Sunday, May 15, 2005


Last Empire

[The following essay is part of a collection titled Four Essays on War, and is included in the book War of Ideas.]


A colleague of mine once remarked that only thugs can pull off a revolution. Crude, but poignant.

The essential point alluded to is that no matter how nostalgic people are about notions of justice, one ugly fact of history repeatedly intrudes into our consciousness: brute force is determinant. The spirit of solidarity, the imagination of visionaries, the hope of idealists clinging to shoals of refuge—those moments in time and space when privilege and hegemony toss tidbits to the powerless—is swept away by the inevitable floods of violent self-interest and moral fraud perpetrated by transnational criminal networks under the rubric of Free Trade. The exercise of civic duty and moral suasion is but prelude to war.

Author Sherman Alexie, in Indian Killer, writes that Native Americans knew early on their only hope was to kill all the whites, but that they simply didn’t have the heart for it. I also recall a television documentary on the Jewish anti-Nazi uprising in Warsaw, where a surviving member of the ghetto resistance--asked by a journalist if they had lamented their dismal recruiting success--responded in astonishment, that given the circumstances, they were amazed there were forty-five of them.

Based on historical observation and my own experience, I can only speculate that the more belligerent the usurpers and the greater their threats, the more compliant the populace. Victims do indeed occasionally explode in acts of rage and indignation, but over time, the genetic disposition to resist seems to be weeded out. Cowering masses, even in democratic republics like the US, willingly concede ever more concentrated power to those determined to conquer.

Some argue the basis of the essential American conflict is the absence of spirituality; the terrible truth is that war is much easier to wage than peace. War is a task, propaganda and logistics--peace a process, a complex and difficult sorting of relationships and values. The accretion of right actions--painstakingly built by altruists and even adherents of enlightened self-interest who realize the advantage to the whole of cooperation over confrontation--is often obliterated at the whim of those who hold the deluded and dutiful in contempt. No wonder the bewilderment and paralysis of do-gooders when confronted by the storm troops of conservative elites and right-wing zealots. The dreamers are unprepared; it is their fatal flaw, their perpetual defect.

Peace advocates, war resisters, have every right to condemn atrocity and brutality. But they have no right to claim superiority for their piety. Protesting depravity and evil is not only an ineffective tactic, it is a silly strategy—weak in intellect, frivolous in consequence. Macchiavelli writes in The Prince, “...blunder ought never to be perpetrated to avoid war, because it is not to be avoided, but is only deferred to your disadvantage ...predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or force.” The illogic of ridicule and complaint, exercised with abandon by vanquished human rights crusaders, ignores the plain fact that they are irrelevant, that they are losers. Moral sanction is powerful when used strategically as part of the array of tools of psychological warfare, that is, as one facet of a coordinated plan executed to defeat an enemy. When used to the exclusion of a willingness and readiness to use violence, it is an empty threat.

In the Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is, we find the precepts that, “violence committed in the act of fighting for permitted [and]...Be active in duty without being attached to the result. Inaction is sinful.” Those self-insulated from battle confuse violence with hate, war with revenge. Their strategically-generated frustration leads them to anger, and, as we read further, “From anger delusion, from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost...One who is not in transcendental consciousness can have neither a controlled mind nor steady intelligence, without which there is no possibility of peace. How can there be happiness without peace?”

This seeming paradox is compounded in our permanent war economy. Peace of mind, however, is perhaps the only happiness attainable as we march toward our collective demise from pollution and plague. It is mean, though, to demand hope in return for dignity.

Much is made of the art of deception in garnering political power, and rightly so. But all rhetoric has an agenda; to say that public opinion is malleable is trite. The important question is: Is it irrelevant? No leaders dare say so—they need pockets to pick and spear-carriers to march against their adversaries. They need votes, although fewer than once thought.

True, vast sums are lavished on generating fear, hate, and revenge, but once consolidated, power pretty much has free hand. Popular ideology, whether produced by Shakespeare or the Pentagon, may be lethal amusement , but in the interests of empire, it is also tragic. The fact that it is also farce makes it no less so.

In the Art of War, we read, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Those who aren’t deceived are demoralized. Those who endure are marginalized. Those who prevail are destroyed.

Why does hopelessness paralyze? Does it matter whether mankind ends from microbial disaster, nuclear devastation, or solar exhaustion? Is not our foreboding inevitable? Why not live while we can? “God,” says Emerson, “will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” In his essay On Self-Reliance, he writes, “...truth is handsomer than the affectation of love...My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.”

“All history,” claims Emerson, “resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” “...The way, the thought, the good,” he writes, “shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience...Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy.”

Understanding how hopeless the world really is relieves one of obligation to folly. It also diminishes a warrior’s sometimes tortuous expectations of those who know how screwed up things are, yet shy from conflict. They will shun the virtuous and ignoble alike.

June Jordan, in On Call, tells us, “...I do not believe...Americans have accepted the status of pawns complicit in the crimes of a powerful few and that, accordingly, we can no longer strive to bear witness as a truly righteous people.” I cannot agree. Consent, maybe not, but certainly assent. And since when was this new? When were Americans a truly righteous people? When did they collectively sacrifice privilege for justice?

And what is righteous about bearing witness while shirking from bearing arms? Are we really superior to the Zapatistas, Lakota, or the ANC? The perils of piety are many.

“Dropped into a world,” writes Melville in Billy Budd, “against whose subtleties simple courage lacking experience...without any touch of defensive ugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence as man is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will.” I cannot help but reflect on the pathetic whining attendant the unchallenged return to power of the unpunished Iran-Contra felons and traitors under the heir’s tutelage. Smug, liberal arrogance toward this ruthless tyrant reveals the truly contemptible side of the well-mannered. Whether this behavior puzzles or amuses the Kennebunkport mafia, it certainly poses no threat.

It matters not that the delinquent son of an arms smuggler now squatting in the White House is the epitome of farce; he is unchallengeable without questioning American military and economic hegemony. Our culture of exploitation created him. The socially-constructed leadership that produced Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also produced W. America’s half-century, post-war debate, narrowed within the confines of arguing the degree of force to be used in subjugating the peoples of the planet to our will, is hardly the stuff of a truly righteous people.

It matters not, in the end, that the Pax Americana campaigns since 1948 were based on restricted debate, fabricated hysteria and false crisis; what matters, rather, is that the whole concept of equilibrium is an illusion—especially in domestic politics. Antagonistic ideologies do not exist in a vacuum; they must be acted out by real people. Elite conflict between managerialists and militarists over the means of imperialism may be adversarial, but it is hardly more than appeasement and accommodation—an ongoing adjustment in settling differences.

Linking human rights, environmental standards, and labor accords to Free Trade doctrine may be appealing bromides for pseudo activists, but more often they betray the liberal/conservative alliance—America’s "vast empire constituency," as author Jerry Sanders refers to them. Only militant coalition-grassroots mobilization willing to bloody and be bloodied can shake them loose. Amercentrism will not fade without a fight. America’s fifty-year crusade against non-alignment and self-determination is well-entrenched. “How deeply militarism is rooted in America’s political culture,” writes Sanders, “must rank as the most profound question of our time.”

Since the Truman administration, US elites have “settled on military force as the primary means of achieving national objectives in international politics.” Persuading corporate capitalists, business unionists, and merchants of fear—what Sanders terms Peddlers of Crisis—to abandon the “logic of merging international business and foreign policy,” involves a lot of wishful thinking. Where once, he continues, “Only an extraordinary atmosphere of crisis and a credible external threat could justify a departure from distrust of centralized power and excessive spending,” public trust no longer enters into it. The heirs to the ideological achievements of the promoters of East-West dualism can operate with impunity. Global stability is no longer an option.

Rabid imperialists in the Bush/Cheney administration, including several holdover Reagan era Cold Warriors like Rumsfeld and Perle, who--according to Richard Falk--..."fail to appreciate the significance of non-military forms of geopolitical power that arise from growing complexity and interdependence,” operate from a different point of departure than 1980s Committee on the Present Danger fanatics like UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick and AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. They understand the dominance exerted through international institutions like the WTO, IMF and World Bank; they simply find them irritating, unnecessarily burdensome, procedural mechanisms of empire, when more direct and profitable methods are available.

It helps to think of the militarists now running our country as pirates. They have no plan per se, other than looting whomever they can while they can. As they amply demonstrated under the tutelage of former CIA Director George Herbert Walker Bush, promoting instability through covert operations (mostly drug-running and arms-smuggling) is very profitable. And, these activities open up endless opportunities in the above world economy, especially energy. From there, it’s no great leap to exercising enormous political power and influence. Buy privatized state energy reserves? No problem. Bribe a U.S. Supreme Court Justice? No sweat. Mobilize the US treasury and military to steal what other nations won’t sell for next to nothing? Piece of cake.

To be sure, there are policy differences within the US elite. Former U.S. Secretaries of State Al Haig and Colin Powell may have been guardians of the status quo, but they weren't crazy. Cheney and Rumsfeld are.

President Carter may have failed to translate the rhetoric of interdependence into a popular ideology, but he didn’t try very hard either. He couldn’t risk mobilizing the only popular base opposed to militarism—progressives who opposed imperialism of any kind. The Committee on the Present Danger took him off the hook; their relentless adversarial attacks, through well-oiled propaganda machines, bowled over Congress with much greater ease than they had under Truman. Assisting CPD in June 1976 was CIA Director Bush, who appointed a CPD team to analyze CIA data, which in the words of former CIA deputy director Herbert Scoville was, “dedicated to proving that the Russians are twenty feet tall.”

The contrived conclusions manufactured by Bush, Rumsfeld, and CPD undermined Carter and paved the way for twelve years of looting with abandon under Reagan/Bush. With the theft of the 2000 federal election and consolidation of their power in 2004, the militarist pirates are back at sea.

Unlike the peace movement, the militarist grassroots mobilization is well-funded, and consequently more active and effective. There appears to be no way out of this dilemma within the context of our vast empire constituency. Those who are left out or walk out lack resources to do anything about it. Our future is suggested by the model as it now unfolds around the world: societies will be bled dry and then bombed for complaining. Until recently, I imagined the 22nd century in the image of the movie Road Warrior. I’m not sure we’ll last that long.

Doctrine lends coherence to policy initiatives. Left in the hands of detractors or adversaries, as a result of ambivalence, equivocation or a defensive posture, populations will flock to what they perceive as certainty and security. As CPD intellectual Norman Podhoretz mused: “Our position makes more sense...the other position is arcane...[and] doesn’t answer to the way most people understand human nature...Common sense tells you there must be something to worry about...that’s where our public support lies.”

In the de-industrialized America of the 21st century, piracy admittedly holds some mass appeal. Nobody wants to go hungry. Sanders argues that the realization of a secure world “will depend upon the ability of the peace issue to make the transition from a cultural phenomenon that gains its identity from public opinion polls to a political force possessed of an agenda for social transformation.”

Perhaps the precipitous decline in US stature under Bush Two will embolden Congress. I doubt it. I rather expect a new world order to emerge from the ashes, like in Argentina, where people are self-organizing to meet their needs in the aftermath of malign market neglect. Or like in the former Soviet Union where the only market is black, and basic health has declined catastrophically in the last ten years. While I celebrate the hastened end of Pax Americana, I shudder at the thought of the coming plague.

--Jay Taber


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