imperialism

Imperialitis

1024px-Black_Hawk_flying_over_a_valley_in_Bamyan

A UH-60 Black Hawk flies over the Bamyan River Valley, 24 June 2012. (Credit: U.S. Army)

“It’s the same forever war.”

Doug Ollivant, Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation

Mr. Trump’s hedge in his August 21, 2017 speech on Afghanistan was to sustain an interminable war, choosing neither to quit the war nor win it in the foreseeable future.  He did say, “in the end, we will win,” but he offered no timetable.  His definition of victory was rendered in the verb form of the gerund—“attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”—which expresses a continuous, uncompleted action.  His generals advised him there were no feasible options other than holding the line by sending a few thousand more troops to sustain the stalemated war until the Taliban eventually decide they have more to gain from negotiation than armed struggle.  Even that, Mr. Trump allowed, might not happen:  “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when or if that will ever happen.”  Mr. Trump’s new strategy is not “time based.”  It is timeless.

In short, there is no foreseeable military solution; the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense of the word; the immediate choice is between losing and not losing.  So, Mr. Trump opts to sustain the stalemate, or as one anonymous US military official puts it, “to chart a way forward well into the 2020s.”  A way forward does not mean a path to victory.  It means more of the same.

(more…)

Advertisements

Trump’s Imperial Angst

RomulusAugustus

Portrait of Romulus Augustus on extremely rare currency, a golden tremissis (1.5g) struck in Rome between October 475 and September 476. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump’s July 6th speech in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square is a rhetorical hodgepodge of imperial angst. I won’t summarize the speech. I suggest instead either reading or watching it in full. It gets mixed reviews, largely split in the US along partisan lines.

The speech expresses an anxious mindset. It is a flailing gesture of resentment. Whether or not the gesture represents Trump’s mindset is hard to know. He has his own agenda. He may or may not believe all or part of what he says, but what he says now is consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, and what he said on the campaign trail channeled the anxieties of enough voters to get him elected. (more…)

Trump’s Prophetic Trope

Apocalypse_vasnetsov

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We have used the symbol of apocalypse at Hunt the Devil to frame the political ascendency of Donald Trump in mythic terms. It is a rich and resonant symbol, a metaphor with multiple entailments, both religious and secular, each entangled with the others. Its mythos is relevant to interpreting the crisis of US empire that is reflected in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

The imperial presidency itself is a metaphorical precursor of the Trump phenomenon, a term for excessive executive power, which gained popularity in the 1960s and found voice in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book by that title. The power of the presidency exceeded its constitutional limits consistent with the transformation of the republic into an empire. With empire came war culture and the normalization of continuous warfare. (more…)

Myths and the Empire

Lincoln_Speaks_to_Freedmen_on_the_Steps_of_the_Capital_at_Richmond

“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Imperial Decline

William_Merritt_Chase_Keying_up

“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.

Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.

In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (more…)

Language and Empire

Mosaic_depicting_theatrical_masks_of_Tragedy_and_Comedy,_2nd_century_AD,_from_Rome_Thermae_Decianae_(-),_Palazzo_Nuovo,_Capitoline_Museums_(12830396085)

Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums. (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Whether one denies, embraces, or laments American imperialism, there is a motive for empire that typically goes unnoticed—the propensity of language for expansion and dominion. I don’t mean simply the globalization of English as the language of enterprise. I mean there is an underlying characteristic of language as a medium of thought and motivation that Kenneth Burke calls the principle of perfection.

The language we use to make sense of the world—to articulate a guiding perspective on reality—has its own dynamic and directionality. It prompts us to track down and round out the implications of its preferred terminology, to actualize its full potential to assign meaning and impose order on the world. (more…)

Deciphering American Empire: #3

Statue_Nemesis_Louvre_Ma4873

Nemesis, statue dedicated by Ptollanubis. Marble, found in Egypt, 2nd century AD. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

“Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” So ends Chalmers Johnson’s prophetic appraisal of imperial America, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p. 312.

Rome is the archetype of America’s imperial hubris, a recycled mythos pursued at the cost of the republic and unending military engagements around the globe.

Language obfuscates America’s imperial project. As Johnson observes, the new Rome represents itself, if at all, as a good, liberal or informal empire instead of “a military juggernaut intent on world domination” (p. 4). The “euphemisms required to justify imperialism” include “lone superpower,” “indispensable nation,” “reluctant sheriff,” “humanitarian intervention,” and “globalization” (pp. 13, 284).

Of course, even a liberal empire is not necessarily a good one, if there is such a thing. (more…)

Deciphering American Empire: #2

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)

A map of the world in 1886, by Walter Crane. Areas under British control are highlighted in red. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Niall Ferguson, born and raised in Scotland, is a conservative British historian and Harvard University professor, who is leaving this year to join the faculty of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. His writing about war, economics, imperialism, and civilization are provocative, well publicized, and politically engaged.

Ferguson advocates, and wishes to rehabilitate, US imperialism by getting Americans to acknowledge and embrace it. The problem, he argues, is that the US suffers from imperial denial. (more…)

Deciphering American Empire: #1

Statue-Augustus

“Augustus of Prima Porta” by unknown artist, circa 1st century. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:2 Holy Bible NRSV)

To imagine life after empire is to presume the current condition of imperialism, US imperialism.

American empire. What does it mean? Is it true or false? Is it a mark of pride or a sign of shame?

Let’s start from the assumption that the American citizenry is generally inclined to deny the fact of US imperialism or at least to resist the legitimacy of the label. It just doesn’t fit well with the nation’s self image. It sounds like a false indictment in mythic America.

Whereas the idea of imperialism suggests militarism and warfare as a way of life, mythic America promotes peace, not war. It fights defensive wars, not wars of aggression. It is an exceptional nation, a model of virtue, a country devoted to freedom and democratic ideals, a people with a special calling. (more…)

Ending Endless War?

U.S. Army vehicles in Afghanistan. (Credit:  U.S. Army)

U.S. Army vehicles in Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Has the regime of continuous warfare finally run its course?

Scanning recent commentary on US military engagements, I noted an emerging sense of America as a wandering empire, meandering from one engagement to the next and back again, as if it lacked an agenda for militarism other than war for war’s sake. Perhaps US imperialism is a spent project and the time has arrived to consider a different way of engaging the world?

The editors of The Nation raised a version of this question when they asked, “What’s wrong with Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan”? Their answer—that those troops are propping up an unpopular government’s tenuous grip on power—prompted them to conclude that Congress’ post-9/11 “blank check for endless war” has left the US and its military forces lacking a strategy other than “eternal conflict, which has only fueled regional chaos, provoked more terrorism, and led to a catastrophic refugee crisis. It is time for an end to endless war.” (more…)