American Ziggurats

Bertolt Brecht wrote this of empire long ago:

“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? …
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up?”

In the case of the American imperium, such as it is, the builders seem largely to have been in the hire of our vice president’s favorite corporation, Halliburton (and its subsidiary KBR). So here’s a quick whirl through the monuments of our empire – through, that is, Halliburton World.

American Ziggurats

IraqCamp Victory North: A monument to Halliburton’s construction skills and one of the largest American bases built anywhere in the world since the Vietnam War, Camp Victory North is little short of “a small American city,” meant to hold 14,000 troops. It has the only Burger King stand in Iraq as well as “a gym, the country’s biggest PX – and, of course, a separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and logistical support.” Its name, with that “mission accomplished” ring to it, caught the spirit of a moment. When it turned out that victory in Iraq had, like all those WMD, gone missing in action, it was redubbed Camp Liberty (scroll down), freedom evidently being what you get when victory is beyond reach. Had Bush-era military commanders been in a more modest or even prophetic mood in 2003, they might have named the base Camp Stalemate, Camp Quagmire, or even Camp Defeat. While the cost of Camp Liberty remains unknown, literally billions of dollars have gone into America’s “enduring camps” (as they were for a time so charmingly called lest we have “permanent bases” in Iraq). Monuments to the neocon empire-to-come, such bases newly built across the “arc of instability,” elaborately linked into an American global communications network, were never meant for the likes of Iraqis. Of course, our mega-base in Danang wasn’t meant for the likes of Vietnamese either.

AfghanistanThe Salt Pit: An interrogation and prison facility built, run, and paid for by the CIA, but ostensibly an “Afghan” prison, the “Salt Pit” was set up inside the shell of an abandoned Kabul brick factory. It is known that at least one prisoner, left bruised and naked in his cell, froze to death there under CIA care. Relocated onto Bagram Air Force Base, a former Russian enduring camp that is now the key American military center in the country, it remains a marvel of Dick Cheney’s Interrogation World and part of a network of semi-secret interrogation centers, holding camps, and prisons set up by the U.S. that has turned Afghanistan, in the words of two British reporters who visited some of the sites, into the “hub” of a global interrogation system. Maybe it’s not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but hanging from a wall in chains isn’t out of the question.

CubaGuantánamo: Located in balmy Cuba is a tropical paradise of a prison, as our secretary of defense pointed out. (“Guantánamo Bay’s climate is different than Afghanistan. To be in an 8-by-8 cell in beautiful, sunny Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is not inhumane treatment.”) Built just offshore from the continental U.S. on territory ceded to us more or less in perpetuity and, the Bush administration hoped, just far enough away to be beyond the oversight of Congress or the courts, it was another KBR construction playground. A “model facility,” according to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers, it is a must-stop on any tour of imperial hot spots and highlights. We suggest you book passage well in advance. The group tours are somewhat controlled and limited in nature, as a UN rights team found out recently, and air travel conditions to the prison are considered rough. Dog lovers are, however, especially welcomed.

The Bavarian AlpsEdelweiss Lodge and Resort: For hardworking American military personnel (and fans of The Sound of Music) tired of holding down a recalcitrant world, a little peaceable kingdom that offers a few quiet hours zipping down snow-covered slopes or a wondrous weekend away from it all, without a mortar shell or IED in sight. In fact, no one should miss the Pentagon’s Edelweiss Lodge and Resort with its Alpental Golf Course, Hausberg Sport Lodge, and (among its many restaurants) Zuggy’s Base Camp, a mountain-style bistro – not to speak of the well-advertised guided tours to nearby “Dachau World War II Concentration Camp” and Hitler’s lovely hideaway and aerie, Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest. (“Service members and their families on R&R leave or block leave status from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the Balkans are all eligible to receive this incredible package deal.”) Edelweiss is part of another kind of monumental global network – Armed Forces Recreation Centers – that includes the Dragon Hill Lodge, described this way: “Welcome to the Land of the Morning Calm in Seoul, Korea. Supporting the Yongsan military community, Dragon Hill Lodge has a myriad of services including a first class fitness and health club, restaurants, lounges, and a specialty shopping mall. The hotel is a pleasant escape from the bustle and excitement of downtown Seoul.”

Something Borrowed (or Empire-on-the-Sly, CIA-Style)

Prisons and torture facilities in such allied countries as Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Syria, and elsewhere. Just the perfect place to send a kidnapped terror suspect, snatched off the streets of any city in the world.

Airfields in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Malta, and other centrally located yet out of the way spots where you can touch down while secretly facilitating CIA renditions of torture suspects to the facilities mentioned above – as well as convenient fields in such terrorism vacation spots as Baghdad, Cairo, Tashkent, and Kabul. Heck, what’s a little national sovereignty when you’re an empire!

Compounds of the former Soviet gulag (possibly in Poland and Romania) to stash away prisoners and trigger memories of fallen empires past.

Five-star hotels to hang out in (at the taxpayer’s expense) while you prepare to snatch war-on-terror suspects off the streets of Milan or rest up from the extraordinary exertions of extraordinary renditions.

Touring the Ruins of Empire

Who doesn’t like a good imperial ruin? Millions flock to Pompeii, so why not Sunny Fallujah, once the “city of mosques” with a quarter-million inhabitants, but massively destroyed in November 2004 by American planes, artillery, tanks, and mortars and now being picturesquely rebuilt as a giant Orwellian prison-camp city. Don’t miss the retinal ID scans on your way in, but be careful to stay in your Humvee. Despite the best efforts of the American military, dangers abound.

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from