Part III: Empire

US Empire

Peter Van Buren

Peter is a 24 year veteran as a State Department diplomat and ended his service as leading an FOB ( forward operating base) during the Iraq war. The base was used to establish an American presence to spend millions on Iraqi community support. – Ed.

In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.

The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?

4 thoughts on “Part III: Empire

  1. It must be more than a little galling for the people of Cuba to see their entire island colored to indicate US military presence, whereas this is confined to Gitmo, of course. And what’s that little pocket of resistance to Imperialism on the Pacific Coast of S. America?? I imagine that’s Ecuador, which I understand recently finally granted asylum to Julian Assange. “Only” problem being getting him out of the embassy in London and safely to the asylum-granting nation. !Viva senor Assange!

    • A small correction, Greg: Ecuador has already granted asylum to Julian Assange. Recently they went a step further and granted him Ecuadorian citizenship. Now, if Ecuador goes even further and grants him diplomatic status, then that could set up a real test of whether “great” Britain truly intends to violate international law and diplomatic custom — any more than they already have — by arresting him should he leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Letting Julian Assange leave England and travel to Ecuador would save the British taxpayers a ton of money and bad publicity, but the United States could just force down any plane carrying him, as the U.S. did to a plane carrying the Bolivian president (and mistakenly thought to carry Edward Snowden). As George Orwell wrote in 1984: “In Oceania there is no law.” And by Oceania, he meant the United States and “Airstrip One,” formerly known as England.

      Speaking of George Orwell and his views on the subject of press censorship, in a famous essay entitled “The Prevention of Literature” (1946) Orwell told of attending a meeting of writers called by the P.E.N. Club to celebrate the tercentenary (three hundred year anniversary) of John Milton’s Areopagitica, “a pamphlet, it may be remembered, in defence of freedom of the press.” As Orwell observed:

      “Out of this concourse of several hundred people, perhaps half of whom were directly connected with the writing trade, there was not a single one who could point out that freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose. Significantly, no speaker quoted from the pamphlet which was ostensibly being commemorated. Nor was there any mention of the various books which have been ‘killed’ in England and the United States during the war. In its net effect the meeting was a demonstration in favor of censorship.”

      The hysterical attempts at press (and intellectual) censorship now running amok in both the United States and England gives Orwell’s essay — if not John Milton’s — a fresh immediacy. In Milton’s day, a standardized spelling of English had not taken root, so writers spelled their words any way they chose. This makes a contemporary reading of Milton’s pamphlet difficult, although not impossible. The words — if one pronounces them out aloud — pretty much conform to what one would hear today if Milton stood beside Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London and declared:

      Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours: a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, suttle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to. … The glory of reforming all our neighbours had bin compleatly ours. But now, as our obdurat Clergy have with violence demean’d the matter, we are become hitherto the latest and backwardest Schollers, of whom God offer’d to have made us the teachers.

      If George Orwell and John Milton lived today, as indeed they do through the immortal words and phrases that they constructed and published for our eternal edification — then I have no doubt that they would defend the freedom of Julian Assange and Wikileaks to print whatever they will, trusting that a free, open and discerning public will judge what seems true to them and what doesn’t. Most of all, though, I think that both George Orwell and John Milton would concur with and appreciate what the American scientist/logician/philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote at the end of his famous essay “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15.

      But, above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.”

      “Yes, the other methods [of fixing belief] do have their merits: a clear logical conscience does cost something — just as any virtue, just as all that we cherish, costs us dear. But we should not desire it to be otherwise. The genius of a man’s logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride, whom he has chosen from all the world. He need not condemn the others; on the contrary, he may honor them deeply, and in doing so he only honors her the more. But she is the one that he has chosen, and he knows that he was right in making that choice. And having made it, he will work and fight for her, and will not complain that there are blows to take, hoping that there may be as many and as hard to give, and will strive to be a worthy champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and his courage.

      To which John Milton would no-doubt add:

      Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

      Are American citizens and British subjects such children or cowards that they will submit — willing and docile — to having their every thought and opinion selected and handed down to them by self-serving bureaucrats, geriatric generals, racist apartheid foreigners, and sycophant media scribes, all in the pay of a global corporate oligarchy terrified of nothing so much as individual freedom and the universal rights of all humankind?

      And we, the English speaking inheritors of Orwell and Milton must now look to tiny, Spanish-speaking Ecuador for the protection of Truth in the person of Julian Assange who only wants us to know, see, and judge for ourselves?

  2. Orwell’s insight into the fragility of democracy based on his experience in WW II working in the British office of war “information” fueled his understanding of how people are mislead by their governments. Our own H.L. Mencken put it more succinctly in observing American political democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses”. The 40% of our citizens that polling shows still support Trump proves Mencken assessment isn’t too far off.

    • No, Mencken–sad to say–was not off the mark at all. And if he was alive today? He might blow his brains out in despair at what passes for an “informed public” in “the Greatest Nation in the History of the World.” And I’m afraid an honest answer to Mike Murry’s rhetorical question is, “Yes, we have devolved into a nation of children in adult bodies and moral/intellectual cowards.” Would that I could offer a solution!!

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