Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore.
Is the United States an empire or umpire? This is the intriguing question raised and interrogated in the latest probing article by Dan White. Since I’m a baseball fan as well as a student of the U.S. military, let me take a swing at an answer. An umpire is supposed to be a neutral observer and arbiter. He is disinterested and dispassionate. By definition, an umpire can’t be a player, and certainly not a main player, a “star.” Umpires are supposed to fade into the background, plying a demanding profession without pursuing private agendas or personal glory.
Does that sound anything like the role the United States plays in the world? But I’ll let Dan White take it from here. W.J. Astore
Yes, We’re An Empire: Just Look At How We Treat the Natives
Daniel N. White
Recently I attended a guest lecture/seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, hosted by Jeremi Suri, a rising star of UT’s History department. The topic was “The US—Empire or Umpire?” Suri, a personable sort, brought in another mainstream historian, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, to promote her latest tome which argues that the US is not in fact an empire but instead acts abroad as an umpire.
There are some lawyerly arguments that suggest that because the US does not enslave the rest of the world for its own financial benefit—this is fundamentally the argument made by Suri and Hoffman—the US isn’t an empire. Cobbs Hoffman was proud that in her recent US history classes a majority of the students came in thinking that the US was an empire but left, after a semester of her ministrations, thinking otherwise.
How swell. Lawyerly arguments are for lawyers in courtrooms attempting to convince other lawyers who all think along the same narrow lines. Most lawyerly arguments aren’t but petty quibbles about word definitions. For the rest of us, we are wise to heed instead the evidence of our senses and the stirrings of our hearts.
The most fundamental evidence of America as an empire is the wars we wage abroad. Countries that have done us no injury have the “privilege” of the US waging a war in their land with their inhabitants having no say in the matter. The most telling giveaway to the question of empire is our regard for the inhabitants in those countries who fight on our behalf. Fundamentally, we have none. They are our tools, nothing more.
During the Vietnam War, the weekly casualty lists routinely had South Vietnamese military (ARVN) killed and wounded exceeding ours. Only two weeks in the entire war did American casualties exceed ARVN’s—the two weeks following the Tet Offensive. South Vietnam, whose population may have been 14 million during the war, paid a terrible butcher’s bill for its leaders assenting to and participating in an American war in their country.
Yet how much reportage was there ever in the US press about the South Vietnamese army and its casualties? ARVN troops were in it for the duration, unlike US troops, and they and their sacrifices were ignored almost entirely by the US press, people, and government. Once a week, Walter Cronkite would recite ARVN casualty figures, when the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) released that week’s figures. But that was all the attention the US press ever gave them.
That same neglect of the natives the US claims to be “liberating” has been repeated in our recent wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Where are the articles about the Afghan Army and its casualties in the US media? The Iraqi Army and its casualties? We corral the inhabitants in those countries into our schemes for our uses and have paid them—their lives, their hurts, their deaths—no attention, just as we paid ARVN no attention during the Vietnam War.
If we’re not an empire to behave like this, then we are surely the cruelest and most heartless race of people wandering the globe.
What follows is an illustration of the gruesome results of our imperial wars—the kind of illustration that never made our news reports. Richard Critchfield was a war reporter in Vietnam, after which he wrote several superlative books about rural life, both in the US and in the Third World. In 1965 Critchfield encountered a young Vietnamese draftee at Cong Hoa, ARVN’s largest military hospital. The wounded draftee had just arrived after a 50-mile ambulance ride:
From Villages, by Richard Critchfield, pp 62-3:
After he (the ARVN doctor, a civilian drafted into ARVN six years earlier) read the student’s chart, the doctor’s manner softened. He patted the boy gently on the shoulder and lifted up the cotton sheet from the foot of the stretcher.
‘Foot blown off with a mine,’ he told me in English. He spoke to the boy again in their own language, then turned back. ‘After treatment here, the boy will go back to his unit in My Tho to wait for the local military council to meet. The council will decide whether he can go home or not, of whether he must stay in the army to do some light job. He wants to go home. He should go home. When the wound has healed, we will send him to the rehabilitation department for an artificial limb. He says his wife came south with him. She rents a house outside the camp. They have a two-month old son. It must be a very small house.’ He said that as a private with one son, the boy got the equivalent of eighteen dollars a month; totally disabled, he would get thirty-five dollars a year. The doctor thought there were at least fifty thousand partially disabled veterans in the country already; perhaps it was a blessing he did not know the war would last another ten years.
The doctor spoke to the boy again. ‘He says he is an infantry rifleman and that he has never killed anybody.’ A wounded sergeant in a nearby stretcher muttered, ‘Who knows where the bullets go?’ The doctor lifted up the bandages from the boy’s forehead; the right eye was shut and swollen. Unclipping an X-ray from the foot of the stretcher and holding it up to the light the doctor motioned me over. The black film showed the boy’s skull; in the black socket of his right eye was a jagged rectangular shape a quarter inch long. ‘Steel fragment. That eye will have to come out.’ An orderly called the doctor and he went away.
I saw that the boy was moving; painfully, and with great effort, he reached down, groped for the X-ray on his legs where the doctor had left it, clutched it and held it up to the light. We didn’t dare stop him. There was no outcry, just thought—the deep private thought of someone faced with the final, tragic collapse of so much of his life. After a moment he lowered the X-ray carefully back to where it had been, put his head down, and stared upward.
I told my interpreter to ask if there was anything we could do. At first the boy did not seem to hear. We waited. Then he spoke and said, yes, he wanted to send telegrams to his wife and his mother, who did not know what had happened to him nor where he was. The words started pouring out then; my interpreter could only catch part of it. ‘The war must end….so there is no more killing…so I can go home…I want to go home…I want…my brothers*…’ He was crying hard now and the tears streamed down from his good eye. In shame he tried to dab at them with his pajama sleeve. I thrust some piaster notes into my interpreter’s hand to give to the boy and went outside to stare hard at the hedges shaped like rabbits and elephants.
Critchfield elsewhere tells another revealing story of Americans abroad at war, again from his Vietnam War days. From p. 183 of Villages:
“Tran Van Huong, when prime minister of Vietnam in the 1960s, once told me no American had ever asked him, ‘What do you need and how can we help you?’”
In all my years of reading about the Vietnam War, I can’t recall any other American reporter ever asking any Vietnamese that same question of Critchfield’s. I rather doubt that any American military officer, USAID worker, or diplomat ever asked that question at any time during the war. Maybe some NCOs in the Army did. Maybe.
And I can’t recall any US reporter with snap and wit enough to ever ask any Afghan or Iraqi official that same question: What do you need and how can we help you? If they had they most certainly would have received the same answer as PM Huong gave Critchfield in 1965.
Once again, Americans ignore that our butcher’s bill in both these wars is a fraction of our much less populous allies’. Except that this time there is never any word of Afghan or Iraqi military casualties in US war reports in our media. Our total lack of interest in “the natives” is worse now in our globalized today than it was in our provincial yesterday.
Fifty years after Vietnam the US is still treating our “allies” as third-world primitives. US reporters, politicians, academics, and moral leaders are just as blind to it this time around as they were then. They are content with childish slogans and arguments about our inherent goodness. Nguyen Cao Ky was right when he said that Americans are like big children. We have a child’s self-centered view of ourselves, a child’s disregard for actions and their consequences to others, and we embrace childish rationalizations and arguments.
Our wars abroad are all about us and our plans and wishes. They aren’t at all for the benefit of the host country and its peoples. That makes us either an empire or a bunch of criminal lunatics.
What it most certainly doesn’t make us is an umpire.
*The young ARVN trooper had been a student from a coastal village, youngest of three brothers. Both of his brothers had already been drafted into the ARVN and killed before he was drafted. Unlike the US draft, there were no sole surviving son deferrals for the ARVN draft.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.