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Book Review
Last Updated: 09/29/2003
The Dust of Empire
Karl E Meyer

Karl E Meyer, The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland, a Century Foundation Book, Public Affairs, New York 2003 ISBN 1-58648-048-0 pp252 $26.00US


This is a book well worth reading. Karl E Meyer, an older generation scholar, is a master of the historical equivalent of the comic one-liner. He has the capacity to explain or divulge or remind in the space of a dozen or so well crafted words. Of 250 pages and costing a mere $26 in hardback the volume is excellent value, providing a convincing set of explanations of the dynamics of nations and peoples and power and violence. All this is done with balance, humility, wisdom and the perfect illustrative quote. Thankfully, too, he loves to rediscover lost writers, travelers, sages and heroes, all deserving of remembrance. In terms of sources, he painstakingly dredges the whole range of them open to the traditional historian while acknowledging how the internet has brought to professional and public attention many references that might otherwise not be available to interested readers and researchers. The only disappointing outcome is that the promise of an active, vital web site, to which I immediately turned after reading the book, is more or less dead as a doornail as I write.


Meyer is too wily to suggest that history repeats itself or that political acts have predictable outcomes. However, he does lead the reader to draw, however tentatively, lessons from history, though such lessons are learned through careful study, and considerable painstakingly acquired knowledge and insightful observation of individual and collective action. Resources such as oil, gold and diamonds have always played a part but so too has Geography. A typical sideways look comes from his observation of the sell-out popularity of the movie Braveheart in the mountainous Caucasus, which leads him to the observation of the important juxtaposition of war and altitude. It seems best to leave clansmen to their own devices in mountainous regions. Not exactly new, but something obviously well observed by Mel Gibson.


The book is especially strong when discussing the last couple of centuries of Western (including Russian) imperialism. Here the importance is his underlying and unspoken attack on post-modernism, insisting on seeking explanation (though not prediction) from history. The fate of former hegemons, particularly of Britain, is instructive, not in terms of exact predictions, but in terms of indications of what the future may be composed of in international relations. The fate of the hegemon is to be unpopular. Meyer draws the parallel of Britain and its worldwide unpopularity over its conduct in the Boer War and the current antagonism toward the USA worldwide, especially in “liberated” Iraq. Replace oil with gold and diamonds and the two cases become even more similar.


In his Chapter on Afghanistan he reminds the reader just how a country that may appear to many as distant and irrelevant has been of crucial importance to the West for two hundred years. Moreover he shows how the Afghans have never been defeated by a foreign power, how their leaders have been led by two hundred years of imperial power play to depend on duplicity for their survival, and how the British, unable to defeat the Pashtuns, recruited them into their Imperial armies. And he does his level best to match Gandhi with the Pashtun leader of tens of thoiusands of unsung non-violent Muslims, Ghaffar Khan.


Meyer’s concluding concluding remark on Afghanistan in all humility is: “It is obvious that America’s encounter with the Pushtuns, the remarkable people living on both sides of the Afghan frontier, has barely begun.”


The same may be said of all the latest Imperial endeavours of this century’s hegemon. In this respect Meyer identifies a crucial summary of the British experience in India written by John Strachey the British writer and politician and Labourite ideologue who wrote that the British Empire in India “was both iniquitous and beneficent; it was founded by violence, treachery and insatiable avarice, but also by incomparable daring and sustained resolution: it united India; it partitioned India; it industrialized India; it stunted India; it served India; it ravaged India; it created modern India; it was selfless and selfish, ruinous and constructive, glorious and monstrous.” (John Strachey, End of Empire, Random House, 1960). Will this be said of the USA and its Empire? If so, the best that the USA can hope for is a love-hate relationship. One hopes fervently for more love than hate.


Finally, it is difficult to avoid repeating this chilling quote cited by Meyer from Winston Churchill’s description of the beneficent effects of wars of liberation. As cavalry officer and journalist, Chruchill witnessed the slaughter of 10,800 Muslim tribesmen led by the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, where the British, armed with the Maxim machine gun, suffered less than 50 deaths. Afterwards he wrote: “What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of a fertile region 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.”


Should the new hegemon follow this beautifully written justification for wars of liberation, not only will it run into trouble, but, much worse, if the subsequent story of the Sudan is anything to go by, the fate of the liberated peoples will be nothing to write home about either, and the world will be in for considerably more hate than love.


Other recent books by Karl E Meyer (with Shareen Blair Brysac) Tournament of Shadows: The Great game and the Race for Maserty in Central Europe, Counterpoint Press, 1999 


See also: Rudyard Kipling, Kim, Penguin Classics, 1992 (first published 1901) Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, Vintage, 1994