In the 19th century, numbers really did not matter. In the 20th century, they began to matter. And in this century, they matter a lot. I am talking not about mathematical abstractions but populations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European powers, led by Britain, captured vast swathes of the globe without regard to the territory size and population density. Hence Britain’s annexation of India, which included what is now Bangladesh and Pakistan. Numeric superiority just did not matter.What did matter was the control of the technology of war. And the colonial powers held their armaments close. So Britain was able to dominate several hundred million people worldwide with a mixture of superior armaments, moral certainty, and enlightened systems of justice. All three were required, but the control of firearms was essential.
Where weapons were largely controlled–most of Africa, a lot of Asia, including Indochina, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and Ceylon–liberation had to wait for the upheaval of World War II. When the colonial power was slow off the mark, the Soviet Union supplied the arms that fed the uprising, as in Algeria, Angola, Indochina, Mozambique and, eventually, Rhodesia.
America’s National Rifle Association has long held that wide gun ownership is a bulwark against oppression. In the sense that an armed populace can, in theory, rise up against an oppressor, it is right. Whether this works against a domestic usurpation of power is questionable.
The second challenge to colonial hegemony was democracy and the supremacy of population numbers. Imperialists and their strategic planners had to start counting people, which they never had to do when the Maxim machine gun could adjust for a lot.
The the opponents of colonialism embraced democracy for others, even when they themselves did not. The Soviet Union and many liberation movements used democracy as a means to an end: totalitarian control after independence. In Africa, this fake embrace of democracy affected every country north of South Africa and south of the Sahara. It also affected more sophisticated emerging countries like Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines.
So numbers count for nothing in assuring democracy. Big India has made it, as has little Finland; but not big China or little Belarus.
More important is how few rebels are able to create chaos if they have plenty of small arms: the story in Algeria and Northern Ireland. The Algerian uprising, which eventually drove out 1.5 million French settlers, was initiated by a few hundred rebels, who picked up numbers as the French tried to meet brutality with brutality. In Northern Ireland, the British Army has been pinned down for nearly 40 years by around 300 active IRA gunmen.
None of this suggests anything good about either “winning” in Iraq or extending the military option in the region–too many weapons and too many recruits to use them. These are the numbers that subvert high purpose.
The military option is no longer the one that existed for thousands of years: conquer and rule. Great powers like the United States can hit another country, largely with air power, but there is a limit to the extent we can influence circumstance on the group.
I watched the last throes of colonialism in my homeland, Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. Liberal thought the world over championed democracy—that is to say, majority rule–and the Soviet Union and its surrogates, like Cuba, provided the arms and trained the guerrillas. Nobody won, but the numbers spoke.