Empire Strikes Back

Imperialism, Past and Present

Storm clouds pass over the top of the Empire State Building in New York, June 13, 2013. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

In 2010, a disturbing report made its entry into an already upsetting news cycle. Members of a U.S. Army brigade, assembled into a self-proclaimed “kill team,” had indiscriminately targeted civilians in southern Afghanistan. As trophies for their deeds, the soldiers collected fingers, leg bones, and skulls from their victims. Photos taken by the soldiers posing next to dead bodies came to light, along with the fact that the main instigator kept tally of each victim by having skulls tattooed on his calf.

Such news reports, a sadly recurring feature of contemporary life, trace a predictable arc. The initial horror quickly subsides in the face of official reassurances and the unrelenting tide of other news. Should the public seek to draw lasting political conclusions from such horrors, it will be predictably reminded that there is only one: that an atavistic darkness has lurked in the hearts of man since the emergence of the species.

Even a cursory reflection on the available facts, however, shows that such atrocities are not aberrations committed in a political vacuum. Calvin Gibbs, the main instigator of the kill team in Afghanistan, bragged about having done the same things during the occupation of Iraq. But collecting the remains of the enemy was also widely practiced by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. And when Gibbs referred to the victims of his grisly deeds as “dirty savages,” he was, consciously or not, tapping into an entrenched history of conquest and occupation.

The horrors of the past live in the horrors of the present, and a responsible engagement with the latter requires an understanding of the former. But if a sense of historical continuity is indispensible in dealing with contemporary problems, it would also be incorrect to paint such continuities with too broad a brush. War and violence have been with us for a long time. But the political and economic parameters through which they are produced and reproduced today are part of a historical epoch of which the present

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