Jacob Ramsay Smith

In search of “complete victory”: Victorian Imperial case studies for the modern “War on Terror”

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 has undergone a variety of interpretations through multiple political trends, from its early inception as a Victorian colonial conflict, to its remodelling by 20th century Indian nationalist historians as their “First War of Independence”. This latter version of events is an example of potential issues in pursuing politically motivated histories, particularly shown by more recent offerings from politically engaged historians such as Amaresh Misra’s War of Civilisations: 1857, where ideologies of nationalism and national unity have hampered rigorous historical practice and objectivity when interrogating anti-colonial resistance in India.

Whilst this paper highlights the dangers of applying Howard Zinn’s call for greater political engagement in the context of this conflict’s history; it also presents a rethinking of the Mutiny for historians to apply in political debates concerning problems encountered in the ongoing “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is achieved through the utilisation of cases that originate from another time but unmistakably hold relevance to the policies of the modern day.

In an ongoing conflict, seemingly without parallel, historians have been drawn to previous invasions of Afghanistan – both British and Soviet. Yet interrogations of the 1857 “Mutiny” promoted in this analysis allows historians, and by extension the general public, to determine that the current war is by no means a unique occurrence. This paper will focus upon the opportunities afforded to draw parallels to ongoing debates concerning strategies against insurgencies, targeted manhunts against infamous fugitives, the state’s justification of judicial violence and torture in conflict situations and how misleading war narratives have promoted the idea that conflicts can be quickly concluded in contrast to deeper analysis of the Mutiny’s aftermath.

Howard Zinn’s own vocal opposition to the war in Iraq and war in general, is well known, utilising the case studies of conflict and conquest such as Vietnam, Korea and the World Wars to highlight the nature of war as an innately hypocritical venture for governments and ultimately an enemy to the human race. However, in tracing the methodology and ideologies of the recent War on Terror, we must look beyond these modern conflicts to gain a true understanding of the nature of this struggle. Historians must avoid the allocation of wars as simply “good” or “bad”, but address it as a continual phenomenon open to more nuanced comparisons, ensuring that for the public there are no “forgotten” wars, and that the history of Imperial conflicts is a useful, if neglected, tool for understanding these engagements in a far more effective way.

This paper holds that it is the historian’s approach that is key to being described as “radical”, not merely addressing the state’s predicaments but allowing for analysis of recent policies to be more critical based on methods and outcomes in the running of the British Empire.

About Jacob Ramsay Smith
A second year PHD Student at Queen Mary, University of London and a graduate of King’s College London. My current research focuses upon the Indian “Mutiny” of 1857 and the effect of its aftermath upon the running and security of colonial states, public reception of imperial conflicts and policies of targeted revenge against opponents of Empire. My present work is an extension of my interest in Imperial history and colonial conflicts, which particularly focuses upon the place of revenge in the minds of those tasked with running the Empire – from the metropole to the man on the spot. Particular interest has been devoted in my research towards improving public awareness of the appliance of the imperial past to modern situations, allowing for the greater utilisation of history as a tool of debate and to access the lessons of the past.


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