Swans Commentary » swans.com June 1, 2009  



Empires Always Die


by Martin Murie





(Swans - June 1, 2009)   A brief flurry of Swans talking to each other -- Peter Byrne in Italy, Art Shay in Chicago, and Gilles d'Aymery (our co-editor) in California. The argument concerned patriotism and the right of citizens to rise to the occasion in defense of the United States; the futility of trying to save the earth because the earth will do just fine when we are all gone to dust; the necessity of point-of-view journalism. We are a prickly bunch of individuals, we Swans, and I think we recognize that and put up with our differences. This is an example of unity in diversity, because we do have a goal: a struggle to make writing real, relevant, fresh. Of course, the waters are very choppy in these times, but we persist.

A very recent letter to President Obama by national president of Veterans for Peace Mike Ferner arrived, and then a Grandmothers For Peace e-mail asking that letters along Mike's theme be sent to them to make a big package to present to the president. I got busy on my letter.

Okay, I'll get down to the question: have wars as heart-and-soul of empire come to an end, or are we destined to live in the shadow of competing empires forever and ever till we humans go over the high cliff? Has the time come to stand up and shout, "Enough"? I think the time has arrived. Here are my arguments.

World War II was a latecomer in the arena of wars in the service of empires, that time begun by the Nazis and the Emperor-bound Japanese. I remember lying in a US Army hospital in Italy, near the end of the war, listening to Armed Forces Radio. The favorite song, requested time and again, was Rum and Coca Cola (the refrain, "Workin' for the Yankee Dollaaar"). Also, the fairly objective news reports of those times included worries by United States attendees at the founding of the United Nations concerning the Soviets. "What are they fussing about," I thought. "The Soviets in their stubborn defense of Leningrad and their launching gigantic tank battles ensured our success in the west and the south ('Soft underbelly of Europe' as Churchill bragged). The Soviets are our allies, aren't they?" And so began the Cold War.

I knew from my childhood in Teton County, eavesdropping on leading citizens who spoke with admiration of Hitler and assuring each other that Hitler would turn against the Communists. But it wasn't easy, in that hospital bed, to have my patriotism called to the bar of justice by my nation turning so quickly to betrayal of an ally.

Here's what Mike Ferner, national president of Veterans for Peace, has to say, in the first paragraph of his letter to President Obama.

We have seen and heard and smelled and felt what "death from above" actually means, not in a briefing report, but right there in our hands and before our eyes.

This is Infantry's privilege: seeing, smelling, feeling, fearing. And it is the privilege of all people, whether innocent or not, who find themselves and their families on the killing grounds. Those horrors don't go away.

Life doesn't have to be this way, children dying young on the fields of battle. Yes, children, barely eighteen or early twenties.

Empires came and decayed for a very long time in human history, fought for by horsemen, as with Genghis Khan and Tamerlane; as with Syrian war chariots armed with scythes to mow down the enemy; as with heavy-shielded Roman Legions; as with armored landlords in the medieval years and down through the ages, down through the millennia since the late arrival of us human animals. No wonder folks turned to God. Think of all those memories, now turned to dust, of swords and spears and arrrows, then muskets, then rifles, then the latest brands of artillery, and now the drones. The Nazis had eighty-eights that could be aimed, not blasted off as trajectories. In our invasion of Mexico in 1847 the United States army had advanced artillery, the Mexican cavalry had lances. We killed lots of civilians at Vera Cruz and other cities and towns, culminating in our capture of Mexico Ciy, a slaughter that shocked Ulysses Grant, who later went on to send enlisted men in mass assaults against Confederate breastworks. Now we are using unmanned drones, guided by "pilots" based in an airbase in Nevada. There are rumors of the ultimate weapon: drones like Predator and Reaper that can make their own decisions: bomb or not bomb.

It is civilized and proper and timely to oppose wars in the service of empire. One reason is that these huge destructive forces are not personal as is the case with drive-by shootings, a deranged teenager shooting down his classmates, rape, murder, torture. Wars tend to be abstract and clumsy, planned and ordered by rulers, whether these men be Genghis Khan or General Abercrombie, a Scottish Indian killer owned by the British Empire, or George W. Bush.

In the modern version wars have been, and are, in the service of a thoroughly silly economic theory, globalism -- aka Market Economy -- that is abstract in the extreme. Market Economy, as Bill Clinton urged Milosevic of Yugoslavia to adopt, is not god-given. It is an American, European, Japanese invention. It has crept upon the world, capturing one nation after another. The Nazis had a version, National Socialism hidden behind violent racism and fear of Communism.

A friend in Wyoming wrote a fine book in the form of a novel, its theme: Empires Always Die. A story hilarious in parts, tragic overall, but true.

It is okay to be antiwar these days. It is the honorable thing to do. So far that task is mainly left to us fringe people, people ignored for the most part by the corporate domination of the media of each nation. We thoroughly understand that empires cost too much in blood and treasure. Wars are not necessary. That is something we Americans, especially, need to get through our thoroughly indoctrinated heads. It is possible for we Americans to make a last minute decision to oppose United States Imperialism before it is too late. The precipice is near.

Sexism is very much bound up in war, as any enlisted woman in Iraq can tell you. And the expenses of warfare by regular budgets and "supplementals" and cost-plus contracts are, for United States citizens, enormous. There is also the frantic search for oil and gas to keep the permanent war economies afloat. But peak oil is near and these searches are ruinous to the fabric of nations, of ecosystems. Are we doomed to live only with animals such as dogs and cats and starlings and house sparrows and spiders that happen to be pre-adapted to our ways of life? That would be a lonely existence, wouldn't it?

The technology of "advanced" nations is formidable, and precarious. Governments rely totally on tinkering with techno-fixes to combat climate change and to keep the war machine alive and ready. This is total subservience to the short-range nature of market economies, the bitter fruit of mindless abstraction, an excuse for waiting to see what profit-seeking corporations will do next.

Many citizens of the United States are extending the honeymoon, waiting and waiting and waiting to see if Obama finally shows some courage. For us folks on the fringes, Obama's honeymoon ended quite a while ago. We can't help wondering if our "civilizations" have advanced very far since the days of the Syrian or Egyptian or Babylonian or Athenian or Roman or British empires. Maybe one foot far forward -- technics, science, medicine -- the other foot buried in the bloody mud of war.

In the seventh century before Christ, Homer wrote a masterpiece, The Iliad. He, though rumored to be blind, must have somehow become thoroughly acquainted with war, its smells, its bloated corpses, its collaterals, its heroes sometimes turned cowards, its cost to ordinary people. Near the end of this multifaceted book of war, a soldier speaks up in a council of the invaders.

"What are we doing here? Let's get in our ships and go home."

Ulysses chastises this soldier (aka enlisted man) for "Opening your big mouth in the presence of Princes."


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About the Author

Martin Murie on Swans (with bio).



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Published June 1, 2009