In my home in the early 1950s, we lived Life to the fullest (with the Saturday Evening Post and Look thrown in for good measure). In fact, from those largely print media years " we got our first black-and-white TV in 1953 " I can still remember a Life cover photo showing the pained face of an American soldier caught up in the Korean War. (Perhaps he was awaiting a Chinese attack during the retreat from Chosin Reservoir. It must have been one of photographer David Douglas Duncan's grim and moving wartime shots and, of all the far cheerier covers of that magazine, it's the one that stays in my mind, however faintly, so many years later. I couldn't even tell you why, but I think of that as my personal introduction to "the American Century."
That phrase, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich reminds us today, came from a 1941 Life editorial by its owner, media mogul Henry Luce. My father, like so many Americans, had played his own small role in the launching of that century. He was operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma in World War II. In Terry and the Pirates, a popular comic strip of the time " cartoonists of every sort "mobilized" for that war " his unit's co-commander, Phil Cochran, became the character "Flip Corkin." Strip creator Milton Caniff even put my father jokingly into a May 1944 strip using his nickname, "Englewillie."
However, my own true introduction to that all-American century, which has, sadly enough, proven anything but comic, came in the Vietnam War years. I wasn't in the U.S. military, but a tiny part of the huge antiwar movement of that nightmarish era of American war-making. It was a response to a disastrous conflict in which millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, as well as 58,000 Americans, would die. Consider it the catastrophic follow-up to the Korean War. (Everything lost, nothing learned, you might say.) Asia, in fact, should have been the burial site for that century. (Of course, if we truly end up in a deeply cold or even hot war with a rising China in this century, it may still be that and perhaps take the rest of the planet down with us.)
Sadly enough, no lessons were drawn from those disasters or there never would have been the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And now, here we are on a planet heating to the boiling point in a country coming apart at the seams and 81 years into that American century of ours, in our own deeply disturbing way, it looks like we might be saying goodbye to all that. But let Bacevich explain. Tom
Henry Luce's Dream Comes Undone
"The American Century Is Over." So claims the July 2022 cover of Harper's Magazine, adding an all-too-pertinent question: "What's Next?"
What, indeed? Eighty years after the United States embarked upon the Great Crusade of World War II, a generation after it laid claim to the status of sole superpower following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two decades after the Global War on Terror was to remove any lingering doubts about who calls the shots on Planet Earth, the question could hardly be more timely.
"Empire Burlesque," Daniel Bessner's Harper's cover story, provides a useful, if preliminary, answer to a question most members of our political class, preoccupied with other matters, would prefer to ignore. Yet the title of the essay contains a touch of genius, capturing as it does in a single concise phrase the essence of the American Century in its waning days.
On the one hand, given Washington's freewheeling penchant for using force to impose its claimed prerogatives abroad, the imperial nature of the American project has become self-evident. When the U.S. invades and occupies distant lands or subjects them to punishment, concepts like freedom, democracy, and human rights rarely figure as more than afterthoughts. Submission, not liberation defines the underlying, if rarely acknowledged, motivation behind Washington's military actions, actual or threatened, direct or through proxies.
On the other hand, the reckless squandering of American power in recent decades suggests that those who preside over the American imperium are either stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters. Intent on perpetuating some form of global hegemony, they have accelerated trends toward national decline, while seemingly oblivious to the actual results of their handiwork.
Consider the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. It has rightly prompted a thorough congressional investigation aimed at establishing accountability. All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, however, the trillions of dollars wasted and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during our post-9/11 wars have been essentially written off as the cost of doing business. Here we glimpse the essence of twenty-first-century bipartisanship, both parties colluding to ignore disasters for which they share joint responsibility, while effectively consigning the vast majority of ordinary citizens to the status of passive accomplices.
Bessner, who teaches at the University of Washington, is appropriately tough on the (mis)managers of the contemporary American empire. And he does a good job of tracing the ideological underpinnings of that empire back to their point of origin. On that score, the key date is not 1776, but 1941. That was the year when the case for American global primacy swept into the marketplace of ideas, making a mark that persists to the present day.
God on Our Side
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