God of our fathers, known of old —
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!
Certain species of tank fish have a horrifying habit, long the talk of school playgrounds: one fish will attempt to swallow another but be unable to complete the task, whereon the second fish will eat its way out the other side of the first. The event serves as a lesson to the young that nature is not only cruel, but macabre. It may equally serve as a motif for the current moment, for it is by now becoming clear that the Americans have bitten off more than they can chew in Iraq. Some day soon, some unlucky American soldier will be the one hundred and thirty-ninth to be killed by Iraqi guerrillas in the labyrinthine streets of Baghdad or Basra. At that point, more US soldiers will have died in combat after the ‘end’ of the Iraq war, than were killed during it. This is historically unprecedented — the only prior events remotely like it have been cases where occupying imperial armies have fallen victim to tropical diseases or the like. The Gulf War was seen by many as the first war that did not deserve the name, due to its one-sidedness. It could more readily be seen as the last in the series of colonial gunboat ‘wars’ that the European empires visited upon places such as Zanzibar. The Iraq war is the one which did not occur, and whose peace is lethal.
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart.
The Americans are now in a quandary. Guerrilla activity does not appear to have diminished with the execution raid on Saddam Hussein’s sons — and grandson — and may well escalate. It is silly to say, as some commentators have, that it is another Vietnam — yet. But it is on the continuum leading up to Vietnam, and may eventually be worse, given that the region is awash with cheap automatic weapons. The Vietcong had to wait for a comrade to fall before they could pick up his or her rifle. In the Middle East, a Kalashnikov is an impulse buy. The occupation is reportedly costing the US $4 billion a month, at a time when its economy is so sluggish that even lowering the interest rate to one per cent cannot stimulate it back to life. Then there is the absence of weapons of mass destruction — an issue that John Howard has imperiously declared the public to have ‘moved on from’. Doubtless this is true here, because there were no Australian casualties. In America it will return, as casualties accumulate and the reason for their deaths comes into question. The notion of saving people from tyranny is a lot more sellable when the casualties are in single or double figures.
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
The soldiers who are there are demoralised, and the re-enlistment rate is low. Their effort to limit guerrilla activity has increased the degree of institutionalised racism which is the stock-in-trade of an occupying army. No emotion is more fleeting in politics than gratitude; none goes down deeper into the soul than humiliation by the other — the humiliation of being bailed up in your house merely for being who you are. With the exception of the capture of major Baathist figures, every raid, every jarhead spread-eagling an old man at the point of a gun is creating a family of enemies. Nor can the US easily rotate its troops — the usual solution to the bitterness and hatred that accumulates towards subject populations. With commitments in Iraq and Liberia, and standing reserves in Germany, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the US Army is stretched towards its limit of possible deployment. It seems only a matter of time before small mutinies begin to occur.
Yet the only other option — a rapid withdrawal — would be potentially disastrous for US interests. The most likely consequence would be a civil war. The Kurds would declare an independent Kurdistan in the northern third of the country, destabilising — and possibly precipitating conflict with — Turkey. Shi’ite groups would make an attempt to take over the remainder of the country, or at least the lower third, possibly with Iranian support. The worst result, for the Iraqis, is not impossible: a theocratic dictatorship as repressive as was Saddam Hussein’s secular one, and considerably worse in relation to women and non-Muslims. Like Hamid Karzai, the stylish, hapless President of Afghanistan, President Chalibai’s writ would extend no further than the outskirts of the capital.
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard —
All valiant dust that builds on dust …
Given the nature of Saddam’s regime, it could not necessarily be said that civil war is a worse result than the continued dominance of the Ba’athist order — although the ongoing chaos in Afghanistan suggests that it could be. But it would certainly be an utter disaster for the US, not only in PR terms, but in the rise of a new regime with ideological antagonism towards the US, rather than the proven willingness of Saddam Hussein’s gangsters to make no great fuss.
Building and maintaining an empire is not something you can do in your spare time, even if your plan is simply to nobble your enemies, cut a few cozy oil deals as a side-serve, and then withdraw. It demands an imperial culture and a sense of transcendent purpose. Until the nineteenth century this could be thought of in particular terms — an expression of Roman destiny, or Christian mission. It did not matter that it was instituted by brigands and rogues — such purpose absolved their sins in a greater good. When secular and universal moralities become the core of the imperial project — civilising and developing the other — the empire is at its most lethal in terms of other cultures, but also a long way along the track towards undermining itself. The habitual brutality and assumption of superiority protects the imperialist from the gaze of the other, both face to face and in the mind.
America is the one culture today that could ostensibly maintain such an empire. Since the World Trade Center attack those features of its culture that would support an imperial destiny have been brought to the fore, in particular its belief that it is not so much a nation as the historical carrier of the universal value of ‘freedom’, exclusively understood as a certain type of individualism. From within America, globalisation looks like Americanisation — not in the superficial fact of ever-expanding Starbucks, but in the general spread of behaviours, habits and forms of life conducive to and produced by neoliberal economics. Yet this universalism is buttressed by a contrary concreteness of thought that has occurred because of the virtual collapse of its secular public education system. It is the only country in the world where, for many, the genuine primary socialising agent is the media. Consequently the level at which many people can reason and analyse is significantly lower than that of other nations. Thus the paradox that in the nation most reliant on technological superiority, the utter irrationality of ‘creation science’ has made the most advances — not merely in Alabama, but in states such as New York.
Such concreteness renders many Americans, especially the numerically large core of white non-coastal populations, capable of connecting to the dominant themes of American exceptionalism without having any insight into their genuine character, especially their original, revolutionary nature. The strange battles over church and state (such as over whether a high school basketball coach can lead a pre-match prayer, a case which recently went to the Supreme Court) is indicative of this hybrid ideology. The many Christian fundamentalists in this heartland would be as quick to honour the flag and ‘freedom’ as they would be to lock up an atheist revolutionary like Thomas Jefferson in Guantanamo Bay. Nor does the religion itself, puritan though its attitudes are, furnish a Puritan self, a Christian soldier to go onwards, a valiant pilgrim ’gainst all disaster. Although American churches are sending out missionaries in unprecedented numbers and ludicrous (and best-selling) reactionaries like Ann Coulter urge the Bush Administration to ‘christianise Arabia’, the dominant appeal of such religiosity is to a culture so thoroughly individualised that many people need Jesus to keep them company. American fundamentalist christianity has many virtues, but it is also an easy answer to the question of self that has become the central question of the culture since the time of Emerson and Thoreau.
The current exemplars of that tradition are of the order of Oprah Winfrey; and it would be a mistake to underestimate their positive qualities either, but they are nothing to build an empire on. Empires are founded on the spirit of the doctrine ‘who dies if England live?’, and once one’s particular self becomes a venerated object, submersion in the imperial project becomes impossible. For a fully imperial society, the hi-jinks of a few ‘fedayeen’ would be no more than a bump in the road to be ridden over on the road to Teheran. The ‘imperial overstretch’ spoken of by writers such as Paul Kennedy and as noted above is not, in this instance, a logistic-economic problem, especially for a nation of 250 million people, armed to the teeth; it is a cultural problem of a society that does not have what it takes to become imperial. The same could be said for Australia, albeit for utterly different reasons. The latest news shots of troops being tearfully farewelled to the Solomons had the same air of unreality as those which have gone before. But if we are suddenly called upon to stabilise the ‘failed’ or ‘proto-rogue’ states of PNG or the Philippines the tears, and a lot more besides, will really start to flow.
Such considerations of the deeper structure of American culture and its limits on empire must conclude with one caveat: it is quite capable of becoming its opposite. It was almost flipped by the World Trade Center attack into something else. A larger scale attack — the destruction of a core of a major US city, surely a real possibility in the next ten years — could flip it into a militancy of unprecedented destructiveness. Or, to recall the words of Paul Sweezy, ‘when fascism comes to America, it will call itself freedom’.
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!