Divide and conquer

by Noam Chomsky

(interviewed by David Barsamian)

Talk about the divide-and rule policy of the British Raj, playing off Hindus against Muslims. You see the results of that today.

Naturally, any conqueror is going to play one group against another. For example, I think about 90% of the forces that the British used to control India were Indians.

There's that astonishing statistic that at the height of British power in India, they never had more than 150,000 people there.

That was true everywhere. It was true when the American forces conquered the Philippines, killing a couple hundred thousand people. They were being helped by Philippine tribes, exploiting conflicts among local groups. There were plenty who were going to side with the conquerors.

But forget the Third World-just take a look at the Nazi conquest of nice, civilized Western
Europe, places like Belgium and Holland and France. Who was rounding up the Jews? Local people, often. In France they were rounding them up faster than the Nazis could handle them. The Nazis also used Jews to control Jews.

If the United States was conquered by the Russians, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Elliott Abrams and the rest of them would probably be working for the invaders, sending people off to concentration camps. They're the right personality types.

That's the traditional pattern. Invaders quite typically use collaborators to run things for them. They very naturally play upon any existing rivalries and hostilities to get one group to work for them against others.

It's happening right now with the Kurds. The West is trying to mobilize Iraqi Kurds to destroy Turkish Kurds, who are by far the largest group and historically the most oppressed. Apart from what we might think of those guerrillas, there's no doubt that they had substantial popular support in southeastern Turkey.

(Turkey's atrocities against the Kurds haven't been covered much in the West, because Turkey is our ally. But right into the Gulf War they were bombing in Kurdish areas, and tens of thousands of people were driven out.)

Now the Western goal is to use the Iraqi Kurds as a weapon to try and restore what's called "stability"-meaning their own kind of system-in Iraq. The West is using the Iraqi Kurds to destroy the Turkish Kurds, since that will extend Turkey's power in the region, and the Iraqi Kurds are cooperating.

In October 1992, there was a very ugly incident in which there was a kind of pincers movement between the Turkish army and the lraqi Kurdish forces to expel and destroy Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders and some sectors of the population cooperated because they thought they could gain something by it. You could understand their position-not necessarily approve of it, that's another question-but you could certainly understand it.

These are people who are being crushed and destroyed from every direction. If they grasp at some straw for survival, it's not surprising- even if grasping at that straw means helping to kill people like their cousins across the border.

That's the way conquerors work. They've always worked that way. They worked that way in India.

It's not that India was a peaceful place before-it wasn't. Nor was the western hemisphere a pacifist utopia. But there's no doubt that almost everywhere the Europeans went they raised the level of violence to a significant degree. Serious military historians don't have any doubts about that-it was already evident by the eighteenth century. Again, you can read it in Adam Smith.

One reason for that is that Europe had been fighting vicious, murderous wars internally. So it had developed an unsurpassed culture of violence. That culture was even more important than the technology, which was not all that much greater than other cultures.

The description of what the Europeans did is just monstrous. The British and Dutch merchants-actually merchant warriors-moved into Asia and broke into trading areas that had been functioning for long, long periods, with pretty well-established rules. They were more or less free, fairly pacific-sort of like free-trade areas.

The Europeans destroyed what was in their way. That was true over almost the entire world, with very few exceptions. European wars were wars of extermination. If we were to be honest about that history, we would describe it simply as a barbarian invasion.

The natives had never seen anything like it. The only ones who were able to fend it off for a while were Japan and China. China sort of made the rules and had the technology and was powerful, so they were able to fend off Western intervention for a long time. But when their defenses finally broke down in the nineteenth century, China collapsed.

Japan fended it off almost entirely. That's why Japan is the one area of the Third World that developed. That's striking. The one part of the Third World that wasn't colonized is the one part that's part of the industrialized world. That's not by accident.

To strengthen the point, you need only look at the parts of Europe that were colonized. Those parts-like Ireland-are much like the Third World. The patterns are striking. So when people in the Third World blame the history of imperialism for their plight, they have a very strong case to make.

It's interesting to see how this is treated in the West these days. There was an amazing article in the Wall Street Journal [of January 7, 1993] criticizing the intervention in Somalia. It was by Angelo Codevilla, a so-called scholar at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, who says: Look, the problem in the world is that Western intellectuals hate their culture and therefore they terminated colonialism. Only civilizations of great generosity can undertake tasks as noble as colonialism, which tries to rescue barbarians all over the world from their miserable fate. The Europeans did it-and of course gave them enormous gifts and benefits. But then these Western intellectuals who hate their own cultures forced them to withdraw. The result is what you now see.

You really have to go to the Nazi archives to find anything comparable to that. Apart from the stupendous ignorance-ignorance so colossal that it can only appear among respected intellectuals-the moral level is so low you'd have to go to the Nazi archives. And yet this is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. It probably won't get much criticism.

It was interesting to read the right-wing papers in England-the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph-after Rigoberta Menchu [a Guatemalan Indian activist and author] won the Nobel Prize. They, especially their Central America correspondent, were infuriated. Their view is: True, there were atrocities in Guatemala. But either they were carried out by the left-wing guerrillas or they were an understandable response by the respectable sectors of the society to the violence and atrocities of these Marxist priests. So to give a Nobel Prize to the person who's been torturing the Indians all these years, Rigoberta Menchu....

It s hard for me to reproduce this. You have to read the original. Again, it's straight out of the Stalinist and Nazi archives-at their worst. But it's very typical of elements of British and American culture.


from the book The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
published by Odonian Pressin 1993

Odonian Press
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other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies and Democracy
What Uncle Sam Really Wants

Prosperous Few and the Restless Many