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Tom Engelhardt: Body Count Nation

January 5, 2009

Tom Engelhardt

It may finally be 2009, but in some ways, given these last years, it might as well be 800 BCE.

From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings who ruled the Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled with enough dead bodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting — in almost comic strip-style — various bloody royal victories and conquests. At least one of them shows Assyrian soldiers lopping off the heads of defeated enemies and piling them into pyramids for an early version of what, in the VCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s, Americans came to know as the “body count.”

So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recorded the numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian scribes had recorded counts of severed hands for victorious Pharaohs).

Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt’s burghers staring out at you across the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant past. In a darker sense, it’s no less a reminder of our kinship across time to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making his count, and — eerily enough — feel at home. What a measure of just how few miles “the march of civilization” (as my parents’ generation once called it) has actually covered.

Prejudiced Toward War

If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration, here’s one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn’t help it. They just had to count.

In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons, his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries, and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it’s easy enough to imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been teleported into his world. True, his White House didn’t have friezes of his victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was Saddam Hussein’s captured pistol proudly stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later, however, Bush’s “scribes,” still traveling with the imperial forces, continued to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani borderlands, and elsewhere.

Many of those body counts were duly made public. This record of American “success” was visible to anyone who visited the Pentagon’s website and viewed its upbeat news articles complete with enumerations of “Taliban fighters” or, in Iraq, “terrorists,” the Air Force’s news feed listing the number of bombs dropped on “anti-Afghan forces,” or the U.S. Central Command’s stories of killing “Taliban militants.”

On the other hand, history, as we know, doesn’t repeat itself and — unlike the Assyrians — the Bush administration would have preferred not to count, or at least not to make its body counts public. One of its small but tellingly unsuccessful struggles, a sign of the depth of its failure on its own terms, was to avoid the release of those counts.

Its aversion to the body count made some sense. After all, since the 1950s, body counting for the U.S. military has invariably signaled not impending victory, but disaster, and even defeat. In fact, one of the strangest things about the American empire has been this: Between 1945 and George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S. economy, American corporations, and the dollar have held remarkable sway over much of the rest of the world. New York City has been the planet’s financial capital and Washington its war capital. (Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War, always came in a provincial second.)

In the same period, the U.S. military effectively garrisoned much of the globe from the Horn of Africa to Greenland, from South Korea to Qatar, while its Navy controlled the seven seas, its Air Force dominated the global skies, its nuclear command stood ready to unleash the powers of planetary death, and its space command watched the heavens. In the wake of the Cold War, its various military commands (including Northcom, set up by the Bush administration in 2002, and Africom, set up in 2007) divided the greater part of the planet into what were essentially military satrapies. And yet, the U.S. military, post-1945, simply could not win the wars that mattered.

Because the neocons of the Bush administration brushed aside this counterintuitive fact, they believed themselves faced in 2000 with an unparalleled opportunity (whose frenetic exploitation would be triggered by the attacks of 9/11, the “Pearl Harbor” of the new century). With the highest-tech military on the planet, funded at levels no other set of nations could cumulatively match, the United States, they were convinced, was uniquely situated to give the phrase “sole superpower” historically unprecedented meaning. Even the Assyrians at their height, the Romans in their Pax Romana centuries, the British in the endless decades when the sun could never set on its empire, would prove pikers by comparison.

In this sense, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and the various neocons in the administration were fundamentalist idolaters — and what they worshipped was the staggering power of the U.S. military. They were believers in a church whose first tenet was the efficacy of force above all else. Though few of them had the slightest military experience, they gave real meaning to the word bellicose. They were prejudiced towards war.

With awesome military power at their command, they were also convinced that they could go it alone as the dominating force on the planet. As with true believers everywhere, they had only contempt for those they couldn’t convert to their worldview. That contempt made “unilateralism” their strategy of choice, and a global Pax Americana their goal (along with, of course, a Pax Republicana at home).

Read more at TOMDISPATCH.COM

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years now ending.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

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