Elegy for Our Empire

charge of the light brigadeNeocons like to talk about “American Exceptionalism” and to accuse the Obama administration of threatening our world hegemony.  But there is no world hegemony to threaten.  There was an American empire, emerging after WW-II.  But it is now gone, and anyone worrying about the U.S. slipping into third world irrelevance sometime in the future hasn’t been paying attention in the present.

The Roman Empire took centuries to collapse.  Eventually, the military that was supposed to defend the Empire turned on their masters and sacked the City of Rome.

The British Empire took centuries to decline.  The American colonies broke away in 1775 and after WW-II the remaining British colonies broke free.  Symptomatic of the collapse were the sailor’s revolts at Spithead and Nore, and the charge of the Light Brigade.

For both of these empires, a major factor in their collapse was the corruption of their military systems.  In Rome, everyone with enough money could have his own army.  Military men were trained to be loyal to whom ever paid them.  They had no loyalty to the state, and eventually sacked the City of Rome when they weren’t paid enough.

The Spithead Mutiny rose among sailors whose rations were diverted by suppliers and whose pay had been reduced in much the same way as today’s middle class workers’ pay has been falling.  While the sailors were impoverished, their officers prospered.  They got money diverted from ship building, from the purchase of the supplies need to run ships and from the provisions on which sailors were supposed to live.

The Charge of the Light Brigade came 57 years after the Spithead Mutiny.  Of 673 men sent down what Tennyson called “The Valley of Death” only a third returned.  Claiming a great victory, the British army honored those who sacrificed their men, and kept in place a system under which military resources were devoted to keeping the officer class in comfort, rather than keeping the military prepared to defend the empire.

The government’s decision to honor the generals and ignore the failures led directly to the sacrifice of thousands of troops at Khartoum, in 1885, and to Gallipoli and the stalemates and losses in the trenches of WW-I.

While it took both Rome and Britain centuries to dissipate their empires, modern technology has allowed businessmen to do the same to the United States’ empire in only decades.

The British Generals claimed that any errors in the Charge of the Light Brigade were due to “communications errors” in transmitting orders and in analyzing the battlefield, with no responsibility ascribed to anyone.  After 9-11, we were told that many people died because fire and police agencies didn’t share radio frequencies and operating procedures, because vendors got more profit by selling unique systems to each agency.  After we were promised improvements on those failures, we saw them precisely repeated, four years later during hurricane Katrina.

But plenty of politicians and police, fire and emergency directors were praised for their planning, after 9-11 and after Katrina.  We continue to praise the Generals and Colonels who arrange contracts that guarantee profits to companies who make inadequate body and Humvee armor.  We continue to give no-bid contracts to companies like KBR, even after dozens of our soldiers have been electrocuted in KBR field showers with faulty wiring.

We went from dominating the world, technically, medically, educationally and militarily, at the end of WW-II, to being a laughingstock.  The people who lay the IEDs along roads in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply following the footsteps of the Vietnamese farmers who pushed us out of their country in 1975.

The people who fire AK-47s at U.S. troops know, perhaps better than U.S. voters, that the men who conquered Europe with M-1 rifles now carry fancy weapons which have regularly failed in combat from Vietnam to Afghanistan.  But which are sold at huge profit to the Pentagon, with generous “consulting fees” to the Pentagon Colonels of corruption who approve the sales.

This spring we learned that Tea Party Republican Congressman Harold Rogers has demanded that the Pentagon add a $15,000 premium to the price of each $2,500 helicopter oil pan it buys from one of his campaign supporters.  It is simply a private grab of millions of dollars that the congressman will share with the profiteer.

Even when the Pentagon tries to do right, the corporate profiteers interfere.  Last week, the Tea Party Republican congress voted to bar the Pentagon from developing alternate fuel sources that the Pentagon says are needed to reduce dependency on foreign oil sources and multinational oil cartels.  Protecting oil profits is more important than providing a national defense.

Our empire was destroyed when corporations abandoned competitive business to suck at the Pentagon tit.  People who deny “American Exceptionalism” should acknowledge that the exceptional greed of the American corporate right destroyed the American empire in an exceptionally brief time.  What took Rome and Britain centuries to do, corporate greed did to the U.S. in the time between the end of WW-II and the election of Ronald Reagan (who handed out more military medals to desk bound officers for the invasion of Grenada than the number of soldiers who actually participated in the invasion).

People who think that the U.S. is somehow a military threat to the rest of the world should reflect on how corporate profiteering has degraded our capability.  While raping our military with no-bid contracts and degrading our care for injured veterans, the profiteers have also moved to deregulate and end inspections of parts for military hardware.  We now “repair” our war machines with counterfeit parts from China and where ever else the profiteers can get them made cheaply with lesser materials.

The under-paid, under-fed and under-equipped sailors who mutinied at Spithead worked in a navy which had, as a primary task, protecting the fleets of merchant vessels bringing wealth to England and to the merchant classes who used their new wealth to buy titles and estates and political sinecures, just as our military has been used to guard our corporate interests around the world.

Not satisfied with enjoying vast taxpayer expenditures on a navy to protect them, these merchants also insisted on getting into the building and supplying of ships.  Rather than thank the tax-paid sailors for their service, they insisted on grabbing a cut of the funds used to equip, feed and care for the sailors.

So it was with U.S. industries.  In WW-II, we showed the world how fast and how successfully American workers could design and build remarkable machinery, and innovate technology as experience dictated the need.  But during the war, as Prescott Bush innovated ways to finance and fuel the German war machine, other industrialists saw that government contracts could guarantee profits with no need for quality control or even basic utility in the products sold to government.  They innovated cost-plus and no-bid contracting.

Like the officers who grew fat in the British navy, while the sailors saw their real incomes drop, these companies grew fat while their workers see real declines in their wages.

Like the British army at Balaclava and Gallipoli, these companies have brought our Pentagon to a point where it can guarantee profits, but can’t provide bulletproof vests or Humvees to its troops.  It can’t provide medical care to our injured personnel.  And with vastly overpriced drones and computers, it can’t keep farmers and village elders from planting IEDs or from driving our tanks, radar and laser sites off of mountainsides in the Afghan desert.

Willard M. Romney is campaigning with promises that he will end the withdrawal from Afghanistan and will start a war with Iran.  But how?  Our closest allies won’t join us in his promised new wars.  Decades of corporate greed have degraded our military.  The past decade of colonial wars has left the Pentagon gasping.  And even as our troops stagger, the corporate Party suggests only budgeting for more irrelevant, high tech profit center “weapons” (most of which will never work).

Tom HallRomney’s bluster is only noise in the wind.  The American Exceptionalism that matters to the rest of the world is the example that we used to set for loving freedom and working for a better world.  While the “Exceptionalism” of war profiteering leads to further degradation of our military, the rest of the world can cling to and work with those concepts of freedom and progress that we used to champion, but that we have discarded as we slip into irrelevance.

Tom Hall

Posted: Monday, 11 June 2012

Comments

  1. JoeWeinstein says

    This article is utterly incoherent. 

    It’s claimed to be an ‘elegy’ for ‘our empire’ – but nowhere tells us exactly what that ‘empire’ does – or did – consist of. 

    The article focuses on corruption in the realm of military equipment supply.  Such corruption is not news – whether for the USA or indeed other nations right now, or for other nations in the past, including past empires like Britain and Rome and China. 

    Contrary to the article’s tacit implications, such corruption is not what did in those empires.   In fact, an empire – or any country – can stay intact even with a lot of corruption, so long as – when it comes to defending essential (as versus elective tangential) interests it can still muster more effective force than can any one opponent or bloc of opponents.  And, by the way, that situation indeed remains the case right now for the USA. 
     
    The article concludes debatably that the USA is no longer the vanguard example for the good old  ‘Exceptionalist’ causes of ‘loving freedom’ and ‘working for a better world’.   Even if the claim is correct, the article is wrong to imply that therefore some other nations are now – or have been or soon will be – doing a better job for these causes.  Which nations are they??   A few small ones, maybe, but no big ones.  Freedom and progress are not zero-sum commodities:  America’s decline – actual or alleged – does not imply gains for anyone else.   

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