Discourse of the Dum-Dum: Imperialism and British and American Counterinsurgency, 1890–1914
Within a few years of one another, the British on the North West Frontier of India and the Americans in the Philippines made use of the so-called Dum-Dum bullet in their campaigns against local Muslim insurgents. Ordinary bullets were not considered to be sufficiently effective in stopping attacking Muslims, whose ‘fanaticism’ allegedly made them impervious to standard ordnance. Based on ammunition originally used against big game, the Dum-Dum bullet was designed to create maximum destruction to the human body. As such, this form of ammunition assumed a symbolically important place in the armoury of Western imperialism and was – similarly to punitive massacres, machinegun strafing and bombing from the air – considered to be both appropriate and efficacious in maintaining colonial control. By the same double-standard, such techniques were considered unacceptable in the context of European conflicts.
The use of Dum-Dum bullets in colonial warfare has never been the subject of detailed study and when mentioned by scholars it is exclusively within the context of either the conventions of warfare or technical studies of weaponry. The rationale behind the use of Dum-Dum bullets was in fact intimately related to racialized ideas about progress and the civilizing mission, and predicated on ‘colonial knowledge’ about Islamic fanaticism and the bodily alterity of those locals resisting Western imperialism. In order to understand the manner in which British and American counterinsurgency developed during this crucial period it is accordingly insufficient to merely consider military strategy or indeed the technicalities of ballistics. This paper provides a comparative examination of the use of the Dum-Dum bullet and the British and American cultures of counterinsurgency during the decades predating the First World War.