Importance of the demographic factor

In the range of reasons explaining the changes that we have experienced, how could we not emphasize the demographic dimension? At the end of the nineteenth century, China and the British Indian Empire were, as they had always been, the world’s two most populated areas. The Indian Empire, which included as previously mentioned Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and a few small Himalayan states, was under Great Britain’s dominion. China, which had suffered a military defeat by Japan (1895), had been humiliated for several decades by “unequal treaties” giving free access to its main ports, which were under the jurisdiction of foreign powers. Russia had expanded its borders through territorial continuity by appropriating one million square miles formerly under the Manchu Empire’s rule. Outside of the two demographic giants, one subjected to Europe and the other humiliated by unequal treaties, the demography of Asia and Africa’s countries was very low. The most populated Asian country after China and British India was Japan, with a population of forty-five million at the beginning of the twentieth century, which by beating Russia on sea and on land rose to the rank of industrial power soon-to-be colonial power.

Most populated states in 1900 except China and British India (in millions)

Russia 135
United States 76
Germany 64
Austria – Hungary 46
Japan 45
Great Britain 41
France 39
Indonesia 38

In 1900, six Western countries were among the ten most populated countries (see table). At the time, Brazil had a population of eighteen million and Nigeria seventeen million, that is, together, the population of Italy at that time. The population of the entire continent of Africa was just one hundred ten million. Latin America, seventy-five million. Asia, minus China and India, some two hundred fifty million. Europe, Russia included, and North America bordered on five hundred million. This gives a better measure of the difference between this period and the world we know now. In fact, in their crushing majority, the colonial conquests were of countries with populations of no more than three to five million, often less. The population of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan) in 1920, when it was divided between French and British Mandate less than a century ago, stood under ten million (against seventy-five million today). Just before its fall (1920), the Ottoman Empire, which included the whole of the Arab Levant and the coast of Arabia down to Yemen, ruled over twenty million subjects. Today, Turkey alone has seventy-eight million inhabitants.

Twenty most populated countries in 1950 and their numbers in 2014 (millions)
Source: 2014 Yearbook of the United Nations

1950 2014
China 557 1373
India 368 1250
Soviet Union 180 Russia 144
United States 152 323
Japan 84 127
Indonesia 80 255
Brazil 53 204
Great Britain 51 63
West Germany 50 Germany 82
Italy 47 61
France 42 67
Bangladesh 42 158
Pakistan 40 191
Spain 28 46
Vietnam 28 94
Mexico 27 120
Poland 25 38
Nigeria 23 177
Philippines 21 101
Turkey 21 78

In 2025, or in less than ten years, the world population will have topped eight billion:

  • Africa, credited in 1950 with approximately 230 million, or 9% of the world population, will border on 1.5 billion, or 18% of the world population. A very high share of the population growth will take place in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Asia will go from 1.4 billion (1950), or 55%, to 4.75 billion, or 59%.
  • Latin America will go from 170 million (1950), or 7%, to 690 million, or 8%.
  • The United States and Canada will go from 172 million (1950), or 7%, to 690 million, or 5%.
  • Europe will go from 550 million (1950), or 22%, to 740 million, or 9%. The share of European population will collapse.

Since about fifteen years ago and for about the next fifteen years, the population share of sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing and is set to double. This demographic pressure on a labor market with no prospects is destructive. Despite some encouraging figures, a number of countries, if not the majority of them, will have neither the means, in terms of economic growth, to provide employment, nor the necessary infrastructure to school new generations. Wealth there is highly concentrated at the top, and the middle class, in the majority of these countries, is very narrow. Massive emigration will not be possible. Everything seems to indicate today that sub-Saharan Africa will be in the coming period one of the world’s areas both most unstable and most favorable to the propagation of Islamist ideology, both in West Africa and in East Africa.

Islamism, in the area where Islam was established long ago and has been instrumentalized for decades by Wahhabi preachers or the Muslim Brotherhood, will be the way out for the marginalized. Eastern Africa and the African west will be affected, and what has recently occurred in the Central African Republic (a minority Muslim government oppressing a majority of Christians, leading France to intervene militarily), is just a harbinger. Already, as a consequence of the intervention in Libya, the Sahel is being affected by this drive. This is also the case in the northern periphery of Nigeria, in particular in the Hausa region (Niger and Cameroon). In eastern Africa, Sudan, Kenya, and northern Tanzania, are candidates for increasing Islamic agitation.

As a protest ideology, Islamism has taken over from the Marxist Leninism of former times.
Although in 1900 thirty-three percent of the globe’s population lived in Europe, the United States and Canada, by 2025, at best, this will be a fourteen percent share. The persistent importance of the European-US model is due to the illusion of the United States’ “soft power” and the continued influence of its movie and television industries, and so on, but the blonde, blue-eyed Hollywood star is a rapidly disappearing species.

There is nothing ultimately surprising in the fact that public opinion in western and central Europe, and in the United States and Canada, does not want its soldiers, be they volunteers, to die or to risk dying in theaters that do not seem of vital importance and where victory is anything but certain.

In Europe, a long period of peace, safety, and relative prosperity, and the fact that the continent has essentially depended on US military protection have contributed to a sharp reduction in military budgets when others are building up their fire power, and eagerness to fight has lost its edge.1 This process, particularly in certain countries including France, has been aggravated by excessive assistance of states anxious to prolong social peace as long as possible.

As for the West in general, whatever the dynamism of the United States, it is paradoxically characterized by its recent denial of death and singular reluctance, partly due to the aging of its populations.


First-hand knowledge of the field and the adversary

The British “Indian Army” was made up of volunteers, who when they joined it between 1815 and 1847, were committed to twenty-one years of service. After 1847, commitment to military service was reduced to twelve years. Thereafter, it was further reduced to six years of active duty and six years on reserve.

Indian Army officers were the only ones authorized to go to Great Britain during their active life, and only after having served ten years.

All of this explains that the body of officers were well rooted in an environment that became part of their existence, for which they came to acquire first-hand knowledge of the field and possibly the language, and in any case, of how local society worked, its codes, and how to handle them.

When Lord Kitchener, the first Governor General of Sudan, was replaced in 1899 by General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate (one of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s mentors) who remained in office until 1916, the latter instituted the Sudan Political Service. The administrators of this body were recruited in Great Britain and spent their whole career in Sudan.1

A system such as this, strengthened by the Victorian mindset, explains and provides keys to an era very distant from ours. As indicated by William Carson, a colonel in the US Marines: “We did not wage war in Vietnam for eight years, we waged a one-year war eight times.”2

This era ended with the Indochina War (1954), which had been waged by long-term volunteers who were relatively rooted in the environment in which they fought.

Time and wars of attrition

Time, as a factor, plays today against Westerners, who are in a hurry to end any sort of fighting because of public attention. During the colonial wars, time weighed, on the contrary, in favor of the conquerors. For isolated traditional societies having no external support, a war of attrition was costly. If necessary, their harvests were destroyed and their cattle were decimated. This scorched-earth policy was applied in India by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in Algeria by Thomas Bugeaud, and in the Caucasus (Dagestan) by Aleksey Yermolov.

Faraway public opinion

Public opinion before World War I was not very well informed on these faraway conflicts.3 They were either indifferent, or sometimes proud of the victories when these flattered national pride. As for the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, it was followed with passion (British testimonies by Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Winston Churchill). It is true that it was a war between “whites.” At the time, hardly any testimonies regarding the adversaries were brought to the attention of the public.

These irregular wars, usually waged by very limited forces, were somewhat scorned by the military or by politicians who were concerned with national competitions in Europe. It would be some time before the considerable sociological changes produced indirectly by these apparently minor conflicts were noticed. Only very recently has some attention been directed to battles formerly considered as “decisive” (John F.C. Fuller). This is why nothing could be found on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which could be rightly said to have been decisive. Nothing, either, on the very important Arab victories at the Battles of Yarmuk (636) and Qadisiyah (637), which would lastingly impose Islam in Syria at the expense of the Roman Byzantine Empire, and in Iran by causing the fall of the Sasanian Empire.4


Factors of success

Qualitative superiority

The conquered peoples, wherever they were, knew little or nothing at all about their invaders. Whence did they draw their superiority? Even societies that had known Europeans before the industrial revolution were surprised by the continent’s leap. In 1683, the Ottomans had besieged Vienna and superiority was theirs. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans, whether the Habsburg or the Russian troops, had become qualitatively superior to them. The German army, even before the Battle of Sedan, became the model for the Ottoman army, which included an instructor called Helmut von Moltke. The Europeans’ lead was not just explained by technique or fire power. The Ottoman officers sent to the German war schools were getting only and strictly military training, but nothing of the ideas that prepared Europe’s rise in the nineteenth century.

A divided adversary

The societies confronting the European forces were divided. India was a major example. England, who had overpowered it through Bengal, was progressing in leaps and bounds, taking advantage of the existing divisions. These societies were either declining, as were those in China in the mid-nineteenth century, or had been reined in, as in Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, or were simply backward from the material point of view. The conquering momentum, on the contrary, was encouraging the European nations, who were sure of themselves, competitive, and predatory.

Opposite them, their adversaries, save for a very few exceptions, had neither external support, nor sanctuary.1 And these were two major conditions for guerrilla warfare to endure.


Chapter 2 – The West’s advantage

Despite a few battles lost in Afghanistan, in South Africa, and in Tonkin, Europeans triumphed in all the wars and conflicts they waged in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. What was the basis of the West’s advantage? The importance of weapons superiority cannot, of course, be underestimated. The percussion-cap rifle, which was loaded from the front, was replaced by rifles loading from the breech (1860) and soon by the repeating rifle. In particular, the Gatling gun (1862) was followed by the powerful Maxim machine gun, which demonstrated its dreadful effectiveness against waves of determined attackers, like in Omdurman (Sudan, 1898). Fire was killing massively. In the second part of the nineteenth century if not earlier, European troops, except in the event of a surprise, were out of the reach of missile weapons and even of the type of fire arms being used in most societies. But the colonial wars, considered at the time as minor, were successful far beyond the limited means committed to them. Outside of the weaponry, what were the factors explaining these achievements?