Return to NORTHCOM
Return to NORTHCOM
The slew of letters our previous exchange about empire brought into the Tomdispatch e-box indicates that we're hardly the only ones with empire on the brain. Letter-writers, articulate and thoughtful, young and old, wanted to remind us that the U.S. had always been an empire; or that the real imperial thrust of the globe was corporate and/or consumerist (that, for instance, whatever happened to the Bush administration, KBR, the base-building, military-supporting wing of Halliburton, was already victorious); or that the Cold War itself may have been little but a cover for ongoing imperial politics ("Did the Cold War exist objectively, or was it a name for U.S. colonial foreign policy? Will the Cold War come to be seen as a minor episode in the multi-century history of colonialism?"), or a score of other things, almost all provocative, all reminding us that beyond the blathering, confusing torrent that is now our media, critical thought is still alive among our citizenry.
It seems perhaps less alive in
Alex Berenson and Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times recently quoted Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the First Battalion of the Fifth Cavalry in Najaf as saying ("Overwhelming Militiamen, Troops Push Closer to Shrine," Aug. 24), "We want to destroy the enemy, destroy his will, make him fight on our terms. Slowly but surely, we're achieving that." It's the sort of military statement that you could have found in any old history book of colonialism (or that could have come straight from
At the end of a startling three weeks of fierce resistance to the world's most powerfully armed military in Najaf, Baghdad's Sadr City, and elsewhere in southern Iraq by lightly armed, largely untrained, poor, unemployed Iraqi men and boys, perhaps the Shrine of Imam Ali will indeed fall to the Marines -- or to the battalion of recently trained but clearly reluctant Iraqi troops the Americans are threatening to shove into the breach so that infidels will not actually occupy the holy ground. (Do we believe that no one sees through this sort of transparent maneuver -- transparent at least anywhere other than in the
But should it really be so hard for Americans, who from the Alamo and the Little Big Horn to Pearl Harbor have such a tradition of mobilizing "last stands," of, in short, mythologized acts of national martyrdom, to grasp that such a (delayed) "victory" by the world's last superpower with its Apache helicopters, F-16s, and Predator drones, against desperate locals (local to Iraq, if not Najaf itself) can't be a victory for long, though -- to be thoroughly cynical -- perhaps it's only meant to be long-lasting enough for next week's Republican convention. Or perhaps the aging Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani will indeed ride to everyone's rescue.
On this I'm convinced, though -- whatever may once have been the case, the world is, as you argue, now ungovernable by these older imperial methods and the military-style thinking that goes with them (though whether there's a more effective, newer style of imperial governance, as so many readers suggested, that passes under the misnomer of "globalization" is another question entirely). In fact, I'm convinced that, from the global (nuclear) realm to the local (popular resistance) realm, the power to crush, even to threaten to crush, is an arrow that has somehow been removed from the imperial quiver (though the power to destroy grows ever greater).
Perhaps this was the true message that, during all those Cold War years, lay embedded in the superpower nuclear standoff that went by the all-too-appropriate initials of MAD (mutually assured destruction), and that remains no less operative in the supposedly "unipolar" world that has followed. In other words, as you've also argued, at both the Brobdingnagian and the Lilliputian levels -- at both the imperial head and the imperial feet -- a kind of ruling paralysis has set in for the last standing empire. There is, of course, irony in this, because if the Bush administration was intent on demonstrating anything, it was that the restraints once so much the essence of the Cold War superpower standoff had long ago fallen away and that the United States was capable of pursuing a path of global domination of its choosing without fear of contradiction, significant opposition, or possible defeat. It has, with remarkable success, demonstrated the opposite. As we see in the smashed Old City of Najaf, a power to destroy remains, but what seems beyond its grasp is ruling even a single other country in the style once so familiar to students of the British, French, Japanese, or German empires.
This is the imperial roadblock they've come up against in
The militarization of the United States, which started during World War II, accelerated in the 1950s with the creation of a "national security state" and Eisenhower's famed "military-industrial complex" (with its "revolving door" for employment between its military and industrial halves, and the artful scattering of military bases in congressional districts nationwide, not to speak of the artful seeding of funds and plants for the production of new weaponry hardly less widely).
By 1991, the interweaving of the Pentagon, vast weapons corporations, the military-funded academy, the intelligence agencies, lobbyists, and politicians who relied on all of the above had become so much the life of Washington and the nation that, when the Soviet empire collapsed in a remarkably peaceful fashion, there was no real hope that anyone in Washington would stop for a second to reconsider our way of war, much less offer the American public or the world a "peace dividend" of any sort. There is no greater evidence of how deeply our society had been Pentagonized than the continuing commitment to war and a vast nuclear arsenal in a world that briefly threatened (and that's the only word for it in this context) to lack all significant enemies.
What was striking though into the 1990s was how much of this had taken place out of sight of the ordinary citizen. It's what gave American militarism its distinctive form. In all those years when the Pentagon was creating militarized little
A tipping point, however, seemed to arrive in the younger Bush years under the rubric of the war on terror. The police have since been given a military once-over and it has become increasingly commonplace in cities like
Where once the world out there was divided into military "commands," with the setting up of a North American Command (NORTHCOM), we too are now included. Meanwhile, the Pentagon takes ever more gargantuan bites of our budget even though, other than small groups of fanatic opponents, we have no conceivable enemies capable of seriously threatening us; and both presidential candidates have no choice but to promise the military yet more money, more troops, more weapons, more of just about everything.
Here's a small sign of the times: In previous decades, as Pentagon budgets grew and its weaponry became ever more expensive and exotic, Congress, that constitutionally-mandated holder of the power of the purse, still attempted to exert some small oversight on at least the Pentagon's more egregious workings. This usually expressed itself in criticism of Pentagon pork (overpriced simple objects purchased by underwhelmed military officials) and useless weapons programs like the B-2 bomber that were repeatedly challenged in Congress but, like so many Draculas with a host of vampiric followers in innumerable congressional districts, simply refused to die. Such modest attempts to rein in the military were reflected in our press in periodic rounds of outraged articles about ridiculous weapons systems and ludicrous Pentagon purchases. These have, strikingly, largely disappeared from the media. I never thought I'd be nostalgic for those peripheral pieces of reportage about million-dollar monkey wrenches or toilet seats.
So, on the one hand you, Jonathan, argue that we have an unexpectedly constrained imperial world out there; on the other hand, constraints here in the "homeland" seem to be evaporating. What's left is a vast, sprawling, interlocking set of institutions, anchored in the uniform, intent on creating weapons of an ever more horrific sort to be tested in small wars elsewhere, and on garrisoning the globe. The growth of this strange, still only half-seen creature seems at the moment unstoppable. Like a cowbird baby in some smaller bird's nest, it has long outgrown the rest of the crowd and yet is still insistently demanding more food. Add into this mix in a not-so-distant post-Iraq world in which the finest military on the planet has suffered an incomprehensible defeat at the hands of groups of ragtag nobodies, an angry (not to speak of confused) officer corps; throw in the odd charge of betrayal (who lost Iraq?), sure to happen should there be a Kerry presidency, and you have a combustible mix here in these United States.
While the heft of the unelected Pentagon has grown beyond all bounds and probably for the foreseeable future (short of a staggering, unexpected upheaval) beyond all restraining control, there is another no less unbalancing phenomenon at work. Our democratic system seems to be rapidly growing ever feebler, ever more constrained, as the present billion-dollar presidential election is making all too clear. In fact, if you think for a moment about our most recent candidates for president, amid a nation of several hundred million souls, doesn't it tell you something that all of the last four elections and this year's as well will have been won by a candidate who attended Yale University. In two of them (1992 and 2004), both candidates attended Yale. Yalies include the Elder and Younger Bushes, Bill Clinton (
Narrowing it down further, the present election is being fought out not just by two very wealthy Yalies, but by two men who belonged to the same tiny, ultra-hush-hush secret society, Skull and Bones, while at Yale. Now, I'm not especially conspiracy-minded -- or rather, while I believe that our world may be riddled by conspiracies, I'm not much for conspiracy theorists who, I suspect, are the last to know -- but such an "only in America" candidate-selection system certainly implies a kind of bankruptcy from a democratic point of view.
The fragility of our republic can be felt no less in the anxious discussions of touch-screen voting fraud and election theft that have migrated from the Internet to the op-ed pages of our major papers. Here are words that once would have been used in describing some Third World country, but now are increasingly attached to discussions of ours: stolen election, coup d'Ã©tat, cabal, dynasty. Wouldn't it be a painful irony if, at the very moment when we were proven to be a failed military empire, in the "homeland" it was the republican parts of our system that were "paralyzed." What happens then, when the empire -- or simply the angry centurions -- return to NORTHCOM?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is a co-founder of the The American Empire Project and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture among other books.
Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt.]