Exploring Imperial Pathologies

Allen Ruff

Policing America’s Empire:
The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State
By Alfred McCoy
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009,
659 pages, $29.95 paper.

Washington Rules:
America’s Path to Permanent War
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan Books, 2010, 286 pages, $25 paper.

THE HISTORICAL ANALYSIS of imperialism as a system of domination and subordination, of colonizer and colonized, of the “developed world” or global North over the “underdeveloped” global South, maintained for the benefit of the “imperial center” or “metropol” continues to evolve. Several recent studies focusing on the distortions, indeed the social and political pathologies inherent in the system, help to deepen our grasp of U.S. imperialism as something far greater and more complex than a system of economic and political relations.

Among them are two provocative works; the first from the pen of East Asian historian Alfred McCoy, the second from the warrior-cum-scholar and foreign policy critic Andrew Bacevich. Engaged public intellectuals operating from different vantage points, both have turned their attention to the question of how we got to where we are today. Separately and apart, their works raise important issues regarding the impact of empire, at home as well as abroad, a dialectic of ill effects wrought by an imperial system bottom lined by domination and coercion, force and violence.

Seemingly distant from present-day concerns, yet in fact startlingly relevant to our post-9/11 nightmare, Wisconsin historian Al McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire details the development of those techniques and modalities of control over the Philippines put in place in the decades following the U.S seizure of the archipelago from Spain in 1898.

Starting with the protracted counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the Filipinos’ longstanding anti-colonial nationalist “insurrecto” movement, the study traces the impact of U.S. formal and informal rule beyond the “post-colonial” era, through independence in 1946 to the present.

The book details the development of the various and pervasive forms of omnipresent surveillance — networks of spies and informants, the evolution of intelligence-gathering and record-keeping techniques to keep track of not only the political affiliations but the personal relationships, proclivities and vices of friend and foe alike, and resultant political espionage and blackmail — that combined to corrupt all levels of political life across the 20th century.

McCoy tracks the creation and training, under U.S. guidance, of various levels of omnipresent policing, of rural constabularies, militia gangs and urban police forces, and the systematized use of legal and extra-legal repression, state sanctioned violence and assassination as an integral part of “normal politics.” The book also examines the creation of a system of rewards, sanctions and punishments, of cooptation and political integration developed to assure continuing rule by pro-US elites.

Concerned with the societal distortions created by the mechanisms of U.S. domination, McCoy examines the rarely discussed connections between “the sub-rosa realm” of organized crime and the “above ground” of legitimate politics, “the profane margins of the nation state.”

The book also places the contemporary presence of U.S. military advisors and trainers, often viewed as part of the “global war on terror,” in a context of decades-long programs of rural pacification, political espionage and counterinsurgency against independentistas, communist formations, Muslim separatists, and long-term U.S. strategic goals.

During the first half of the century, Philippine society in essence became a social laboratory, an experiment station where U.S. colonial administrators, civilian and military, employed the latest communications, data collection and record keeping technologies (the telegraph, the telephone, fingerprinting, and advances in record classification and retrieval) to impose a societal-wide matrix, a panopticon of control and surveillance. That story alone reveals important insights into the perverse, long term distortions inflicted upon the imperialized.

Techniques of Control

Another important, indeed essential part of McCoy’s historical excavation is hinted at in “… the Rise of the Surveillance State” as the book’s subtitle. For what he tells us is that those forms of state surveillance, the techniques of political policing developed to keep watch over an often restive Filipino population, made their way back to the United States.

A whole tier of military men with experience in the Philippines, innovators and administrators in the techniques of surveillance and social control, were repatriated as the nation entered World War I. They provided the military, at the time lacking basic intelligence capacity, with the first generation of the Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID), the unit used to monitor antiwar dissent, domestic labor and left militants, African-American radicals, and after 1919, communist cadre and sympathizers nationally and internationally. Sound familiar?

Returning to civilian life, some of these Philippine veterans joined the Bureau of Investigation and its successor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Others went into business for themselves.

Illustrative is the story of Philippine surveillance veteran Ralph Van Deman. For decades a behind the scenes intelligence privateer and political spy, he used techniques perfected in the Philippines to compile and pass along detailed dossier used to blackmail, intimidate and persecute suspected “reds” or to smear sympathetic liberals down through the McCarthy era.

McCoy also reminds us of the often forgotten fact that there is very little that is actually new when it comes to the pacification of those brazen enough to defy subjugation. The “long pacification” of the Philippines, after all, entailed clandestine penetration, psychological warfare (winning “hearts and minds”), disinformation, media manipulation, assassination and torture, periodic atrocities, “reconcentrations” of population (forced removal, strategic hamlets, ethnic cleansing), and the use of prisons to hold the suspect.

The “water cure,” what we now call “waterboarding,” a classic means of medieval torture, was first systematically utilized by U.S. forces early on in the occupation of the islands.

A central message of McCoy’s work stares out at the reader on its opening page. In a book containing numerous images portraying the U.S. military’s century long Philippine presence, the first photo seems somewhat out of place. Taken in the Mansoor District of Baghdad in 2007, it shows two U.S. soldiers checking the identity of an Iraqi civilian through the use of a retina-scanning device. The caption tells us the man’s identity would be checked against a data base that at that time already contained a million retina scans and fingerprints.

McCoy is telling us that while the technologies have changed, the techniques of matching physical identity with a social and political description, initially developed and perfected in a U.S. colony far distant in time and space, are still operant. As an historian not only of East Asia but of the rise of the national surveillance state, McCoy is also telling us that what is developed abroad in the service of empire has come home in the past and will continue to do so.

A Critic of Permanent War

A West Point graduate, Vietnam-era veteran and retired colonel now teaching at Boston University, Andrew Bacevich continues to raise important concerns regarding the course and direction of the American Empire. His Washington Rules is an exploration into the understanding of empire, and the continuation of a quest by a former believer in “American mission” who has become deeply disturbed by the country’s course and direction on “the path to permanent war.”

Unlike typical pundits, but very much in common with many thousands of ordinary families, Bacevich has been personally impacted by the Iraq war in which his own son was killed. Bacevich’s book, like McCoy’s, also raises important issues regarding the ways in which “empire as a way of life” exacts its domestic toll.

Washington Rules traces the folly of the operant principles and strategic assumptions, the rules, shared by Democrat and Republican alike, which have governed U.S. globalism since the end of World War II. The book stands as a critique of those ground rule assumptions and resultant practices, formulated in the early years of the Cold War, that continue to shape imperial practice today.

Following an account of his personal transition from believer to critic, Bacevich lays out what he describes as a baseline “credo” of beliefs, and a “sacred trinity” of strategic action — the maintenance of a U.S. global military presence, the capacity for worldwide power projection, and planetary interventionism anywhere, anytime — that have shaped and defined the ways in which Washington has attempted to govern and police the world since the onset of the Cold War.

That American credo has rested on key assumptions — primarily, the notion that the United States alone is summoned to save, liberate and transform the world based upon a deep-seated belief in the duty and right, indeed the responsibility to lead. Elevated to the level of policy, that credo has led to an unquestioned consensus regarding military response as the solution to the world’s problems.

An enduring Washington consensus, extending from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, has accepted the perceived viability of the “sacred trinity’s” capabilities. What then is this “Washington consensus” that makes and follows the rules?

“…Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who… are able to put their thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative and judicial branches… It encompasses the principle components of the national security state — the Departments of Defense, State and, more recently Homeland Security [and] various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement community. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. [It] includes big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government…” (15)

Bacevich argues that an uncritical adherence to the credo and operant trinity throughout the course of the post-war “American Century” has given us a state of perpetual “semi-war,” in which great danger always threatens and ever costlier preparedness is essential. “Semi-warriors,” primarily civilians, believers in the credo also concerned with ever increasing pieces of the defense budget pie, came to promote the need for ever higher levels of military spending, the nurturing of a warrior class, and the constant preparation for war.

The result? Bacevich argues that a reliance on military might has also led to the avoidance of serious engagement abroad and an avoidance of problems at home. As he puts it, “Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit.”

The book traces the origins of the creed by examining the vision and accomplishments of two key institutional architects of the early Cold War, the CIA’s first chief, Allen Dulles, and the Air Force’s Gen. Curtis Lemay, chief promoter of U.S. nuclear air power and the Strategic Air Command. The two, in tandem, laid the foundations for the national security and permanent warfare states.

The bulk of the book assays the evolution of the national warfare state and, importantly for our current understandings, the ups and downs of counterinsurgency (COIN) and related “nation building” as key components of US military power in the contemporary world.

COIN first came to the fore during the Kennedy administration as a way of waging “unconventional warfare” against the Vietnamese. Part of its “pacification program” always included the “winning hearts and minds.” It fell from grace as Johnson and Nixon, convinced by “semi-warrior” advisors and proponents of conventional warfare, opted for escalation. With the “Vietnam syndrome” at its height, “low intensity warfare” experienced a revival through the late 1970s and ’80s, only to recede again with the coming of the first Gulf War, prosecuted by the advocates of full military preponderance.

The war in Afghanistan and the unanticipated results of the occupation of Iraq once again revived COIN. Unabashedly critical of the highly touted “surge” and its commander David Petraeus, of “King David” and his “Counterfeit COIN,” Bacevich blisters the revived strategy as “social work with guns” and “something akin to imperial policing combined with a systematic distribution of alms,” the return to “winning hearts and minds” that never worked in the first place.

The work closes with concerns over Obama’s ratification of the “Long War” of global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) now projected by imperial policy planners and the absence of any reassessment of those basic approaches to national security formulated over the last six decades. Underlying all is Bacevich’s concern with the effects of “empire as a way of life,” at home and abroad.

The critical historian McCoy and the warrior-turned-critic Bacevich complement each other. McCoy’s important Philippine study provides a longer perspective and context in which to situate Washington Rules. Certainly, that credo of assumptions regarding the U.S. mission in the world has roots extending far back long before the end of World War II. After all, the invasion and occupation of the Philippines at the time was viewed as the fulfillment of “manifest destiny.”

Nonetheless, Bacevich’s readable portrait of the durable imperial consensus and the way it functions in the contemporary world stands on its own. Both books should be standard reading for all those wanting to understand and change our world, especially those involved in anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist work.

September/October 2011, ATC 154