American Imperialism Ain’t What It Used To Be

Or so complains Robert Kaplan. He moans that our democracy is losing the will to fight, becoming decadent, weak in the face of the eternal struggle against the Arabian demons, and so on. Most of this is nonsense of the nastier sort, because it involves a man sincerely yearning for the good old days of unrestrained warfare upon “lesser peoples.” Herein lies, incidentally, the greatest paradox in the Western imperialist impulse: on the one hand, non-Western peoples are infidels, barbarians, who threaten to overwhelm the noble and sacred West at any moment, and therefore must be slaughtered, corralled, and ruled by their Western betters. There is hope for these inferior peoples only so long as they assimilate themselves to Western ways; indeed, as the British found in India, it was often colonials properly “trained” that gave the greatest support to the imperialist system. On the other hand, the Western imperialist- again, probably quite sincerely- wants to enlighten the non-Western savages, by bringing them Christianity, or democracy, or capitalism, or whatever the case may be. Both of these sentiments tend to exist alongside each other, often times in the same individuals; how the two conflicting sentiments are balanced and dealt with would make an interesting study. For the soldiers in the field, I suspect that the first sentiment tends to prevail; it is hard to sympathize with the benighted native and yearn for his betterment when he is trying to kill you, after all. And once the native is pacified he is often less than happy to see you in his country.

But I digress somewhat. The exterior thrust of Mr Kaplan’s argument is, briefly, that America, being a decadent democracy, has lost its will to fight wars. In fact Mr Kaplan is saying that America has lost its will to be an imperial power, and to fight the wars necessary to maintain its place as the supreme imperial power. And while Mr Kaplan skirts close but ultimately around the comparison- for obvious enough reasons- if one were to examine America’s current situation and decide upon a historical corollary, it would be hard to ignore the obvious comparison of the US’s imperial adventures with that of her former colonial master, Great Britain.

After the loss of the United States, Britain’s imperial attention gradually shifted east, with India as the epicentre and indeed rationalizing centre for the entire empire. In so doing Britain came into direct contact with not only the “oriental nationalism” that Mr Kaplan so fears, but also things we tend to imagine to be strictly contemporary problems, such as jihad directed against modern Westerners. It is generally forgotten in this country, but it was not that long ago that a Mahdi Army filled English-language headlines, only in the Sudan and not in Iraq. Even Mr Kaplan cannot avoid alluding to the persistent British struggles against unruly tribesmen in Afghanistan. And the whole history of the British in India is one of sagging public and elite morale over the whole thing; yet the conquest of India slogged on, despite repeated official sanction. The alleged flagging of patriotism, the risk of the whole imperial project toppling down in the face of public censure, the weakening of the public will to stomach “necessary evils”: all have remarkably close corallary in British history. However, Mr Kaplan does not bother us with them, for obvious enough reasons.

He does instead spend a good deal of time reporting a very real and rather troubling fact: the increasing regional exclusiveness of the military, and the caste-like nature of the modern military. As he notes, the American South is the centre of military recruitment. From the article, one might be forgiven in thinking this is a new thing; it is not, though it has probably become more accented in recent years. Partially this is because so many military bases were constructed in the South- you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a base of some sort, and some of them are very large indeed- but it also has to do with the fact that military culture has thrived here more than elsewhere. Firearms are a standard part of life in the Deep South particularly; it is not unusual, for example, to hear gunfire in the evening here at my home a few miles out from town- just someone showing off their new rifle, target shooting, or something. Memory of the Civil War is still quite strong in Anglo-American Southerners, and not a few houses in my county fly the Confederate flag underneath the Stars and Stripes. Therein lies the paradox of Southern militarism: the South is the only part of the US where the Anglo population has the distinct memory of being defeated in war by the US. Despite this, and despite the hard feelings felt to this day by some Southerners, from the official close of hostilities on the South has provided more than its share of Us military muscle. This paradox is almost perfectly mirrored by the Scottish experience of British imperialism: Scots were very often remarked to be the driving force in many a British imperial adventure. Quite of those loyal Scots were drawn from the ranks of Highlanders that had only recently suffered brutal defeat at the hands of the British government. Why would they- and Southern Americans on this side of the Atlantic- prove such ready instruments of the victorious government?

Further, Southerners tend to be fairly libertarian in their outlook on local politics and law. After all, the nanny state is hardly going to allow kids to shoot rounds off into the air for the sheer heck of it. Yet Southerners will invariably sign up for the latest American imperial adventure, even though such wars and the inherent expansion of State powers will mean a limitation of those very personal liberties Southerners so much enjoy. Why is this? Part of it I think is the simple fact many Southern men like to shoot and smash and burn things- and don’t have quite the level of inhibition about it that men in other parts of the US have. There is also a very real and very strong sense of military pride in both service and prowess, that often flows in families, and manifests itself willingly whenever the chance arises. It is perhaps not too great of a stretch to regard here the lingering Celtic sense of the American South with all the military related conotations that brings. The role of religion, which is still very viscerally strong in the South. By that I mean that while a Southerner may not go to church, may cuss and chew and all that, he will still have a strong sense of his own Christianity and his loyalty to Jesus. This sort of gut-level religion is easily employed in stimulating and rewarding military prowess. A Southerner who may never go to church or otherwise outwardly live a Christian life can join the military and feel himself a part of a larger action, an action that is given downright salvific import. He is fighting for “freedom,” and his cause is blessed by Jesus, and by the churches in the South. He knows that Southern Christianity- which is Christianity so far as he is concerned- is behind him and praying for him and otherwise giving blessing to his actions. Hence he can live the soldier’s life in complete reconcilliation with his otherwise mostly unpracticed religion. Military service for the Southerner is very much a virtually sacrosant occupation. If the reader hears echoes of the Crusade idea he is probably not mistaken- the conjunction of violent prowess and very real religious devotion is a very strong force here in the South.

However, I should also note that while Southerners may possess a greater willingness to join the military and to go to war, this does not of necessity translate into unquestioning acceptance of the government or of its imperial projects. The paradox of a militaristic yet libertarian-tinged society can swing both ways, and does, and is. Just within my circle of knowledge here in South Mississippi there is increasing dissent- this without a sacrifice of the military virtues that so often impel Southerners off to war in the first place. For- as shall be noted below- contra Mr Kaplan, dissent from imperial projects does not mean a retreat even from warlikeness and certainly not from ordinary valour and patriotism.

Mr Kaplan also strikes a mostly accurate note when he describes the increasing caste-nature of the modern military. This is not particularly true however in the South, or at least not the parts of it with which I am familiar. Here the military, nationalism, and religion are extremely close, if not inseperable. But I suspect that, the South excepted, his observations are close enough; and again the parallel that immediately springs to mind is the British imperial experience. A particular caste of people developed- often along family lines- that dealt in imperial business. However, Mr Kaplan does make an observation that raises an important difference: the British imperial machine, besides employing a sort of rought and tumble military class drawn heavily from its Celtic fringe, also had an extensive intellectual and administrative caste that was drawn from the upper ranks of society- and that did an admirable job, all things considered, so far as running a sprawling empire was concerned. The US does not have such a caste, in the same manner as the British. Certainly, American military imperialism operates alongside and sometimes on behalf of the American economic empire, but the two are not the same. Certainly American imperialism in the Middle East and Africa is rather unlikely to produce any new brilliant Orientalists or great works of literature or anything of the sort. The ineptness of US administration in Iraq is even more staggering when one considers how few British personel were required to subdue and run the entire subcontinent of India.

We must then ask why this is the case- why are intellectuals and others unwilling to join in America’s military enterprise? Is it because, as Mr Kaplan suggests, they are unpatriotic and decadent? Hardly. For as should be clear by now, it is not the ability to wage war that Mr Kaplan is worried about, but the ability to sustain an empire. If there is less desire to enter the military in many parts of society, and if the military is increasingly distant from America as a whole, it is not because the American people are “weak” or “decadent,” but that they do not- as a whole- smile upon vast imperial projects the likes of which Mr Kaplan would have them sacrifice without demure their blood and treasure. Such a dislike of imperialism is nothing new, to America’s credit: from George Washington’s farewell speech to the anti-imperialist leagues of the turn of the century to the now all but defunct pre-WWII Old Right there has been a strong and vocal anti-imperialism strain to America, coming from quarters it would be very difficult to label cowardly or unpatriotic. At present the grassroots support- including in the militaristic, conservative South- of Ron Paul is proof that anti-imperialism (even if it does not vocalize itself exactly as such) is alive and well even in the reddest of the red states. Consider that in the early Republic the idea of a standing army was considered dangerous! Were the opponents of a standing army un-patriotic? Cowardly? I doubt even Mr Kaplan would suggest that.

In sum, Mr Kaplan fails to be honest with his arguments, for good enough reason I suppose. He can hardly just come right out and declare that Americans ought to buckle down and shoulder the white man’s burden, fifty years on, and all that. America does not and probably never will have the explicit tradition of imperialism qua imperialism that Britain did. Instead, he must collapse the current American project into war qua war: to be opposed, in Mr Kaplan’s world, to imperialist war is to be opposed to all military virtue, is to be unwilling to fight for anything. And the solution offered by the militarist Right to this flagging support for military action is, insanely, more wars, as if this will increase public support for their adventures (let no one accuse them of being impeded by that satan logic). I would like to suggest that, sed contra, it is quite possible to understand the need for proper military virtues, and the possibility of armed conflict, and that some things are worth fighting and dying for- all this, without making a global imperialist project one of those things worth dying for. It is a distinction of the utmost importance.

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