A painting from 1917 by Roque Gameiro shows Vasco da Gama’s departure for India

 
How have our rulers been able to maintain and justify their endless imperialist wars? 
 
This is the question that American historian Lauren Benton asks in her new book They Called It Peace: Worlds of Imperial Violence. 
 
Our rulers often say they were forced to engage in acts of war against their enemies to prevent broader conflicts. 
 
Benton refutes this and says that it is almost always violence on a smaller scale, or what she describes as “small wars”, that have led to even more extensive and perpetual wars.
 
The book spans centuries of history, delving into accounts of imperialist violence from Asia to South America, often focusing on lesser-known victims of imperialist violence. 
 
Benton makes clear that it’s never just been large-scale massacres or wars that have been used to assert domination over Indigenous populations. 
 
For several chapters, she goes through some of the methods of asserting colonial rule, including plunder—or the stealing of Indigenous people’s homes and belongings. 
 
An account written by a crew member on a Portuguese ship in 1504, captained by explorer Vasco da Gama, reveals how the colonisers would use brutal violence to ensure they had priority when it came to trade. 
 
Sailing off the western coast of India, the Portuguese took Indians captive “after three days of fighting.
 
They then pulled the captives from the rigging and methodically cut off their hands, feet, and heads before piling the body parts in a ship and casting it adrift towards the town.” 
 
She writes that da Gama “fully embraced violence—both for the plunder it yielded and for its success in forcing trade and tribute”. 
 
While Benton reveals accounts of imperialist horror, she also investigates how those in charge tried to justify them. 
 
She expertly describes how those in power shift the rules about what is permissible in war. 
 
Towards the end of the book, Benton describes a United States drone strike on a building in the Syrian town of Karama in 2017.
 
US intelligence said it believed the building was an Isis training centre. The drone strike actually killed women and children but was logged as a “defensive measure”.
 
She writes that this label was used repeatedly by Talon Anvil, a US secret cell dedicated to conducting strikes against Isis in Syria from 2014 to 2019.
 
Talon Anvil found it took too long to authorise massacres. So in late 2016 the US state simply broadened the definition of self-defence to make it easier to get approval to conduct drone strikes. 
 
The idea that our rulers move the parameters of what constitutes self-defence runs throughout the book. Benton’s book is useful for understanding how our ruling class has tried to normalise the idea that endless war is a standard part of the system.
 
Sometimes, it seems this book is suggesting that wars are simply the product of violence from imperialist states leading to retaliation from the other side. 
 
But for Marxists imperialism is about more than that. Imperialist war and violence continue because capitalist states are locked into a system of competition with each other for economic and military control.
 
The book ends with the line, “History tells us we should say no to war at any scale.” If there is one message to take from the book, it is that no act of imperialist violence should ever be forgotten.
 

They Called It Peace: Worlds of Imperial Violence by Lauren Benton is available from 13 February for £35 from bookmarksbookshop.co.uk

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