladstone/Disraeli conflict, and Charles Gordon's last stand in Khartoum, largely through watching television documentaries (such as the PBS documentary on Queen Victoria's Empire (A)), but this book was much more informative, and filled in many gaps in my knowledge.

** On that note: one of the fascinating things about this book is that this is not simply a military history. Green focuses as much on politics in London as he does on soldiers out in the field.
So we find out what out what political pressures prime ministers are under when they order troops around. We also get to understand their motivations.
We have the story of Gladstone, a British prime minister who is decidedly an anti-Imperialist, getting trapped into creating an Empire when he can no longer control the wheels that he has set in motion.
Many of the British motivations for getting involved in Egypt were very noble--the anti-slavery sentiment, and the desire to stamp out the slave trade in Africa was one of the main reasons the British public supported intervention. But this book vividly demonstrates the old saying, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

And to me, this is the most valuable part of the book.
All to often, history books portray the "Age of Imperialism" as heartless European nations shameless grabbing what they can with no justification. However if we examine closely the motivations and justifications given at the time, we might find out they are not too different from today. Contrary to popular belief, the British army did not simply attack natives and annex territories at random. Often, they were called upon to stabilize a country, or were asked to intervene by one side in a civil war.

For that matter, I believe that if we carefully looked at Roman history we might find several parallels. Although the Romans are always portrayed in history books as soulless aggressors, much of the Roman Empire was created by being invited into a region to help out in a civil war, or helping to quiet a disturbance. (The Romans actually had a law on their books forbidding a purely aggressive war, but they usually found a justification to get around it.)

The danger, when we forget these lessons, is what you often hear people say these days: "America isn't like the old empires. When we invade a country, we're trying to help them. We're not out simply for conquest, like the Romans or the Victorians were."

But now that I've got that out of my system, let me reiterate what I said before: don't read this book just because of the historical parallels to America's empire, read it because it's a fascinating story told by a master story-teller.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Anarchism (Libertarian Socialism)

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