I'm brushing up my knowledge of what Gary Brecher calls “the Teflon Empire” by reading Julia Lovell's clear-eyed, balanced history of the First Opium War, the event that Chinese nationalists consider the founding episode (founding atrocity, if you prefer) of modern Chinese history. Like most military conflicts, this one had few redeeming features. It doesn't even bear a very accurate name. Qing officials did destroy a lot of English opium in 1839, but the British government did not go to war as payback; rather, it wanted to humiliate the decadent government of an allegedly inferior nation. Humiliate China it did: the war proved hopelessly, tragically one sided, with thousands of demoralized Chinese troops crushed in their indefensible forts and drowned in their obsolete junks. British casualties numbered in the low hundreds. Like the Falklands War, the Opium War was (to quote Ricky Gervais) “basically a range war...the equivalent of holding a midget at arm's length...[while] you're just kicking him in the bollocks.”
There's not much levity in Lovell's book, but she does have an eye for colorful details. I particularly enjoyed her account of one of General Prince Yijing's attempts at unconventional warfare: "Before the [Chinese] assault on [British-held] Ningbo, Yijang had made room in the budget to buy nineteen monkeys: the idea was to tie firecrackers to their backs then fling them onto English ships moored nearby.”* None of the general's subordinates, however, would volunteer for monkey-tossing duty, so Yijing's special simian attack force went unused. I regret to say the monkeys' attendant eventually abandoned them to starve. The ministrations of Mars are usually cruel.
* My petite amie suggests that General Yijing had read of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who ignited enemy buildings with his tail.