Vale to Babylon
By Stirling Newberry
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 29 June 2006
How America is making the mistakes of Assyria in the Middle East.
We remember the Assyrian Empire, even if not by name, because of its impact on both Hebrew and Hellenic culture - it provided the prototype of the evil empire, with its fast rise, brutal peak and implosive collapse. Reading the Assyrian chronicles, with their accounts of flaying alive rebels and enemies and plastering their skins to the walls of cities, and then burning alive the maidens and young men, and looking at the friezes of them impaling populations that they warred upon, one realizes that, despite there being an Assyrian lobby today, the Assyrians by and large deserve their reputation for fearful slaughter and savagery beyond the norms even of a dark age.
Assyria is of interest today, however, not because of its legendary quality to many, and its claims to legitimacy - it amuses me that San Francisco, the city of peace, has a monument to a genocide-practicing empire - but because the patterns of behavior that the Assyrians engaged in, and the reasons for them, have parallels to our own.
It was in a dark age that Assyria rose. Invasions of peoples displaced farther in Asia poured down on a trading system that stretched from what is now Afghanistan all the way to Italy. The engines of this trading system were an East-West movement for tin and copper, which together make bronze, the basic metal of that time period, and a series of north-south routes based on other materials and grain. There were rich centers, trading cities, and then there were areas that attempted to dominate trade with military force.
Alongside bronze was an exotic material - iron. Called in many languages "sky metal," it was found in an iron/nickel form in meteorites and dominated the ceremonial dagger market because of the ability to sharpen it beyond what bronze could do. But it is softer than the best cold-worked bronzes with high tin content, and it does not hold an edge as well. To make iron that is better than bronze requires the discovery of carburization, which eventually leads to steel. However, with the collapse of the trading network, the production of what is called "sponge iron" took on a new imperative. And even early carburized irons offer advantages, not as much in raw weapons damage, but in tools, joining and binding.
The Assyrians were a people whose fortunes had ebbed and flowed, but they were uniquely situated along the East-West trade line, and realized that they could take iron tools and create a military that had better boots, its own back packs and, for military superiority, more horses and chariots. They also had another unique cultural advantage - a simple religious cult that created a strong sense of legitimacy within their core area. The stage was set for one of the first true war machines that the world has ever seen. At its peak, Assyria would have an army that could field 50,000 combat troops. In an age where a city might be defended by hundreds of people, this was enough to sack and overwhelm even the great powers.
.../... [i know we are lazy, A-Historical rudderless citizens / js ]
The important fault line inside the Assyrian empire is that it had to control "the homeland" and it had to raise up waves of young men to fight in its endless wars. Because iron culture was more labor-intensive than late bronze-age culture was, the demands of cities and military were higher per warrior to begin with, and the Assyrian model, like the M-1 tank of today, traded energy efficiency for high mobility.
To do this they cultivated a fanatical locality cult, whose main purpose was to convey political legitimacy on their monarch, who was supposed to be a descendant of the Ashur priest class and whose "seed" would be preserved for ever. The Assyrian kings were obsessed with this, and with being remembered by name on tablets. [By ?] But this very locality cult undercut what was necessary to build and maintain a poly-cultural trading state, namely the ability to absorb, assimilate and appropriate. Only late did the Assyrians show any signs of assimilation, particularly in mimicking Egyptian monumentalism for their temples and structures, and manufacturing Cyprus style goods to trade for copper. Having no navy, they needed to trade, not conquer.
In our own time, it is no exaggeration to say that the ruling party of the United States bases its political legitimacy in a localized warrior-cult version of Christianity. Unfortunately, America's international position rests upon a secularist, and tolerant, concept - civic religion, one based on democracy, free markets, humanitarian agencies, self-determination and multi-nationalism. Our ruler is adept at the language of our Ashur cult, and has maintained the loyalty of an army whose officer class is largely drawn from the localist cult that has sprung up in the United States. But despite his incessant repetition of the words of the concept cult of humanist democracy, he is incapable of producing the desired effects. Other nations stood aside for our invasion of Iraq, but have ceased to support it.
And the effects are the same inside Iraq itself. The localizing versions of Islam there, the Arab Shia, the Kurds, and now the Sunni Arabs, are increasingly identifying their religious practice with their territory, and focusing increasingly on controlling particular sites - such as mosques, which are the centers of worship. The mosques are replacing all other forms of theology [which would be...? capitalism? spectator sports, celebrity worship? adulation of porno-news that is obscenely unladen with facts or truth?, um, what? ].
Which leads to the fragmenting political failure we see in Iraq. The American military is easily able to storm, and [FLATTEN] level, any city it turns its eye to. Our campaigns in Iraq are like those recorded by Assur-nisar-pal, filled with the mass destruction of targets by fire, regardless of who is in them. In turn, the insurgency and the puppet government that we have set up have [been PRODDED INTO] turned to atrocities of their own. It was important for the insurgents of Fallujah not merely to kill contractors but to desecrate their bodies. America did not merely occupy, but created a vast torture complex at Abu Ghraib to break the will of the local populace.
Several times the Assyrians tried to extricate themselves from the politics of Babylon by setting up a puppet king, even one who was the brother of the King of Assyria. In each case the puppet king, or close ally, rebelled. The problem of the Assyrians - energy for their army - is our problem. And those who control the fragile energy infrastructure understand that [destroying] denying it is as good as controlling it. As with the Assyrians, other threats to the United States are being tolerated, or allowed to fester, because we cannot help but commit resources to controlling the southern end of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. In Assyria's case, the fatal moment was when they suspended campaigns against Egypt and the Medes to conquer Babylon one more time. This touched off the final civil war in Assyria itself, and opened the way to a revolt in Babylon and an invasion by the Medes from what is now Iran. And that is the next parallel: the ultimate winner of the Assyrian period was Persia, the predecessor of the state of Iran today.
The lesson of the armies of Ashur is, ultimately, that one cannot have a metropolitan economy that relies on international trade at the same time that one has a localizing, racist-to-genocidal religious basis for internal political legitimacy. Eventually the polarization internally will destroy the ability to project force externally, because the external force relies upon the production of the cities and a military that consumes too many resources. While individual cities benefit from having localized cults, cities [when aggregated, doh] themselves do not. The Assyrians claim to have destroyed hundreds of cities and towns to enforce worship and obedience. Even if this is highly exaggerated, it does not take many examples of sacking a town and flaying the leaders alive to destroy confidence in city life. Similarly, it does not take many Katrinas to destroy faith in a system that is supposed to protect city life in the present. [ A False deduction: only 1% of 'citizens' have made that terrifying observation, most are vegetative, teevee-toob-fed and empty-headed sheep /js]
The elevation of Bush as God-King of localized Jesus cults is a fact that can be seen from the polarization of rural counties, and the presence of two "right poles" of American voting - in the edge of the Great Plains and rocky mountains and in Appalachia. That America's great locality cult, the Mormon Church in Utah, has become avidly Republican is not an accident, but an adherence of like to like. America has begun marching down the campaign trail of Assyria, with its early wins of powerful control over a core - one that raises up a powerful military that can invade and defeat enemies on the battlefield, but that at the same time prohibits the kind of broad internationalism that feeds both the army and the cities in its core. Localized cults are good at absorbing, but not at expanding their reach. It would be the Greeks who would hit upon the first part of the formula, in terms of a broad cultural city system and a warrior who had real man-to-man superiority in combat. The Romans and the Chinese would find solutions to the other parts of the problem, and would create the pinnacle empires of the neo-antiquity period. But Assyria would, literally, be on the slag heap of history, remembered fondly only by those seeking a narrative to counter Islam.
While there is a sense that perhaps America will suffer a gentle decline as the British did, the alternative is that those who feel that they have been tormented by our actions will look to deliver the same fate to New York City or Washington, DC, that ancient rebellion delivered to Ninuwa - absolute devastation. In the world of asymmetrical threats, this is not mere idle speculation nor undue alarmism but a reasonable extrapolation that has been explored by such popular writers as Tom Clancy.
The Armies of Ashur could conquer the world, but they could not even hold the hearts and minds of their own people. In the end, these armies themselves spearheaded the revolt against the cult-king and his worship. In the end, it was the internal polarization driven by the religious system against the geo-political and economic realities that destroyed their state, and that is destroying ours.
Stirling Newberry is an internet business and strategy consultant, with experience in international telecom, consumer marketing, e-commerce and forensic database analysis. He has acted as an advisor to Democratic political campaigns and organizations and is the co-founder, along with Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen and Matt Stoller, of BopNews, as well as the military affairs editor of The Agonist.