Thursday, August 8, 2013

Where empires go to die

             Consider the following quote, from Eugene Robinson in 2010:

             “In Afghanistan, momentum has become a substitute for logic. We're not fighting because we have a clear set of achievable goals. We're at war, apparently, because we're at war.”

             What a strange compulsion! But there is precedent; others have found themselves unwittingly fighting in Afghanistan for no apparant reason. The Soviets, the British, and on back to Alexander the Great. Some have demolished Afghanistan, but none have subdued it; yet that impossible goal keeps getting sought. Again, why such a strange compulsion?

             Afghanistan itself is a strange place. Poor, ignorant, backwards, lawless and tribalist, yet somehow these opium farmers can't be subdued. How do they do it? Maybe it's their unifying xenophobia; maybe it's the diagonal terrain; and maybe the place just isn't worth conquering.

             For whatever reason, the place has a reputation as a "graveyard of empires"; why then do empires keep going there? By any rational calculation, it's not worth the trouble. It isn't even worth the trouble in terms of macho posturing. What is the source of this imperial self-destructiveness? Why seek defeat?

             I theorize that these conquerors unconsciously desired defeat. Their empires were weary of existing, and sought collapse. Empire consciously defies defeat; it prides itself on its eternal-winner status; but pride is a sin and eternity is not for mortal man; so time reverses desire, and defeat acquires the glamour that victory used to have. Such masochistic feelings must be denied, but they survive unconsciously and find expression as perverse compulsion.

             Defeat for an empire is victory for humanity as a whole; so imperial self-destruction has its virtues. But Thanatos, the death-wish, is hard to witness at close range; not every society can successfully host such acting-out. Afghanistan is one that can. It is where empires go to die.

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