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Empire as a Way of Life, Part 9

Chris | 21.06.2007 22:10 | Analysis | History | Terror War | Sheffield | World

The current imperial slaughter in the Middle East, justified by the "Global War on Terror", that has resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in Iraq, is nothing new — the U.S. Empire has a long and sordid history of genocidal mass murder.

The history of the US imperialism and Empire is the subject of a series of ten monthly seminars from Dr John Marciano, "Empire as a Way of Life". Attached is a recording of the ninth of these seminars and the text upon which it was based. The last seminar has taken place and will be posted to the site when the audio is available.

This seminar, recorded on 15th May 2007 by the L.A. Sound Posse, runs for 44 minutes and includes the discussion following. It has been made available under a Creative Commons license. If this recording is broadcast please let the L.A. Sound Posse know. This recording was originally made available on the A-Infos Radio Project site.

The following text has been reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr John Marciano and he can be contacted at He introduced this series of seminars in the following way:

A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the U.S. Empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian William Appleman Williams argues that empire became "a way of life" in the U.S., a "combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society." This "way of life" has convinced many U.S. "Americans" they have a right or "manifest destiny" to impose their political and economic policies upon others.

Dr John Marciano is Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Cortland, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education and class, gender and race.

Previous parts of this series:

Empire as a Way of Life, Part 9 - mp3 37M

Audio Empire as a Way of Life, Part 9 - application/msword 56K

Michael Parenti, Against Empire, Part II (May 15)

Let me begin tonight by repeating an important conclusion from the first half of Michael Parenti’s Against Empire: US imperialism is not “stupid” and mistake-prone but “remarkably successful and brutal in the service of elite economic interests.”

Parenti begins the second half by examining the “contrived” reasons used to support imperialism, e.g., “defending democracy,” “protecting US interests,” “fulfilling our responsibilities as world leader” and “containing the threat of Soviet global conquest.” Another important pretext is that our “survival is threatened by an evil adversary” who is demonized. Once the leading “demon” was Joe Stalin, whose name was always raised whenever people challenged elite policies. This would lead “the cold warriors in Washington … [to raise] specter of Stalin.” After Stalin came “populist nationalist leaders of the Third World,” such as Nasser of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya and Panama’s Noriega. Finally, there was Saddam Hussein, demonized “as the White House and the media revved up their propaganda war against Iraq [in 1991].” Saddam was called the “Butcher of Baghdad” and a “beast.” We now know that Hussein’s best “beast” days occurred while he was on the US payroll, but our media pundits and politicians did not bring up this earlier US support after he became enemy #1 in 1990.

These “demonized adversaries” were often accused of “terrorism” against the US or allies. At the same time, Parenti states, “real right-wing terrorist acts … and hate crimes within the US by home-grown right-wing groups … have caused hardly a ripple of concern in Washington.” Using the “terrorism card” has always worked. “By portraying itself as a champion against terror, the US national security state deflects attention from its own international terror network….”

According to Parenti, the US has invented various stories over the years to defend its imperialism and terrorism, a propaganda effort that essentially began in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. US “disinformation” about that event laid the foundation for all future US propaganda about anti-imperialist struggles and movements. When the US and its capitalist allies invaded the USSR shortly after its revolution in 1917, citizens were told it was necessary to “prevent the Bolshevik government from aiding the Germans.” Then President Wilson said that invading troops “were needed to reestablish order and prevent atrocities.” The truth, Parenti writes, is that “the interventionists and their White Guard allies were causing most of the disorder and committing most of the atrocities.” Finally, Wilson “admitted the real reason: he could not abide the Bolsheviks.” They were “insufferable,” Parenti argues, because they were “avowedly anti-capitalist” and “a dangerous example to common people….”

Parenti also critiques the official propaganda for 1991 Gulf War, showing “how lies and war go hand in hand.” The first lie was “US forces were needed in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia from an impending Iraqi invasion.” Then Bush asserted he wanted to “[protect] human rights in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East.” A third story held that the US “was upholding the [UN] commitment to defend member states against aggression.” Then Bush claimed “he was trying to prevent Saddam from monopolizing ‘all the world’s great oil reserves.’” Then the White House trotted out the Weapons of Mass Destruction threat “immediately after opinion polls showed that Americans” were worried that Iraq might be “developing a nuclear capability.” Bush I and Clinton milked this WMD fabrication throughout the 1990s, and Bush II took it to fantastical heights as part of the current attack on Iraq.

According to Parenti, false explanations were needed to get US citizens to support the 1991 invasion. The actual and “compelling” considerations for war, however, included Hussein’s effort to stop the Kuwaiti “slant drilling into his oil reserves”… and as a “promotional event for the military-industrial complex….” The “quick and easy victory was a promotional event for intervention itself, a cure for the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ (that is, the public’s unwillingness to commit US forces to violent conflicts abroad).”

Parenti also examines the links between the “War on Drugs” and empire. This “war” did not arise through misguided policies but from the national security state’s role in the drug trade. He gives us a brief history lesson on the CIA-Drug War connection, including the use of mafia thugs to attack communist-led unions in Europe in the late 1940s. In return, they “were given a free hand in the transport of heroin, much of which ended up in the US.” Its policy “is less concerned with fighting a war against drugs than [with supporting] the empire’s eternal war for social control at home and abroad.” The “War on Drugs,” therefore, is a key part of the imperialist project.

Parenti also critiques those who deny US imperialist motives and claim this nation has “intervened in other countries for a number of worthy causes, such as discouraging weapons proliferations [and] carrying out humanitarian missions….” These apologists tell us that “the US is a force for peace …” but the truth is that “US arms manufacturers and the Pentagon have given us” and the Third World a fantastic array of WMDs. The US also has “thousands of strategic and tactical missiles armed with … nuclear warheads.” In a huge double standard, it claims to be “opposed to nuclear buildups” but has engaged in a campaign that is “applied in a politically selective way against countries it has wanted to destabilize….” On the other hand, it has supported the development of nuclear weapons for those countries “whose policies are congruent with those of the US global empire….”

According to Parenti, US actions abroad do not flow from a “humanitarian” impulse. He points out that most US missions abroad are actually used “to bolster conservative regimes, build infrastructures that assist big investors … [and] lend an aura of legitimacy to counter-insurgency programs….” For example, he profoundly disagrees that US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan was “a good intervention….” The real “destabilizer … was … the US national security state. [Even before] Soviet troops entered [that] country,” Carter provided assistance to the rebel tribes against a Kabul government that had attempted “a social revolution that included programs in land reform, literacy, housing and public health.” Carter and Reagan spent billions through the CIA to support “privileged landowners and mujahideen tribesmen,” helped by Saudi Arabia. The US backed “opium traffickers” who would eventually provide “about half the heroin consumed in the US and were the biggest exporters of opium.” The intervention was similar to past actions in other Third World countries, to prevent “egalitarian social change.”

US/CIA interventions in Laos, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti are also discussed to make Parenti’s point about US hypocrisy and violence around the world. He asks us to ponder a fundamental question: “Why has the US never supported social revolutionary forces against right-wing governments?” Given his documentation, the answer is simple and challenges the thesis that US foreign policies are quite complex. Actually, they are not, and one would be hard-pressed to name a single foreign intervention that contradicts Parenti’s assertion on this issue.

The underlying nature of our “dual [political] system” that shapes particular imperial policies is analyzed. He states there is a public mythical system that we are all “taught in the schools” and the actual one of “coercive state power that [protects] the dominant … interests of finance capital.” This latter system, which “is not taught in the schools nor discussed in the press,” reveals the contradictions between the government and state. “The government deals with visible officeholders, pressure group politics, special interests and popular demands…. The state has little if anything to do with popular rule [and] is the ultimate instrument of class power.” The coercive institutions of the state, e.g., the CIA, NSA and the FBI – exist simply to preserve “existing class relations….”

The executive branch – the key institution within the state when it comes to empire, is also addressed. Within this branch “is the most virulent purveyor of state power: the national security state” that comprises the most critical “military and intelligence agencies, of which the CIA is the key unit.” Presidents who have supported the national security state have simply violated “democratic governance with impunity.” Although Parenti specifically addresses the lawlessness of the Reagan administration, all US presidents have broken international and domestic laws on behalf of imperial policies.

While there have been some dissenting critics of specific US policies, e.g., wars in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq, Parenti tells us that “critics of the national security state are a minority within Congress.” Although there are a small number in the House of Representatives who have opposed the US-Iraq War by actually voting against funding (but no senator), not one of these representatives has challenged the premises and practices of the Empire itself. Within the government, therefore, one cannot find the critique of imperialism presented by Williams, Grandin or Parenti.

In the end, Parenti’s critique of empire rests upon his analysis of capitalism. We cannot understand the nature of this empire, therefore, unless we first understand the basic premises and practices of our political economy system. Its purpose, in his view, “is not to build democracy, or help working people, or save the environment…. Its goal is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into capital, to invest and accumulate, transmuting every part of the world into its own image for its own realization.” This is the social reality we must confront.

A number of scholars have supported Parenti’s basic arguments, including Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson. I wish to first raise and revisit Bacevich’s assertions about the US Empire and US militarism from his American Empire and The New American Militarism. We begin with his New American Militarism and a quote from one of the premier US imperialists of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson: “We do not of deliberate choice undertake these new tasks [US imperial role abroad] which shall transform us…. All the world knows the surprising circumstances [which have been] thrust … upon us … as if part of a great preconceived plan.” This is merely a particular example of the general spin that US presidents have given to imperialist ventures. More recently, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it this way: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.” Although Albright was an architect and apologist of US imperialism, her rhetorical flourishes convinced even progressive citizens that somehow “we” are different, the exception to big-power aggression.

Bacevich argues that Clinton and Albright were “explicit in this point: the US [was] the ‘indispensable nation’ endowed by providence with unique responsibilities and obligations. Republican leaders employed different language but endorsed the sentiment…. Except among a crabbed minority on the far right and far left, a concept of the US shaping a new global order in its own image evoked more satisfaction than complaint.” In this course, you are being subjected to comments by a member of the “crabbed minority” of the “far left.”

The notion of an accidental empire doesn’t cut it with Bacevich, however, given that “those who chart America’s course do so with a clearly defined purpose in mind. That purpose is to preserve and, where both feasible and conducive to US interests, to expand an American imperium. Central to this strategy is a commitment to global openness,” that is, “the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism with the US as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.”

In American Empire, Bacevich also critiques the myth of the “reluctant superpower” that somehow just stumbled into a position of greatness and leadership. “Some nations achieve greatness,” observed historian Ernest May; “the US had greatness thrust upon it.” Bacevich states that this view embraces “the story of America’s rise to power the way Americans themselves prefer to tell it.” This is the myth of “America” as the City on the Hill, the exception to great power aggression, a nation with noble designs that often blunders in its effort to do good throughout the world. In this view, “the US – unlike other nations – achieved preeminence not by consciously seeking it but simply as an unintended consequence of actions taken either in self-defense or on behalf of others.”

According to Bacevich, “in practice the myth of the ‘reluctant superpower’ … reigns today as the master narrative explaining (and justifying) the nation’s exercise of global power.” And his point about its bi-partisan nature bears repeating: “… both parties and virtually the entire foreign policy elite tacitly share a common vision and conform in practice to a strategic consensus of long standing.” We must keep this in mind whenever we hear assertions of substantive differences between the two parties on foreign policy.

As you may recall, in an earlier class we discussed Bacevich’s laudatory views on the anti-imperialist critique of historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams. Their critique warrants another visit. Beard’s thesis was that the primary purpose of US foreign policy “was to advance” capitalist class interests. Once we understand this basic purpose, it is easy to understand the radical critique of US motives put forth by Grandin, Chomsky, Parenti, et al. Beard’s analysis of the US empire is similar to Williams’s: “American leaders chose intervention abroad in order to dodge politically difficult decisions at home – decisions that might call into question” the power and privilege of “the propertied classes.” In order to maintain this fundamental maxim, therefore, Beard pointed out that the dominant elements “and their advocates in Washington – had long since concluded that the domestic market alone would not satisfy their own [class interests] or the nation’s requirements.”

The dominant elite thus needed to link its narrow class interests to the “national security” with talk of grander and nobler designs. All of this ideological spin is necessary to get us to support the kinds of genocidal policies that Grandin describes in Empire’s Workshop. “Viewed in this light,” Bacevich writes, “exporting economic surpluses – the ‘industrialist way of escape’ – constituted the overriding national interest. It was not simply a matter of making money … but of preserving long-standing arrangements for allocating power and privilege within American society.”

Bacevich also discusses Williams’s ongoing anti-imperialist influence. It “has endured for one simple reason”: US foreign policy “has vindicated” his views on the nature of government and empire, even though Williams was “denounced” by the Cold War apologists for venturing outside acceptable bounds in his criticisms of US policy. Those who stay within these bounds can make tough methodological criticisms, e.g., as we now see with liberal and Democratic criticism of the present US-Iraq War, but the fundamental premises of the conflict or US foreign policy itself are beyond the pale and cannot be challenged.

For Bacevich, Williams’s crime was to “suggest in the midst of the Cold War that the US entertained imperial aspirations and that US foreign policy … had aimed at building and consolidating an American empire….” This major critique has stood the test of time, and has shaped the radical analysis of US imperialism consistently rejected by liberals and conservatives. Williams asked whether this nation is even “possible without empire” since it had always relied “on expansion – especially economic expansion….” The short answer is no, as the critique of John Bellamy Foster and others in this course shows. Capitalism’s nature propels it inexorably toward expansion and growth; it cannot live within its means and political reforms designed to accomplish this are doomed to failure.

I will close tonight with some reflections by Chalmers Johnson, taken from his trilogy on empire and republic: Blowback, Sorrows of Empire and the just released Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. I will revisit some arguments made previously in this course, as well as adding new material from two of these books. Johnson, a scholar in the history and politics of East Asia, and former CIA consultant during the US-Vietnam War, offers a powerful analysis of the origins and true costs of our empire.

In his first book, Blowback, Johnson “set out to explain how exactly our government came to be so hated around the world. As a CIA term of tradecraft, ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public.” This is a key point that Parenti also emphasizes: secrecy is necessary for imperialism given that the truth about what is done in our name might arouse public protest that could block aggression abroad. These illegal operations include “the clandestine overthrow of governments … the training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the rigging of elections in foreign countries [and] torture or assassination of selected foreigners.”

Johnson reminds us that because “these actions were, at least originally,” secret meant that when retaliation does come – as it did … on [9/11] – the American public is incapable of putting the events in context. Not surprisingly, then, Americans tend to support speedy acts of revenge…. These moments of lashing out, of course, only prepare the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”

After Blowback, Johnson commenced “research on the network of 737 military bases maintained around the world (according to the Pentagon’s own 2005 official inventory). Not including the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million US troops, spies, contractors, dependents, and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in.” This research led to the second book in his trilogy: Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.

“As our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq turned into major fiascoes,” Johnson writes, “discrediting our military leadership, ruining our public finances, and bringing death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of civilians in those countries, I continued to ponder the issue of empire.” It became clear to him that the Bush administration was “claiming, and actively assuming, powers specifically denied to a president by our Constitution.” It also “became clear … that Congress had almost completely abdicated its responsibilities to balance the power of the executive branch. Despite the Democratic sweep in the 2006 election [I would call it a minor mid-course correction], it remains to be seen whether these tendencies can, in the long run, be controlled, let alone reversed.”

Johnson’s lament raises an extremely critical point, especially for those who continue to believe that if we only elect enough Democrats and liberals and “take our country back,” the imperial presidency and policies of empire can be fundamentally changed. I hope that our journey through US imperial history has disabused people of this notion.

Continuing with his analysis in Sorrows, Johnson argues that the US empire is so huge that “it staggers the imagination”: it “supports [a] military-industrial complex, university research and development contracts, petrochemical refineries and distributors, innumerable foreign [countries] … multi-national corporations … investment banks … and advocates of ‘globalization’ – the catch word that really means forcing all nations to open themselves up to American exploitation and American-style capitalism.”

For Johnson, the liberal Woodrow Wilson “remains the godfather of those contemporary ideologists who justify American imperial power in terms of exporting democracy.” Wilson stated the “world must be made safe for democracy.” America, he explained, must fight “for the rights and liberties of small nations for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free persons as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.” According to Wilson, these were pursuits “we have always carried nearest to our hearts.” Author Greg Grandin In Empire’s Workshop and other scholars in this course have detailed the record of Wilson’s relentless imperialist aggression in Latin America and elsewhere, revealing the utter bankruptcy of claims that he was concerned about the fate of small nations.

In pursuing imperialist policies, Johnson argues, “the most powerful tool of the [Pentagon] in promoting its image and protecting its interest from public scrutiny is official secrecy….” Since the beginning of the Cold War, the Pentagon has become “addicted to a black-budget way of life…. All funds for the CIA were (and still are) secretly contained in the [War Department’s] public budget under camouflaged names. As the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA create new intelligence agencies, the black budget expands exponentially.”

Despite an imperialist aggression since WW II built upon the foundation of unlimited taxpayer funds for overt and covert policies, the essential nature of the empire project must be hidden from US citizens. Johnson points out that “history tells us that an expansionist nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the spread of civilization, or in accord with scientific laws – anything but deliberate aggression by a hyper-power.”

Arguing that even globalization policies must be seen within an imperialist context that “cannot exist without a powerful military apparatus for subduing and policing the peoples who stand in its way and an economic system for financing an expensive and largely unproductive military establishment,” Johnson believes we need “to examine the elaborate ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ that has obscured America’s international endeavors before the triumph of unilateral militarism and to reveal how militarism has displaced and discredited America’s economic leaders.”

In his analysis, Johnson links the dominance of empire abroad and the imperial presidency to the destruction of democracy at home: “Although tyranny … may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.” This will first begin with “a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans.” It will be followed by “a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses congress and is itself transformed … into something more like a [Pentagon] presidency.” Complementing the above, “an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will be increasingly displaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and a glorification of war, power, and the military legions.” Finally, “there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.”

Johnson’s scholarship on empire finally brought him to Nemesis: “In Greek mythology, the goddess of retribution, who punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and the arrogance that causes it.” She is an eminently appropriate goddess given the boundless arrogance of US imperialists. Johnson states that he “no longer doubted that maintaining our empire abroad … would eventually undercut, or simply skirt, what was left of our domestic democracy and that might, in the end, produce a military dictatorship or – far more likely – its civilian equivalent.”

The synthesis of “huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, an ever growing economic dependence on the military-industrial complex and the making of weaponry, and ruinous military expenses as well as a vast, bloated [military] budget, not to speak of the creation of a whole second Defense Department (known as the Department of Homeland Security) has been destroying our republican structure in favor of an imperial presidency.”

Johnson’s definition of “republican structure” embraces “the separation of powers and the elaborate checks and balances that the founders of our country wrote into the Constitution as the main bulwarks against dictatorship and tyranny….” Of course, that republicanism did not include their own tyranny visited upon Original Americans, slaves and the poor who did not gain a thing from these “elaborate checks and balances.”

Johnson’s conclusion in Nemesis is blunt and uncompromising: “We are on the brink of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation starts down this path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of local and global forces opposed to imperialism, and in the end bankruptcy….

As a form of government, imperialism does not seek nor require the consent of the governed. It is a pure form of tyranny. The American attempt to combine domestic democracy with such tyrannical control over foreigners is hopelessly contradictory and hypocritical. A country can be democratic or it can be imperialistic, but it cannot be both.”

Johnson believes that our political system has “failed to prevent this combination from developing – and may not be capable of correcting it.” And in his view, Congress and the Judiciary “have become so servile in the presence of the imperial presidency that they have largely lost the ability to respond in a principled and independent manner. Even in the present moment of congressional stirring, there seems to be a deep sense of helplessness.”

Although he is not confident US citizens will choose “democracy over empire,” he hopes that “our imperial venture will end not with a nuclear bang but a financial whimper.” It appears highly unlikely that “any President (or Congress) from either party [will] begin the task of dismantling the military-industrial complex, ending the pall of ‘national security’ secrecy and the ‘black budgets’ that make public oversight of what our government does impossible, and bringing the president’s secret army, the CIA, under democratic control.” He concludes this last book by stating that Nemesis “is already a visitor in our country, simply biding her time before she makes her presence known.”

I would argue that all of us would be well served to study Johnson’s accurate and chilling analysis. From the creation of the National Security State in 1947, lying, secrecy and presidential power have grown, aided by compliant and silent legislators, judges, media pundits, corporate executives and influential intellectuals. There are no effective checks on these promoters of empire, save for those that emerge from the people themselves – as we have learned from the US-Vietnam War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We cannot count on elected officials to mount any real challenge to the relentless violence put forth by imperial Democratic and Republican presidents and their congressional enablers. Therefore, there is no progressive solution to be found within the premises and parameters of our one-party, two-wing electoral system, e.g., there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will challenge the premises and practices of the national security state and empire.

Anti-war activist Bruce Gagnon’s May 7th Counterpunch commentary captured my thoughts on mainstream politics and the systemic nature of empire. His critique of an editorial on the US-Iraq War in his local Portland, Maine newspaper complements what I have argued about the nature of US imperialism, and liberal and Democratic support for it. The “editor explained why the paper … had decided to come out against the war in Iraq after long supporting Bush's shameful and illegal occupation.” He stated that the paper had “not renounced [its] belief in American exceptionalism…. I've withdrawn my support for the war for pragmatic reasons, not because my underlying worldview has changed. I believe we should use our strength as the world's only military superpower with great caution, but I do believe we should use it.... Our nation has a unique role in the world, and with it come unique responsibilities and unique privilege." Again, we see the age-old appeal to the US as a special nation.

“In other words,” Gagnon responds, the editor “supports U.S. [Empire] and all that comes with it. The … killing [and] … domination of cultures [are] acceptable,” but he is "withdrawing" his support primarily because "this war has been mismanaged by [Bush] to the point where turning things around is impossible.” The slaughter is simply not working out the way “we” expected it would.

Gagnon is correct to assert that this “is largely the Democratic Party position as well. The war is not necessarily bad [and] the U.S. has the right and responsibility to take out anyone that we decide should be eliminated, but it must be handled well so that world opinion and the American people do not turn against the policy.” The lesson to be drawn from his bitter condemnation of his local editor and Democrats is clear: had the war actually ended after the first 100 hours with a crushing victory for “our troops,” silence and collaboration would have been the order of the day and the Empire would have marched on. Make no mistake about that.