The Persistence of Empire

The Persistence of Empire

The resolution required to get out of an imperial or a humanitarian-improvement occupation is not different in kind from the heave of the will required for getting in. The problem is that getting in was made possible by a morale of entitlement that speaks the language of self-sacrifice and decency; this one-way bridge of excuses is still in place when the moment comes for getting out. If the choice to invade and occupy were actually derived from conscience, our duties might be revised once the mission was shown to be riddled with atrocities. Yet the occupying power will always be hampered by the emotion of conviction that drove it to attack in the first place.

A different bridge of excuses has sometimes proved serviceable. The majority of the people in the occupied country can be portrayed, often with a degree of truth, as victims of an active and energetic faction. The mission then comes to be seen as a salvage operation on behalf of the nonpolitical or the less political, the patient and long-suffering who mean no harm but are in danger of being engrossed by the appetites of dangerous and violent men. Violence, of course, is the method of the invading as of the insurgent army. But in the minds of imperial leaders, imperial wars are fought in some measure for the sake of passive sufferers, who will find their freedom as soon as the wicked have been purged—in a year, a decade, or longer.

The public understanding that control of the occupied country is somehow unselfish goes a long way to legitimate staying on. By contrast, empires that actually profess their selfishness are rare. The Belgian interest in the Congo represents an extreme and not an ordinary case; and the hatefulness of such adventurism sets a natural term to its efficacy. Most people, most nations, love themselves more than that. We love the idea that we are good; that we have and practice the best way of life. (The Roman Empire held the latter belief with so unmixed a fervor that its armies could maintain its colonies in subjection without the slightest pang of remorse. The best and luckiest of the colonized might always become Romans.) Self-love feeds on and builds up amour-propre—the sense that we are showing a good face to the world. Hence, imperial conquest naturally mingles high reasons with base motives. For the occupying power, to have gotten in, and to have suffered losses in a foreign place, deepens the tracks of collective self-love to such an extent that no counteraction can be expected from self-reproach.

Only nations that (A) were defeated beyond the ability to pretend otherwise, and (B) had the luck to be well-treated by the power that vanquished them, may later exemplify the judgments of collective conscience. Germans of the last two generations have been thoughtful about the uses of national power in a way that Americans after Vietnam have not been thoughtful. Indeed, the Dolchstosslegende of “how we lost Vietnam” was freely in...

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