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  • The Roads to Power: The Infrastructure of Counterinsurgency
  • Laleh Khalili (bio)

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a Judean leader tries to stoke a rebellion against the Romans. He tells a small crowd, “They’ve bled us white, the bastards,” and asks his comrades, “What have the Romans done for us?”

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eric powell

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The other men reply by cataloging Rome’s great building projects, transportation networks, and bureaucratic systems. The agitator, played by John Cleese, responds: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

I have always found the scene resonant yet deeply inadequate. The idea that an imperial power constructs the groundwork for civilization must have been familiar to the members of Monty Python—all of whom were educated at British institutions that once trained men to rule the colonies. In its celebration of empire, the scene says nothing about how these collateral benefits were first and foremost designed to extract resources and move the soldiers and materiel needed to control them. It ignores the way militaries use infrastructure to pacify intransigent populations and incorporate conquered peoples and places into global systems of rule.

The Talmudic passage on which the “Life of Brian” scene is based is more revealing. In Tractate Shabbat, 33b, Rabbi Judah praises the works of the Romans: “They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.” Rabbi Simon counters: “All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.” When word of this conversation reached the government, authorities exalted Rabbi Judah and ordered Rabbi Simon’s execution. What the Talmud makes clear, and which Monty Python disregards, is that the social benefits of infrastructure were secondary effects of empire building.

Across time, logistics have proven crucial to the work of conquest. Napoleon, for instance, was successful not only because he had a great strategic mind, but also because he had an administrative apparatus that ensured trains could supply his army from behind the lines. In fact, according to military historian Martin van Creveld, Napoleon was the first European leader to send commissionaires ahead of the military “in order to organize the resources of this or that town and set up a market.” In Russia, Napoleon’s failure was caused as much by a rare flaw in his logistical planning—locals seized the goods needed to support his frontline troops—as the exigencies of battle.

Throughout history, when armies have marched across continents, crowds roughly 50 to 150 percent their size followed. These civilians reshaped local economies as they provided militaries with a range of commercial services, including weapon and clothing repairs, food supplies, and sex work.

From the Napoleonic era to the current day, the proliferation of roads, markets, and civilian institutions has gone hand in hand with fighting battles. Wars, while destructive, are often the engines of economic and political transformations—many of which are not immediately visible. Military historians, for example, trace the emergence of the vast network of railroads across Western Europe to the logistics lines that sustained wars fought by France and Prussia throughout the 19th century. The extensive highway system in the U.S. incorporated old supply routes used during the Indian Wars to feed and clothe the settlers and conquerors of indigenous lands. Even today, the impetus for the construction of roads and highways in the U.S. often comes from the infrastructural support demanded by the Department of Defense. A 1956 U.S. law established the National System of Interstate [End Page 94] and Defense Highways, which was designed primarily to facilitate the movement of troops and military equipment across the country. Many of the best roads in the U.S. are still those serving defense and aerospace manufacturers in the South and Northwest.


As well as being a tool to bring conquered populations to heel, roads have long been seen as markers of societal development. One of the clearest articulations of this view...


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pp. 93-99
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