Look to the poets for lessons on the cost of hubris

SCMP February 17

The most effective imperialists may be those who address their mission with a combination of knowledge and a strong sense of humility.
Take Britain's poet of empire, that onetime Lahore-based journalist Rudyard Kipling, whose most famous books, notably Kim and The Jungle Book, remain widely read, not least in the India where he spent the crucial years of his life.

Similarly, his poem Recessional has left several phrases which still resonate. It was written in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the high point of empire. But instead of celebrating, the poet warned of hubris.

After noting Britain's "dominion over palm and pine", it said:

Far-called, our navies melt away

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.

Lest we forget, lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we lose

Wild tongues that have not thee in awe,

Such boastings as the Gentiles use Or lesser breeds

without the Law -

Lord God of Hosts be with us yet,

Lest we forget - lest we forget!"

This is most relevant as the Bush administration itches for war against Iraq. Kipling wrote as a God-fearing Christian reminding his compatriots of the impermanence of worldy power and the need for humility. He believed the British empire brought benefits to those it governed, but was wide awake to the moral responsibilities of military might and the dangers of over-extending its reach.

As a "born again" Christian, US President George W. Bush may be driven by the kind of self-righteous zeal common to Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. But perhaps he has time to read a short poem.

The Kipling reference to "lesser breeds without the law" is also relevant. The verse is a plea for higher standards of behaviour, of respect for the law of God rather than acting in the manner of those "without the law".

The 1897 equivalent of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was the Islamic fundamentalist regime in the Sudan, which was removed by the British the following year at the Battle of Omdurman. The following period of British rule brought railways, irrigation projects, schools and sound administration. The morality of this "regime change" was dubious, but at least some benefits followed.

Assuming an Omdurman-style victory in Iraq, how much effort will the US make not just to change the regime but to restore a nation battered by 20 years of wars and sanctions? Omdurman spurred a British jingoism that almost led to war with France over the Upper Nile. It contributed also to the outbreak of the most costly of British colonial wars, against the Boers in South Africa.

Today, US diplomats and businessmen with a global view of America's interests have a hard time making their voices heard above those of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Indeed, at times the noises from Washington sound more like those from Berlin in 1898. Under Kaiser Wilhem I and his Chancellor Bismarck, Germany achieved unification and demonstrated its might by defeating France in 1871. Thereafter, it sought peace and security through alliances.

But under Wilhelm I's emotionally unstable grandson, Wilhelm II, Germany embarked on plans for overseas empire. It wanted such dominance so that no plausible combination of other powers could stand in its way. The US has the military dominance to which Germany aspired. But it is a danger to itself if it feels that it can do what it likes.

While Britain was preoccupied with colonial ventures, Germany was building its naval capability. In the year of Omdurman, Germany was planning a modern battle fleet that would give it supremacy over the British navy and a global reach. The British response was too little, too late, to deter German ambitions. But Britain did acknowledge its need to end its "splendid isolation", concluding an entente with France a naval treaty with Japan and an understanding with the US.

In 1898 the US used the accidental explosion of its battleship Maine, in Havana, as an excuse to invade Spanish-ruled Cuba. The US, then in the grip of its belief in a God-given Manifest Destiny, also used the language of liberation to occupy the Philippines.

The US preoccupation with small wars against minor threats is a reminder of Britain's skewed priorities a century ago. Under Mr Bush, the US is losing friends, its debts are piling up, and while its position as the world's major power is assured, its influence in individual regions is declining.

Even disunited, the EU is a challenge as well as a friend. In Asia, China's economic attractions and its strategic arms capability are imposing major restraints on US policy.

Perhaps America will yet listen to the poets, whether to Kipling or to its own poet laureate, Bill Collins. He has spoken out against this rush to a war with uncertain goals and a casus belli as contrived as the Maine explosion. ends



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