This morning while in a state of procrastinatory idling I was leafing through my copy of Joseph Lehmann’s The First Boer War. I’ve had it for ages and confess had not yet read it–a thing which I will rectify just as soon as I have finished the other thing I’m procrastinating on. Early on in it you find this passage (p. 14) which I found thought-provoking:
In 1815 a Boer named Bezuidenhout was charged with maltreating a Hottentot servant. When he resisted arrest, he was shot dead by soldiers attempting to seize him. Bezuidenhout’s friends and neighbours took up their weapons and resolved to sweep the British into the sea that had brought them. The effort failed. Five rebel leaders were condemned, though none of them had actually shed blood, and hanged at Slager’s Nek. The beam broke under the combined weight before they were dead. Despite the tearful entreaties of relatives and friends, the bean was repaired and the sentence carried out. The futility of further resistance was clearly demonstrated. Outwardly the farmers were loyal, but the rancorous memory of Slagter’s Nek ate into their hearts. A proud people can forgive the death of men in battle, but not their execution on the scaffold.*
*Eighty years later, after the Jameson raid, the same beam was brought to Pretoria with threats that it might be used a third time on British raiders who sought to destroy the Boer Republic.
There are a few things I like about this quote. The first is simple: I’m just fascinated by the story of the Boers and the British from the early 19th through the 20th century–and so should you be if you’re interested in contemporary strategic affairs. It helps to get a perspective on things. Take, for starters, the image of the global mega-power of the day locking horns with a tiny, rather backward and unsavoury, tribe and, frankly, getting a pretty fine shellacking. There’s little to say for the Boers at that time who were so rigidly religiously doctrinaire, inward-looking, and xenophobic that they make the Taliban seem a bit metrosexual by comparison. Their key redeeming feature, it seems to me, was a ferocious desire to be left alone and a readiness to do suicidally futilely brave things to get their way. As for the British, they seemed to be in another sort of trap that I find more than a little resonant with today. To be sure they wanted the gold and diamonds that lay in abundance beneath the feet of the Boers. But one senses too the need of the hegemon to impose order on an ‘ungoverned space’ and to enforce norms and sanction bad behaviour, in this event Boer enslavement of the indigenous people and generally wanton cruelty. These were rationalisations, of course, just not completely self-serving ones.
The second thing which occurred relates to the discussion had a few days ago here on KOW between Ken Payne and The Faceless Bureaucrat about the Prisoner’s Choice Dilemma and Rational Actors in general. How rational is it to hold a grudge so long and so hard that you preserve a hunk of wood against the possibility that someday you might hang the great-grandsons of your great-grandfather’s victimiser? It isn’t really, is it? But that’s how the world works much of the time, particularly when it comes to war. It’s hardly just the story of the Boers and the British. It’s also the story of: Irish nationalism (800 years old), Chechen resistance to Russia (200 years old), Israel and the Palestinians (a comparative newcomer if you date the start of that to Israel’s founding in 1948 but you might as well start earlier), and no doubt a thousand other such instances. This is what browns me off about security studies so often these days. I don’t really want to make a big argument here. Just a simple one: you can go a lot of good as a strategic thinker with a good grounding in political philosophy and a shedload of history.
Third, I think that last line is as good an encapsulation as any of the long-term problem of the confront and conceal approach to our current strategic dilemma. Our drones provide the role of scaffold, eminently well, it could be said–an effective and economical means of policing the worst recalcitrants. But how much rancorous memory eating at the heart are we laying down at the same time? Is my son’s grandson going to be schwacking some other fellow’s distant progeny with a plasma rifle somewhere on the Asteroid Belt because of things that are happening today? Probably, I think. The world turns round and round.