This fall, the much-awaited remake of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune will hit theatres. Dune tells the complex and multi-layered tale of a feudal interstellar empire in the future, where noble houses compete, often violently, for dominance over the planet Arrakis, a desert world that possesses the only source of a substance called the “spice.” It is essential for space navigation and also has the potential to enhance mental and metaphysical senses and abilities. The imperial powers of the Dune universe use political chicanery and treachery to manipulate various political figures within the noble houses. Arrakis has a desolate and hostile environment. Its inhabitants, the Fremen, are looked down upon by most of the noble houses as savage, inferior and backward. They are the last to see any benefit from the trade of spice, if any at all.
Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about this book, as well as the movie adaptations. When Westerners (see: Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Brits, Australians) see Dune this fall, I wonder if any of them will have any idea that Arrakis is a perfect symbol for Afghanistan (or even Iraq, or Bolivia, etc.). Or that the much coveted and fought over “spice” is code for opium (or oil, or lithium, or whatever the Empire and its imperial houses demand or wish to control). Or that the imperial bad guys in the film, complete with their noble houses, obscene material wealth and military might, are symbolic of their own governments, corporate powers and armed forces?
Of course the same questions could be asked about other modern cinematic epics, from Star Wars to Avatar, even The Hunger Games. Despite the obfuscation of Hollywood and its unholy alliances with the Pentagon, the underlying mythic message remains, if even as a whisper largely drowned out by the latest computer-generated effects and Pentagon approved technology. An empire brutally forces its hegemony on the poorest and most maligned peoples. These people happen to sit on a vast wealth of minerals or resources or “spice.” And many of them resist the brutal incursion onto their lands. But it always seems lost on the audience that should get the message the loudest and the clearest. There is a disconnect with most Western audiences when it comes to the reality of their government’s foreign policies and military aggressions in the Global South. How much of the propaganda have Westerners swallowed?
I see this kind of disconnect with recent remarks from American pundits, politicians and many ordinary American citizens when talking about the 20-year long war in Afghanistan. How many hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians were slaughtered, maimed, displaced and whose lives were forever upended by the most powerful, imperial military the world has ever known? Yet, for so many of them, this is only an after thought. The first, and often the only, acknowledgement of casualties is of American troops. And I think to practically anyone the inference is clear: only Americans matter.
Of course, it is a tragedy that anyone was killed or maimed in this hideous war of imperialistic aggression. And soldiers have been used as cannon fodder by empires since time immemorial. But in the belly of the empire, very little care is given to the millions of Afghans whose nation was ravaged by indiscriminate drone strikes, scorched earth policy and the so-called “mother of all bombs” that Trump dropped. The Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on seven countries in 2016 alone, according to an analysis by the Council of Foreign Relations. That is roughly three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day, every day, for a whole year.
The US bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in 2015, incinerating at least 42 people, including medical staff, and injuring scores more. We hardly hear of that obvious war crime anymore, and the perpetrators will never see the inside of cell or even be tried in the Hague. The same can be said about the torture and deaths of Iraqis at the hands of American troops at the gulag Abu Ghraib, or the massacres in Fallujah or Haditha, or in Nisour Square. The empire never faces justice for its copious crimes in the Global South.
And when some in these regions dare to resist such incursions, abuses and exploitations, they are cast in the vocabulary of empire. Terrorists, guerrillas, insurgents. We tend to forget that it is the empire that created this formulary of terms to suit its own ends.
When Dune airs this fall, how many Americans will think of Afghanistan? Or the 20 year reign of terror and brutal occupation? Or the opium fields? Will the term “American Imperialism” even make them pause while they purchase popcorn? Without a doubt, the Taliban are not the Fremen and they possess no heroic figure like Paul Atreides. In fact, they evolved from the CIA funded, armed and trained mujahideen, the poisonous result of Washington’s pathological obsession with defeating “Soviet communism.” Their hatred of different ethnic and religious groups, women, music and anything secular, as well as their violent sadism, is legendary and in accordance with the etiquette of every other American supported, aided and endorsed death squad, from the infamous School of the Americas to Indonesia’s genocidal Communist Purge of the 1960s.
But there are striking parallels that cannot be ignored. And it is fatally easy for many in the West to think we are immune to despotism, theocratic terror or militaristic authoritarianism. This is at best willful ignorance, and at worst racism and cultural supremacy. In other words, don’t get too comfortable. A Taliban is in the genes of all societies. And it only requires certain conditions, inside and outside of its borders, for it to assert itself forcefully and comprehensively.
The American Empire, like those of the past, is facing a conflagration of catastrophes. Climate change, a global pandemic, ecological collapse, loss of confidence in its institutions, gross economic disparity. And it, like those of the past, will likely ignore them all until it is too late. It is losing ground in its former colonies, even as it desperately tries to stay relevant with military blustering against its adversaries. It is warmongering society unable to grapple with the complex issues of our time outside the rhetoric, posturing and policy of aggression. But Dune, as well as other heroic epics, have a message for those of us living at the margins of empire: despite their myths of glory and grandeur, all empires fall. Some sooner than others. All of them with a pervasive sense of incredulity. And we had best prepare for the fall-out when it does.
Kenn Orphan August 2021
*Title photo is from the upcoming release of Dune, 2021. Warner Bros. Studios.
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