By William Astore
We Are The Empire
Of U.S. Military Interventions, Alien Disaster Movies, and Star Wars
By William J. Astore
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famed possum, Pogo, first uttered that cry. In light of alien disaster movies like the recent sequel Independence Day: Resurgence and America’s disastrous wars of the twenty-first century, I’d like to suggest a slight change in that classic phrase: we have met the alien and he is us.
Allow me to explain. I grew up reading and watching science fiction with a fascination that bordered on passion. In my youth, I also felt great admiration for the high-tech, futuristic nature of the U.S. military. When it came time for college, I majored in mechanical engineering and joined the U.S. Air Force. On graduating, I would immediately be assigned to one of the more high-tech, sci-fi-like (not to say apocalyptic) military settings possible: Air Force Space Command’s Cheyenne Mountain.
For those of you who don’t remember the looming, end-of-everything atmosphere of the Cold War era, Cheyenne Mountain was a nuclear missile command center tunneled out of solid granite inside an actual mountain in Colorado. In those days, I saw myself as one of the good guys, protecting America from “alien” invasions and the potential nuclear obliteration of the country at the hands of godless communists from the Soviet Union. The year was 1985 and back then my idea of an “alien” invasion movie was Red Dawn, a film in which the Soviets and their Cuban allies invade the U.S., only to be turned back by a group of wolverine-like all-American teen rebels. (Think: the Vietcong, American-style, since the Vietnam War was then just a decade past.)
Strange to say, though, as I progressed through the military, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy about my good-guy stature and about who exactly was doing what to whom. Why, for example, did we invade Iraq in 2003 when that country had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11? Why were we so focused on dominating the Earth’s resources, especially its oil? Why, after declaring total victory over the “alien” commies in 1991 and putting the Cold War to bed for forever (or so it seemed then), did our military continue to strive for “global reach, global power” and what, with no sense of overreach or irony, it liked to call “full-spectrum dominance”?
Still, whatever was simmering away inside me, only when I retired from the Air Force in 2005 did I fully face what had been staring back at me all those years: I had met the alien, and he was me.
The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions
The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.
Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?
In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.
Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!
In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.
Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”
Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.
Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”
Of Cold War Memories and Imperial Storm Troopers
Whether anyone notices or not, alien invasion flicks offer a telling analogy when it comes to the destructive reality of Washington’s global ambitions; so, too, do “space operas” like Star Wars. I’m a fan of George Lucas’s original trilogy, which appeared in my formative years. When I saw them in the midst of the Cold War, I never doubted that Darth Vader’s authoritarian Empire in a galaxy far, far away was the Soviet Union. Weren’t the Soviets, whom President Ronald Reagan would dub “the evil empire,” bent on imperial domination? Didn’t they have the equivalent of storm troopers, and wasn’t it our job to “contain” that threat?
Like most young Americans then, I saw myself as a plucky rebel, a mixture of the free-wheeling, wisecracking Han Solo and the fresh-faced, idealistic Luke Skywalker. Of course, George Lucas had a darker, more complex vision in mind, one in which President Richard Nixon, not some sclerotic Soviet premier, provided a model for the power-mad emperor, while the lovable Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi — with their simple if effective weaponry and their anti-imperial insurgent tactics — were clearly meant to evoke Vietnamese resistance forces in an American war that Lucas had loathed. But few enough Americans of the Cold War-era thought in such terms. (I didn’t.) It went without question that we weren’t the heartless evil empire. We were the Jedi! And metaphorically speaking, weren’t we the ones who, in the end, blew up the Soviet Death Star and won the Cold War?
How, then, did an increasingly gargantuan Pentagon become the Death Star of our moment? We even had our own Darth Vader in Dick Cheney, a vice president who actually took pride in the comparison.
Think for a moment, dear reader, about the optics of a typical twenty-first-century U.S. military intervention. As our troops deploy to places that for most Americans might as well be in a galaxy far, far away, with all their depersonalizing body armor and high-tech weaponry, they certainly have the look of imperial storm troopers.
I’m hardly the first person to notice this. As Iraq war veteran Roy Scranton recently wrote in the New York Times, “I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.” Ouch.
American troops in that country often moved about in huge MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles) described to me by an Army battalion commander as “ungainly” and “un-soldier like.” Along with M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, those MRAPs were the American equivalents of the Imperial Walkers in Star Wars. Such vehicles, my battalion commander friend noted drolly, were “not conducive to social engagements with Iraqis.”
It’s not the fault of the individual American soldier that, in these years, he’s been outfitted like a Star Wars storm trooper. His equipment is designed to be rugged and redundant, meaning difficult to break, but it comes at a cost. In Iraq, U.S. troops were often encased in 80 to 100 pounds of equipment, including a rifle, body armor, helmet, ammunition, water, radio, batteries, and night-vision goggles. And, light as they are, let’s not forget the ominous dark sunglasses meant to dim the glare of Iraq’s foreign sun.
Now, think how that soldier appeared to ordinary Iraqis — or Afghans, Yemenis, Libyans, or almost any other non-Western people. Wouldn’t he or she seem both intimidating and foreign, indeed, hostile and “alien,” especially while pointing a rifle at you and jabbering away in a foreign tongue? Of course, in Star Wars terms, it went both ways in Iraq. A colleague told me that during her time there, she heard American troops refer to Iraqis as “sand people,” the vicious desert raiders and scavengers of Star Wars. If “they” seem like vicious aliens to us, should we be surprised that we just might seem that way to them?
Meanwhile, consider the American enemy, whether the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or any of our other opponents of this era. Typically unburdened by heavy armor and loads of equipment, they move around in small bands, improvising as they go. Such “terrorists” — or “freedom fighters,” take your pick — more closely resemble (optically, at least) the plucky human survivors of Independence Day or the ragtag yet determined rebels of Star Wars than heavy patrols of U.S. troops do.
Now, think of the typical U.S. military response to the nimbleness and speed of such “rebels.” It usually involves deploying yet more and bigger technologies. The U.S. has even sent its version of Imperial Star Destroyers (we call them B-52s) to Syria and Iraq to take out “rebels” riding their version of Star Wars “speeders” (i.e. Toyota trucks).
To navigate and negotiate the complex “human terrain” (actual U.S. Army term) of “planets” like Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops call on a range of space-age technologies, including direction-finding equipment, signal intercept, terrain modeling, and satellite navigation using GPS. The enemy, being part of that “human terrain,” has little need for such technology to “master” it. Since understanding alien cultures and their peculiar “human terrains” is not its forte, the U.S. military has been known to hire anthropologists to help it try to grasp the strange behaviors of the peoples of Planet Iraq and Planet Afghanistan.
Yet unlike the evil empire of Star Wars or the ruthless aliens of Independence Day, the U.S. military never claimed to be seeking total control (or destruction) of the lands it invaded, nor did it claim to desire the total annihilation of their populations (unless you count the “carpet bombing” fantasies of wannabe Sith Lord Ted Cruz). Instead, it promised to leave quickly once its liberating mission was accomplished, taking its troops, attack craft, and motherships with it.
After 15 years and counting on Planet Afghanistan and 13 on Planet Iraq, tell me again how those promises have played out.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.
We Americans, proud denizens of the land of the gun and of the only superpower left standing, don’t, of course, want to think of ourselves as aliens. Who does? We go to movies like Independence Day or Star Wars to identify with the outgunned rebels. Evidence to the contrary, we still think of ourselves as the underdogs, the rebels, the liberators. And so — I still believe — we once were, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
We need to get back to that time and that galaxy. But we don’t need a high-tech time machine or sci-fi wormhole to do so. Instead, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Like Pogo, we need to be willing to see the evidence of our own invasive nature. Only then can we begin to become the kind of land we say we want to be.
A TomDispatch regular, William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor. He blogs at Bracing Views.