Torture and the Illusions of Empire

Glen T. Martin

1 June 2004

Secretary of State Condolisa Rice began her recent European tour with the assertion “We do not torture” and the desired propaganda effect began to happen.   People began to debate the extent to which this statement is true or false.  After the Abu Ghraib torture revelations, George Bush asserted that “A few bad apples do not affect the essential goodness of the American people” and the desired propaganda effect began to happen. People began to debate “how high up” in the chain of command the decision to torture extended.

The propaganda is effective because we refuse to face the truth about ourselves.  We lack context within which to see the statements of political leaders as systematic lying and deceit.  It is not that political leaders as individuals are corrupt.  George Bush is no more corrupt than was Bill Clinton.  It is that the imperial system itself generates systematic lying and deceit.  Because people refuse to recognize the system, they are deceived into debating details as if they were real issues: “To what extent does the U.S. condone torture?” and other misleading issues. 

As Harold Pinter said in his recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them….You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good.”   The immensely powerful propaganda system distracts people into debating particular issues as if the crimes of the country were aberrations from an essentially democratic, well-intentioned system.  This is not the case.

An empire is a system of domination directed, like all empires, to the economic exploitation of victims by dominators.  Empires torture, destroy, and repress people who are in the way of the system of exploitation and domination.   Empires systematically generate a myth of superiority, goodness, and higher civilization for the consumption both of the dominating population and control of the dominated.   The Roman Empire, aspiring to dominate the known world, created the fable of “Roman law, Roman citizenship, and Roman civilization” to cover up its torture, murder, and slaughter of dominated peoples.

The United States began with the mythology of “manifest destiny” and a corresponding doctrine of  “superior sovereignty.”   Manifest destiny was a mythology justifying the rape and pillage of the North American continent and extermination of its indigenous population by the expanding United States.  Superior sovereignty was the Machiavellian ideological device by which this atrocity was accomplished.   In the 1820s and 30s Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and others developed the “Marshall Doctrine” which asserted that, while Indian nations were “sovereign,” the U.S. possessed “superior sovereignty.”   Superior sovereignty meant that the Indians had to abide by their treaty agreements with the U.S. but the U.S. was not bound by its treaty agreements.  It could break its agreements as its self-interest dictated.

Armed with the doctrine of “superior sovereignty” the ascending empire pillaged the lands of the indigenous peoples of America and effected a genocide in which, by the turn of the century, only an estimated two percent of the original indigenous population of America were still living.  Superior sovereignty continues to be the doctrine of U.S. foreign policy as it invades or overthrows countries at will but denies any other nation the right to interfere within the “sovereign integrity” of the United States itself.   In the case of U.S. versus Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. in 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the U.S. president “total power over foreign policy, including the right to ignore the Constitution.”  The protections that applied to  U.S. citizens prior to the implementation of the recent Patriot Act did not apply to U.S. foreign policy actions. In its foreign policy, the U.S. can violate the rights of others with impunity, as can any other sovereign nation-state.

Such a doctrine was in fact necessary, for no empire can dominate and exploit its victim populations without the use of military repression, torture, and indiscriminate slaughter.   In the 19th and early 20th century the United States used its military power routinely to dominate its empire in Latin America with dozens of “interventions” in the service of U.S. economic interests, including the invasion and occupation of Nicaragua by the marines for thirteen years between 1912 and 1925.  In the Philippines, the Philippine people had fought bitterly to successfully defeat the Spanish by 1898 when the U.S. Navy arrived.   The U.S. proceeded to brutally slaughter hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in its consolidation of their country as a U.S. colony.

U.S. foreign policy in general, however, focused not on conquest of foreign nations but on solidifying its domination through supporting brutal client dictators who opened their nations to the exploitation of cheap resources and semi-slave labor by U.S. multi-national corporations.  Hence, the U.S. supported neo-fascist dictatorships throughout the world from Marcos in the Philippines,  Diem in South Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, to Batista in Cuba.   U.S. military aid and training to regimes that routinely practiced torture and slaughter through counter-insurgency warfare circled the world from Indonesia to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  

U.S. support for counter-insurgency warfare (war by a government against its own population) in Greece in the late 1940s resulted in tens of thousands killed and 60,000 sent to “reeducation camps” to be tortured or executed.  The U.S. arranged the overthrow of the democratic government of President Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and instituted a series of military dictatorships that tortured and wiped out 200,000 people in the next few decades. The U.S. helped the psychopathic General Suharto to power in Indonesia in 1965 in which he wiped out a half a million of his own countrymen in the process.  The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta gave Suharto a list of 5000 names of political enemies to help him consolidate his power who were rounded up, tortured, and executed.   The U.S. helped the brutal General Pinochet to overthrow the democratic government of Chile in 1973 in which the sports stadium in Santiago was turned into a massive torture center where political dissidents (defenders of the former democracy) were tortured and executed in mass.

The massive bombing of the civilian infrastructure of essentially defenseless North Vietnam during the last years of that war was the moral equivalent of torture.  Two to four million people died in southeast Asia, the vast majority of them civilians.   Torture surely ranks as an ultimate violation of human rights, but so does civilian death.  Article 3 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of human rights states that every person has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.  The U.S. policy of bombing its victims in order to minimize casualties for its ground forces constitutes the systematic use of atrocity by state terrorist forces.  The same method of systematic atrocity was used in the massive1991 Gulf War bombing of the civilian infrastructure of Iraq.  Nevertheless, U.S. foreign policy in the service of empire is multi-dimensional and the preference is to delegate atrocity and torture to the empire’s foreign lapdogs.

This is why the training of foreign military forces and the supplying of weapons to repressive regimes worldwide is so vital to the system of empire.  Invasions such as that in Iraq are only the last resort.  The empire also militarily backs up its worldwide system of economic exploitation through building military bases throughout the globe.  According to the Sorrows of Empire by scholar Chalmers Johnson, the U.S. has 725 known military bases worldwide and many additional secret bases.  After it led NATO in the military attack and overthrow of the former Yugoslavia in 1998, the U.S. constructed an immense military base in Kosovo.  It is building several permanent military bases in Afghanistan and has built four permanent military bases since its invasion of Iraq.   Even if “sovereignty” is turned over to a puppet Afghan or Iraqi government, and the army of occupation withdraws, the military control of the regions will remain assured.

U.S. foreign policy is based on a combination of military bases strategically placed worldwide to assure “full spectrum dominance” and the supply of weapons and training to client states for torture and murder of those within their countries struggling for freedom and justice.  Empires require brutality to subdue their restive populations.  This has been true from the time of Rome through the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, German, and British empires.

 U.S. leaders are simply the ideological mouthpieces chosen by the Empire to convey to the American people the myth of “the goodness of the American people,” the myth of being  “the bastion of democracy” and the “defender of human rights.”  None of these slogans has the slightest basis in reality.  The reality is domination and economic exploitation.  The reality is the torture and murder necessary to keep these in place.  The ideological aspect of this reality are the lies we insist on telling ourselves so that we may continue to believe in our own innocence.  The population of the United States will go to almost any length to protect its illusions.  We have a deep need to convince ourselves that we are not complicit in the systematic torture and murder of dominated peoples everywhere on Earth.

Glen T. Martin is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Radford University and President of International Philosophers for Peace.