Missing Word, Missing World

Graduates of the Bush years, initiates of the Obama era, if you think of a commencement address as a kind of sermon, then every sermon needs its text. Here’s the one I’ve chosen for today, suitably obscure and yet somehow ringing:

“The idea that somehow counterterrorism is a homeland security issue doesn’t make sense when you recognize the fact that terror around the world doesn’t recognize borders. There is no right-hand, left-hand anymore.”

That’s taken directly from the new national security bible of Obama National Security Adviser (and ex-Marine general) James Jones. He said it last week at a press briefing. The occasion was the integration of a Bush-era creation, the Homeland Security Council – which, if you’re like me, you had never heard of until it lost its independence – into the National Security Council, which Jones runs, a move that probably represents yet another consolidation of power inside a historically ever more imperial White House.

After four years in this college, I assume you are students of the word, and like all biblical texts, this one must be interpreted. It must be read. So let’s start by thinking of it this way: If we are, in some sense, defined by our enemies, then consider this description of terrorism – even though most acts of terror are undoubtedly committed by locally minded individuals – as something like a shadow thrown on a wall. The looming figure to which the shadow belongs is not, however, al-Qaeda, but us. We are, after all, in the war-on-terror business. It’s how we’ve defined ourselves these last years.

If you accept Jones’ definition, then you only have to go a modest distance to conclude that we are the other great force on the planet that “doesn’t recognize borders.” Keep in mind that, right now, we’re fighting at least two-and-a-half wars thousands of miles from this sylvan campus, and in your name no less. When it comes to our “national security,” as we define it, borders turn out to matter remarkably little in a pinch, as long, of course, as they’re other people’s borders.

After all, we have established an extensive network of military bases, some gigantic, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and secured the right to treat them essentially as U.S. territory; we have hundreds of such bases, large and small, scattered across the Earth, most not in war zones, a startling number of them built up into impressive “little Americas.” It’s through them that we garrison much of the planet (something you will almost never see commented upon in the mainstream media, obvious though it may be). Our drone aircraft, flown by remote control from bases in the United States, now regularly patrol distant skies, as if borders did not exist, to smite our foes, whatever any locals might think. Typically, as far as we know, our secret warriors continue to fund, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a Bush-era project, which also knows no borders, aimed at destabilizing the Iranian government.

The Architecture of Meaning

Instead of simply continuing down this superhighway of borderlessness, let’s just consider two sentences buried deep in a recent piece on the inside pages of the New York Times about a roadside explosive device in Iraq that killed three Americans in a vehicle. It’s the sort of thing that Americans tend not to find strange in the least. So as an experiment, try, as I read it aloud, to take in the deep strangeness it represents:

“The Americans were driving along a road used exclusively by the American military and reconstruction teams when a bomb, which local Iraqi security officials described as an improvised explosive device, went off. No Iraqi vehicles, even those of the army and the police, are allowed to use the road where the attack occurred, according to residents.”

Keep in mind that this isn’t a restricted road in Langley, Va. It’s a road outside the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where we conducted two massive, city-destroying assaults back in 2004; in other words, the road which “no Iraqi vehicles … are allowed to use” is thousands of miles and many borders away from Washington.

And that’s nothing really. If you want to know something about American “impunity” – a fine 19th-century word that should be more widely used today – when it comes to Iraq’s borders, get your hands on the text of Order 17. That order was issued by our viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, back in the salad days of the Bush administration, when that era’s neocons thought the world was their oyster (or perhaps their oil well).

Promulgated on the eve of the supposed “return of sovereignty” to Iraq in 2004, Order 17 gave new meaning to the term “Free World.” In intent, it was a perpetual American get-out-of-jail-free card. If I were the president of this college, I would assign Order 17 to be read as part of a campus-wide course on magical imperial realism. Here’s but one passage I’ve summarized from that document:

"All foreigners (read: Americans) involved in the occupation project were to be granted ‘freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq,’ and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be ‘subject to registration, licensing or inspection by the [Iraqi] government.’ Nor in traveling would foreign diplomats, soldiers, consultants, or security guards, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to ‘dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees,’ and so on. And don’t forget that on imports, including ‘controlled substances,’ there were to be no customs fees (or inspections), taxes, or much of anything else; nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of occupied Iraqi ‘headquarters, camps, and other premises,’ nor for the use of electricity, water, or other utilities."

Or, since actual architecture, like the architecture of language, is revealing, consider our most recent embassy-building practices. An embassy is, almost by definition, the face of our country, of us, abroad. For our embassy in embattled Iraq, the Bush administration ponied up almost three-quarters of a billion dollars (including cost overruns). The result, now opened, is the largest embassy compound on the planet.

It’s about the size of Vatican City, a self-enclosed world with its own elaborate defenses and amenities inside the citadel of Baghdad’s Green Zone. Staffed by approximately 1,000 “diplomats,” it’s the sort of place Cold War Washington might once have dreamed of building in Moscow (not that the Russians would have let them).

Do the Iraqis want such an establishment in their capital? Would you, if it was a foreign “embassy” in your land? Once again, that old-fashioned word “impunity,” which once went so well with words like “freebooter” and “extraterritoriality,” seems apt. We still practice a version of freebooting, we still have our own version of extraterritoriality, and we do it all with impunity.

In our era, the imperial mother ship landed in a country the size of California, but with a fraction of its population, that just happens to have a lot of untapped reserves of hydrocarbons. But that, I’m sure you’re thinking, was the Bush era. You know, the years of over-the-top unilateralism that crashed and burned along with those dreams of a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana.

You might think so, but the news – what’s left of it anyway – tells a different story. When it comes to “change you can believe in,” a recent piece by Saeed Shah and Warren P. Stroebel of the McClatchy newspapers caught my eye. They wrote: “The White House has asked Congress for – and seems likely to receive – $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.”

In other words, the Obama administration is asking Congress to fork over almost the exact price of our monster embassy in Baghdad (after staggering cost overruns). Figure those always predictable overruns into this project, and you may indeed have the first billion-dollar embassy. To use a term the U.S. military once loved, this will result in a large “footprint” on Pakistani soil. It is, to say the least, not normal practice to build and staff such mega-embassies. So if you have a taste for symbolism, this sort of embassy says a lot about how Washington imagines power relations on this planet. Think of these as our ziggurats, our temples (as well as command centers) in foreign climes.

Far stranger than any of these strange specifics is this: none of them seem particularly strange to us. They are news, yes, but not the sort of news that opens eyes, starts discussion, sets Americans – sets you – wondering.

Two Lost Syllables

Now maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. After all, isn’t this just how imperial powers like to operate: as if they owned the planet, or at least had special rights that overruled the locals when it comes to significant hunks of prime real estate?

Which brings us to a word I haven’t said yet, the real subject of my speech today: Empire. It’s the word no one in Washington can say. Its absence from our political discussion is perhaps what makes the United States imperially unique, and yet without it, some crucial part of the real world is missing in action too, some part of what might help us understand ourselves and others.

Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped, surprise not registered, strangeness not taken in, all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated, wounding ways of acting in the world never seriously reconsidered.

Think of a crucial missing word as a kind of invisible straightjacket. Its absence, oddly enough, chains you to the present, to what’s accepted and acceptable. Just two missing syllables, em-pire, making up a word that’s proved so serviceable for so many centuries. And yet, without it, our American world is a little like the one in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. You remember, it’s the one where human beings imagine themselves moving and acting in a perfectly real land, while their actual bodies are stored somewhere far more grim. One question to ask yourself as you form your processional to leave these grounds that have sheltered you these last years might be: Do you have any idea what world you’re walking into? If essential terms for describing it are missing, can you even know? And no less important, do you want to know?

You’ll notice – and here’s the good news – that I haven’t offered you a shred of career advice, or a hint of optimism so far. And on this suitably gloomy day in this gloomy world of ours, I hope not to.

I also know that, whatever your minds may be on as you prepare to head through your school’s vast gates into a none-too-welcoming world, they aren’t on what I have to say today. That, quite honestly, gives me the freedom to talk about a word you may not have heard in your four years here, not applied to our country anyway.

Think about it. In these last moments of your campus life, don’t you find it a little strange that the United States, your country, has military bases, more than 700 of them, scattered across every continent and that your school offers not a single course on the way we garrison this planet? Don’t you find it just a tad odd that this seemingly salient fact of our national existence hasn’t seemed worth teaching, debating, or discussing?

Let me tell you a little story of mine. In what still passes for my real life, despite my work at TomDispatch, I’m a book editor. A few years back, I edited one by Chalmers Johnson, an experience a little like passing through those great gates at the end of this pathway, but in the other direction, and going back to school. The book was called The Sorrows of Empire. It was quite well reviewed in our major papers (in the long-gone days of 2004 when they still had book review sections) and became a bestseller. Oh, I should add that the book focuses, in great detail, chapter after chapter, region after region, on what Johnson called our global “baseworld.” And yet not until three years later, when Jonathan Freedland, a British journalist, took up Johnson’s work in the New York Review of Books, did a major reviewer, praising it, focus on its central topic, the way we garrison the world. This was, as you might imagine, no small trick, and it taught me something about what Americans find it easier not to see, even when it’s staring them in the face.

Graduation 1966

Fortunately, as I say, I can talk about this today without fear that any of you will be affected by it. I’m the proof of that, or rather my younger self, graduating in what seemed a sunnier moment 43 years ago. Whoever spoke to the gathered graduates of the class of 1966 at Yale College is long gone from my memory banks, just as I’ll surely be from yours.

A few days ago, preparing for this moment, I clambered to the top of my closet – no small thing now that I’m almost 65 – and amid the piles of junk and memorabilia I’ve squirreled away extracted a letter-sized envelope of photos marked “college” from a larger folder that, long ago, before I knew the half of it, I labeled “my life.”

So here’s what I can tell you about my own graduation. Unlike you, I commenced, if that’s what it was, on a sunny day, so the photos tell me, and with flags flying. They were part of the processional, the Stars and Stripes and what must be college pennants as well, as we marched enrobed to our ceremony, which I no longer remember. I can’t tell you who spoke or what he – it was surely a he then – spoke about, or what wisdom he offered us, only that he was probably an Authority, with a capital A, and that, although the Sixties were just starting for me (the earlier years of that decade, in lived experience, were really part of the 1950s for most of us then), I suspect that I already had a creeping case of the skepticism toward authority for which that period became either famous or infamous, depending on your point of view.

I look jaunty and well prepared indeed (hair slicked down, a more than serviceable smile) for a future in the State Department, or the U.S. Information Agency, or as a prospective member of the cast of season three or four of Mad Men that would never come. I admit that, in the small packet of photos preserved from that day, I find myself, whether in my charcoal suit and tie or my robe and mortar board with tassel, almost unrecognizable. It’s as if I were holding in my hands a piece of amber with some strange ancestral creature preserved inside. Or rather, if we were to jump but four or five years ahead, now also my distant past, you and I would surely agree that I will soon be unrecognizable with hair almost to my shoulders and a little Mao cap perched on my head.

I feel today from this distance as if, in either case, I’m peering down a Star Trekkian wormhole into another universe. A number of the people I was photographed with I no longer recognize, and a surprising number of the rest are dead. From a wealthy southwestern family, my friend Clay would die of AIDS a couple of decades later; from a working-class Midwestern city, my former roommate John – not photographed that day because he had delayed graduating a year – would in the 21st century put a gun to his head in Las Vegas.

And then there’s my aunt Hilda, smiling remarkably sweetly at the photographer (possibly my father). A public school librarian with the cadences of 19th-century novels lodged in her head, sometime in the 1980s, not so long before she died, she would begin a letter to my daughter, then perhaps four years old, about her own father, my grandfather, who ran away from home and worked as a “scribe” for a lawyer in Hamburg to earn his passage to the New World:

“Your great grandfather, Moore Engelhardt, a boy of 16, arrived in New York from Europe in March 1888. It was during the famous blizzard, and after a sea voyage of about 30 days. He had no money. He often said that he had a German 50 cent piece in his pocket when he landed. His trip had to be in the cheapest part of the ship – way down below in steerage. Poor boy, I’m sure he was seasick a good deal of the time….”

And then there’s Moore’s wife, Hilda’s mother, my dear, tiny grandmother Celia, who grew up in a New York City slum and married that poor boy – he was 17 years her senior and they took a steamer up the Hudson River for their honeymoon, as she used to say, “because he had business in Albany the next day.” She was there, too, standing proudly in front of me under an archway, undoubtedly amazed that she, or her grandson, ever got near Yale. And my father and mother, as well, a photo taken with each of them, my father, bullish as ever, one foot forward, my mother chic and petite; both of them, I think it’s fair to say, looking happier, if not prouder, than they undoubtedly felt at that moment – our relationship then being, politely put, on the dicey side – just as in the photos I look so much more at ease and confident than I ever faintly felt.

All of them, except me, are now long dead.

I see cameras flashing everywhere right now, and yet this, of course, is the world that awaits you. This is something so basic, so hard to absorb that, unlike the purposeful killing of whole categories of people, which we call “genocide,” we simply have no word for it, this winnowing of every generation, of everybody, until photos like these have no personal meaning because no one in them is remembered. So there’s another missing word that, in addition to telling you a great deal about the limits of language, should certainly put anyone’s travails of the moment into context and is, in this speech, as close to optimism in tough times as I’m likely to get.

And speaking for a moment of that “poor boy” who was me, who had been raised on a glorious American story of victory in war and triumph in peace, he had only the faintest sense that he was living in the heart of the heart of a national security state whose interests were nothing short of imperial. I mean, he was no fool. He had been an only child – he thought the term was “lonely child” when young – and undoubtedly in desperation, he had ransacked his local library and read widely, even if, like most young readers with no one to guide him, wonderfully indiscriminately. (That is, in fact, the radical joy of libraries, as opposed to bookstores: you can try anything on the shelf without the need for investment.)

And it wasn’t that he hadn’t come up against the dangers of the Cold War either. Like most Americans, he had found himself right at the edge of world’s end on Oct. 22, 1962, the night President Kennedy appeared on radio and television to announce that the Soviet Union and the United States were facing off over nuclear missiles to be placed in Cuba, and the world was at the brink of destruction. The Cuban Missile Crisis, it would be called.

He was then 18 years old. Like many Americans at that moment, he thought he might be toast by morning; that his life, which (as far as he could tell) showed no sign of having begun, might well be over. Of course, that world of ashes and cinders never came to be, and as you know he made it to graduation. By then, he had taken his first modest steps toward opposing an American war in Vietnam, signed his first petition, and gone to his first demonstration, ever so hesitantly because he really was a good American boy and these were not things you were then brought up to do, or did thoughtlessly.

He was living in a city, New Haven, where young people wore jackets with CIA emblazoned on the back. (It stood, believe it or not, for the Culinary Institute of America.) And he knew graduate students, returning from far-flung places like Indonesia, where, in 1965, at least 500,000 communists had been slaughtered, who were regularly debriefed by the CIA. But no one he met thought such things out of the ordinary. He knew people who had been garrisoned in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere. There were hints galore of what world we were really living in. But you couldn’t have proved it by him. American Empire? No way, not in those days. It didn’t go with George Washington, the Revolution, the Pony Express, or the Civil War.

It wasn’t an American word. There was, of course, the Soviet Empire. And there had been the British and Roman Empires, which were huge but nothing to brag about, and then there was us, and what we were committed to was, as everyone still said then, the Free World. As at least a partial explanation for what he didn’t grasp, let me point out that the United States was surfing the crest of so much wealth, was so dominant and powerful that, no matter the imperial stupidities and crimes of its agents, overt and covert, committed in its name or not, blowback was slow to come. As with the Iranians, blowback could then take 26 years, not as now months, weeks, or days. It was, in a sense, easier not to notice, though evidently not so much easier given how few seem to notice today.

While he could, then, see flaws in the Manichaean version of our universe that surrounded him, he still considered Vietnam at worst a tragic blunder or error, and he still hoped someday to be an American diplomat or, via the United States Information Agency, to be able to explain to confused foreigners what was best about our country.

If you had claimed that he lived in an imperial garrison state in 1966, he would undoubtedly have sat you down and explained to you, in all seriousness, why that couldn’t be so. Despite President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961, he paid little attention to the military-industrial complex and might not, then, even have known the term.

It has to be said that while, for some, the gift that kept on giving in terms of understanding how our world worked was the civil rights movement, for him it was, grimly enough, the war in Vietnam (which, in another sense, might have been thought of as the pit into which you never stopped falling). That never-ending horror would certainly change the course of his life, taking dreams of the State Department or the USIA off the table and, in the end, making the idea that he was living in an imperial state plausible to him. He gained in those years a new language and a new understanding of how the world worked.

Of Graveyards and Empires

Looking out over this crowd today, I find it unbearably strange that, 43 years later, with new and bloody counterinsurgency wars underway in lands once hardly known to most Americans, with our military bases implanted in countless lands, with the Pentagon budget at almost unimaginable levels, with our operatives abroad still involved in assassinations and renditions, “empire” remains MIA and most Americans have no sense – no conscious sense, at least – that they are living in an imperial garrison state.

Let me amend that, actually. Americans love the word “empire.” Just a dip into Google.news.com tells you that. On a given day, you quickly discover that you can play a revamped version of Empire: Total War on your Xbox (it’s set in the 18th century); will someday be able to catch the comedy Soakers, soon to be filmed in Hawaii by the Empire Film Group; and can attend the Empire Ranch Men’s Golf Club Director’s Cup Tournament in California, or await the $12 million facelift of the Empire Ballroom at New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel in, by the way, the “Empire State.” Meanwhile, Empire Resorts, a struggling gaming company, has just gotten a much-needed extension to a line of credit “staving off insolvency”; and the word “empire,” it turns out, goes remarkably well with trendiness (“fashion empire“), medicine (“Empire medical training“), food (“BT Bistro the Latest in Trigg’s Restaurant Empire“), and even the business of sex (“Reports surfaced this week that Hugh Hefner, longtime publisher of Playboy magazine, is considering relinquishing the reins of his bawdy empire…”).

Put “American empire” into the same search engine, on the other hand, and you get Brits, peripheral Web sites like this one, or maybe Pravda.

Of course, there was one brief Camelot-like moment when the American empire came into its own in Washington. After the Afghan War of 2001 seemed to end in triumph and before the Iraq one headed down the tubes, the neocons of the Bush administration and associated drum-thumping pundits and think-tankers overcame an American aversion to empire (and so, in a sense, to reality) and began proclaiming that we were the biggest, the best, the most dominant power this planet had ever seen, that the Romans and the Brits were but puny precursors.

For me, it was a strange moment when the language of total global domination, which, in my childhood, had been the onscreen fare of evil Nazis, imperial Japanese, and Russians, suddenly morphed into an essential part of the American dream, or a distinct Washington bragging point anyway. How brief that was. After a heady year or two, the insurgency in Iraq once again erased “empire” from the American lexicon.

It’s true that an American president can still say, as Barack Obama recently did at the U.S. Naval Academy: “We will maintain America’s military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen.” But global domination? Empire? Banished to the outer realms of some other universe.

In my dictionary, the imperial stands as the polar opposite of both equality and humility. As I see it, either you try to live on a planet with other people, no matter how fractious, difficult, and hostile they (or you) may be, or you try to rule over them and land your billion-dollar, thousand-diplomat, mother-ship embassies on their turf to show “the flag,” with everything that’s come to mean.

If that’s what’s going on, then some of you better find a language that describes it better. After all, if reality is denied linguistically, it’s that much harder, when blowback occurs, to understand it as such; it’s that much harder to grasp the possible links between fighting endless frontier wars, maintaining a global “presence” (or ensuring Obama’s “military dominance”) and our present insecurity. That you can’t get a job may indeed have something to do with how, and at what cost, we maintain ourselves on the planet, but if you can’t describe reality, you’ll never know that. The connections will escape you.

American officials increasingly talk, ominously or fearfully, about Afghanistan as “the graveyard of empires,” but without ever quite acknowledging that, if they are the “graveyard,” then we must be the “empire.” This is a kind of madness, even if it passes for normalcy in Washington, in the media, and so in our world. And for this madness, sooner or later, a price will be paid.

Speaking Up

As I end, let me complicate things just a bit, even as I propose a project for you, something you can do no matter how this world greets you as you exit that gate. Let me first admit this: it’s just possible that even “empire” doesn’t quite cover whatever we are. After all, where are our colonies? The British could color significant hunks of the global map red and claim the sun never set on their empire. We can say the same only of our garrisons.

It’s certainly time to reattach “American” to “empire,” but that’s probably not adequate. There may, as yet, be no proper words or phrases for what we are, globally speaking. But perhaps someday you’ll come up with them.

You are, I assure you, entering an extreme world at an extreme moment. Don’t leave it solely to them to describe it for you. Don’t just let yourself be used by the language that our world makes so readily available to you.

Back in 1946, in his stirring essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which he would later vividly illustrate in his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote of the problems, but also the satisfactions, of letting them define the limits of what can be spoken. You can, he pointed out, certainly save yourself some trouble “by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

But he also wrote: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Maybe what we need is fewer lies, less wind, and a new, stripped-down, weeded-out, more honest vocabulary for our political world, words that don’t fall so far short of the world as it is. “Empire” is but one MIA word. It’s your job to find more of them, and where they don’t exist to invent them. If you want to live in this world and not The Matrix version of it, you need a language that works for you, and you may have to create it. You need, in short, to speak up.

As all the collapsing businesses and the millions of out-of-work Americans make clear at this moment, you can be constrained from doing many things, but not from defining the world for yourself, and maybe even for some of the rest of us. Not if you want to.

Don’t take my word for it. Take your own… and depart.

From the Edge of the Campus of Life, June 2, 2009

[Note for Readers: Just to be clear, I was invited to no campus to give this commencement speech. I gave it in the campus of my mind. I should also add that I’ve written at length about the strange American world I grew up in – its movies, TV shows, children’s toys, comics, and so much else – in my book The End of Victory Culture (put out in a new edition, updated last year for the crash-and-burn Bush era). If you want to know more about the deep strangeness of the world I came from, the world you’re inheriting, you might consider picking up a copy and checking it out.]

Copyright 2009 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 TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.