We were taking a little tour of Canterbury Cathedral before the Matins service on Sunday morning. What was striking was how many monuments there were to fallen soldiers of the British Empire. We think of the British Empire as a commercial undertaking – and it was commercial, in the sense that the profits were realized by private companies, and not by the British government directly.
But like all empires, it needed its fighting men to maintain order and subdue the locals. The English army – with its regiments made up of soldiers from all over the British Isles and its auxiliaries drawn from its colonies and vassal territories – established a Pax Britannica. Then, the English, being in the superior position, were able to set the terms of trade.
The story of the British colonial wars is either a story of great heroism and sacrifice in the service of bringing civilization to the heathen…or a story of brutality, bamboozling and bumbling in an effort to make a buck…depending on how you look at it. Either way, many of its most illustrious participants seem to be memorialized at Canterbury Cathedral.
We haven’t been writing much about the American Empire recently. Not because we’ve changed our minds about it – we just thought you were getting tired of hearing about it.
But our visit to Canterbury rekindled our interest.
First, we note that the United States now has its soldiers garrisoned in 144 different countries. That is a far bigger empire than even the Romans had. And bigger, in some ways, than the British Empire, too.
But ours is a much funnier empire than the other two.