Chris Hedges: The Empire Does Not Forgive

The mandarins who oversee our collective suicide, despite repeated failure, doggedly insist the U.S. can reshape the world in its own image. 

(Original illustration by Mr. Fish)

By Chris Hedges

The Carthaginian general Hannibal, who came close to defeating the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War, committed suicide in 181 BC in exile as Roman soldiers closed in on his residence in the Bithynian village of Libyssa, now modern-day Turkey.

It had been more than 30 years since he led his army across the Alps and annihilated Roman legions at the Battle of Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae, considered one of the most brilliant tactical victories in warfare which centuries later inspired the plans of the German Army Command in World War I when they invaded Belgium and France. Rome was only able to finally save itself from defeat by replicating Hannibal’s military tactics. 

It did not matter in 181 BC that there had been over 20 Roman consuls (with quasi-imperial power) since Hannibal’s invasion. It did not matter that Hannibal had been hunted for decades and forced to perpetually flee, always just beyond the reach of Roman authorities. He had humiliated Rome. He had punctured its myth of omnipotence. And he would pay. With his life.

Years after Hannibal was gone, the Romans were still not satisfied. They finished their work of apocalyptic vengeance in 146 BC by razing Carthage to the ground and selling its remaining population into slavery. Cato the Censor summed up the sentiments of empire: Carthage must be destroyed. Nothing about empire, from then until now, has changed.

Imperial powers do not forgive those who expose their weaknesses or make public the sordid and immoral inner workings of empire. Empires are fragile constructions. Their power is as much one of perception as of military strength. The virtues they claim to uphold and defend, usually in the name of their superior civilization, are a mask for pillage, the exploitation of cheap labor, indiscriminate violence and state terror.

Imperialists Speak with One Voice

“The Catapult,” circa 1868, by Edward Poynter, depicts Roman soldiers manning a siege engine for an attack on the walls of Carthage. (Wikimedia Commons)

The current American empire, damaged and humiliated by the troves of internal documents published by WikiLeaks, will, for this reason, persecute Julian Assange for the rest of his life. It does not matter who is president or which political party is in power. Imperialists speak with one voice.

The killing of 13 U.S. troops by a suicide bomber at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday evoked from Joe Biden the full-throated cry of all imperialists:

“To those who carried out this attack … we will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay.”

This was swiftly followed by two drone strikes in Kabul against suspected members of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), which took credit for the suicide bombing that left some 170 dead, including 28 members of the Taliban.

The Taliban, which defeated U.S. and coalition forces in a 20-year war, is about to be confronted with the wrath of a wounded empire. The Cuban, Vietnamese, Iranian, Venezuelan and Haitian governments know what comes next. The ghosts of Toussaint Louverture, Emilio Aguinaldo, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Omar Torrijos, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Juan Velasco, Salvador Allende, Andreas Papandreou, Juan Bosh, Patrice Lumumba, and Hugo Chavez know what comes next. It isn’t pretty. It will be paid for by the poorest and most vulnerable Afghans. 

The faux pity for the Afghan people, which has defined the coverage of the desperate collaborators with the U.S. and coalition occupying forces and educated elites fleeing to the Kabul airport, begins and ends with the plight of the evacuees.

There were few tears shed for the families routinely terrorized by coalition forces or the some 70,000 civilians who were obliterated by U.S. air strikes, drone attacks, missiles and artillery, or gunned down by nervous occupying forces who saw every Afghan, with some justification, as the enemy during the war. And there will be few tears for the humanitarian catastrophe the empire is orchestrating on the 38 million Afghans, who live in one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world.

Since the 2001 invasion the United States deployed about 775,000 military personnel to subdue Afghanistan and poured $143 billion into the country, with 60 percent of the money going to prop up the corrupt Afghan military and the rest devoted to funding economic development projects, aid programs and anti-drug initiatives, with the bulk of those funds being siphoned off by foreign aid groups, private contractors, and outside consultants.

Grants from the United States and other countries accounted for 75 percent of the Afghan government budget. That assistance has evaporated. Afghanistan’s reserves and other financial accounts have been frozen, meaning the new government cannot access some $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. Shipments of cash to Afghanistan have been stopped. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that Afghanistan will no longer be able to access the lender’s resources.

Things Already Dire  

Dec. 19, 2010: An Afghan child at a refugee camp in Kabul. (US Air Force, Stacey Haga)

Things are already dire. There are some 14 million Afghans, 1-in-3, who lack sufficient food. There are 2 million Afghan children who are malnourished. There are 3.5 million people in Afghanistan who have been displaced from their homes. The war has wrecked infrastructure. A drought destroyed 40 percent of the nation’s crops last year.

The assault on the Afghan economy is already seeing food prices skyrocket. The sanctions and severance of aid will force civil servants to go without salaries and the health service, already chronically short of medicine and equipment, will collapse. The suffering orchestrated by the empire will be of Biblical proportions. And this is what the empire wants.

UNICEF estimates that 500,000 children were killed as a direct result of sanctions on Iraq.  Expect child deaths in Afghanistan to soar above that horrifying figure. And expect the same imperial heartlessness Madeline Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, exhibited when she told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children because of the sanctions was “worth it.”

Or the heartlessness of Hillary Clinton who joked “We came, we saw, he died,” when informed of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal death. Or the demand by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia who after the attacks of 9/11 declared, “I say, bomb the hell out of them. If there’s collateral damage, so be it.”

No matter that the empire has since turned Libya along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen into cauldrons of violence, chaos, and misery. The power to destroy is an intoxicating drug that is its own justification.

Like Cato the Censor, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are, if history is any guide, at this moment planning to destabilize Afghanistan by funding, arming, and backing any militia, warlord or terrorist organization willing to strike at the Taliban.

The CIA, which should exclusively gather intelligence, is a rogue paramilitary organization that oversees secret kidnappings, interrogation at black sites, torture, manhunts and targeted assassinations across the globe. It carried out commando raids in Afghanistan that killed a large number of Afghan civilians, which repeatedly sent enraged family members and villagers into the arms of the Taliban.

It is, I expect, reaching out to Amrullah Saleh, who was Ashraf Ghani’s vice president and who has declared himself “the legitimate caretaker president” of Afghanistan. Saleh is holed up in the Panjashir Valley.  He, along with warlords Afgand Massoud, Mohammad Atta Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, are clamoring to be armed and supported to perpetuate conflict in Afghanistan.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” Ahmad Massoud wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “The United States and its allies have left the battlefield, but America can still be a ‘great arsenal of democracy,’ as Franklin D. Roosevelt said when coming to the aid of the beleaguered British before the U.S. entry into World War II,” he went on, adding that he and his fighters need “more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies.”

Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan. (Mikhail Evstafiev via Wikimedia Commons)

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan. (Mikhail Evstafiev via Wikimedia Commons)

These warlords have done the bidding of the Americans before. They will do the bidding of the Americans again. And since the hubris of empire is unaffected by reality, the empire will continue to sow dragon’s teeth in Afghanistan as it has since it spent $9 billion — some estimates double that figure — to back the mujahedeen that fought the Soviets, leading to a bloody civil war between rival warlords once the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the ascendancy in 1996 of the Taliban.

The cynicism of arming and funding the mujahedeen against the Soviets exposes the lie of America’s humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan. One million Afghan civilians were killed in the nine-year conflict with the Soviets, along with 90,000 mujahedeen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops and 14,500 Soviet soldiers.  But these deaths, along with the destruction of Afghanistan, were “worth it” to cripple the Soviets.

Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, along with the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, oversaw the arming of the most radical Islamic mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviet occupation forces, leading to the extinguishing of the secular, democratic Afghan opposition.

Brzezinski detailed the strategy, designed as he said to give the Soviet Union its Vietnam, taken by the Carter administration following the 1979 Soviet invasion to prop up the Marxist regime of Hafizullah Amin in Kabul:

“We immediately launched a twofold process when we heard that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan. The first involved direct reactions and sanctions focused on the Soviet   Union, and both the State Department and the National Security Agency prepared long lists of sanctions to be adopted, of steps to be taken to increase the international costs to the Soviet Union of their actions.

And the second course of action led to my going to Pakistan a month or so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for the purpose of coordinating with the Pakistanis a joint response, the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible; and we engaged in that effort in a collaborative sense with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the British, the Chinese, and we started providing weapons to the Mujaheddin, from various sources again — for example, some Soviet arms from the Egyptians and the Chinese.

We even got Soviet arms from the Czechoslovak communist government, since it was obviously susceptible to material incentives; and at some point we started buying arms for the Mujahedeen from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, because that army was increasingly corrupt.”

The clandestine campaign to destabilize the Soviet Union by making it “bleed for as much and as long as is possible” was carried out, like the arming of the Contra forces in Nicaragua, largely off the books. It did not, as far as official Washington was concerned, exist, a way to avoid the unwelcome scrutiny of covert operations carried out by the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s that made public the three decades of CIA-backed coups, assassinations, blackmail, intimidation, dark propaganda and torture.

Saudi Funding 

May 24, 1977: U.S. President Jimmy Carter, fourth from right, with Zbigniew Brzezinski on his left, meeting with a delegation of Saudi officials. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons)

The Saudi government agreed to match the U.S. funding for the Afghan insurgents. The Saudi involvement gave rise to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which fought with the mujahedeen. The rogue operation, led by Brzezinski, organized secret units of assassination teams and paramilitary squads that carried out lethal attacks on perceived enemies around the globe. It trained Afghan mujahedeen in Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang province. It shifted the heroin trade, used to fund the insurgency, from southeast Asia to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This pattern of behavior, which destabilized Afghanistan and the region, is reflexive in the military and the intelligence community. It will, without doubt, be repeated now in Afghanistan, with the same catastrophic results. The chaos these intelligence agencies create becomes the chaos that justifies their existence and the chaos that sees them demand more resources and ever greater levels of violence. 

All empires die. The end is usually unpleasant. The American empire, humiliated in Afghanistan, as it was in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as it was at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, is blind to its own declining strength, ineptitude and savagery.

Its entire economy, a “military Keynesianism,” revolves around the war industry. Military spending and war are the engine behind the nation’s economic survival and identity. It does not matter that with each new debacle the United States turns larger and larger parts of the globe against it and all it claims to represent.

It has no mechanism to stop itself, despite its numerous defeats, fiascos, blunders and diminishing power, from striking out irrationally like a wounded animal. The mandarins who oversee our collective suicide, despite repeated failure, doggedly insist the U.S. can reshape the world in its own image.

This myopia creates the very conditions that accelerate the empire’s demise.

The Soviet Union collapsed, like all empires, because of its ossified, out-of-touch rulers, its imperial overreach, and its inability to critique and reform itself. We are not immune from these fatal diseases. We silence our most prescient critics of empire, such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Andrew Bacevich, Alfred McCoy and Ralph Nader, and persecute those who expose the truths about empire, including Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Daniel Hale and John Kiriakou.

At the same time a bankrupt media, whether on MSNBC, CNN or FOX, lionizes and amplifies the voices of the inept and corrupt political, military and intelligence class including John Bolton, Leon Panetta, Karl Rove, H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus, which blindly drives the nation into the morass.

Awaiting the Blowback 

Chalmers Johnson in his trilogy on the fall of the American empire – “Blowback,” “The Sorrows of Empire” and “Nemesis” — reminds readers that the Greek goddess Nemesis is “the spirit of retribution, a corrective to the greed and stupidity that sometimes governs relations among people.” She stands for “righteous anger,” a deity who “punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and the arrogance that causes it.”

He warns that if we continue to cling to our empire, as the Roman Republic did, “we will certainly lose our democracy and grimly await the eventual blowback that imperialism generates.”

“I believe that to maintain our empire abroad requires resources and commitments that will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and, in the end, produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent,” Johnson writes.

“The founders of our nation understood this well and tried to create a form of government — a republic — that would prevent this from occurring. But the combination of huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, military Keynesianism, and ruinous military expenses have destroyed our republican structure in favor of an imperial presidency. We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy. Nemesis stalks our life as a free nation.”

If the empire was capable of introspection and forgiveness, it could free itself from its death spiral. If the empire disbanded, much as the British empire did, and retreated to focus on the ills that beset the United States it could free itself from its death spiral. But those who manipulate the levers of empire are unaccountable. They are hidden from public view and beyond public scrutiny. They are determined to keep playing the great game, rolling the dice with lives and national treasure.

They will, I expect, preside gleefully over the deaths of even more Afghans, assuring themselves it is worth it, without realizing that the gallows they erect are for themselves.  

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular columnClick here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

31 comments for “Chris Hedges: The Empire Does Not Forgive

    September 2, 2021 at 05:09

    I wonder what is meant by quote: “We silence our most prescient critics of empire, such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Andrew Bacevich, Alfred McCoy and Ralph Nader” – who are all very well represented in media and in academia.

      September 2, 2021 at 07:20

      Not in the mainstream media. Chomsky, for instance, used to be invited once a month to speak with the Boston Globe’s editorial board until the New York Times bought the paper and he was no longer invited.

  2. Lew
    September 2, 2021 at 04:24

    Excellent article incorporating the Carter Brzezinski narrative.

  3. September 1, 2021 at 23:25

    The CIA would love to see the Taliban attack the Panjashir Valley. The CIA would love what amounts to an Afghan 9/11 to revitalize the war on terror. For this reason, the Panjashir Valley is a powder keg.
    The Taliban are probably NOT going to take the bait. They will keep supplies from coming in, but let out anyone who wants to leave. We will soon find out if the CIA can take on the Taliban or if the whole thing will fizzle.

  4. September 1, 2021 at 22:55

    What democracy? The US has never been a democracy. Things didn’t just turn bad, they’ve always been bad. We’ve always been an empire, masquerading as a republic.
    The ‘founding fathers” were no republican angels; for example, consider Jefferson’s rant on hearing of the Haitian Revolution. Then there’s the genocide of Native Americans; the war against Mexico; the occupation of the Caribbean Nations; Nicaragua, the Philippines, and the well known 72 foreign interventions since WWII…
    Johnson is fooling himself. We have not destroyed our republican structure in favor of an imperial presidency; we have vigorously protected our Potemkin republic to expand our nefarious empire.
    Assange exposed the charade.

    • Juan M Escobedo
      September 2, 2021 at 13:12

      Amen to that…

  5. ursel doran
    September 1, 2021 at 22:43

    Failure begets the usual narrative spin to DENY FAILURE, to keep the cash flowing for more misadventures!!

    All the mega costly foreign debacles that ate TRILLIONS of cash and thousands of deaths of ours and theirs,
    are NEVER due to stupidity, negligence or incompetence. It is of course due to some OTHER negative force.

    • Bob Van Noy
      September 2, 2021 at 15:27

      Excellent ursel doran, yes! To design a New Narrative, to explain the failure of the last narrative, to keep the cash flowing into weapons for future narratives… But, never at the risk of the narrative designers, Never explaining the Real Agenda of Perpetual War, usually at the Very Real cost of indigenous populations for those Advanced Thinkers, who Never go away…

  6. jhawk620
    September 1, 2021 at 17:41

    OBL’s code name during his employ with the CIA (which is forever) was ‘Tim Osman’…9-11-2021 is a significant marker…stay vigilant.

  7. Uhuru
    September 1, 2021 at 15:52

    Interesting and objective analysis far from the biased mainstream line with less and credibility

  8. Rudy Haugeneder
    September 1, 2021 at 12:22

    Read and weep. However, there is a caveat: global climate change that will wreak as much economic and social havoc in the USA as anyplace else on the planet, and it — climate change — is accelerating at an ever quickening pace that might, no matter if politics alter, destroy all societies, even the most remote, in the end. That is our fate.

  9. Realist
    August 31, 2021 at 19:01

    Alright, Uncle Sam is the beheaded Medusa. Who is the flayed female sword wielder? Liberty when she finally has enough of the lies? Who WILL whack Sam when the day arrives?

    • Bob Van Noy
      September 1, 2021 at 14:44

      WE must…

  10. rick
    August 31, 2021 at 16:16

    No doubt the British elite awash with evacuee sentiment to placate its recent humiliation in wars in Afghanistan will invoke righteous anger and with murderous intent continue the great game of confronting Russia and its allies by undermining their efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and the adjoining Eurasian countries. Expect no less from a vassal state that seeks to act out its imperial fantasies in the shadow land of propaganda, soft power and covert regime change operations on equal with US military and intelligence agencies.

  11. playmobilmeister
    August 31, 2021 at 14:12

    Regarding Rome’s leaders during the 2nd century BC, It was 20 consuls, not 20 emperors. Otherwise great opinion piece

  12. D.L.
    August 31, 2021 at 10:22

    “The Empire never ended” – PK Dick

  13. John Puma
    August 31, 2021 at 09:35

    ” … its own image.” That IS the problem.

  14. Jorge E Macías Jaramillo
    August 31, 2021 at 09:26

    En la lista de gobernantes asesinados te faltó El Expresidente Roldó de Ecuador.

    • Juan M Escobedo
      September 2, 2021 at 13:15

      Falto alguien,todavia mas conocido,el Comandante Fidel Castro Ruz…

  15. Douglas Baker
    August 31, 2021 at 03:17

    Nice. Important to note U.S.S.R. invited into Afghanistan by socialist government that committed to education for all of its children and broaden women’s rights after showing King door. After U.S.S.R. armed forces left socialist government carried on for several more years after terrorist imported into country as was done in Syria fully supported by terrorist N.A.T.O, including France, U.K. Turkey and U.S.A. and terrorist state occupying Palestine–that in 1967, launched a Pearl Harbor like sneak attack on its neighbors as well as going to war against the U.S.A. when it attempted to destroy the U.S.S Liberty with POTUS Johnson ordering relief forces to aid Liberty to do an about face and return to their respective bases, unlike “false” flag incident in Gulf of Tonkin like Hitler’s Rechstag fire. U.S.A. under Commander-in-Chief upscaled war on former French “Indo-China” as previous POTUSes Truman, Eisenhower under wrote through financing 80% of French Imperial re-conquest before going whole hog in rooting for imperial conquest and attempting to further establish U.S. domination through armed force. POTUS Kennedy was going the other way in Vietnam, with his Vice upon being POTUS taking the road most traveled by warmongers. Bernard B. Fall as embedded journalist with French and their colonial forces and partners in war of aggression found war unwinnable and wrote a classic, “Street Without Joy The French Debacle in Indochina” and trod on with U.S. armed forces engaged in war of aggression n Vietnam and with his photographer stepped on a Nazi “Bouncing Betty” land mine and found kingdom come. Who in harness as embedded journalist will do what Fall did in his take on France losing its Asian colony?

    • Bob Van Noy
      September 1, 2021 at 14:32

      Thank you Consortiumnews and Douglas Baker. We must consider the “breaking news” about the link between Ambassador Kennedy, Admiral Forrestal, and JFK, one can clearly see that JFK had no intention of further escalation in Vietnam. Was THIS the Reason he was executed?
      YES! most likely…

      • ursel doran
        September 1, 2021 at 22:48

        Withxout a doubt, Sir.
        Daddy Bush running the CIA, then and now, the single most evil institution on earth,
        obviously had to get the most evil corrupt LBJ happily on board to give him the Presidency.

  16. Bonnie Marahall
    August 31, 2021 at 01:58

    Thank you for your great lesson from history of which we disregard at our own expense but not before many more innocents lose their lives for our megalomania.

  17. Zhu
    August 30, 2021 at 22:02

    Pretty good. More blunt and unflattering than most articles on our problems.

  18. Daniel Spicer
    August 30, 2021 at 21:27

    The U.S is falling into the singularity of its own hubris. As it falls it’s increasing the gravity of the singularity. This creates, paradoxically, a positive feedback loop of increasing negativity. The empire is trapped. God help us.

  19. Jeff Harrison
    August 30, 2021 at 19:46

    Very good, Mr. Hedges. I would only say that while Britain did disband (mostly) their empire, they have kept their delusions of empire and even today interfere in other countries with their ironically named Institute for States Craft and the Integrity Initiative among other organs. They’re probably going to keep that up until they can no longer afford it – both the US and Britain.

    • Freedomlover
      August 31, 2021 at 09:16

      I would second that sentiment. The city of London and the royal family still privately refer to the United States as “the wayward British colony” and most of our leadership of our state department including Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton and most recently Mike Pompeo take most of their orders from London.

    • Antiwar7
      August 31, 2021 at 23:25

      The US made the UK sell their empire for a song, in exchange for help during WW II. They didn’t give it up willingly.

  20. Andrew Nichols
    August 30, 2021 at 19:30

    The Imperial pist withdrawal narrative is alive and well here in Australia too as epitomisedby tgis execrable programme on the ABC on Saturday featuring some of Australias most rusted on vassal fans of the US Imperium. F..k this programme made me angry. hXXps://

  21. Bob Gardner
    August 30, 2021 at 18:36

    “It did not matter in 181 BC that there had been over 20 Roman emperors since Hannibal’s invasion”
    This is kind of distracting because it makes no sense. There were no Roman emperors at all until much later. Did something get garbled here?

  22. Carolyn M. Grassi
    August 30, 2021 at 16:34

    Thank you, Chris Hedges, for sharing your insights of history and our present times. My words fail to say which part of your piece is so important, since everything you say is worth reading. I plan to copy & paste your article to send to friends. blessings and thanks, Carolyn in California (poet, retired part-time Poli. Sc teacher)

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