Our Disneyland Approach to Empire

Iraqi theme park?Remember in 2011 after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and Disney wanted to trademark the unit’s name for a collection of toys and games and miscellanea?

It’s one of those blips on our collective cultural radar that seems insignificant, yet it points to our tendency to see war and empire as a game, as a form of entertainment, as a product.

This attitude is not confined to corporations like Disney.  Consider this telling passage from Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which discusses the potential attractions to service in places like Afghanistan:

“It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself.  Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”

Our tendency to view foreign lands and peoples as an opportunity for adventure and escape is hardly new, of course.  But it certainly says something about our failure to understand and confront the severity of the challenges once we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Recall President George W. Bush’s weirdly wistful comment in 2008 about Afghanistan being a sort of Wild West, a romantic adventure, a place of excitement and danger.  Bush said he envied our troops and their opportunity for Afghan romance.

I wonder why as a young buck he didn’t go to Vietnam in the 1960s for romance and danger.  And I gather he’d never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s take on the pleasures awaiting the young British soldier on the Afghan plains:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen! 

It was said about the British that they acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness.  Did we acquire our empire in a fit of pure escapism?

Wanton and wasteful imperial entanglements are only accelerating our national decline.  Yet we continue to treat foreign lands as a sort of Disney theme park.   Troops smile and pose under Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords (at least they used to) or in front of Predator drones and other exotic weaponry.  Everything overseas is a photo op and an opportunity to win a trophy (or a medal).

But even as we seek “romance” and “danger” in foreign lands, a place “to reinvent ourselves,” we paradoxically bring with us all the trappings of consumerist America, hence our steroidal bases with all the conveniences of home (well, in Muslim lands, maybe not liquor, at least openly).

And when we get fed up with the natives and roughing it, we know we can just leave.

But if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that the price of admission is far too high.  We should keep our theme parks and our fantasies where they belong: right here in America.

W.J. Astore

10 thoughts on “Our Disneyland Approach to Empire

  1. Very good, Bill! Just a few observations: 1.) One US soldier apparently “reinvented” himself into a coldblooded murderer of 16 Afghan civilians (shades of Vietnam); 2.) US aggression overseas is motivated by economic/seizure of resources considerations, not “escapism”; 3.) the US learned NOTHING from its “adventure” in Vietnam, and I doubt it is learning anything from Iraq (my, what a stable regime was installed over there, eh? 60 terrorist bomb victims in a single day seems to be growing common) or Afghanistan.


    1. Thanks, Greg. Yes, imperialism is motivated by greed — economics and resources. But there are other motivations too, less tangible ones, or less quantifiable. This connects to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” There are yearnings, emotions, desires, some good, some very dark indeed. Men are looking for purpose, meaning, adventure; or they’re looking for a playground to activate their inner daemons (or demons). A little like that 1973 sci-fi movie “Westworld.” Let’s have fun and act out our fantasies. They’re just robots, right?


  2. The Democratic Party decided in 2001 that they would enthusiastically sign on to war making as a priority. They frantically did not want to be left behind for the festivities. No longer would they be the party of peace but a hanger on to the war party. Obama has continued this follower ship with steroids leaving a devastating legacy of mentally and physically destroyed American ‘ heroes” and a trail of displaced, dead, and destroyed societies. I contrast this with what we suffered through in WW II. In three years we defeated the vast land and sea armies of three nations and those of us who were in that army only wanted to go home. I never heard the word “patriotism” uttered. “Heroes” were for the bond drives to finance the war. We were attacked and we had to do it. It wasn’t to get oil, or manganese, etc. It wasn’t a game for our politicians to have a cause to stay in D.C. on the government payroll. It wasn’t Disneyland, it was a harsh, unpleasant, but absolutely necessary unpleasant consequence.
    b. traven


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