Empire of Ignorance, Ignorance of Empire

A review of Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

By Kelsey D. Atherton

It is impossible to unmake an empire without describing its borders. The United States of America is a hodgepodge of imperial legacies and relationships that shape the entire structure of world politics today, but the history of the United States is largely learned as a subject bounded by the “logo map”–the common map of American territory featuring the lower 48 states and inserts for Alaska and Hawaii. It is entirely possible for white Americans to grow up in the mainland and come away with the impression that empire is something only other countries did, and that no one currently does. Textbooks keep the contradictions and obligations of westward expansion, Pacific and Caribbean interventions and occupations, and the forcible subjugation and exclusion of indigenous peoples all firmly locked away in a past that, the textbooks say, produced the self-contained republic the logo map depicts. As anyone who grew up outside the map can say, however, self-contained American republic is a myth.

Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is a territorial history of American imperialism that aims to explode the myth of the logo map. Beginning long before the US took control of the Philippines in 1898 and continuing to today, the book identifies two distinct periods of the territoriality of American empire: first the Colonial Empire and then the Pointillist Empire. The two periods share the same goal of flattening barriers to power for a particular kind of idealized American.

Those still uncomfortable with the concept of modern American empire will find Immerwahr’s explication of Pointillist Empire, which arose in the wake of World War II, instructive. The move from settler colonialism to the current model can be measured, Immerwahr argues, not in the content of American imperial ambitions, but in the transformation of the tissue connecting the empire to its outposts. The early history of the post-war Pointillist Empire could easily be called “radio imperialism,” though it is so much more than that. The bases built to facilitate the great logistical chains of World War II, connected by radio and aerial supply lines, are the essential ingredient in postwar American sprawl across the world.

As the shape of empire transformed from mass settlement to a miasma of red, white, and blue dots across the globe, it suffused the post-war world order with a new structure of coercion deployed against the notionally sovereign states that held it together. Basing agreements became conditions for formal decolonization of the (rest of) a country. Terms written in exchange for independence, 99-years leases, mutual obligation, and simple inertia all explain in part how the empire continued and continues. States often found that it is easier to accommodate an American military presence than try a full-scale confrontation with a superpower.

In the nuclear age, imperial coercion touched citizens as closely as it touched states. Bases imposed on colonies like Guam or left as conditions for independence like on Okinawa place targets on civilian populations around the world. Long before the Eastern Seaboard of the continental United States was vulnerable to missiles like North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM, American overseas bases held nuclear weapons to force Moscow to spread its targeting across host countries and the mainland. Under this so-termed “nuclear umbrella” the United States promises to retaliate with its arsenal should a country hosting its bases suffer nuclear attack. It is a curious protective relationship that directly summons the same danger it’s designed to mitigate.  

Beyond the nuclear threat, imperial pointillism allowed the US to bend communication networks, international standards, and language itself to its preferences to countries hosting its military bases. Immerwahr points out that even these interventions are deeply territorial: global communication networks require fixed communication nodes on the ground. The United States could set international standards to match its existing equipment, and other countries had to either adopt US standards or deny themselves access to the largest and richest market in the world. English as an international second language took hold in part because the United States has a military presence everywhere, and from the people living near bases adapting to suddenly disrupted markets to elites in countries sending children to schools in the United States, it became easier to work within the world the hegemon built than to stand alone outside it.

Immerwahr’s book is an excavation of sorts, pulling the truth of empire from euphemisms such as “tip of the spear” or “forward positioning” or “global networks.” As those euphemisms lose their power to obscure and their real meaning becomes clearer, the artifacts they label become important documents of American empire. In that context, perhaps the most naked expression of American empire comes in the Unified Command Plan, or the “COCOM map.”

“COCOM” is short for Combatant Command, of which the United States maintains 10. Six of these are regional: NORTHCOM for North America, SOUTHCOM for Central and South America, AFRICOM for most of Africa, INDOPACOM for the Pacific and India, EUCOM for Europe, the Near East, and all of Russia, and CENTCOM, for a swath of land that runs from Egypt through Kazakhstan. Beyond the geographic areas of responsibility are commands for the sinews of modern warfare: Transportation Command, which controls parts in transit, Strategic Command, devoted to the nuclear force, Cyber Command, for how the internet spills into war, and Special Operations Command, coordinating special forces from across the military in their missions of regular irregular warfare.

A 2011 version of the COCOM map is titled “The World With Commanders’ Areas of Responsibility.” If colonial imperialism was about clarifying which imperial power formally controlled which swaths of territory, the net effect of pointillist imperialism is a map showing where and how the United States is able to act across the globe. Today, it is America’s hard power projection that tells the story of its unbounded territorial scope.

How to Hide an Empire is a timely book, in ways both compelling and awkward. It comes in a period when many Americans are reconsidering their country’s role in world affairs, and in that way is well-placed bring attention to aspects of American empire the policymaking community has previously worked to obscure. It also, however, arrives following the election to the House of Representatives of people like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who require no remedial education to understand how the shape of American empire is imprinted on lives around the world. To the extent that How to Hide an Empire is being positioned as an informative, popular history, it is primarily informative to a white population that has been the main target and accomplice of efforts to hide American empire. Today, when that population disproportionately walks the halls of power, work like Immerwahr’s is crucial. But in the world we hope to build, where the median life experience of our policymakers is closer to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Lamar Alexander, truly popular, policy-relevant history will need to move beyond naming imperialism to uncovering how it can be survived and curtailed.

In the meantime, describing an empire isn’t a prescription in itself for dismantling it, but it’s a necessary start. The pointillist empire, made up of small plots of land easily obscured on a map, is the centerpiece of a world the United States built, and the one we all now inhabit. “If there is one thing the history of the Greater United States tells us, it’s that such territory matters. And not only for the people who live in colonies or near bases. It matters for the whole country,” Immerwahr writes. “World War II began, for the United States, in the territories. The war on terror started with a military base.”

Reading How to Hide an Empire is a good first step for any policy maker or presidential aspirant seeking to quickly get up to speed on the history, persistent, and continued salience of imperialism. Subversion of local self-determination from settler colonialism through territorial governance up to leased airbases and nuclear umbrellas all work against the interests of people directly impacted, and having a concrete reference point for how that subversion happens makes it possible to work against it. Immerwahr does not set out to be the final word on empire, but for those in search of a first word, this is an excellent place to start. The throughline of territory makes visible what euphemisms like “areas of responsibility” actively obscures. The rest of the world operates without illusions about the shape and nature of American Empire. It’s time everyone inside the imperial hub did, too.

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

4 thoughts on “Empire of Ignorance, Ignorance of Empire

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