David Day is an Australian scholar heretofore known as the author of a number of engaging accounts of Australian cultural history and the continent's uneasy relationship with Britain during World War II. Now in "Conquest" (Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $24.95), Mr. Day offers a short universal history of the proverbial day after — or how various invading peoples substantiated their claims on the conquered, carried out subsequent annexations, and succeeded or failed in imprinting their own identity on newly acquired territories.
At first glance, Mr. Day is to be congratulated on offering a convincing universal schema of how conquest is usually accomplished. And at times, he offers intriguing narratives of little known imperial adventures, such as the Japanese effort to absorb Korea or the Chinese annexation of Tibet. That said, there are in Mr. Day's accounts fundamental methodological flaws, occasional errors of fact, and a general absence of analysis, that together ensure that "Conquest" is mostly an interesting potpourri of imperial episodes, but of little utility in understanding the vast complexities of conquest across time and space.
How, then, do invaders subdue the defeated? According to Mr. Day, nearly all of them, despite differences in culture, religion, and race, adopt a predictable symbolic and material method of conquest. Invaders usually first stake their claim of legitimacy — sometimes as in the New World with monuments, inscriptions, or deliberate trading of material goods with natives to ensure proof of their own cultural intrusion. In the case of the European explorers, naming bays, mountains, and rivers — and especially drawing maps of new territories — tended to help adjudicate colonial rivalries between the competing English, French, German, and Spanish explorers and offer legitimacy to the public back home.
To establish Japanese control of Korea, or European dominance over the Americas and Australia, the dominant power had to import settlers, and reassure them that as farmers and property owners they had both a moral and legal right to the lands of less civilized nomadic hunters and gatherers, who in turn were by necessity demonized as near animals. Military considerations were paramount and pursued either through fortifications — such as the British efforts in Scotland and Ireland or the French and the Spanish strongholds in the Caribbean — or through the creation of indigenous forces who accepted the foreigner's presence out of both fear and self-interest — such as the incorporation of the Indian forces under the Raj.
In a chapter on "The Genocidal Imperative," Mr. Day explores questions of demography, mostly in the sense of deliberate European efforts to liquidate Native Americans, the Nazi systematic killing in Eastern Europe and Russia between 1939 and 1945, and the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians. Mr. Day finishes by emphasizing the irony that the less affluent and exploited natives often in the end enjoy a sort of demographic payback through larger families and maintenance of a countervailing, separate culture that might ultimately reverse the claims of the supplanters' sovereignty.
While Mr. Day writes well, draws on a great deal of learning, and offers some interesting examples from the Japanese and Chinese colonial experiences, there nevertheless emerges a predictable, and ultimately tiring, repetition of case studies — centered inordinately on the British colonization of Australia, the European conquest of the Americas, Hitler's efforts to incorporate the East, and what he describes as the contemporary expansion of Israel onto Arab lands. The result is that Mr. Day's selections are not representative of 7,000 years of civilization, nor are they always fairly presented.
The Western experience of colonization began with the Greeks and Romans, who bequeathed to us the very vocabulary of conquest, the legal methodology of its implementation, and the literary and historical discussions of its morality. But there is virtually nothing in "Conquest" about the eighth- to sixth-century B.C.E. Greek expansion throughout the Mediterranean, or Alexander the Great's destruction and annexation of various satrapies of Persia (much less, in turn, the efforts of Cyrus the Great to cobble together the Persian Empire). Especially regrettable is the absence of extended discussion of the successful Roman annexation of Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, discussed — and analyzed — in a wide array of authors as diverse as Caesar, Josephus, Livy, Plutarch, and Tacitus.
Perhaps the most instructive examples of colonial conquest, imperial expansion, mass settlement, enslavement, forced religious conversion, and intrusion of alien cultures are found in the Islamic onslaught between the seventh and 12th centuries, and the later expansion of the Ottoman Empire through the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Yet again, both are relatively unmentioned, suggesting that Mr. Day, for all his diverse examples from the East, nevertheless seems to envision conquest as largely a Western pathology.
Demography is constantly discussed in ethical terms, but just as frequently misunderstood. America was densely settled by colonists, in part because one native enjoyed free and often bountiful access to 200 square miles of open North American territory while a starving 19th-century Irishman or Eastern European of the tenement and ghetto may have found himself crowded along with 100 other persons into each square mile — an imbalance that ensured that those with sophisticated transportation would find through colonization and immigration mechanisms to stave off starvation.
Even more regrettable, Mr. Day's invaders take on a bland sort of sameness, likewise all the conquered a similar sort of victim status. Cortés did indeed savagely destroy the Mexica at Tenochtitlan, but largely because the Aztecs themselves had made enemies, in equally brutal fashion, of hundreds of thousands of neighboring peoples whose conquest sated the voracious Aztec appetite for human sacrifices. Somehow bland descriptions such as the following don't quite convey the extent of Aztec atrocity: "With the critical assistance of local allies, who had their own reasons for removing the Mexica's domination, the Spanish were able to overwhelm the much more numerous Mexican warriors." Their "own reasons," in fact, meant thousands of Tlaxcalans and others queuing up to have their hearts plucked out for the God Huitzilopochtli on the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan.
Fundamental questions remain unaddressed: Can any good come from a "supplanter's" efforts? At what arbitrary chronological point do we define conquest, inasmuch as American and African peoples were killing and enslaving one another well before the arrival of Europeans? Why, ultimately, did the Japanese fail in Korea, the Russians in California, or the Germans in Africa? And why, in contrast, were the British so much more successful than almost all other invaders at turning initial conquests into centuries-long colonies and later outposts of British culture and tradition? North America today is a much different place from South America largely in terms of the widely divergent Spanish and English methods of colonization — themselves predicated on distinctions in law, tradition, and religion simply ignored by Mr. Day. One does not have to be a wide-eyed Victorian imperialist to believe that for all its pretensions, British conquest was a world away from what Hitler, Stalin, or Genghis Khan sought and practiced.
One also need not be a supporter of Israel to sense that Mr. Day's discussion of its history is offered up in an exclusively negative context. From Mr. Day's account, no one would imagine that the Jews had a connection with Palestine in some form or another for some 5,000 years, that early Jewish settlers often bought rather than stole Arab properties, and that Israel fought numerous existential wars against autocratic neighbors that sought to liquidate Israeli democracy and with it all traces of Jews in the Middle East. The 1 million Arabs who vote and participate in contemporary Israeli politics — uniquely so in the otherwise autocratic Arab Middle East — surely enjoy a much different status from the Untermenschen who were slaughtered en masse by Hitler's Wehrmacht. There is also something jarring in reading about the plight of the Aborigines, Palestinians, and Native Americans juxtaposed with similarly brief accounts of Hitler's Final Solution. Orders of magnitude, then, are of less importance to Mr. Day; thus the 4,000 lost along the Trail of Tears take their places alongside the million-plus butchered in Rwanda, apparently as proof of similar barbarism on the part of the supplanting society.
Nowhere in "Conquest" do we receive a nuanced analysis of why some invaders fail and others succeed, whether some are abjectly amoral and others less so, whether the supplanted are sometimes worse folk than the supplanters, or the degree to which some conquerors differ in aims, methods, and attitudes from each other. Surely all cannot quite fall into Mr. Day's universal blueprint of invasion, conquest, and control?
Melodrama rather than tragedy is the book's true theme. If the supplanting European population helped to wipe out indigenous populations though the introduction of smallpox, whooping cough, and measles, in turn it received into its diet the often pernicious practices of smoking, drinking, or eating tobacco, sugar, coffee, and cocaine. And when Mr. Day notes the paradox that burgeoning populations of illegal Mexican aliens presently threaten to undo past unfair American annexation of Mexican lands, he seems to either underestimate or misunderstand the insidious nature of American integration, intermarriage, and assimilation, which so far have ensured that the melting pot has trumped the salad bowl.
Mr. Day laudably ends on a utopian plea for a 21st-century universal change of behavior, in which we see one another as people first, rather than distinct races, religions, and tribes with irreconcilable claims on each other's lands. But even here at the end, there is more irony. Mr. Day's vision of such a universal transnational cosmos — where people come and go as they please without particular claims on mythical homelands — has its roots in uniquely Western notions of human rights and international courts and deliberative bodies. These concepts are largely alien to the aboriginal, Native American, Muslim, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle East traditions, but increasingly popular today in the European Union and parts of the former British Commonwealth.
Mr. Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of "Carnage and Culture," among other books.