The Graveyard of Empires? Let’s hope so.


December 3, 2009. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1945, Europe was convulsed by almost perpetual armed conflict.

Invasions across the marchlands of one fiefdom or another, crusades sent off to murder residents of other parts of the world, dynastic struggles, revolutions, imperial conquests, religious wars, civil wars, peasant uprisings, explosive arms races triggered by fantasies about striking a “balance of great powers” – virtually every form of mass violence one can think of, interrupted only by brief intervals of exhausted “peace.”

From the mid-17th Century on, much of the bloodiest fighting centered upon imperial conquest and the rush to gobble up colonies that, as often as not, turned out to be net economic losses for the victors. By the early 1900s, the outward momentum – and ideological rationalizations — that led to European rule over three-quarters of the globe returned to the source and, with inevitable political and military logic, inflicted the savagery of two world wars. Together, those wars claimed the lives of 60 to 80 million people and ushered in the Atomic Age, the first time human beings acquired the power to extinguish themselves as a species.

Though it took a few years to tie up loose ends, the Allied victory in ’45 brought the curtain down on the Age of Imperialism; even the victors were so drained, materially and financially, that they could no longer maintain control of the colonies they had acquired at the cost of such treasure. At long last, a chastened Europe gave up its addiction to war and become the relatively peaceful place it is today.

Listening to Barack Obama’s speech outlining his proposed surge in Afghanistan, it was impossible for me not to hear echoes of all the reasonable sounding speeches delivered by Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and a host of other ostensibly sane, sometimes even humane (at least in the case of Johnson) political leaders and policy experts presenting their plans for “winning” the Vietnam War or, if not winning it, then at least securing a “Peace with Honor.”

I will not belabor here all the many reasons why Barack Obama’s vision for America’s increased involvement in Afghanistan is likely to lead us down the same primrose path. What I will say is that I can see one overriding reason to support his plan, though it has nothing to do with the rationale laid out by Mr. Obama. <!–[endif]–>

As we are so frequently reminded, Afghanistan has a long history of defeating invaders, but it was only during the 19th and early 20th century – when the European powers were engaged in what they cynically called The Great Game – that it earned the sobriquet of “The Graveyard of Empires.”

If, in fact, Afghanistan really is the graveyard of empires, then I say, so be it. Let’s do it. Let’s finish off the American version of empire before it ends up finishing us all off instead.

As I have repeated tirelessly in this space (and, no doubt, tiresomely, too), there is not a single social, political or economic pathology plaguing the United States that is not directly or indirectly attributable to our progressive militarization – the fact that we have been at war or in preparation for war for nearly 70 years, with all the requisite wasteful spending, erosion of civil liberties, and deteriorating infrastructure, including our educational and health care systems.

If Afghanistan is what it is going to take to extinguish our fixation on organized violence; if it is what it is going to take to bring us to our senses, to eliminate once and for all our delusions of exceptionalism and entitlement, then so be it.

The cost of marching blindly in the footsteps of the Macedonians, the Russians, the French, and the English into Afghanistan will be ghastly. I wish there were another way. But having lived for more than half a century in this country, I am convinced there is not.

We are hopelessly addicted to self-destructive behaviors – behaviors fueled by deeply ingrained habits of the mind and spirit. Even now, in the midst of the DTs of financial meltdown, corruption, foreclosures and a real unemployment rate that we have not witnessed since 1939, we are still waking up every morning and metaphorically reaching for another drink, still tying off for another fix. This might be our last chance. Sober up or die.

The Graveyard of Empires? Let’s hope so. And the quicker the better.