The Islamic State of Iraq and The Greater Syria (ISIS): The Ghoulish Face Of Empire
24 June 2014
By Chris Hedges
The black-clad fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant, sweeping a collapsing army and
terrified Iraqis before them as they advance toward
Baghdad, reflect back to us the ghoulish face of
American empire. They are the specters of the hundreds
of thousands of people we murdered in our deluded
quest to remake the Middle East. They are ghosts from
the innumerable roadsides and villages where U.S.
soldiers and Marines, jolted by explosions of
improvised explosive devices, responded with
indiscriminate fire. They are the risen remains of the
dismembered Iraqis left behind by blasts of Hellfire
and cruise missiles, howitzers, grenade launchers and
drone strikes. They are the avengers of the gruesome
torture and the sexual debasement that often came with
being detained by American troops. They are the final
answer to the collective humiliation of an occupied
country, the logical outcome of Shock and Awe, the
Frankenstein monster stitched together from the body
parts we left scattered on the ground. They are what
we get for the $4 trillion we wasted on the Iraq War.
The language of violence engenders violence. The
language of hate engenders hate. "I and the public
know what all schoolchildren learn," W.H. Auden wrote.
"Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." It is
as old as the Bible.
There is no fight left in us. The war is over. We
destroyed Iraq as a unified country. It will never be
put back together. We are reduced—in what must be an
act of divine justice decreed by the gods, whom we
have discovered to our dismay are Islamic—to pleading
with Iran for military assistance to shield the
corrupt and despised U.S. protectorate led by Nouri
al-Maliki. We are not, as we thought when we entered
Iraq, the omnipotent superpower able in a swift and
brutal stroke to bend a people to our will. We are
something else. Fools and murderers. Blinded by
hubris. Faded relics of the Cold War. And now, in the
final act of the play, we are crawling away. Our
empire is dying.
We should have heeded, while we had a chance, the
wails of mothers and fathers. We should have listened
to the cries of the wounded. We should have wept over
the bodies of Iraqi children lined up in neat rows in
the morgues. We should have honored grief so we could
honor life. But the dance of death is intoxicating.
Once it begins you whirl in an ecstatic frenzy.
Death's embrace, which feels at first like sexual
lust, tightens and tightens until you suffocate. Now
the music has stopped. All we have left are loss and
And where are the voices of sanity? Why are the
cheerleaders of slaughter, who have been wrong about
Iraq since before the invasion, still urging us toward
ruin? Why are those who destabilized Iraq and the
region in the worst strategic blunder in American
history still given a hearing? Why do we listen to
simpletons and morons?
They bang their fists. They yell. They throw tantrums.
They demand that the world conform to their childish
vision. It is as if they have learned nothing from the
11 years of useless slaughter. As if they can dominate
that which they never had the power to dominate.
I sat in a restaurant Thursday in Boston's Kenmore
Square with military historian Andrew Bacevich. You
won't hear his voice much on the airwaves. He is an
apostate. He speaks of the world as it is, not the
self-delusional world our empire builders expect it to
be. He knows war with a painful intimacy, not only as
a Vietnam combat veteran and a retired Army colonel
but also as the father of a U.S. Army officer killed
in a 2007 suicide bombing in Iraq.
"In the 1990s there was a considerable effort made in
the military, but also in the larger community of
national security experts scratching their heads and
[asking] what are the implications of all this
technology," he said. "They conceived of something
called the Revolution in Military Affairs—RMA. If you
believed in the Revolution of Military Affairs you
knew that nothing could stop the United States
military when it engaged in a conflict. Victory was,
for all practical purposes, a certainty. People like
Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, and I expect Dick
Cheney also, bought this hook, line and sinker. You
put yourself in their shoes in the wake of 9/11. An
attack comes out of Afghanistan, a country frankly
nobody cares about, and you conceive of this grand
strategy of trying to transform the Islamic world.
Where are we going to start? We are going to start by
attacking a country [Iraq]—we had it under
surveillance and sanctions for the past decade—where
there is a bona fide bad guy to make a moral case and
where we are confident we can make short work of this
adversary, a further demonstration that the American
military cannot be stopped. They utterly and totally
miscalculated. Iraq is falling apart. And many of
these people, either in government or outside of
government, who were proponents of the war are now
advocating for a resumption of the American war. Not
one of them is willing to acknowledge the extent of
that military miscalculation. Once you acknowledge it,
then the whole project of militarizing U.S. policy
towards the Greater Middle East collapses."
Bacevich blames the concentration of power into the
hands of the executive branch for the debacle. He said
that since the Kennedy administration "the incoming
president and his team, it does not matter which
party, see the permanent government as a problem. If
we [the new officials] are going to get done what we
want to get done we have to find ways to marginalize
the permanent government. This has led to the
centralization of authority in the White House and
means decisions are made by a very small number of
people. The consultation becomes increasingly
informal, to the point it is not even documented."
"I do not think we even know when the decision to go
to war with Iraq was actually made," Bacevich said.
"There is no documented meeting where [President
George W.] Bush sat down with how many people—six, 10,
25—and said, ‘Let's vote.' The decision kind of
emerged and therefore was implemented. Why would you
operate that way? You would operate that way if you
viewed the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the CIA and
the State Department as, in a sense, the enemy."
"The invasion of Iraq was intended to be a catalyst,"
he said. "It was supposed to be the catalyst that
would enable us ... to change the region. It turned
out to be the catalyst that resulted in
destabilization. The big question of the moment is not
what can we do or is there anything we can do to
salvage Iraq. The question is to what degree have our
actions resulted in this larger regional mayhem. And
to the extent they have, isn't it time to rethink
fundamentally our expectations of what American power,
and particularly American military power, can
"We need to take a radically different course,"
Bacevich said. "There is an analogy to be made with
Great Britain in the wake of World War I. It was in
World War I that Britain and France collaborated to
dismantle the Ottoman Empire to create the new Middle
East. While on the one hand there was an awareness
that Britain was in decline, at the level where policy
was made there was not a willingness to consider the
implications of that fact. It took World War II to
drive it home—that the [British] empire was doomed. I
think that is where we are."
Out of this decline, Bacevich said, is emerging a
multipolar order. The United States will no longer be
able to operate as an unchallenged superpower. But, he
said, similar to the condition that existed as the
British Empire took its last gasps, "there is very
little willingness in Washington or in policy circles
to take on board the implications multipolarity would
call for in terms of adjusting our policy."
The inability to adjust to our declining power means
that the United States will continue to squander its
resources, its money and its military.
"By squandering power we forfeit our influence because
we look stupid and we bankrupt ourselves," Bacevich
said. "We will spend $4 trillion, not dollars spent in
the moment but dollars we will have spent the last
time the last Afghanistan veteran gets his last VA
check. That money is gone forever. It is concealed
because in the Bush administration's confidence that
victory would be easily won the government did not
bother to mobilize the country or increase our taxes.
We weaken ourselves economically. People complain
about our crappy infrastructure. Give me $4 trillion
and I probably could have fixed a couple of bridges.
And we must never forget the human cost. Lives lost,
lives damaged. And in these two wars [Afghanistan and
Iraq] there does seem to be this increase in PTSD that
we don't know what to do about. It is a squandering of
Bacevich said the "military mind-set" has so infected
the discourse of the power elite that when there is a
foreign policy problem the usual response is to
discuss "three different courses of military action.
... Should it be airstrikes with drones? Should it be
airstrikes with manned aircraft? Special operations
forces? Or some combination of all three? And that's
what you get." The press, he said, is an "echo chamber
and reinforces the notion that those are the [only]
The disintegration of Iraq is irreversible. At best,
the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis will carve out
antagonistic enclaves. At worst, there will be a
protracted civil war. This is what we have bequeathed
to Iraq. The spread of our military through the region
has inflamed jihadists across the Arab world. The
resulting conflicts will continue until we end our
occupation of the Middle East. The callous slaughter
we deliver is no different from the callous slaughter
we receive. Our jihadists—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney,
Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Thomas
Friedman and Tommy Franks—who assured us that swift
and overwhelming force in Iraq would transform the
Middle East into an American outpost of progress, are
no less demented than the jihadists approaching
Baghdad. These two groups of killers mirror each
other. This is what we have spawned. And this is what
Chris Hedges previously spent nearly two decades as
a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle
East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from
more than 50 countries and has worked for The
Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The
Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which
he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.