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Playthings of the Gods

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The United States of Fear by Tom Engelhardt (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011); 230 page

On  the night of March 11, 2012, Sgt. Robert Bales walked a short distance to two Afghan villages in Kandahar Province from Camp Belambay. Under the cover of darkness the soldier is alleged to have gone house to house shooting and stabbing to death 16 Afghan villagers, many of whom were women and children. Afterwards he lit some of the bodies on fire.

The rampage shootings made famous by the likes of Columbine and American postal workers had been exported to the Afghan frontier. The press reaction, even on shows such as MSNBC’s unabashedly progressive Up with Chris Hayes, was illustrative of the inner rot coursing through the heart of those who believe in American hegemony. Nary a word of concern or empathy was uttered for those who were murdered or their families or of how the American government could make restitution.

There was no rumination of why Afghans of all stripes hate the U.S. military. Rather, the talk was about us, the American people: whether incidents like Bales’s alleged murder of innocent civilians would undermine American support for the longest war in the nation’s history and how matters would play out in the forthcoming 2012 presidential campaign.

The response to Bales’s rampage became one more callous example of America’s imperial philosophy, as summarized by Tom Engelhardt, editor and founder of the website TomDispatch, in his incisive collection, The United States of Fear. “Here’s the credo of the American war state in the twenty-first century,” the avuncular anti-imperialist writes. “Please memorize it. The world is our oyster. We shall not weep. We may missile (bomb, assassinate, night raid, invade) whom we please, when we please, where we please. This is to be called ‘American safety.’”

If there’s any paragraph that distills this short, essential book, an edited collection of Engelhardt’s TomDispatch essays woven into narrative form, it’s the above. In a deeply partisan but jingoist America, Engelhardt’s electronic pamphleteering has shown that the power of principle delivered through perfect prose can earn a diverse, hardcore following. Currently, TomDispatch articles, a project of the Nation Institute, appear on liberal sites such as Salon, lefty sites such as Truthout, libertarian sites such as Antiwar.com, and even paleoconservative sites such as the American Conservative. Nevertheless, despite his writings’ reception across the political spectrum, he’s a relative unknown, and American discourse and democracy are poorer for it.

Sovietizing America

But it isn’t hard to understand why that is so, especially inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway and within the far-flung reaches of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Engelhardt recognizes an uncomfortable truth no one in the Beltway wants to confront: he sees a lot of similarities between the United States and its one-time archenemy, the Soviet Union. “Mark it on your calendar,” Engelhardt writes. “It seems we’ve finally entered the Soviet era in America.”

The tragedy, as Engelhardt sees it, is that it didn’t have to go this way. Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States had no competitors for global supremacy. It therefore could have decided against full-fledged empire, embraced what was called in the early 1990s the “peace dividend,” and drawn down its worldwide military infrastructure. “Quite the opposite [would happen],” recounts Engelhardt:

[Successive] administrations would blindly head down the very path that had led the Soviets to ruin. They would serially agree that, in a world without significant enemies, the key to global power was still the care and feeding of the American military and the military-industrial complex that went with it. As the years passed, that military would be sent regularly into the far reaches of the planet to fight frontier wars, establish military bases, and finally impose a global Pax Americana on the planet.

In other words, Uncle Sam began partying as though it was 1984, shot-gunning bullets not beer and slurring Kipling. And what’s more disconcerting is that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, for all their fanaticism, understood American weaknesses better than the liberal interventionalists and the neoconservatives who glorify war for their own purposes. “It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden’s good luck that Washington’s dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet down for decades to come,” Engelhardt writes.

“Think of him as practicing the Tao of Terrorism…. [The] less he did, the fewer operations he was capable of launching, the more the American military did for him in creating what collapsing Chinese dynasties used to call ‘chaos under heaven.’”

But that doesn’t mean U.S. policy and military elites, much like Soviet planners, have to face the reality of an unwinnable war and maintaining the perception of benevolence and invulnerability they project to the world. Instead they corrupt the discourse as an artifice to keep a reckoning at bay. Engelhardt excels as a tour guide on an Orwellian romp through America’s wartime lexicon. “Victory” in Iraq or Afghanistan becomes “the verbal equivalent of the Yeti” — you can kind of describe what it looks like but it doesn’t exist. “Covert war” becomes the ultimate oxymoron of “in the news, but off the books.” And “permanent bases” don’t exist. They’re just really big fortified housing units where American “tenants” will reside “for decades,” armed to the teeth for self-defense.

Here Engelhardt mines the comic territory of the late great outlaw comic Bill Hicks, who used to tell his audience that the first Gulf War never happened. “A war,” Hicks deadpanned, “is between two armies.” It’s a joke that never gets old because it’s as true in 2012 as it was when it was uttered in 1991.

But it’s Engelhardt’s concern for the victims of the Global War on Terrorism in “Their Dead and Ours” that makes this book essential reading. It is a deeply moving and enraging exposé of American indifference to the suffering the United States causes in pursuit of perfect security. For Engelhardt, U.S. foreign policy and military elites have become Olympian gods who choose from on high who lives and who dies. Interesting enough, the civilization that gave us an example of democracy to look up to also provided a mythology of imperial indifference: “If [the Greek gods] sometimes felt sympathy for the mortals whose lives they repeatedly threw into havoc, they were incapable of real empathy,” Engelhardt writes. “Such is the nature of the world when your view is the Olympian one and what you see from the heights are so many barely distinguishable mammals scurrying about.”

The American mainstream press, according to Engelhardt, is disproportionately to blame for that. Case in point: the WikiLeaks disclosure of American military field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. The press played up Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen’s comments that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family”; or Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s talking of WikiLeaks’s “moral culpability,” while downplaying the fact that the military documents confirmed service members were swimming in pools of blood.

Engelhardt, using the tried and true thought experiment of an alien visitor, responds to such selective, tribal outrage that the press pushes while obscuring inconvenient truths:

Here, then, is a fact that our Martian (but few Americans) might notice: in a decade of futile and brutal war in Afghanistan and more than eight years of the same in Iraq, the United States has filled metaphorical tower upon tower with the exceedingly unmetaphorical bodies of civilian innocents, via air attacks, checkpoint shootings, night raids, artillery and missile fire, and, in some cases, the direct act of murder. Afghans and Iraqis have died in numbers impossible to count (though some have tried).

Engelhardt, as the back cover’s blurbs tell us, has been compared to left-wing journalist I.F. Stone, but Mark Twain is a better fit, particularly because of the easy humor they share, the humaneness of their words, and their ferocious opposition to American imperialism. When reading the essays that make up The United States of Fear, it’s hard not to think of Twain’s “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” or his posthumously published “War Prayer.” And like Twain, Engelhardt is a red-blooded American with the metaphors to prove it, “[When] the Bush unilateralists took control of the car of state, they souped it up, armed it to the teeth, and sent it careering off to catastrophe.”

The gamble

But the one thing Engelhardt fails to adequately show is that the United States’s gloves-off, bloody embrace of empire has much to do with the “Fear” featured on the book’s cover. What he does conclusively show is that American imperialism is fueled by a military-industrial complex that preys not so much on the American people’s existential fears as on their tribal belief in American exceptionalism. Indeed, despite ample evidence, much of it showcased redundantly throughout the book, Engelhardt doesn’t seem to understand that the American public consider the shadowy figures behind the cape of American hegemony patriots, not vampires preying on the body politic.

And maybe that’s why The United States of Fear never feels preachy or self-righteous. For all his trenchant criticism of American post–9/11 culture and values, there’s an optimism to Engelhardt that the United States will wake up from its attachment to war, witness the carnage, and realize that the militarism it has shot into itself has created a monster. And much like Dr. Frankenstein, the American people will attempt to kill the monstrosity they spawned from a toxic combination of their ambition, fear, and narcissism and finally be content with their limitations. “It’s going to feel better to focus on American problems … instead of talking incessantly about what a model we are while we bomb and torture and assassinate abroad with impunity,” he assures. That underlying optimism, however, has to be difficult to maintain for anyone who sat through the Republican primary debates, as loose talk of more warmaking in Iran achieved near-constant applause, while Ron Paul’s anti-imperialism was roundly booed.

“All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice,” the absurdist philosopher and novelist Albert Camus wrote in 1946’s “Neither Victims nor Executioners” as the Cold War battle lines became clear. “After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.”

Since the smoke of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center rose above the New York skyline, Engelhardt has taken it upon himself with all his force and being to put a portion of Camus’s challenge into effect: he continues to show us that dividing line, no matter how hard the new mandarins of power try to obscure it. He has indeed taken Camus’s “formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions” and pushed all in.

This article was originally published in the October 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer in Alexandria, Va. He holds an M. Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, The Guardian, Reason, Salon, TomDispatch, The Washington Monthly, among others.