Colonialism, war and selective memory

Photo: Slaves Waiting to be sold in Richmond, Virginia, painted in 1861 from an 1853 sketch. Wikipedia.

The world has changed enormously in my lifetime.

One thing that I never knew as a child but which seems to characterise the present age, is international terrorism. Terrorism, via car bomb, motor vehicle driven into crowds, gun or knife seems to be almost a daily event somewhere in the world.

The attacks are rightly condemned. Sometimes they target police or military, or some other target against whom the terrorists have a particular grievance. But so often the victims are random, ordinary citizens who may not even support the government actions the terrorists may be protesting. And the fact that too often these are “innocent victims” makes the condemnation stronger and more powerful.

As a christian who takes Jesus’ teachings seriously, I have difficulty justifying any killing of fellow human beings. But I fear we have selective memory about terrorism and innocent victims.

European colonialism and superiority

When I was a boy, I loved my atlas. The map of the world showed so many countries coloured red to indicate the British Empire – Great Britain, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, a swathe of countries in Africa from South Africa to Sudan, and other red dots in Asia, Africa and South America. Other European nations – notably France, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands – had their own colonial empires, shown in purple, green, or yellow, but none of them matched the British Empire, which was always shown in red and on which the sun never set. We were so proud of the Empire that we had a half day holiday from school on Empire Day, and every four years we had the Empire Games on similar lines to the Olympics, but restricted to those fortunate countries in the Empire.

No-one asked the indigenous peoples of all these countries whether they wanted to be colonised. Colonisation, for example in the US and Australia, led to loss of land and freedom for indigenous peoples, and sometimes unnecessary deaths – a recent report mapped 150 massacre incidents in eastern Australia alone, with more still expected to be found. Greed and competition led most European countries to take what they could from their colonies – exotic foods and artefacts, natural resources, even slaves. My impression as a child was that the European races were considered superior and colonisation was just the way of things.

Perhaps the British attitude is best summed up by Rudyard Kipling, whose poem or hymn, The Recessional speaks of “lesser breeds without the law” even while warning that the pomp and majesty of the British Empire would one day pass away. And his The White Man’s Burden encourages American colonisation of the Philippines as a way of helping the world.

And doubtless colonisation did offer some material advantages to some countries – improved medicine, education, transport infrastructure and sometimes more stable government. Yet because it was involuntary, and because it was so often rapacious, we could hardly blame indigenous patriots for rebelling against colonial rule. I can dimly remember the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the Malay campaign, which were seen by patriotic Australians at the time as unjustified uprisings, but which could now be seen as quite justified attempts to break free from British colonial oppression.

African slavery

Perhaps the most pernicious aspects of colonialism and white superiority was the transport of slaves, mostly from West Africa, to Britain and the Americas. It is estimated that about 26 million Africans were taken as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries, almost half going across the Atlantic Ocean, but a considerable number remaining in Africa or being sent to Asia. Millions died on the ships, or soon after arrival.

At its peak in 1860, there were at least 4 million slaves in the US. Treatment of slaves was generally appalling, with whippings, shackling, branding, murder and rape, plus deprivation of liberty, discrimination and forced family separations.

War, incursions and assassinations

The twentieth century saw the United States involved in numerous armed conflicts and incursions. The exact number depends on the definition, but some sources nominate more than one per year since 1945, many of them with support from allies such as Australia and Great Britain.

Many of the operations, especially during the “Cold War” were covert. In 2013, US military “special operations forces” were apparently active in combat, special missions or training foreign troops in no less than 134 countries (approximately two thirds of the world’s countries).

Particularly insidious has been the assassination of government leaders (plus many unsuccessful attempts) and interference in elections by the CIA.

While it could be argued that some (e.g. the first Gulf war, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) or perhaps even many of these actions were justified (though I wouldn’t argue that), they have been destructive. Actions often have unintended consequences, including the killing of civilians, euphemistically called “collateral damage”.

The biggest disaster of all?

Coming as it did after a century of paternalistic and exploitive interventions in the Middle East by European powers, the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003, supported by a coalition that included Australia and Great Britain, may have been the biggest disaster of them all.

Estimates of the casualties in that war vary greatly, but it seems likely that up to 200,000 non-combatant Iraqis were killed, despite efforts to prevent this, together with maybe another 100,000 combatants. And let us not leave this simply as a statistic. It means, among other things, families, women, children, the elderly, being burnt alive when their homes or shelters were hit by incendiary bombs, or buried under the rubble caused by conventional bombs, or caught in small arms crossfire. Children became orphans, parents saw their children die, families were torn apart, literally.

The war also destabilised the region and created the conditions for the Syria civil war and the rise of ISIS.

Putting things in perspective

In Europe, there were more terrorist deaths in the 1970s and 1980s than since then, mostly from separatist movements in Northern Ireland, Spain and Chechnya. Attacks by Islamists have been predominant since the start of the Iraq war, but have totalled less than 600 in that period (not including 2017).

Terrorist deaths in the US over that period total about 3,000, dominated by the 9/11 attacks. Worldwide, the annual number of deaths due to terrorism has averaged about 20,000, with higher numbers in recent years. The majority of these deaths have not been in the west.

So it is clear that terrorism deaths in the west are dwarfed by the civilian deaths caused by the US and its allies in the Iraq war. US military and covert interference has affected many countries and remains a significant threat to countries not allied with the US.

So how would you feel?

When we next feel threatened by terrorism and call a terrorist barbaric, let’s stop and consider that those of us who live in western countries are, directly or indirectly, complicit in government actions that have killed far more people. Perhaps the rash and paternalistic actions of western countries has been a contributing cause of terrorism in return.

That doesn’t make Islamist terrorism anything other than evil, immoral and indiscriminate. But perhaps the same adjectives can be levelled at our governments too. I don’t think we stand on any moral high ground.

It is important that we christians don’t minimise this. I believe Jesus taught us that, in God’s eyes, an Iraqi life is as important as yours or mine. It is racist or immensely selfish to think otherwise. All these deaths at the hands of western military forces are surely as much an offence and grief to God as the deaths we see in our own countries.

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  1. All these deaths at the hands of western military forces are surely as much an offence and grief to God as the deaths we see in our own countries.
    I’m sure that is true.
    The Iran and Iraq war killed over a million, so the West can stay out of the Middle East and let them sort out their problems themselves which could well kill more people in the end, or it can try and restore some sort of law and order which could save lives in the long term.
    I agree that any war is terrible, but I’m not as convinced as you are that it’s all the fault of the US.

  2. -I am against simplistic moral equivalence (that is, “denying that a moral hierarchy can be assessed of two sides in a conflict”). Colonialism had its positive side: roads, agriculture, sanitation, hospitals, orphanages, democracy, schools, and, the Bible. Were these not the will of God?
    -Regarding Iraq, please see, “OBAMA’S RETREAT FROM WAR MADE MATTERS WORSE,” at
    Those preliminary concerns being addressed, I believe God loves everyone as much as He loves Jesus. God is love. He sent Jesus to die for all, because He has predestined all for life.
    As to the question of war, the greater reality must eclipse the lesser. Please also see,
    “A Christian Response To North Korea,” at

  3. “or it can try and restore some sort of law and order which could save lives in the long term”
    That is certainly a worthy aim, but unfortunately, I think that approach has been proved to be unlikely to work. Imposed solutions rarely do. The Arab peoples need to work out their own solutions. I also think interfering in other countries is a dangerous precedent and generally immoral. It involves making a judgment that we know better than the people concerned what they want. I can only see it can be justified if the people ask for help.
    “I’m not as convinced as you are that it’s all the fault of the US.”
    I don’t think it is all the fault of the US. I think everyone involved (Arab nations, USA and allies) bears some blame. But my point is that the death of a non-combatant Iraqi is as bad as the death of a non-combatant American, just as likely to provoke outrage in their home country, and likely responsible for reprisals. The west cannot reasonably continue to interfere and kill and then complain when the killing comes back to bite them.

  4. Hi Kevin, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that colonialism had it’s positive side, and I said as much. But I doubt there are many colonised peoples who were happy with the outcome.
    I am not knowledgable enough to know whether Obama made a mistake, but I can’t help feeling that whenever the US withdrew there were going to be bad outcomes, but they couldn’t stay forever. So I still think Bush and his advisers have to be considered primarily at fault for setting up an impossible situation.
    I have no comment to make on North Korea. My main point isn’t to say every war is always wrong, but to say that it is hypocritical to kill hundreds of thousands of civilian Arabs and then call evil those who kill a few hundred or less westerners.

  5. . I can only see it can be justified if the people ask for help.
    I thought the Iraqis did ask for help to fight ISIS ?
    Anyway we could have the moral arguments forever (was it right to bomb Hiroshima if it saved more lives, should we stay out of the M.E. and let people be enslaved by IS etc). I think we have to accept that at this point we are still barbarians and people will continue to be killed whether the west is involved or not.

  6. I don’t think Saddam Hussein asked for US or allied intervention!
    But I agree, we can argue the merits of various actions and interventions. But my point is simply that “our” side has killed more people than they have killed ours, and we cannot expect them to take simply accept it without retaliation. Actions have consequences. Calling our armed forces “heroes” and their jihadis “evil” is way too simplistic.

  7. I don’t think Saddam Hussein asked for US or allied intervention!
    I think that when Saddam starting gassing his own people the US said “enough”.
    The problem was that the US interfered first and sold him weapons. The only solution to these endless conflicts imo is to stop the arms trade, but that actually needs the US, Russia, China and Europe to agree on something.
    Anyway, I think you are fundamentally correct, there is too much jingoism in our media and not enough analysis about causes and consequences etc.

  8. Hi Eric,
    I’m visiting this post because of Arkenaten’s link to it on his blog. I follow his blog. Also, I’ve read your About page and Comment policy page as well as briefly browsed your other posts on the right-side menu bar. It’s easy for me to see that we will disagree on most all points of our two world-views; no surprise. 😉 My particular background and exprience doesn’t “fit” into your two-person, either/or categories of Believers or Non-believers. I’ll just leave it at that.
    Regarding this post, it does hint of some impartiality or a wider lens to the reason(s) and consequences of terrorism. A thumbs up there. That said, perhaps your post might have gone wider and deeper into the history and sociopolitical dynamics of the 15th thru 20th century leading up to the Imperial and Colonial Ages and after. But granted, doing that FULL justice would’ve easily been a 10,000 – 20,000 word post minimum, eh? 😛
    Therefore, I just want to mention two primary and little-known events, or succession of events, post-World War I and then post-World War II that set the stage for modern terrorism, which as a sidenote is NOT “historically” exclusive to extreme militant Islam. But when a serious armchair historian digs and digs far enough into ALL SIDES of these two major conflicts, one can understand (without agreeing) Islam’s and the Middle East’s long disdain for the Western Powers. It is NOT so much a religious fight, but an economic-political one where the Middle East, Persian, and Arabic nations were horribly mistreated by the winning Allied Empires after the conflicts.
    Several pivotal, controversial, and history-making post-war 1 and 2 chain of events:
    #1 — the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour letter and Declaration with rising Zionist manufactured sentiment in the U.S. at the time, followed by the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and…
    #2 — the 1920 thru 1950 harvesting of American Christianity by the Zionist Organization of America, American Zionist Emergency Council, Hillel Silver, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, American Palestine Committee later known as the American Christian Palestine Committee, which all paved the way for Zionist Israel’s invasion and occupation of Palestine via the American founded United Nations.

    Due to these specific chain of events, and subsequent sub-events, the Western Allied Powers have been PAYING IN BLOOD ever since. I wrote a 3-part blog series about all of this little-known behind the scenes political history for anyone interested. If interested, I can provide the link.
    Thanks Eric. As you allude to, maybe this information along with yours inspires readers, ordinary non-history enthusiasts to dig deeper; much deeper for less ignorance and better broader knowledge.

  9. Everyone spouts ‘morals’ and ethics — yet few have them, hold them, or practise them.
    And everyone sees everyone ‘not one of us’ as fair game, for colonisation, invasion and/or conversion. Not good.
    As an atheist my own ethic—which I do actually practise—is fair trade. Fair dealings, with due charity when meet.
    As a pacifist I’d fight like a rabid rat to defend those principles.
    Your story parallels my own but it seems neither of us are the strict products of our time—if we can break out, what holds others back?

  10. We’ve viewed the world in such an oversimplified way that we’ve forgotten that the people on the “bad” side (Iraqis, Afghanis) feel pain too, that they suffer when their families and homes are taken away from them, that they get angry at the injustice they see. This is how the chain of endless violence, terrorism and war continues. Not sure that I have a good answer, although I don’t think we should have gone into Iraq. They were not connected to 9/11 anyway.

  11. Thanks all of you for visiting and commenting.
    Prof Taboo – yes, we probably do disagree, but we can still find things in common. I’d be interested to see your blog posts thanks. I don’t see things in terms of “two-person, either/or categories of Believers or Non-believers”, so I’d be interested to hear more of your viewpoint if you want to share that.
    Tish – and I haven’t even said much about economic imperialism.
    Argus – I don’t know what leads some people to change and others not. I suppose there must be many factors, including what information we have, whether we tend to feel defensive about our culture, what ethics we hold to and whether we feel secure in ourselves.
    Eurobrat – I’m not sure of the answer either, in fact there cannot be a single answer. I tend to be a pacifist, but i recognise there are some situations where it is hard to justify that stance. But I don’t believe revenge or wounded pride are right, for those attitudes may often lead to war, including the Iraq invasion.

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