The Look of Empire


U.S. Marine Corps Marines, from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, International Security Assistance Force, operate at Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 29, 2008, during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alex C. Guerra) (Released)

The myth of American innocence and virtue forecloses any question about US imperialism or, at least, makes it hard to imagine that we are perpetrating harm on others for our own purposes and to our own advantage. We may be flawed, but the responsibility has fallen to us to fend off the barbarians and advance the cause of civilization. So the myth insists.

At a relatively abstract level, empire may not seem an obviously appropriate label for US engagement in world affairs. The idea of dominating extensive territories and peoples is unpalatable to most Americans and inconsistent with the nation’s self-image, as I’ve discussed in a previous post. So the myth persists.

Seen in more concrete terms, US imperialism is harder to ignore, to explain away, but also harder to confront. One response when confronted with the record of US imperialism and militarism is reflection-acknowledgement-correction. Another option is denial-repression-projection. So the myth resists.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin, who served as a US Marine lieutenant in Afghanistan, has shared his “ghastly revelations” about the reality of American empire, an awareness visited upon him by his military experience. “We were supposed to be a nation of builders, culturally sensitive agents of humanitarian intervention, winners of hearts and minds,” he wrote, but “we were nothing of the sort.” The lesson he drew from his military misadventures is that “the war is the society and the society is the war, and one who sees that war sees America.”

The look of US empire is brutal. For Rubin, “the empire is rooted in the barbarism it pretends to oppose.” The record of imperial barbarism—foreign and domestic—he recounts as follows:

[T]hat the majority of the US official adversaries were once clients and allies. That almost every intervention comes with an ex post facto assessment from the government acknowledging the failure of the mission. That investigative reporters and historians almost always unearth internal documents betraying motives that not only run counter to public rationales but undermine all claims to humanitarian intent. That the US supplies the world with a preponderance of its weapons and fuels a plurality of its animosities. That the US is the only power to have ever dropped the bomb, that it did so twice, and that it did so not to end a world war (a war that was about to end anyway) but to launch what became a half-century-long cold war on superior footing. While not alone as a global malefactor, the US is the world leader in conventional foreign invasions since 1945, with 12; has engineered at least 38 coups or regime changes since the Spanish-American war of 1898; and has offered direct military support and training to dozens of governments with no regard for human rights. The US incarcerates the most people today, both in absolute and relative terms. It has incarcerated the most people for at least 30-odd years, and it either led the world in its incarceration rate or trailed closely behind the Soviet Union and South Africa for the preceding decades. As early as 1976, one study described America’s rate as the “highest in the world and still rising.” By any standard, the US empire ranks among the world’s most formidable producers of violence, and one would be hard-pressed to defend such all-consuming production on liberal democratic grounds.

Rubin wishes we could see what he saw, “really see it” for what it is. Looking into the mirror he holds before us and really seeing our own savagery would be a truly shocking experience. It was a jolting, radicalizing moment for Rubin—one of alienation, guilt, depression, panic, a sense of isolation “akin to biblical doom” that drove him initially to use psychedelic drugs. And then he publicly violated the taboo against questioning the justice and necessity of America’s “profitable obsession with war.”

It is painful to see, but dangerous to ignore, the tribulations of our own imperialism, such as the hell we have helped to create in Central America, observes Julian Borger, The Guardian’s world affairs editor. Migrants in droves desperately trying to cross the US border illegally are fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—violence and poverty caused largely by destabilizing US interventions that were “motivated by profit or ideology or both.”

We backed a Guatemalan military that killed an estimated 200,000 indigenous peoples in the latter half of the 20th century, and we continued to donate military equipment to corrupt politicians there. The legacy of training and funding rightwing death squads in El Salvador during the Reagan years is a massively militarized society that suffers a scourge of gangs, such as MS-13, formed in Los Angeles and introduced in El Salvador when their members were deported from the US. Our government was complicit in a military coup that overthrew the reformist president of Honduras in 2009. Within a year, military violence, organized crime, and a soaring murder rate turned Honduras into the world’s most violent country not engaged in a war. Our president lauded the reelection of the current president of Honduras who used his militarized police force to violently suppress political opponents.

Yes, there is more to the story, but the point remains. Rather than helping these Central American countries to overcome a history of poverty and violence, we have exacerbated the problem for our own imperial purposes. The blowback from our foreign policy is there to see if only we will look, really look at it, seeing it for what it is.

Once we see our own imperialism, the test of our democratic character will be to confront the myth of American innocence and to make a course correction.



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