Most commencement speeches are a bore. Few were as good as this one written for the students of the virtual correspondence school known as TomDispatch.
“Missing Word, Missing World“, By Tom Engelhardt , 2 June 2009 — Excerpt:
Graduates of the Bush years, initiates of the Obama era, if you think of a commencement address as a kind of sermon, then every sermon needs its text. Here’s the one I’ve chosen for today, suitably obscure and yet somehow ringing:
“The idea that somehow counterterrorism is a homeland security issue doesn’t make sense when you recognize the fact that terror around the world doesn’t recognize borders. There is no right-hand, left-hand anymore.”
That’s taken directly from the new national security bible of Obama National Security Advisor (and ex-Marine General) James Jones. He said it last week at a press briefing.
… After 4 years in this college, I assume you are students of the word and like all biblical texts, this one must be interpreted. It must be read. So let’s start by thinking of it this way: If we are, in some sense, defined by our enemies, then consider this description of terrorism — even though most acts of terror are undoubtedly committed by locally-minded individuals — as something like a shadow thrown on a wall. The looming figure to which the shadow belongs is not, however, al-Qaeda, but us. We are, after all, in the war-on-terror business. It’s how we’ve defined ourselves these last years.
If you accept Jones’s definition, then you only have to go a modest distance to conclude that we are the other great force on the planet that “doesn’t recognize borders.” Keep in mind that, right now, we’re fighting at least two-and-a-half wars thousands of miles from this sylvan campus, and in your name no less. When it comes to our “national security,” as we define it, borders turn out to matter remarkably little in a pinch, as long, of course, as they’re other people’s borders.
After all, we have established an extensive network of military bases, some gigantic, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and secured the right to treat them essentially as U.S. territory; we have hundreds of such bases, large and small, scattered across the Earth, most not in war zones, a startling number of them built up into impressive “little Americas.” It’s through them that we garrison much of the planet (something you will almost never see commented upon in the mainstream media, obvious though it may be). Our drone aircraft, flown by remote control from bases in the United States, now regularly patrol distant skies, as if borders did not exist, to smite our foes, whatever any locals might think. Typically, as far as we know, our secret warriors continue to fund, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a Bush-era project, which also knows no borders, aimed at destabilizing the Iranian government.
The Architecture of Meaning
Instead of simply continuing down this superhighway of borderlessness, let’s just consider two sentences buried deep in a recent piece on the inside pages of the New York Times about a roadside explosive device in Iraq that killed three Americans in a vehicle. It’s the sort of thing that Americans tend not to find strange in the least. So as an experiment, try, as I read it aloud, to take in the deep strangeness it represents:
“The Americans were driving along a road used exclusively by the American military and reconstruction teams when a bomb, which local Iraqi security officials described as an improvised explosive device, went off. No Iraqi vehicles, even those of the army and the police, are allowed to use the road where the attack occurred, according to residents.”
Keep in mind that this isn’t a restricted road in Langley, Virginia. It’s a road outside the Iraqi city of Falluja, where we conducted two massive, city-destroying assaults back in 2004; in other words, the road which “no Iraqi vehicles… are allowed to use” is thousands of miles and many borders away from Washington.
And that’s nothing really. If you want to know something about American “impunity” — a fine 19th century word that should be more widely used today — when it comes to Iraq’s borders, get your hands on the text of Order 17. That order was issued by our viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, back in the salad days of the Bush administration, when that era’s neocons thought the world was their oyster (or perhaps their oil well).
Promulgated on the eve of the supposed “return of sovereignty” to Iraq in 2004, Order 17 gave new meaning to the term “Free World.” In intent, it was a perpetual American get-out-of-jail-free card. If I were the president of this college, I would assign Order 17 to be read as part of a campus-wide course on magical imperial realism. Here’s but one passage I’ve summarized from that document:
All foreigners (read: Americans) involved in the occupation project were to be granted “freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq,” and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be “subject to registration, licensing or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government.” Nor in traveling would foreign diplomats, soldiers, consultants, or security guards, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to “dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees,” and so on. And don’t forget that on imports, including “controlled substances,” there were to be no customs fees (or inspections), taxes, or much of anything else; nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of occupied Iraqi “headquarters, camps, and other premises,” nor for the use of electricity, water, or other utilities.
Or, since actual architecture, like the architecture of language, is revealing, consider our most recent embassy-building practices. An embassy is, almost by definition, the face of our country, of us, abroad. For our embassy in embattled Iraq, the Bush administration ponied up almost three-quarters of a billion dollars (including cost overruns). The result, now opened, is the largest embassy compound on the planet.
It’s about the size of Vatican City, a self-enclosed world with its own elaborate defenses and amenities inside the citadel of Baghdad’s Green Zone. Staffed by approximately 1,000 “diplomats,” it’s the sort of place Cold War Washington might once have dreamed of building in Moscow (not that the Russians would have let them).
Do the Iraqis want such an establishment in their capital? Would you, if it was a foreign “embassy” in your land? Once again, that old-fashioned word “impunity,” which once went so well with words like “freebooter” and “extraterritoriality,” seems apt. We still practice a version of freebooting, we still have our own version of extraterritoriality, and we do it all with impunity.
The Imperial Mother ship lands
In our era, the imperial mother ship landedin a country the size of California, but with a smaller population, that just happens to have a lot of untapped reserves of hydrocarbons. But that, I’m sure you’re thinking, was the Bush era. You know, the years of over-the-top unilateralism that crashed and burned along with those dreams of a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana.
You might think so, but the news — what’s left of it anyway — tells a different story. When it comes to “change you can believe in,” a recent pieceby Saeed Shah and Warren P. Stroebel of the McClatchy newspapers caught my eye. They wrote: “The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.”
In other words, the Obama administration is asking Congress to fork over almost the exact price of our monster embassy in Baghdad (after staggering cost overruns). Figure those always predictable overruns into this project, and you may indeed have the first billion-dollar embassy. To use a term the U.S. military once loved, this will result in a large “footprint”on Pakistani soil. It is, to say the least, not normal practice to build and staff such mega-embassies. So if you have a taste for symbolism, this sort of embassy says a lot about how Washington imagines power relations on this planet. Think of these as our ziggurats, our temples (as well as command centers) in foreign climes.
Far stranger than any of these strange specifics is this: none of them seem particularly strange to us. They are news, yes, but not the sort of news that opens eyes, starts discussion, sets Americans — sets you — wondering.
Two Lost Syllables
Now maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. After all, isn’t this just how imperial powers like to operate: as if they owned the planet, or at least had special rights that overruled the locals when it comes to significant hunks of prime real estate?
Which brings us to a word I haven’t said yet, the real subject of my speech today: Empire. It’s the word no one in Washington can say. Its absence from our political discussion is perhaps what makes the United States imperially unique, and yet without it, some crucial part of the real world is missing in action too, some part of what might help us understand ourselves and others.
Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped, surprise not registered, strangeness not taken in, all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated, wounding ways of acting in the world never seriously reconsidered.
Think of a crucial missing word as a kind of invisible straight jacket. Its absence, oddly enough, chains you to the present, to what’s accepted and acceptable. Just two missing syllables, em-pire, making up a word that’s proved so serviceable for so many centuries. And yet, without it, our American world is a little like the one in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. You remember, it’s the one where human beings imagine themselves moving and acting in a perfectly real land, while their actual bodies are stored somewhere far more grim. One question to ask yourself as you form your processional to leave these grounds that have sheltered you these last years might be: Do you have any idea what world you’re walking into? If essential terms for describing it are missing, can you even know? And no less important, do you want to know?
You’ll notice — and here’s the good news — that I haven’t offered you a shred of career advice, or a hint of optimism so far. And on this suitably gloomy day in this gloomy world of ours, I hope not to.
I also know that, whatever your minds may be on as you prepare to head through your school’s vast gates into a none-too-welcoming world, they aren’t on what I have to say today. That, quite honestly, gives me the freedom to talk about a word you may not have heard in your four years here, not applied to our country anyway.
Think about it. In these last moments of your campus life, don’t you find it a little strange that the United States, your country, has military bases, more than 700 of them, scattered across every continent and that your school offers not a single course on the way we garrison this planet? Don’t you find it just a tad odd that this seemingly salient fact of our national existence hasn’t seemed worth teaching, debating, or discussing?
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About the author
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
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Posts about the American Empire:
- Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
- The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
- “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
- “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
- To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
- The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?, 16 December 2008