Many books have been written about the rise and fall of great powers. Authors after the fact speculate on what went wrong and how the decline started, while those contemporary writers during the ascendance promise a future of brilliance and endless prosperity. For every Edward Gibbon who looks back fondly on empire and diagnoses blame to alien infections, there are those who imagine the future glory of a thousand year Reich. In our own time we are witnessing the decline of a mono-polar moment of a solely American dominated international order, perhaps returning to the tradition of competing empires.
Selected here are some books that depict the American empire based on its aggressive deeds rather than any promises or unrealized ideals. It is criticism which in itself omits the contribution of culture, industry, and ideology that were spread by, and often despite, the central government of the United States. These are the books that do not delve into the ‘lesser of evils’ argumentation or sing the praise of the U.S. Navy’s insurance to global trade. These are biographies of an empire that is capable of horrible acts, even under guise of trade and liberty.
It is the empire of imperialistic anti-imperialism.
Each of these books are written by an American, making the views autobiographical. Criticism of a nation or empire is not an endorsement of its rivals, past or present. An understanding of history is determined by admissions just as much as omissions. Those who view their empire with a sense of spiritual destiny and benevolence tend to omit certain events; those in favor of the U.S. empire are no different. It is important not to shy away from the moments that are often redacted or downplayed, and to confront facts rather than bury them. Here are books that may help you find such facts.
Killing Hope by William Blum
“U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II,” is the sub-heading for Blum’s book. It’s a guidebook to U.S. government violence, broken down geographically and historically to cover the litany of actions taken by Washington in the pursuit of “anti-communism.” The energies following World War II instilled the United States and its allies with what the Japanese call “victory fever,” an overconfidence that success is granted. With its ability to exert soft power and influence in conjunction with economic and military might, the United States does not require colonies in the traditional sense, but only bases and proxies.
Killing Hope, much like Blum’s Rogue State, is a catalogue on the reality of the modern empire. To those within it, life may be prosperous and great nationalist pride can be taken in such relative freedoms. In the periphery, the relationship with the United States is different. Published in 2003, the post-9/11 wars were still emerging, the George W. Bush administration was at the height of its power, and the United States was on the cusp of its greatest hubris.
Perils of Dominance by Gareth Porter
The U.S. war in Southeast Asia is an important milestone for the modern American psyche. It exposed both hubris and over reach, two lessons that were learned and then lost. In his book, Porter makes a compelling case that the Vietnam War was possible at such a scale because the United States had become the singular dominant power on the planet, and its rivals knew it. Though the Soviet Union and the fractured communist bloc stood as an ideological and geopolitical rival, they were mostly defensive and inferior to the United States and its western allies. The Vietnam War was executed in such a one-sided manner because despite rhetorical and some material support, the Chinese and Soviet governments were incapable of doing much else.
The United States established a solitary dominance in the years following World War II that has never been experienced by another power since. Porter makes the case that the Vietnam war was the pinnacle of this reality, and the specter of the Soviet Union as a threatening equal only served specific interests in the United States. The Soviet Union as a global rival lacked any realistic parity with the United States and its allies. The American failure in Vietnam was an outcome of the dominance complex that the U.S. exhibited then and has gone on to repeat since.
Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse
If Gareth Porter provides the macro depiction of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, Nick Turse offers the gory truth of what the war entailed. A book of atrocities that only the singular super power can get away with, each page is inked in the blood of the innocent who were made to suffer beneath the weight of policy. Turse’s sources are U.S. government records he came across while researching veteran PTSD. It turns out that witnessing and committing war crimes can take its toll on the instigators. As is often the case however, the victims become a forgotten fallen, relegated to the status of statistical props tossed into unmarked graves beneath the weight of history and warriors’ glory.
If The Rape of Nangking by Iris Chang is the gruesome truth of the Japanese empire at the height of its power, then Kill Anything That Moves reveals the American empire at a similar time. Using first accounts and reports from U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, the book is a terrible read, full of incidents that turn the stomach in detail. It is with a callous disregard to the lives of others that professional killers are able to go about their business. The otherwise ordinary men of the US of A rape, torture, and murder in the name of policy. The incidents in Turse’s book are not unique to the U.S. soldier in Vietnam, and they are not uniquely American in nature. The exceptionalism of the United States is not above the killing of innocent civilians. It’s a book that should be a sobering experience for even the most jingoistic nationalist.
Hegemony of Survival by Noam Chomsky
I would be remiss not to include a book by Noam Chomsky in a list of those that condemn U.S. foreign policy. A constant stalwart in the antiwar movement for decades, in Hegemony of Survival Chomsky gives a good overview and simultaneous companion for his other writings on U.S. foreign policy. As a book it is at times sarcastic and cynical, often drawing attention to a mentality that exists inside of the United States towards the rest of the world; a perspective of a world that is viewed entirely through American interests.
For those who are familiar with Chomsky and his view on the U.S. government, this book is nothing new. To anyone who has yet to experience a Chomsky book, it can be a cold shower to wash away the privileged perspective of American exceptionalism. This book is included as a symbolic emblem of Chomsky and his writings as a whole, not because this book stands above any others by him.
We Kill Because We Can by Laurie Calhoun
In many ways this is a book that is a spiritual sibling to Kill Anything That Moves, the twenty-first century fulfilment of the techno-war that was attempted in Vietnam. An arrogant stand-off approach to the air war, as the British implemented in the years following World War I when aircraft were used to kill and intimidate colonial dissidents, a century later the United States has pushed the frontiers of allowable usage of drones from surveillance to assassination. Calhoun writes with a philosophical touch while giving us a historical depth on the subject that will make this book evergreen for generations. It is through her philosophical humanity that Calhoun delves into the consequences of the drone policy, while using the relatibility of film as an illustration for moral concepts and dystopian parallels.
The title of the book essentially conveys an attitude that can be found through much of history and especially in modern American policymaking; to kill, regardless, because they can and because they are the powerful, the mighty. The defenders of government often cite rule of law and the importance of stability and order, yet government often breaks its own rules and the international order. The drone killings are just one example of this hypocrisy. Though as a book it provides an overview of the technological killing, it also expresses the callous disregard to the legacy consequences that those inventing and executing such policy exhibit.
Enough Already by Scott Horton
As a follow up to Fool’s Errand, a history of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, Enough Already colors the rest of the landscape for the U.S. terror wars. The war in Afghanistan is a key segment of such a totality, a very bloody chapter to a book that is filled with detail about the destructive nature of U.S. foreign policy. In what may very well be the final decades of the U.S. empire, Horton is able to capture the events crucial to such a demise. Starting in the late 1970s with the Jimmy Carter presidency helps lay the ground work that leads to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the many expeditions related to the Global War on Terror.
Horton does a good job painting the landscape of the late Cold War period where both the United States, its allies, and its soon to be enemies would learn the lessons of victory over the Soviet Union. The transformation of the United States from a rival to the USSR to becoming the singular superpower re-directed focus into waging a war on Iraq and eventually against the abstract of terrorism. Horton’s depth of knowledge and ability to link complicated histories is what makes this book and his other work a bedrock to understanding the imperfect ambitions of the U.S. empire.
Many other books exist that are worthy of inclusion. Each as those mentioned are colored by an inherent bias, and a focus on criticism of the United States. Whether one reads Howard Zinn, James W. Loewen, or Sidney Lens you’ll find a history built on slavery, broken promises, and expansion. It is a history that is best known for its lies and omissions. As the frontiers evaporated, the promise of a great republic of liberty eroded until eventually it became a myth. No one seriously believes the Romulus and Reemus story for the birth of Rome, yet it was taught and understood as a truth (or at least a seed that strengthened a self belief for an empire). The United States is no different with its own self-belief and myths. And despite much evidence, the promising romance persists and we hear the deflection that it could always be worse if another power had control.
Contained in the above books are merely the facts of an imperial reality, an empire that is refreshed not by the blood of patriots but the tears of the innocent and countless bones buried in unmarked graves. We lie with our words but tell the truth with our deeds. The same is true for all empires, especially the American one. There is nothing exceptional about imperialism and war.