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  • Studying Mars and Clio:Or How Not to Write about the Ethics of Military Conduct and Military History
  • Huw Bennett (bio), Michael Finch (bio), Andrei Mamolea (bio), and David Morgan-Owen (bio)

In 'Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency' (History Workshop Journal 85, 2018), Kim Wagner rightly argues that violence was a ubiquitous feature of colonial rule and that this fact must be acknowledged if we are to fully confront the legacies of empire, and their implications for conflict today.1 In presenting his case, however, Wagner makes serious historical errors as well as the sweeping accusation that military historians, especially those working in military education, are guilty of abandoning the scholarly standards of the historical discipline, perpetuating indifference to suffering outside the Western World, and having 'weaponized' history to justify military interventions and coercive and unjust treatment of non-white populations.

These unsubstantiated accusations constitute an attack on the ethical and scholarly integrity of an entire field of history and the scholars within it. We have written this response to address the deficiencies in Wagner's assertions about the use of expanding bullets and colonial military conduct, the historiography of colonial violence, and the current state of what he calls 'parochial military history'.


Hierarchical conceptions of race undoubtedly underpinned the entire colonial system. However, the facts do not support Wagner's claim that the adoption of expanding bullets by the British military is evidence of a specifically colonial form of military doctrine premised on a racialized double standard in the treatment of European and non-European opponents. In fact, Britain adopted expanding ammunition for use against all adversaries.2 In making this decision, the War Office invoked technical rather than racial or cultural justifications, namely, the need for greater stopping power [End Page 274] against a cavalry or infantry charge in both European and colonial warfare. It was only at the Hague Conference in 1899 that Britain briefly invoked civilizational arguments, in an unsuccessful attempt to distract attention from its plans to use the ammunition against European adversaries. Once the mask fell, Britain's delegate, John Ardagh, explicitly abandoned this line of rhetoric as incompatible with British aims to use expanding bullets against all enemies. He subsequently 'abstained from any further mention of savage warfare', reasoning that Britain may need 'not for savage warfare alone but for civilized warfare too … a projectile which shall be capable of stopping a charge of cavalry or a bayonet charge at close quarters'.3

Britain's conduct at the conference created an international and domestic backlash that eventually forced it to abandon the use of expanding ammunition altogether. The process of withdrawing this ammunition from the field highlights several reasons, not considered by Wagner and not determined by racism or by military doctrine, why expanding ammunition was likelier to have been used against non-European adversaries. First, symmetry and asymmetry were powerful determinants on policy. The fear of reprisal from an enemy capable of manufacturing and using similar projectiles was an important motivation in the immediate withdrawal of expanding bullets from regions of the world where they could accidentally be used against such adversaries. If race had been the over-riding determinant in the decision-making process, why would such ammunition have been distributed in the first place to forces stationed in Britain and regions of the Empire where they were unlikely to encounter non-white opponents? Second, reciprocity mattered. Even after the expanding bullets were universally withdrawn from use, British officers were likelier to order their subordinates to file hard-nosed bullets, turning them into expanding bullets, when confronted with adversaries that did not subscribe to the norm that combatants should fall out of action once wounded.4 Fear of being overwhelmed by an adversary who did not conform to European rules on the management of violence determined how the new norm was enforced. Third, by speaking of a single racialized 'colonial military doctrine', Wagner conflates the different approaches and attitudes of the Cabinet in London and the governments of semi-autonomous colonies, such as Natal, which continued to issue expanding bullets to its militias long after such ammunition...


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pp. 274-280
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