Notes on the American Empire
Recently attended a guest lecture/seminar at UT, put out by Jeremy Suri, the rising star of UT’s History department. Topic was “The US—Empire or Umpire?”, and it was yet another rehashing of the question that mainstream poly-sci still kicks around—“Are We an Empire?”. Jeremy Suri, a most personable sort, brought in another mainstream historian, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, to promoter her latest mainstream history/poli-sci tome which argues that the US is not in fact an empire but instead acts abroad as an umpire throughout the world.
There are some excellent lawyerly arguments about how seeing as the US does not enslave the rest of the world for its own financial benefit—this is fundamentally the argument made by Suri and Hoffman—that the US isn’t an empire. Ms Cobbs was proud that in her recent US history classes a majority of the students came in thinking that the US was an empire but left, after a semester of her ministrations, thinking otherwise. How swell. Lawyerly arguments are for lawyers in courtrooms attempting to convince other lawyers who all think along the same narrow lines. Most all lawyerly arguments aren’t but childish quibbles about word definitions. For the rest of us, we are wise to heed the evidence of our senses, and the stirrings of our hearts instead.
The most fundamental evidence of America as empire are the wars we wage abroad. Countries who have done us no injury are so privileged to have the United States wage a war in their distant lands with their inhabitants having no say-so in the matter. The most telling giveaway as to the question of empire is is our regard for the inhabitants in those countries who fight on our behalf. Fundamentally, we have none. They are our tools and nothing more.
During the Vietnam War, each and every single week of the war’s casualty lists had South Vietnamese deaths and wounded exceeding ours. Only two weeks in the entire war did American casualties exceed ARVN’—the two weeks following the Tet Offensive. South Vietnam, whose population may have been 14 million during the war, paid a terrible butcher’s bill for its leaders assenting to and participating with an American war in their country. Yet how much reportage was there ever in the US press about the Vietnamese army? Its soldiers, their fights, its terrible casualties, the endless war that its soldiers were condemned to– none of whom had a ticket out of the war after a year of it as all American soldiers did. The ARVN troops were mostly all in it for the duration, and they and their sacrifices were ignored mostly entirely by the American press, people, and government. Walter Cronkite would recite their casualty figure once a week, when MACV released the week’s casualty figures, and that was all the attention they got.
The same pattern has been repeated in our recent and ongoing wars in the Middle East. Where are the articles about the Afghan army in American prints? The Iraqi army? We corral the inhabitants in those countries into our schemes for our uses and have paid them and their lives and hopes and their hurts and their deaths no attention, once again, as we did in Vietnam. If we aren’t an empire to behave like this, then we are the cruelest and most heartless race of people wandering the globe.
Below excerpt is from a book I’m reading now. Richard Critchfield was a war reporter in Vietnam and after that wrote several superlative books about rural life, both here in the US and in the Third World. Critchfield recycled the below no doubt from a news story he wrote, and most likely never sold, from his reporter days. Critchfield wrote this in ’65, after he visited Cong Hoa, the ARVN’s largest military hospital. Cong Hoa had been a vacation resort prior to it being turned into a huge ARVN hospital complex. Critchfield writes of a drafted young Vietnamese student he encounters in the hospital there, who has just arrived after a 50 mile ambulance ride.
From Villages, by Richard Critchfield:
“After he (the ARVN doctor, a civilian doctor drafted into the ARVN six years earlier) read the student’s chart, the doctor’s manner softened. He patted the boy gently on the shoulder and lifted up the cotton sheet from the foot of the stretcher.
“’Foot blown off with a mine,’ he told me in English. He spoke to the boy again in their own language, then turned back. ‘After treatment here, the boy will go back to his unit in My Tho to wait for the local military council to meet. The council will decide whether he can go home or not, of whether he must stay in the army to do some light job. He wants to go home. He should go home. When the wound has healed, we will send him to the rehabilitation department for an artificial limb. He says his wife came south with him. She rents a house outside the camp. They have a two-month old son. It must be a very small house.’ He said that as a private with one son, the boy got the equivalent of eighteen dollars a month; totally disabled, he would get thirty-five dollars a year. The doctor thought there were at least fifty thousand partially disabled veterans in the country already; perhaps it was a blessing he did not know the war would last another ten years.
“The doctor spoke to the boy again. ‘He says he is an infantry rifleman and that he has never killed anybody.’ A wounded sergeant in a nearby stretcher muttered, ‘Who knows where the bullets go?’ The doctor lifted up the bandages from the boy’s forehead; the right eye was shut and swollen. Unclipping an X- ray from the foot of the stretcher and holding it up to the light the doctor motioned me over. The black film showed the boy’s skull; in the black socket of his right eye was a jagged rectangular shape a quarter inch long. ‘Steel fragment. That eye will have to come out.’ An orderly called the doctor and he went away.
“I saw that the boy was moving; painfully, and with great effort, he reached down, groped for the X- ray on his legs where the doctor had left it, clutched it and held it up to the light. We didn’t dare stop him. There was no outcry, just thought—the deep private thought of someone faced with the final, tragic collapse of so much of his life. After a moment he lowered the X- ray carefully back to where it had been, put his head down, and stared upward.
“I told my interpreter to ask if there was anything we could do. At first the boy did not seem to hear. We waited. Then he spoke and said, yes, he wanted to send telegrams to his wife and his mother, who did not know what had happened to him nor where he was. The words started pouring out then; my interpreter could only catch part of it. ‘The war must end….so there is no more killing…so I can go home…I want to go home…I want…my brothers*…’ He was crying hard now and the tears streamed down from his good eye. In shame he tried to dab at them with his pajama sleeve. I thrust some piaster notes into my interpreter’s hand to give to the boy and went outside to stare hard at the hedges shaped like rabbits and elephants.”
Critchfield elsewhere tells another revealing story of Americans at large abroad at war, again from his Vietnam War days. From p. 183 of Villages: “Tran Van Huong, when prime minister of Vietnam in the 1960’s, once told me no American had ever asked him, ‘What do you need and how can we help you?’”
In all my years of reading about the Vietnam War, I can’t ever recall any other American reporter ever asking any Vietnamese that same question of Critchfield’s. I most rather doubt that any American military officer, USAID worker, or diplomat ever asked that question any time during the war. Maybe some NCO’s in the Army did, but that’s it I bet.
And you know, I can’t recall any American reporter with snap and wit enough to ever ask any Afghan or Iraqi official that same question Critchfield asked the Vietnamese PM back in ’65. If they had they most certainly would have gotten the same answer as PM Huong gave Critchfield in ’65. And again I’ll bet that there was another repeat of nobody beyond the NCO level ever asking for the host country counterpart’s opinion about what they needed that we could give them. And once again, Americans ignore the fact that our butcher’s bill in both these wars is a fraction of our much less populous allies’. Except that this time there isn’t word one ever of the Afghan or Iraqi military casualties in our war in their country in our prints or press. Not even the weekly recitation that Cronkite gave on the 5:00 news. Our uninterest in these people is worse now in our globalized today than it was in our provincial then.
Fifty years on we are doing just the same, treating our third-world ‘allies’ just the same. And our reporters, politicians, academics, and moral leaders are just as blind to it this time around again. They are all content with childish slogans and arguments about us and our goodness. Nguyen Cao Ky was so right when he said that Americans are big children. We have a childish self-centered view of ourselves and we accept childish rationalizations and arguments and we have a childish disregard for our actions and their consequences to others.
Our wars abroad are about us, and our plans and wishes, and aren’t at all for the benefit of the host country and its peoples. That makes us either an empire or a bunch of criminal lunatics. The call is yours; more, the call is theirs, not ours. We should wake up to that fact. Or grow up enough to face it.
Daniel White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The young ARVN trooper had been a student from a coastal village, youngest of three brothers. Both of his brothers had already been drafted into the ARVN and killed before he was drafted. No sole surviving son deferrals for the ARVN draft.