In his new book, Alfred W. McCoy collects his multiple analyses of the US as an empire, and describes how violence practiced in the periphery will accompany you all the way home.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 17, 2018

In the shadows of the American century

Alfred W. McCoy


War always returns home. That is one of historian Alfred W. McCoy’s crucial points in his description of the US as a global empire, an understanding based on his own experiences in life. He was born in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, a period which also marks the beginning of American global warfare. McCoy’s father served in the army like the majority of the other fathers he knew. On the outside his life looked nice: «Wherever we went, our neighbours were more or less like us: dad, the war veteran, mom, the suburban housewife, two or three kids, a dog, a small house, a mortgage, a car, a local church, crowded schools, and, of course, scouts. When I was in elementary school, it all felt pretty nice.» But it turned out there was a «dark side», hidden under «prosperity’s glow». Drunkenness, violence and suicide caused by the mental wounds from the war. There was an obligation to be tacit about that, and McCoy soon found out that «Washington’s bid for power carried heavy costs». Precisely how vast those costs were he observed at close range while studying to be an historian.

Distilled analysis

In the Shadows of the American Century is a distilled analysis based on McCoy’s historical investigations of activities such as the CIA’s participation in drug production, the establishment of the military industrial complex and the use of the former colony the Philippines as a laboratory for surveillance technologies. The first part of the book introduces the phenomenon of geopolitics and its historical origin, and describes the US’ strategies to secure global dominance (a dominance that has often included active support of the establishment of dictatorships and other dubious activities including torture) long before the pictures from Abu Ghraib went viral. The second part concerns the development of all-encompassing surveillance capabilities and the change of American military influence from traditional force of arms to high-tech cyber warfare. Lastly, the third part lines up scenarios for the eventual end of «the American Century».

The war always returns home

The CIA, the American military and American senior civil servants, politicians and diplomats have for decades tried to enforce American interests globally by initiating or influencing the outcome of events in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia – often applying fairly dubious methods to do so. McCoy depicts, in a convincing and merciless manner, the disastrous consequences when the project of enforcing American interests succeeded as well as when it failed. There is something intrinsically megalomaniac, not only about the US’ struggle for global dominance, but also by McCoy’s analysis of the same. It could hardly be different. In order to describe the scope of American interference in the course of the world, you have to focus narrowly on the actions and the responsibility of the US. That particular framing of the narrative, however, momentarily gives the feeling that McCoy – from his certainly critical viewpoint – paradoxically shares the American state’s conception of the world as an almost passive object for American interests. Nonetheless, the vantagepoint of his analysis of America’s greatness and possible fall is insightful and McCoy has needed courage to arrive at that vantagepoint.

In the introduction, McCoy tells – with the crispness of a well-written crime novel – the story about his own first encounter with the intelligence services. As a young student of history in the early 1970s he set out to inquire into the background of the massive heroin addiction among the American soldiers in Vietnam. He started in the archives with colonial reports on the opium trade in southeastern Asia, and ended up with a manuscript that made a CIA officer (in vain) pressure the publisher to halt the publication. «Defeated in the public arena, the CIA retreated to the shadows and retaliated by tugging at every thread in the threadbare life of a graduate student,» writes McCoy.The descriptions of the net of militarisation and intelligence that the historian’s own life was entangled in, and that has been tightened steadily around the world, are both sober and unforgiving. The nerve of the initial chapter – where McCoy depicts his growing-up with a father, and friends’ fathers, who brought the violence of the war into their own living rooms – runs through the whole book. It is that nerve that makes it possible to digest the heaps of cold facts about weapon power and the production of opium.

«The empire of the US is surely built by military power, but it is supported by global economic infiltration.»

The Vietnam lesson

Alfred W. McCoy

In the Shadows of the American Century touches only sparsely on American commercial interests, but there are some references to the Pentagon’s alliances with private contractors of weapons and technologies and the creation of a «military industrial complex». It would have facilitated a deeper understanding if McCoy had pursued the connexions to private enterprises and had diminished the amount of nerdish details about armament. The empire of the US is surely built by military power, but it is supported by global economic infiltration.

McCoy estimates that the US will soon become a former global empire. But if anything could provide hope for those who still think that the world is better off with American dominance, it would be (according to McCoy) the technological revolution in defence planning that was systemised under president Obama. In other words, the creation of cyber warfare and full-scale militarisation of space. McCoy contends, that «while America’s economic influence is losing ground, this breakthrough in ‘information warfare’ might be what could secure the country’s global hegemony into the 21st century.» But the historian reminds us – referring to Vietnam – that «history offers some pessimistic parallels when it comes to the ability of militarised technology alone to preserve regional or global hegemony».

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