Magazine article History Today

The Boer War and Its Humanitarian Critics

Magazine article History Today

The Boer War and Its Humanitarian Critics

Article excerpt

David Nash argues that opposition to the Second Boer War began the tradition of peace politics that has flourished through the twentieth century

Writing in the 1930s, George Orwell was convinced that the military and those associated with it had become essentially anathema to British public and cultural life. But such naked suspicion and mistrust of the soldiering profession had not originated overnight, and, arguably, had been produced by a series of ambivalent military episodes which had served to discredit the institution. Similarly, the philosopher Karl Popper, writing in the 1960s, believed that the experience of the South African War in particular, had had a lasting effect on British public opinion. Repugnance at what war had become, stimulated by the experience of this conflict, he argued, had definitely affected Britain's attitudes in 1914 and in the inter-war period had laid the foundations for the policy of appeasement.

The later years of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic surge in popular enthusiasm for imperial adventures as well as the courage and generalship that made them possible. Comics, novels, popular songs and even poetry and literature celebrated the innate heroism of England's civilising mission. On occasions this could also be given the blessing of religion and higher morality, which made it into a remarkably potent cultural package. Thus the enthusiasm of the population for soldiering could be said to have come alive as the old century died.

However, this cultural development did not go entirely unchallenged. Liberalism had traditionally entertained an innate distrust, even hatred, of military adventures and their consequences. The fear of the over-eager and over-ambitious `man on the spot' who led Britain into colonial disaster was a commonplace of liberal rhetoric. The great theoretician of Manchester economics, Richard Cobden, had argued that the cultural and political dominance of what he saw as an aristocratic caste and its role in imperial government served to lock Britain dangerously into the imperialist system. The answer of Cobden and his followers in the later nineteenth century was to preach the value and virtues of Free Trade and the avoidance of territorial conquest. But, in response to the changed atmosphere and the perception that Britain had moved from supremacy to competition, meant that the heirs to Cobden's ideological legacy had, by the end of the century, developed more fundamentally moral critiques of the imperial and military ethos.

The watershed between the last years of the nineteenth century and Orwell's acerbic comments was clearly the South African War. In many ways this was a conflict with far-reaching repercussions for both Britain and other European societies. It was one of the first wars in which technology and modern methods of combat played a decisive part. In particular the new rifles with which the combatants were armed transformed the soldier's capacity to inflict injury and death. They were accurate as never before, and, most importantly, smokeless, meaning that death could now be dealt out from a distance and unseen, thereby transforming war forever. Ideologically, also, this was the first war that had brought Britain into conflict with other Christians since the Crimean War. This gap of over forty years had witnessed many changes in British society that crucially altered the country's attitude to the idea of war. In particular, the 1880s had witnessed the growth of a new style of tabloid journalism, which could claim to be responsible for the formation of opinion as much as for providing news. Alongside many other concerns, critical commentators held these newspapers and periodicals largely responsible for the glorification of imperial expansion and ther dissemination of it in popular forms. The strong emotions and the opinions that this new style journalism seemed capable of inspiring posed questions for the liberal mind about the maintenance of civil rights and free speech and the practice of morality. …

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