Article in The New Republic.
The close of World War I was supposed to end the world’s reliance on arms—and empire. But on the centenary, the Middle East offers proof that this hasn’t happened.
The First World War, which ended a century ago Sunday, was supposed to be a hinge-moment in history: a war to end all wars, and a war to end the imperialism that had shaped the West’s interaction with the world for centuries. After the United States joined the war in 1917, President Wilson insisted it be fought in the cause of self-determination.
But despite its massive toll, the war did not end empire, and many of today’s struggles are rooted in that failure, including Americans’ own imperial investments in war.
As the firing ceased on the Western front, conflict continued in a different gear elsewhere. During the war, the British Empire had expanded vastly into the Middle East, the former terrain of the defeated Ottoman Empire. As hostilities ceased in Europe, Britain violently suppressed rebellion in these newly occupied territories, as well as in India, Ireland, and Egypt.
The British government drew on new military technologies, especially airpower, in these post-armistice counter-insurgencies, partly to convince the British public that war really had ended: Then, as now, air warfare meant fewer “boots on the ground” and more “discreet” intervention abroad. Shifting the methods of colonial intervention allowed empire to survive in an increasingly anti-imperial age.