Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Buchan’s imperial boast: We do it better

Are Americans poor imperialists?

Soldiers from the 48th Regiment along the North West Frontier India. (Northampton Museum & Art Gallery)
Soldiers from the 48th Regiment along the North West Frontier India. (Northampton Museum & Art Gallery)

In John Buchan’s 1916 novel Greenmantle, one proud British imperialist says, “We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples.”

My first impulse was the razz the author. But what if he is right? British political officers certainly did it better than the Americans. We tried to impose vague notions of democracy without understanding local conditions. British political agents were steeped in those conditions. In places like Waziristan, they spoke two or three of the area languages, and knew its history, culture, ways, and proverbs.

The lesson? You tell me. Maybe it is if you are going to be an imperialist, be one.

In John Buchan’s 1916 novel Greenmantle, one proud British imperialist says, “We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples.”

My first impulse was the razz the author. But what if he is right? British political officers certainly did it better than the Americans. We tried to impose vague notions of democracy without understanding local conditions. British political agents were steeped in those conditions. In places like Waziristan, they spoke two or three of the area languages, and knew its history, culture, ways, and proverbs.

The lesson? You tell me. Maybe it is if you are going to be an imperialist, be one.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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