Tom Engelhardt

A Cloud of Imperial Hubris

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.

A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.

We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall.  (more…)

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Democracy at Home, Imperialism Abroad

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“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, oil on canvas, 1940. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, as it relates to the military and war, specifies that:

The Congress shall have power To . . . provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States (Clause 1);

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water (Clause 11);

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years (Clause 12);

To provide and maintain a Navy (Clause 13);

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces (Clause 14);

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions (Clause 15);

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States . . . (Clause 16).

In short, the elected representatives of the people in Congress are constitutionally empowered on military matters and warfare, including the declaration of war. (more…)

Our Undemocratic War Machine

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Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)

A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.

A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.

A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”

Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace.  “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.”  (more…)

Escape

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The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”

We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”

Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017

 

I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)

Failed Empire

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(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

Imperial Decline

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“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…)

Trump and the Trickster

Donald Trump Laconia Rally, Laconia, NH on July 16, 2015. (Credit:  Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump Laconia Rally, Laconia, NH on July 16, 2015. (Credit: Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

The attitude of war is so deeply ingrained in US political culture that rhetorical combativeness itself is considered to be praiseworthy. Donald Trump is an icon of combativeness. His run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is downright militaristic. He boasts that he is the “most militaristic guy ever.” To back it up, he labels China an “enemy,” who is “destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future,” and he professes his love for America by saying that “when you love something, you protect it passionately—fiercely, even.”

War culture has progressed to the point, as Tom Engelhardt notes, that there is no longer a significant American antiwar movement. It has been demobilized in the endless war on terrorism: “Since 9/11, this country has engaged in a military-first foreign policy across much of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, launching an unending string of failed wars, conflicts, raids, kidnappings, acts of torture, and drone assassination programs.” The war state has been privatized, the general public has been removed from the actual fighting, and the citizenry has been reduced to a “surveilled and protected populace.” Americans, who have been “inoculated . . . against serious protest,” are content to tune in to a spectacle of slaughter. “Don’t consider it a fluke,” Engelhardt says, “that the war culture hero of the period—on the bestseller lists and in Hollywood—was an American sniper.” (more…)

Too Bad to be True

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

One nasty attribute of U.S. exceptionalism in this era of perpetual war is the endless exemptions America gives itself from the constraints of international law.

As historian Alfred McCoy observes, the U.S. routinely defies the very rules it helped to write for an international community of nations governed by law. The sum of exceptions includes “endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy.” Why do Americans so seldom perceive this lawbreaking record as jarring and disconcerting? (more…)

Prosaic Empire

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background.  DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Tom Englehardt is a persistent and perceptive critic of the war state. He closely monitors its operation and vigilantly critiques its rationalizations. His well-informed insights pierce the stupor of U.S. militarism.

So what does Englehardt mean when he writes about “Washington’s Walking Dead”?

He means: “when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now”; “there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war”; constant “chatter” about “security, safety, intelligence, and war” reveal why the nation’s capital is a “dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.”

A lack of political imagination is discernible in the stale language of American empire. Facile and prosaic discourse signals a condition of decline in the curve of history. (more…)

A Veteran’s Reflection

Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo, released by Photography Plus.  (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE)

Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo, released by Photography Plus. (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE)

The ethos of the nation—its character, guiding beliefs, and moral sentiments—is deeply invested in the persona of the soldier. This is especially true of the United States today. The soldier signifies patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and faith in the nation’s sacred mission.

Public rituals in support of the troops are abundant. They permeate popular culture and political discourse. The uniformed soldier is routinely featured at sporting events large and small. Military induction ceremonies are performed at half time. The president’s annual state-of-the-union speech spotlights military heroes. We are reconstituted as a people in the image of the warrior on such occasions. We become one people in mind and spirit. (more…)