Stepping out of the San Jose airport, I spied my driver waiting patiently with a little cardboard sign saying “Rick Steves.” Shaking his hand and identifying myself to him, I was interrupted by a good-looking, strapping young Marine in uniform. He apparently had seen the sign and was waiting to ambush me with a message. He said, “Excuse me, Mr. Steves. With the success of the coalition’s surge, do you take back your words about the war now?”
He caught me completely by surprise. He rattled me right out of a light and happy mood. I needed to respond. Without thinking much, I blurted out, “Surge or no surge, our war in Iraq is a waste of $2 trillion dollars and lots of blood.” As I hustled on toward my car, he responded almost as if saluting me, saying, “And we will fight and die to defend your freedom to say that.”
Settling into my car, I marveled at the illogic of soldiers “defending my freedom of speech” in Iraq. I wished I had time to actually talk with that Marine…about empire.
In preparation for a talk I was giving at the San Jose Commonwealth Club that afternoon, I looked up the meaning of “empire.” I found this definition: “An empire is a state that extends its dominion over a population that is distinct ethnically and culturally from the culture and ethnicity of that state’s center of power…usually with coercion.”
“Empire” certainly has a negative connotation — bloody, keeping people down, militaristic. The Bible teaches that empire and Christ were (and are) at odds.
While we are not your standard political empire, I see our nation acting like an empire. Our country, with four percent of the planet’s population, spends as much on its military as every other nation combined (and, these days, it’s tough to get elected without promising even more). We maintain military bases in 130 countries as if it’s our right to do so. In many foreign lands, the biggest and most fortified building in the entire country is the embassy of the USA. Only we can declare the natural resources of another nation on the opposite side of the globe (e.g., oil in the Middle East) “vital to our national security interests.” I believe it would be more honest to justify our foreign policy by calling those resources “vital to our material lifestyle.”
A friend of mine recently made a strong case trying to convince me that, as a taxpayer of a country at war, I am not an “innocent civilian” but a combatant. I do believe that, when we wage a war, every bullet that flies and every bomb that falls — whether justified or not — has my name on it. (That’s why sometimes I can’t just “lighten up.”)
In my office, I have a statue I purchased at a Christmas market in Central America. Every winter, poor children in places like El Salvador buy these painted clay figurines with three characters: a bloody slain peasant (the “Christ figure”) at the feet of two camouflaged, US-equipped-and-funded soldiers (tools of empire). Each Christmas, Christian peasants scoot these gory trios into their manger scenes along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds — empowered by this vivid (Liberation Theology) reminder of Roman Empire/American Empire parallels.
Good Americans can differ on whether our foreign policy is right or wrong, if our latest war is justified, and to what degree we are an empire. But it is clear that we are seen by others as an empire.
Empires always have angry people on their fringes nipping at them. Throughout history, the “Redcoats” of various empires have wished their enemies would line up in formation so they could carpet-bomb them. But any guerilla commander knows that, when fighting an empire, you strike from the bushes.
Empires call these people different things: “barbarians” eventually sacked Rome; “anarchists” assassinated the prince and eventually brought down the Hapsburgs; and today “terrorists” threaten America. Just as earlier empires broadened the meaning of those other terms, we will see more and more angry enemies of “our interests” labeled “terrorists” — whether villagers in the Niger Delta fighting international oil companies, Palestinians chafing at new walls, guerillas fighting US anti-drug forces in South America, or suicide bombers offended by Christian troops in their holy land.
As we fight “terrorists” on more and more fronts, I think it would be more honest if we called our military “forces of the empire” rather than “coalition forces.” (By the way, I found it extremely annoying that the USSR claimed to put down popular uprisings in Czechoslovakia and Hungary with “Warsaw Pact” troops — clearly a sham “coalition.”)
Thankfully, unlike empires of the past, we have the freedom (that the Marine in San Jose believes he is defending) to change a course that unites angry people against us. Using our democracy and freedom as a weapon, we can design a happier ending than that which finished the story of Rome, the Hapsburgs, and other long-gone empires.