It is a recurring theme: civilization committing barbaric acts to feed its refined gluttony. As we found out about American Marines urinating on dead Afghans, there was also a story about Brazilian loggers tying an eight-year-old girl to a tree and burning her to death. She belonged to the Awá, an Amazon tribe of around 300 members, with only 60 still clinging to their hunter-gatherer way of life. To maintain our so-called civilized standards of living, collateral damages are inevitable, and “savages” must be sacrificed.
If they get in the way of civilization’s quest for petroleum, lumber, tin, zinc, copper, whatever, they must be killed wholesale, or one by one, as was accomplished by Chris Kyle, currently touring bookstores to promote his American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. Kyle killed 255 “savages,” his term, and can stand before God with a clear conscience, he told Bill O’Reily, because he was saving American lives. FOX being FOX, the question of why Kyle was in Iraq in the first place was not probed.
With his tunnel vision specialty, teamwork ethics and preoccupation with numbers, Kyle is the quintessential tool in civilization’s machinery. Tasked with long-distance, targeted killing, he performed outstandingly, and is proud of his feats, all carefully
quantified. His 160 Pentagon-confirmed kills wipe out the previous American record of 109, held by Delbert F. Waldron, not to mention the relatively puny 93 of Carlos Hathcock. Kyle’s longest shot was 2,100 yards. Though impressively long, yes, very long, it’s dwarfed by the 2,700 yards recorded by one Horse Craig Harrison, a Brit.
Empire is civilization’s greatest efflorescence and final aim. With empire comes the tallest, biggest and longest of everything. Citizens of empire, down to the lowest cog, bathe themselves daily with numbers as a kind of self-congratulation. Counting themselves hoarse to prove that they are in fact content, they measure their achievement and happiness with Dow and Nasdaq indexes, inches on flat-screen TVs, cars sold, runs and touchdowns scored by sport heroes, and savages killed by even more heroes. A large number denoting anything, even debt, cheers up denizens of an empire since it is proof of their gigantism. Empires compete to see who can piss the longest and furthest, over the most continents.
What a contrast this is to a primitive nomad, who sees properties as a burden, and thus does not care to count hardly anything. The most extreme example of this is another Amazon tribe, the Pirahã, whose language includes no cardinal numbers at all. They simply can’t count, and have no interest in doing so. American scholar Daniel Everett spent an hour each night for eight months trying to teach them numbers in Portuguese, with zero success, “It was just a fun time to eat popcorn and watch me write things on the board.”
Though living on a finite planet, the subjects of empire are indoctrinated into the religion of infinite growth, with anything short of that seen as a major disaster. With their gross appetites, they cannot conceive of a no-growth existence, though that was the economy of man for thousands of years. During the age of fossil fuels, now winding down, this infinite growth formula can appear sane and sustainable, but as oil and gas go scarce, its murderous and suicidal nature will become ever starker, like an innocent girl being burnt at the stake.
Most of the planet must slave and starve, so the anointed few can consume, yet even these lucky buyers must themselves slave, commute long hours and pop uppers or downers nonstop to afford that Ipod, Ipad and Xbox. Speaking of which, here’s a still relevant insight from Ben Franklin:
“Having few artificial wants, they have abundance of leisure for improvement by conversation. Our laborious manner of life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.”—from his Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America
With social networking, who needs face-to-face conversations? Slaves to bogus needs and virtual thrills, we have become estranged from the real, with our savage instincts, suppressed, flaring up as conceits or pathologies. Often they explode overseas, as the T-shirt says: TRAVEL TO EXOTIC LANDS, MEET INTERESTING PEOPLE THEN KILL THEM.
In an advanced civilization, a nomadic existence, with its hunting pack, can only be approximated in a war, but instead of hunting animals for subsistence, our boys are gunning down people who are merely trying to prevent us from exploiting and humiliating them. With such a dubious reason to kill or be killed, it’s not surprising that many of these soldiers come back home only to kill themselves.
As I write this, the US is encircling, harassing and sabotaging Iran, yet few Americans seem alarmed that for the sake of oil, again, and that increasingly elusive economic growth, their leaders may kill millions and wreck this earth even further, but as their empire convulses and collapses, most Americans will find themselves reduced to the level of those they’ve been annihilating. They will discover that they, too, are just collateral savages.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.