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Biographies of Empire

The Biographies of a Modern Empire

Many books have been written about the rise and fall of great powers, the authors often speculate on what went wrong and how the decline started, while those written during the ascendance promise a future of brilliance and endless prosperity. For every Edward Gibbon looking back fondly on empire diagnosing blame to alien infections there are those who imagine the glory of a thousand year Reich. In our own time we are witnessing the decline of a mono-polar moment of a solely American dominated International order perhaps returning to the tradition of competing empires.

Selected here are some books that depict the American empire based on aggressive deeds rather than any promises or unrealised ideals. It is criticism which in itself omits the contribution of cultural, industrial and ideologies that were spread at times by and often despite the central government of the US. These are the books that do not delve into the lesser of evils argumentation between empires or sing praise of the US navy’s insurance to global trade. These are biographies of an empire that is capable of horrible acts, even under guise of trade and liberty it is the empire of imperialistic anti-imperialism.

Each of these books are written by Americans, making the views autobiographical. Criticism of a nation or empire is not an endorsement of its rivals or any other past or present. The understanding of history is determined by admissions as it is omissions. Those who view their empire with a sense of spiritual destiny and benevolence tend to omit certain events, those in favour of the US empire are no different. It is important not to shy away from the moments that are often redacted or downplayed, to confront facts rather than bury them. Here are books that may help you find such facts.

Killing Hope by William Blum

“US Military & CIA Interventions since World War II’, is the sub-heading for Blum’s book. A history of violence US government violence. Essentially a guide book broken down geographically and historically that covers the many action taken by the US government in the pursuit of ‘anti-communism’. The energies following World War Two instilled the US and its allies with what the Japanese call “victory fever”, it is an overconfidence that success is granted. With its ability to exert soft power and influence in conjunction with economic and military might the US does not require colonies in the traditional sense only bases and proxies.

‘Killing Hope’ much like Blum’s,‘Rogue State’ is a catalogue on the reality of the modern empire. To those within it, life my be prosperous and great pride can be taken in such nationalism and relative freedoms, in the periphery the relationship with the US is different. Published in 2003, the post-911 wars are still emerging, the Bush administration at the height of its power, the coming twenty years granting the US greater hubris. Blum exposes the many actions of the US government, those that relate to non-citizens and while it is often said that empires always come home, victims of imperialism know the truth of empires.

Perils of Dominance by Gareth Porter

The US war in South-East Asia is an important milestone for the modern US psyche, it exposed both hubris and over-reach, two lessons that were learned and then lost. In his book Porter makes a compelling case that the Vietnam War was possible at such a scale because the US had become the singular dominant power on the planet, and its rivals knew it. Though the Soviet Union and the fractured communist bloc stood as an ideological and geo-political rival they were mostly defensive and inferior to the US and its allies. The Vietnam war was executed with such scale because despite material and rhetorical support, the Chinese and Soviet governments were unable to do much else.

The United States established a solitary dominance in the years following World War Two that has never been experienced by another power since. Porter makes the case that the Vietnam war was the pinnacle of this reality, the spectre of the Soviet Union as a threatening equal only served specific interests in the US. The Soviet Union as a global rival lacked any realistic parity with the US and its allies. The ‘failure’ in Vietnam was an outcome of the dominance complex that the US exhibited then and has gone on to repeat since.

Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse

If Gareth Porter provides the macro depiction of the US war on South-East Asia, Nick Turse offers the gory truth of what the war entailed. A book of atrocities that only the singular super power can get away with. Each page runs with blood of the innocent who were made to suffer beneath the weight of policy. Turse’s sources came from US government records that he came across while researching veteran PTSD. It turns out that witnessing and committing war crimes can take its toll on the instigators. As is often the case however, the victims become a forgotten fallen relegated to the status of statistical props bashed into unmarked graves beneath the weight of history and warriors glory.

If the ‘Rape of Nangking’ by Iris Chang is the gruesome truth of the Japanese empire at the height of its powers, then ‘Kill Anything That Moves’ is the depiction of the American empire in a similar light. Using first accounts and reports from US soldiers in Vietnam the book is a terrible read, full of incidents that turn the stomach in detail. It is with a callous disregard to the lives of others that professional killers are able to go about their business. The otherwise ordinary men of the US of A rape, torture and murder in the name of policy. The incidents in Turse’s book are not unique to the US soldier in Vietnam, they are also not uniquely American in nature. The exceptionalism of the USA is however not above the killing of innocent civilians. It’s a book that should be a sobering experience for even the most jingoistic nationalist.

Hegemony of Survival by Noam Chomsky

It would be remiss not to include a book by Noam Chomsky in a list of those that condemn US foreign policy. A constant critic and stalwart in the anti-war readings for decades, in ‘Hegemony of Survival’ Chomsky gives a good overview while acting as companion for his other writings on US foreign policy. As a book it is at times sarcastic and cynical, often drawing attention to a mentality that exists inside of the US regarding the rest of the world. A perspective of a world that is viewed entirely through American interests.

For those who are familiar with Chomsky and his view on the US government, this book is nothing new. To anyone who has yet to experience a Chomsky book, it can be a cold shower to wash away the privileged perspective of American exceptionalism. This book is included as a symbolic emblem of Chomsky and his writings as a whole, not because this book stands above any others by him.

We Kill Because We Can by Laurie Calhoun

In many ways this is a book that is a spiritual sibling to ‘Kill Anything that Moves”, it is the 21st century fulfilment of the technowar that was attempted in Vietnam. An arrogant stand off approach to assassination and the air war, as the British implemented in the years following World War One when aircraft were used to kill and intimidate colonial dissidents. A century later and the US has pushed the frontiers of allowable usage of drones, from surveillance to assassins. Calhoun writes with a philosophical touch while giving us a historical depth on the subject that will make this book evergreen for generations. It is through her philosophical humanity, that Calhoun delves into the consequences of the drone policy, while using the relatibility of films as an illustration for moral concepts and dystopian parallels.

The title of the book essentially conveys an attitude that can be found through much of history and especially that of modern US policy making, to kill regardless because they can and because they are the powerful, the mighty. The defenders of government often cite rule of law and the importance of stability and order, yet government often breaks its own rules and international order, the drone killings are another example of this hypocrisy. Though as a book it provides an overview of the technological killing it also expresses the callous disregard to legacy and consequences that those inventing and executing such policy exhibit.

Enough Already by Scott Horton

As a follow up to “Fools Errand”, a history of the US military involvement in Afghanistan, ‘Enough Already” colours the rest of the landscape for the US terror wars. The war in Afghanistan being a key segment of such a totality, a very bloody chapter to a book that is filled with detail about the destructive nature of US foreign policy. It may very well be the final decades of the US empire, Horton is able to capture the events that would be crucial to such a demise. Starting of in the late 1970s with the Carter presidency which helps lay the ground work that would lead to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the many expeditions related to the war on terror.

Horton does a good job to lay the landscape of the late cold war period where both the US, it’s allies and it’s soon to be enemies would learn the lessons of victory over the Soviet Union. The transformation of the US from a rival to the USSR to becoming the singular superpower re-directed focus onto waging a war on Iraq and eventually against the abstract of terrorism. Horton’s depth of knowledge and ability to link complicated ties and histories is what makes this book and his other works a bedrock to understanding the imperfect ambitions of the US empire.

Deadly Exceptionalism

Many other books exist that are worthy of inclusion, each as those mentioned are coloured by an inherent bias, the criticism of the US. Whether one reads Howard Zinn, James W Loewen or Sidney Lens found is a history, built on slavery, broken promises and expansion. It is a history that is best known for its lies and omissions, as the frontiers evaporated the promise of a great republic of liberty eroded until eventually it became a myth. No one seriously believes the Romulus and Reemus story for the birth of Rome, yet it was taught and understood as a truth or at least a seed that strengthened a self belief for an empire. The US is no different with its own self belief and myths, despite much evidence, the promising romance persists or the deflection that it could always be worse if another power had control.

Contained in the above books are merely the facts of an imperial reality, an empire that is refreshed by not the blood of patriots but the tears of the innocent and countless bones buried in unmarked graves. We lie with our words but tell the truth with our deeds the same is true for all empires, especially the American one. There is nothing exceptional about imperialism and war, but perhaps that is the destiny of all empires.

August, 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysWar, History and Foreign Policy