"This book is about empire". With this opening eye-grabber, John Pilger has once again risen above the mundane pattern of today's "mainstream" journalism. The book is an account of how the US is forging its global empire, aided and abetted by such allies as Great Britain and Israel. And that's not counting the client rulers of nations like Afghanistan and South Africa. The edifice is "global capitalism" supported by buttresses of military might and bearing giant billboards displaying the shibboleths "freedom" and "democratic ideals". With scathing revelations delivered with strictly expressive prose, Pilger relates his findings with almost surgical precision.
He structures the book around five nations. The first, even after all these years, is likely to be beyond many reader's ken. It is a little island group in the Indian Ocean - the Chagos Islands. Inhabited for generations by the descendents of former slaves, they were summarily and illegally deported from their home to make way for a massive US Air Force base. The base provides a launching site for long distance bombers to reach anywhere in Asia. Two thousand people - those that haven't died from "sadness" have pursured a legal challenge to be returned to their home. The High Court of Britain has accepted their plea, but under US pressure, says Pilger, the British have ignored the ruling.
From the Indian Ocean, Pilger travels to Palestine, one of "freedom's" most shocking contradictions. Displaced from their ancient homelands, thousands of Palestinians were herded into grubby refugee camps. Those that weren't slaughtered by the invaders at the beginning of the occupation, that is. Pilger describes Israeli racist policies and their implementation, killing children, usurping land and water supplies and blockading the population from medical care. Israelis, he notes, often refer to their de facto prisoners in dismissive terms, allowing the Israeli army to invade and crush homes and farms. Orchards, a major agricultural factor in the Palestinian community, seem to be particular targets. Pilger explains how the US has built up Israel's military to the point where it is the world's third most powerful. Its major task is to keep Palestinian freedom in check, as well as smashing the economic base of a people with no state and no means of protecting themselves. Is it any wonder, he asks, that acts of desperation have resulted.
Pilger makes a rather swift pass through India to describe how "global capitalism" has intensified the separation between rich and poor. A few urban centres maintain a facade of prosperity, securely enclosed within well-protected facilities. From these sites, Indians who have transformed themselves into IT "help desk" call centres, provide "support" for US workers unfamiliar with their office computers. Outside those high-tech enclaves, much of the remaining population suffers in grinding poverty. The "democratic" promise of Ghandi's struggle has been overthrown by leaders eager to follow what they deem the US model of "free enterprise". The process has economically divided the nation worse than it ever was under the Raj.
The last two segments of Pilger's account vividly demonstrate the dual primary thrusts of empire - economic and military. South Africa, suffering for half a century under the truncheon of apartheid, emerged with a grand promise of freedom under Nelson Mandela. Finally freed after a generation within the walls of Robben Island prison, he exemplified what a crusader for freedom could achieve. The achievement proved hollow as Pilger graphically describes the Truth and Reconciliation hearings he attended. Police and army thugs, whose ranks reached to the highest level went free, absolved from punishment. Worse, none of the victims of their brutality received a jot of compensation. Far worse, was the selling out of South Africa's resources to the new wave of foreign investors from the UK and US. Part of the investment deal left any regulations about miner's safety in limbo or worse. Another part was the granting of mineral rights on any parcel of land the firms chose. Displacement of the population by uncaring capitalists remains an ongoing process, Pilger declares.
Finally, the military arm of imperialism exhibits the most glaring hypocrisies in Afghanistan. Pilger recounts the sordid history of British rule, Soviet invasion and, finally, the US vengence against innocent people for the World Trade Centre attacks. It makes gut-wrenching reading. Villages, single homes and people in the open have been attacked by high-speed bombers and helicopters. Once airily described as eliminating "terrorists", now the handing over of power to war-lords, has demonstrated to Afghanis who the real "terrorists" are. Confronting US officials with the fact that three times the number of those killed on 9/11, Pilger was simply dismissed by those who didn't want to hear the statistics. Yet, the numbers and policies are damning, but the US public remains generally unaware of how many have died - indirectly killed by taxpayers, Pilger reminds us.
This is a book that can stir people to anger. Pilger may not wish his readers to be angry, but he wants them to be informed. If you can close this book without feeling shame, then you are lucky. Or perhaps you should return to the first page and read it again. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]