Tourists of Empire

On the road again ...
On the road again …

W.J. Astore

I recently received an update from the National Priorities Project reminding me of this startling fact:

“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”

Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year).  U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones.  This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism.  All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units).  The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans.  For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.

I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today.  You can read it in full here.  I’ve included some excerpts below.  I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.

Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism

W.J. Astore.  Courtesy of TomDispatch.com.

The United States is a peculiar sort of empire.  As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before.  Empire — us?  We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago.  Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology.  In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers.  There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.

Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted.  As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.  Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…

Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic.  To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while).  If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).

And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end.  In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.

The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won.  Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They miss the point.  Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary.  If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …

It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught.  Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay.  The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.”  For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down.  It was home.  They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.

Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat.  And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands.  Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones.  There’s often a new one every year.  (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area.  Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…

At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed.  That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics.  It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us).  Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.

But foreign lands and peoples?  We can’t control them.  We don’t understand them.  We can’t count on them.  They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy.  What they aren’t is truly real.  They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.

And that is precisely why we fail.

6 thoughts on “Tourists of Empire

  1. While in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer and later in the U.S. Refugee Program I met through a friend, who was also a veteran of the Vietnam War, two defense department contractors or civilian employees who were in Thailand for two or three weeks to repair and service “listening posts” in the country. They stayed at an expensive hotel, rented great motorcycles that they used to get to their assignments and they were clueless about the country they were in. They were contented technical specialists traveling the globe being “tourists of empire” on per diem. Congress has authorized spending on this and our wars ensuring that defense is beyond expensive. At point does government derail and curtail freedom at home to defend us ineptly and recklessly?

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  2. Bill Astore–I read the entire article at TomDispatch. Very good, on the whole. But I detect a certain longing for the US military to be able to succeed in their Imperial missions–a vestige of your own 20-year career as a Commissioned Officer, no doubt. On Vietnam: had the US been able to push the ARVN (“Army of the ‘Republic of South Viet Nam'”–a fictitious entity, of course) into attaining a stalemate with the liberation forces, I feel a Korea-style indefinite occupation of the southern part of the country would have been deemed acceptable. For Imperial hubris doesn’t allow admission of defeat.

    Yes, “Afghanistan!” In ten more years, will a new Norman Mailer have to issue a book asking “Why Are We STILL In Afghanistan?” Ten years from now, the opium poppies will still be abundant, we have to assume, and that rugged territory will still provide passage for pipelines for crude oil or natural gas. (And if significant fossil fuel resources are located actually beneath Afghani soil, “god help” those folks! Imperial interest in their turf would triple overnight.) These must be the real motivating factors for the US Empire’s interest in that “godforsaken” land that has foiled every other invading nation’s attempt to occupy and HOLD territory. Doubtless a significant reason for rotation of units is that it provides opportunities for (hoped-for) career advancement for commanders. Always room for additional campaign ribbons and citations on the ol’ uniform chest, right? And for the most gung-ho grunts, a chance to “git some”–some designated Bad Guys in their rifle sights. (Do drone operators, sitting in an airconditioned office thousands of miles away, qualify for medals based on number of kills? Hmm, there’s an interesting question. If one of them cuts a finger on a paper clip, does he/she qualify for a Purple Heart?) I say let Afghanistan continue to be the Burial Ground for Empires. I oppose US meddling anywhere on the planet.

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    1. Hi Greg: No — no longing from me for our imperial “adventures” to succeed. Like you, I wish our country would smarten up and stop. But it seems we truly have a WAR department, not a defense department.

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    2. I seem to remember reading somewhere a quote by Adolph Hitler to the effect that, “Wherever the German soldier plants his boot, there he must remain.” Along the same lines, I once asked a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the U.S. and France why his government turned down the U.S. military’s offer of assistance with the Tamil insurgency then raging in his country. His succinct reply:

      “If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

      Which got me to thinking about my own experiences trying to “Vietnamize” the Vietnamese for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger … which led to thoughts about Deputy Dubya Bush and Dick Cheney launching another interminable American crusade in the middle east … which led to:

      Boobie Counter Insurgency
      (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

      If offered help you’d best refuse
      For if you should relent
      They’ll draw an arbitrary line
      Through problems transient
      And complicate them all so as
      To make them permanent

      They’d like to spend a “night,” they say
      To get inside the door
      But after years you’ll find them fast
      Asleep upon your floor
      In no apparent haste to end
      Their stay that you abhor

      Like suitors of Penelope
      They make themselves at home
      In yours – till you will marry them
      Or read to them a tome
      That ends when brave Ulysses comes
      From back across the foam

      They start with talking of a “race”
      But just as a pretense
      Once underway, the “journey” talk
      Begins to change the sense:
      “Accomplished” missions leading to
      No perfect in their tense

      A hanging concentrates the mind;
      No hangings, the reverse
      When no one hangs for screwing up
      Results become perverse
      Rewards buy more incompetence
      And gild the golden purse

      Incompetents attract their ilk
      They know no other kind
      And so they concentrate like sludge
      A residue refined
      To gum up all the moving parts
      And leave them in a bind

      The Law of Parkinson explains
      Bureaucracy’s demands
      Just make more room to make more work
      For still more willing hands
      There’s room enough for everyone
      When all the yeast expands

      The Peter Principle sets in
      And all float to the top
      The good get out; the bad stay on:
      Promotion will not stop
      It doesn’t matter what they do,
      Or how they fail and flop

      “You fuck up then you move up” goes
      The slogan of the day
      American philosophy
      For how to make some hay
      Insurgencies have payrolls that
      Would tempt a Kenneth Lay

      To “counter” the insurgency
      You first put on your crown
      And then “elect” your puppets till
      You start to spiral down
      To end up with the worst of all:
      George Bush and Michael Brown

      Great nations, so the saying goes,
      Cannot fight little wars
      It just makes them look little
      Like the whores that staff the bars:
      Those widowed native women folk
      Whose men died for our cars

      We had to have the oil, it seems,
      To make our gas and fuel
      No matter that the price has soared
      While Halliburton gruel
      Fed to the troops to keep them fit
      Has made them mean and cruel

      But when a bloated, idle firm
      Has little real to do
      It either lays employees off
      Or makes a pooch to screw
      Then buys up some screwdriver stock
      With options for a few

      And then consultants come to call
      To market mantras cool:
      Some jaundiced, jaded, jargon jive
      To mesmerize the fool
      Which Dick and Don have taught to George
      To make of him a tool

      The trophy chief executive
      Requires the use of sound
      A propaganda catapult,
      Some noise he needs to pound
      He doesn’t have to know “above”
      From “under” or “around”

      Deciding to decide he picks
      Decision as his guide
      He chooses choices chosen for
      The options that they hide
      He puts them “on the table” then
      Onto the floor they slide

      He turns both tides and corners and
      He chews gum as he walks
      Then chokes and stumbles, yanked by strings,
      As his bad puppet balks
      Refusing to “eliminate”
      The “enemy” he stalks

      Technology will save the day
      Or so we have been told
      Our vastly overpriced machine
      Will keep away the cold
      Although “insurgents” wreck it with
      “Improvisation” bold

      The war to have more war again
      Has made war without end:
      Careers for all the supple ones
      Whose rubber ethics bend
      Until their “honor” turns to rust:
      A blood-stain’s reddish blend

      But why not send some campaign staff?
      Those smarmy puerile jerks
      Who masturbate to thoughts of “war”
      With all its rank and perks
      Who find “good bidness” where it “is”
      And who cares if it works?

      They’ll camp inside the castle walls
      Some hamburgers to munch
      And never go outside the wire
      To brave the deadly crunch
      While talking tough about Tehran
      Where they’d be someone’s lunch

      The days and weeks and months go by
      With more excuses still
      For why the costs keep rising while
      The “enemy” we kill
      But, What the hell? It’s free-lunch war!
      The kids will pay the bill

      Americans can talk a fight
      Until the buildings fall
      They then attack the innocent
      And squawk a shrieking squall
      Producing only years of talk
      To cover for it all

      So “Hell is on the way,” alright,
      Dick Cheney’s vow fulfilled
      They fell asleep on watch and got
      Three thousand of us killed
      Then ran off half a world away
      To have some oil wells drilled

      In only six more months of this
      The numbers will accrue
      To show we’ve lost three thousand more
      With no apparent clue
      Explaining why we’ve spent more time
      Than fighting World War Two

      We used to have great enemies
      But now we’ve only small
      We shot a cannon at a wasp
      Collapsing hive and hall
      And now upon our bee-stung ass
      The insects swarm and crawl

      We’ve bought another cannon, though,
      Because it makes more bang
      And generates huge profits for
      The ones who hire the gang
      Who, when the sand gets in the gears,
      Ignore the clunk and clang

      The blowback, though, comes round in time;
      No one has yet escaped.
      Vietnamized; Iraqified;
      Corrupted by the raped,
      The “victors” thus are vanquished by
      The monkeys that they aped.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

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