A Paradox of Empire: Thoughts on Iraq 2014

On Thursday, President Obama authorized a limited re-entry into Iraq, making him the fourth consecutive US president to carry-out military action against Iraq, from the First Gulf War of Bush I, Clinton’s bombing of Bagdad in 1998, Bush II’s pre-emptive war of 2003, and now Obama’s selective bombing of ISIS. This happens along with increased military conflict between Israel and Palestine and Russia’s re-emergent threats, most of all against the Ukraine.

Each side of the US establishment has the other one to blame, but there is plenty to go around a few times over. There is little doubt that Iraq is a thoroughly bipartisan disaster. There is a also the undeniable fact that these are not generic secular state conflicts; the lines are more or less divided by religious demographics, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Perhaps the sons and daughters of Abraham share so much in common, including their ontogenetic God, that this intimacy forces them to project violence upon each other? I don’t know.

I do suspect that the conflict may not be as religious as many from right to left would make it out to be. Or perhaps what I mean to say here is that it is more than merely religious? Is it theological?

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War seems expensive at first glance, but this a common sense naiveté: Empires thrive on war, and no one in recent memory has profited as much as the American Military Industrial Complex. The American Empire has been in continuous open war for decades now, just think of the catalog from the Civil War to the Mexican and Spanish Wars to the World Wars to Korea and Vietnam to present-day Iraq and Afganistan. And this is not a comprehensive list. There has never been a Pax Americana. Surely, if war did not add value we would make some effort to not be in constant war.

The military presence of the Unites States in the world is massive, only dwarfed, perhaps, by its well-known and previously mentioned military budget. Comparisons to Rome are at this point a cliche, and unnecessary to understand why it is reasonable to wonder not only why it intervenes outside of its borders, but also why it does not.

This begins to describe a paradox of Empire. It is capable of being both a cause and a remedy of trauma and violence, as we can observe in Iraq today. In this situation, however, there is no room for victory. Obama is wrong to say that “America is coming to help.” The truth is that the United States of America is coming to” help” but also to atone for its failure — and the “help” it offers, like the previous “help,” is likely to hurt as much as it helps.

This is a real paradox: an Empire must actively lose to win. Only an economist could justify this.

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The theological irony is difficult to swallow from a Roman Catholic standpoint: our scriptures speak in Imperial tones from time to time, but the concrete details show that, more often than not, Israel dwelt in the shadow and even subservience of an Empire. Egypt, Babylon, Rome. The New Testament and Early Church show a persecuted and weak Church, yet the fall of Rome and the rise of Christendom begins to tie a more difficult and sometimes bloody knot.

How does one respond to this paradox? Here are some ideas:

Roman Catholics in the United States should not speak without a healthy dose of tragic irony and humility. I have heard a mocking phrase, responding to the horrific acts of ISIS, “Religion of peace, huh?” This is meant to imply that Islam is not a religion of peace. Of course, Christianity also makes that claim, and even calls its Saviour the Prince of Peace, yet we have much blood on our hands and in the pages of our scriptures. Add to that the simpler fact that ISIS and other Islamic extremists often target other Muslims, especially Shiite. 

Truth be told, I am not sure that is a religion of peace any more than there is a nation-state of peace. There is always “holy violence,” a concept that becomes even more unsavoury when it controls the mind along with the body. Secularism has its own unique violence, too, which baptizes it into the political theology it tries so fruitlessly to evade. Needless to say, it is a fundamental and useless mistake to try and marry ISIS to Islam just as it is category mistake to try and equate, as many New Atheists do, all religions to violence.

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I am appalled at the sick events in the Middle East, but I am also complicit to a degree that is real but need not land me on trial for war crimes. But it should temper the register of my voice. It is not time to be silent, quietism is not the suggestion here. But we can whisper and shudder at the prospects and implications, and pray for mercy.

We might also think of the material fact that instability in the Middle East is attached to as many economic interests as any other possible interests combined, and those interests feed on and are fed by the American way of life. Oil, and the silent giant of Saudi Arabia, and more.

For Iraq, with such a decorated and recent history of failure, we ought to feel penitential and see not only the monstrous deeds of radical Islam, but also the much larger scale of the Imperial shadow we project and protect. I ultimately support the recent airstrikes, but I do not so much support them as I suffer from a lack of imagination of what else I could possibly support when children are being beheaded.

I still consider war to be a defeat, but perhaps only a partial one.

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There must be a theological insight in the fact that Christ, like the persecuted Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and the refugees at our borders, lived under the vigilant shadow of Empire, and was ultimately put to death by it, while we live within its relative ease and comfort and still call ourselves Christians.

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