NEW YORK – The eccentric Bengali intellectual Nirad C. Chaudhuri once explained the end of the British Raj in India as a case of “funk,” or loss of nerve. The British had stopped believing in their own empire. They simply lost the will, in Rudyard Kipling’s famous words, to fight “the savage wars of peace.”
In fact, Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which exhorted the white race to spread its values to the “new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child,” was not about the British Empire at all, but about the United States. Subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands,” it was published in 1899, just as the US was waging a “savage war of peace” of its own.
Chaudhuri had a point. It is difficult to sustain an empire without the will to use force when necessary. Much political rhetoric, and a spate of new books, would have us believe that the US is now in a dangerous state of funk.