This splendid book by Michael Burleigh “Small Wars, Faraway Places”1 is an intellectual delight which surely deserves to be read time and again. The faraway places under scrutiny are, among others, Korea, Middle East, Malaya & Philippines, Indocina, Algeria, Kenya & Congo, Cuba and dulcis in fundo, Vietnam: the intersection of the above list with the time window 1945-1965 makes for a very urgent and compelling reading. The idea which undergirds the book is ambitious, as the subtitle says: to find a common denominator into very divergent phenomena to explain the genesis of the Modern World. From Dien Bien Phu (1954) to Algeria , from Suez (1956) to Congo the book analyses the faltering French and British colonial rules with a close inspection onto the generally confused dynamics of decolonization struggles, and into the lives of the very few people that had the intelligence of the situation, be they Churchill (who “did global strategy rather than free dentures” [pg. 121]), DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Kenyatta or Krushcev.
To set the stage, a remark of Noam Chomsky which I have used in a related post is very poignant. In “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship“, Chomsky writes:
“The Spanish Civil War is one of the crucial events of modern history, and one of the most extensively studied as well. In it, we find the interplay of forces and ideas that have dominated European history since the industrial revolution. What is more, the relationship of Spain to the great powers was in many respects like that of the countries of what is now called the Third World. In some ways, then, the events of the Spanish Civil War give a foretaste of what the future may hold, as Third World revolutions uproot traditional societies, threaten imperial dominance, exacerbate great-power rivalries, and bring the world perilously close to a war which, if not averted, will surely be the final catastrophe of modern history.”
At the end of WWII, the societies analyzed in the book were essentially agrarian – hence fundamentally ancillary to the mechanics of industrialized countries: they were providing the raw material to be transformed by the latter. They were peasant societies, whose structure had often not changed since the agrarian revolution 10.000 years before. Even when the elites (often trained in USSR, as Kenyatta or Ho Chi Min) understood – and tried to break free from- the binding logic of international division of labour, they had to navigate between the colonial rule’s intervention, the Cold War shifting allegiances and the internal peasant resistance to change. In the words of marxist historian George Lichtheim (A short History of Socialism, pg. 285):
“However ignorant they may be, peasants are quite capable of grasping the point that the funds for modernization have to be pumped out of the villages into the urban areas. […] The real problem of every nationalist elite in a backward country is how to get around this stubborn peasant resistance. If it is not to be done in Stalinist fashion – that is by herding the masses into collectives and shipping all opposition elements off to labour camps – it has to be done by some other means: bribery, electoral trickery, appeals to national sentiments, or the straightforward imposition of military rule”.
As said, it took the humiliating experience of Suez (1956) when Nasser nationalized the canal for Britain and France to come to terms with the end of their status as colonial powers. The US had always regarded themselves as champions of freedom: in any event, their very foundation had been an act of rebellion to the (British) colonial yoke and that experience formed the very skeleton of their self-awareness as a country. As Roosvelt wrote in October 1942, “One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together” (SMFP, pg. 2). But, not much later, “Roosvelt […] reluctantly awoke to the probability that the colonial issue might compromise the larger security architecture he envisaged for the post-war world, chiefly by weakening the already debilitated imperial metropolises by stripping away their overseas resources” (SWFP, pg. 28). What happened in the Philippines -engineered by the good services of the “quiet American” (SWFP,pg 199ff, 250ff ) Edward Lansdale– was but an example of a pattern to be repeated in all of the subasian continent: “They [the guerrilla backed by the Americans] became a strongarm force, whose main role to reimpose the authority of the large landowners on the peasants whose campaign for social justice resumed where it had been interrupted by war” (pg. 202).
In the following, few notable cinematographic contributions depicting the liberation struggle will be given.
To follow the temporal stretch of the book articulation, Spielberg’s “The empire of the sun” (1987) (after the eponymous novel by great J.Ballard) is clearly the starting point: the Japanese bombing of Shanghai was the very moment when the British empire started its inevitable demise. It was surely Gillo Pontecorvo´s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) (with music by Morricone) to become the finest example of such a cinema: the Algerian struggle against the French paratroopers is captured in all the moral ambiguity of such a predicament.
In more recent times, wonderful documentaries have emerged from Joshua Oppenheimer’s effort to charter the terrain of Indonesia in the crucial period of 1965-66. As already reviewed here for some connections with the ideas of Gramsci, his two films (i) The Act of Killing and (ii) The Look of Silence are huge frescos on the contemporary lacerations produced in that backward society in the period scrutinized in the book by Burleigh.
Cuba features prominently in the book, hence a reference to Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea seems appropriate here. Finally, the figure of US operative Lansdale was depicted by G.Green in his book “The Quiet American”, whose 2002 film rendition is a reflection on the events that took place in the subAsian continent & on the containment theory that US enforced there. Quoting Burleigh again (pg.199ff) “he [Lansdale] was about to become, on the basis of his work on the Philippines, America´s leading expert on counter-insurgency warfare. His story is so extraordinary and paradigmatic that he is almost a signature theme for much of this book“. A more comprehensive list of decolonization films is here.
Before concluding, an interesting further point is worth stressing from this book. The period chartered coincided with the post-WWII rise of the Soviet Union on the world-stage and its “willingness to kick at the rickety doors of declining British and French global rule” (SWFP,pg. 108). Since 1947, the US policy towards USSR was dictated by a lenghty and powerful report from leading Russian expert George Kennan, “The sources of Soviet conduct”. Crucially, argues Burleigh (pgg. 473-4) the early signs of a sino-soviet split as documented in the later declassified “Esau studies” were never taken into consideration2 till Nixon made his trip to China in 1971. That was too late to avoid the military involvement in Vietnam. A first hand treatment of the fateful 1971 encounter is the 2012 book “On China” by Henry Kissinger3. But this is argument for another review.