I am in the process of reading a book about Sir Winston Churchill. For the most part, what I know about Churchill relates to his role as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye focuses on focuses on Churchill’s beliefs and his role with respect to British imperialism (see here, here and here for reviews).
I doubt most Americans give the matter much thought now, but at one time the British Empire was huge.
By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political,legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. (from here)
We sometimes forget that even after United States escaped British domination during the American Revolution the British acquired many other colonies. These colonies did not escape British rule until the middle of the last century. Hence, the British ruled an empire for centuries, and Churchill served this empire as a journalist, a soldier, and a statesman.
Churchill served the British Empire proudly, but his conscience did sometimes trouble him. One such time followed the “Battle of Omdurman” (see here, here, and here). Churchill was present at the battle, and he charged into the thick of combat with the 21st Lancers, a charge immortalized in poetry, The Battle of Omdurman.
That battle took place in the Sudan on September 2, 1898. It pitted well-armed, well- trained, and ably led British soldiery against a brave, but foolish tribal people. With every intention of slaughtering the British, Muslim tribesmen launched suicidal frontal assaults against the British force, and with mechanical efficiency, the British slaughtered them.
In his book, Toye reports that experience wore on Churchill’s conscience. To underscore that point, Toye quoted a passage from one of Churchill’s books, The River War. Here is that passage in context.
What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain–what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort? The act is virtuous, the exercise invigorating, and the result often extremely profitable. Yet as the mind turns from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement, a succession of opposite ideas arises. Industrious races are displayed stinted and starved for the sake of an expensive Imperialism which they can only enjoy if they are well fed. Wild peoples, ignorant of their barbarism, callous of suffering, careless of life but tenacious of liberty, are seen to resist with fury the philanthropic invaders, and to perish in thousands before they are convinced of their mistake. The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors. And as the eye of thought rests on these sinister features, it hardly seems possible for us to believe that any fair prospect is approached by so foul a path. (from here)
Philanthropic invaders? The demands of pride can be harsh. We wish to see ourselves as good, strong, and powerful, and we insist others see us the same way, but the dead, the dying, and the maimed accuse us. And so Churchill struggled to justify the blood price of empire.
When the United Kingdom forged their empire, that people wandered, like straying sheep, from the wisdom of the Bible. Instead of treating the people they met in distant lands as potential Christian converts, they subjugated them. That’s a fact many of the conquered remember bitterly to this day. Even our president, Barack Hussein Obama, has been accused of harboring grudges against British imperialism. Hence, when the White House returned a bust of Winston Churchill to Britain, the suspicion arose that Obama despises Churchill. Almost hilariously, the White House could not get its story straight (see here). At first they denied returning the bust, but they had done so (see here and here).
Should we despise Churchill? Or should, as others suggest, Churchill’s life serve as an example for our own? The Bible tells us not to judge each other. Instead, we should follow the example of Christ, and we should strive to be good examples for each other.
So did Churchill provide a good example for us? For the most part, I think we can say he did, but his own words tell us he was too proud of the British Empire. Churchill paid lip service to the future equality of other races. Only reluctantly and ambivalently did he concede the injustice of British rule.
Yet imagine the irony. The Empire of Great Britain spanned the globe. That empire declared the supremacy of a white and Christian kingdom. Suddenly, that self-styled benevolent empire of white men found itself in a death struggle with white men even more blatantly racist than themselves. What were the British people to think? How could they now explain their behavior? And so, following the end of World War II, the British Empire quietly dissolved.
Are we so different from the British, the Victorians of Churchill’s era? No. In every age of men, some men find an excuse to dominate and lord over others. We too do what the British imperialists did. We too wish to serve as overlords. We too wish to believe we rule for the benefit of those we dominate. How? Instead of Imperialism, in our era, our time and place, we find our excuses in the doctrines of Socialism. Instead of lording over distant dark-skinned peoples, we impose our needs, our desires, and our values upon neighbors.
Like Churchill, until we see the dead and dying, we can too easily grow accustomed to the benefits of government power. When government seems to serve our needs, what could be wrong with it? That is what our rogue president and the Democratic Party has shown us in recent years. Here are just a few examples, but there are so many others this post could be about nothing else.
Yet imagine the irony. Don’t Liberals hate the use of abusive power against minorities? Don’t they loudly proclaim how much they detest the policies that led to colonization? Then why is it they have no trouble with majoritarian tyranny, using government power to force others to do what they don’t want to do just because they (“the majority”) think they ought to do it? Are all the victims of Liberals just angry, bigoted white men who deserved to be screwed?
Whether we conquer our barbarous neighbors with ballots or barbarous peoples in distant lands with bullets, the problem of tyranny remains the same. To get people to do what they don’t want to do, we must threaten and use extravagant force or they will not submit to our will.
As citizens, when we send our soldiers into combat or ask our policemen to enforce our laws, we must set aside our pride. We must remember that just because we can that does not give us the right to use force to impose our needs, our desires, and our values either upon neighbors or peoples in distant lands. When we send our soldiers into combat or our policemen to enforce our laws, we don’t want the people who fight for us to struggle in the aftermath, wondering why they had to kill, maim, or lock up the people they had to fight.
When we send our soldiers to war or ask policemen to enforce our laws, we must never forget there is only one proper justification for government.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (from here)