Conrad’s Bloody Imperialism

No one reads classics; and when they do and talk about it, you wish they hadn’t. Usually, you cannot tell when bright angels fall noiselessly to sullen earth. But Heart of Darkness fell in 1977. In a celebrated speech Chinua Achebe called Conrad “a bloody imperialist” and the worst sort racist, a liberal who hides behind a mask of tolerance. [1] “Bloody imperialist” in British parlance does not mean “covered in blood”; it means “fucking imperialist.” And so, a great anti-imperialist novel seems fated to be misunderstood and rarely read. Achebe claimed not to be a book banner and included Conrad’s novel in his literature courses; however, I think we know how it was read, and what kindness was there for the student who read it otherwise.

I attended a lecture on Conrad and Imperialism by Edward Said around that time. [2] Said sported a polished manner and British loftiness despite leading, in imagination, the third-world bloody revolution (“bloody” means bloody). I picture Said now in his muted tweed jacket, and thinking at the time that this mantle of power cost more than the car I drove to Bryn Mawr to hear him. These were my Communist days, so I was reading theories of Imperialism, by left-wing and other authors. [3] I had also just published a long essay on Lord Jim. [4] And since I am foolhardy, it was a good bet I would not sit quietly once Said allowed questions.

My comments were unprepared but scholarly and respectful. I cited instances in Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1899) and “An Outpost of Progress” (1897) where Conrad mocked European imperialism and condemned the beastliness of Belgian slaughter in the Congo. Though my remarks were limited by time and setting, I situated them in the context of the Boer War and the jingoism it excited. [5]

It would be pretty to think these remarks were acknowledged respectfully. Instead, I was singled out as a racist imperialist plant. Didn’t I know that Conrad wrote “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and used that word throughout Heart of Darkness? And not realize how offended members of that audience were that I praised a writer who used it. One large and menacing African-American woman raged at me. Members of the audience vied for Said’s approval and for my destruction, as they each competed, there on Philadelphia’s posh Main Line, for the forward ranks of bloody rebellion against “the man.”

In years since, I have taught Heart of Darkness often. I hoped to dislodge student prejudices and clear the way to understanding, without success. The “N” word stops discussions. The problem is serious. Heart of Darkness reveals so much about our time and place as we sit comfortably at the center of a savage empire – a supermarket nearby, policemen everywhere, and flat screens transmitting congratulatory visions of the world. No contemporary narrative does as powerful a job dismantling the confidence of our damned ventures abroad. Even Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though a great homage to Heart of Darkness, offers only an incomplete rendering of Conrad’s original. [6]

Achebe protested Conrad’s depiction of Africa, but Heart of Darkness analyses European diseases. At most, it portrays Africa in the European imagination. Sadly, Achebe’s expectations for emerging Africa mock his hopes. His “African Trilogy ” – Things Fall Apart (1958),  No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964) — depicting broad corruption, provides a mere hint of degradations apparent since Achebe wrote. [7] Said’s confidence that Palestinian revolt would spark an anti-imperialist revolution hasn’t worn well either.

Marlow, Conrad’s fictional witness, testifies to European savagery.  From the French warship lobbing shells into the jungle, to the “Grove of Death” where African laborers expire, to the random gunplay directed at the locals. Kurtz himself, the idealist transformed into a beast, writes the obituary — “Exterminate the brutes” (p. 50) [8] A humanitarian crusade against King Leopold’s Congo brutality had become a global movement, joined by writers, including Twain and Conrad. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad notes this deadly mayhem.  His target, however, is far more dangerous to the imperialist venture.

Marlow tells his listeners – the Director of Companies and his legal and accounting confederates – what they want to ignore. The savagery and rot are not “out there” alone but pervade London and Brussels and wherever colonialism is reshaping the global system with its “merry dance of death and trade” (p. 14). Brussels is a “whited sepulcher,” full of rot, dry bones and madness, and sustained by idealisms scarcely disguising the slaughter and mayhem. [9] Marlow, like other youths, attracted to adventure in exotic places, is ready-made for “ripping yarns” of empire. [10]

Marlow is most repelled by the waste of it all. The “flabby devil”, the sheer disorganization created by empire’s demented business, disgusts him. Those who operate this system of pillage pursue their careers, without regard for costs. The Manager of the Central Station plots against the corporation, and accountants cook quarterly reports to boost their visibility to headquarters. Kurtz, who is productive, is their enemy. The corporate net, headquartered in Brussels, is so far-flung that no one knows what happens at the distant outposts of progress. The corporation has its own momentum, without concern for efficiency, productivity, or even profits. It is Kafka’s mad machinery; but Conrad, a hardy realist, connects the dots– rusted railcars un-ended like dying animals, bolts of calico in place of rivets, hollow men molded to corporate delusions, corpulent pioneers, wheezing on dense jungle trails, dreaming of advancement while they collapse … the flabby devil.

In Achebe’s view, Conrad believes Britain is exempt from this rot, that where the map shows red, order is well maintained. However, Marlow’s story threatens his British masters, settled there at Gravesend as the light dims and falters. The rot is inevitable.  It destroyed Roman imperial ventures, sank Spanish galleons, and dooms modern inheritors of imperial illusions. Marlow’s listeners complain, and though Marlow softens his tale strategically, his irony damns them. Organize men into these global ventures, where purposes become incomprehensible and agents of progress go native, and no codes of honor can prevail. The hard-headed managers live on illusions, no more real than the feeble romances of “The Intended” or the silly heart-felt concern of Marlow’s aunt. Europe’s grandeur and security rests on a fragile surface; deadly snags lurk beneath, threatening to tear it to pieces.


Marlow tells his tale to four listeners aboard a pleasure yacht at Gravesend in the dying light. [11] London is “the greatest town on earth,” the Thames leading outward to the world (p. 3). An unnamed narrator tells the story of Marlow telling his tale. We know nothing about him, but his understanding differs from Marlow’s. The narrator tells us that the Director of Companies, standing at the helm, appears a perfect ship’s captain to them all, but Marlow would never accord him this honor. Like the others, the narrator has not taken Marlow’s journey.

Marlow begins by challenging jingoistic chatter from the deep perspective of history. Empires rise and fall. Britain was a wild and savage place when Roman soldiers subdued its people fifteen hundred years ago. [12] Britains were savages and the Romans were empire builders, making fortunes and careers along the pestilential Thames. Marlow claims the Romans failed, lacking the administrative skills Britains boast of. But the Romans did well in Britain and ruled for nearly four centuries. Marlow is playing to his listeners’ nationalism. But Marlow’s goal is to excite uneasiness in them just as Conrad is leading his readers into disturbing doubts and prying apart their confidence.

For most readers Heart of Darkness tells a story about Kurtz and features an African queen. But two-thirds of it is complete before Kurtz appears, and the queen has few paragraphs. Readers suggest, too, that Conrad exposes the slaughter of Africans, an expose of King Leopold’s Congo depredations. While the “Grove of Death” and Kurtz’s participation in local warfare support this claim, Conrad’s interests are elsewhere. Conrad exposes the rot of empire among Europeans and the confusion suffered by European societies tied to these ventures. Imperialism is bad for the Congo, but it is ruinous for Brussels and London. As we are learning, globalism infects all participants.

Marlow begins his nightmare journey in Brussels. The “whited sepulcher” gleams on the surface but stinks of corruption within. The central administrative office is strangely staffed … a ironic functionary, two women knitting black wool, a doctor measuring each agent’s cranium to study the effects of their adventures, and the CEO, a portly little man whose pudgy fist handles millions. The core is hollow, an image Conrad embraces. European bodies are bloated and fatigued, their minds distracted by peculiar pastimes and evasive ironies. Brussels talks of noble causes; its bitter heart burns for profits.

Journeying outward, Marlow observes a French warship, hurling small shells into the immensity of dense jungle. A fellow passenger explains “enemies” are there, permitting Europeans to assault them. As in our world, persons targeted for murder, even 16-year-olds, are “enemy combatants,” and their friends killed with them, “collateral damage.” In the language of empire, those in the way are “enemies”; those who resist “criminals.” [13]

Arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow meets the “flabby devil” that lords over empire: railway cars rust in the weeds up-ended like dead animals, work teams dynamite a hillside by mistake, and the “Grove of Death” shelters dying African workers, withering from starvation and exhaustion. Global production, then as now, squanders resources, despoils the land, and torments expendable labor, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, an unpleasant result of free trade and the laws of global capitalism. [14]

The Accountant of the Outer Station maintains order amidst insanity. He is dapper despite dust and heat. His books supply an impeccable account of imaginary profit and loss. He prevails by abstracting himself from his settings. He objects to dying agents left off in his quarters because their groans distract him. The Impeccable Accountant is a cog in the great wheel and exists for his discrete function within the ensemble of functions and purposes. We should recognize him, after a century of calamities — the efficient functionary “only doing his job.” [15]

The Central Station is disorderly: workers await shipments of critical supplies and receive quantities of useless items. Provisioners dump whatever brings profits. Conrad, in 1899, knows that provisioning empire is an independent force running on its own. The Eldorado Exploring Expedition is the feeble forerunner of KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root), a construction corporation flourishing amidst our Middle East debacles and world-wide. [16] A recent accounting estimates costs of $385B to the US government, over ten years, for construction and supplies related to Mid-east warfare. Since much of the work is clandestine, including private counter-insurgency, the costs may be double … who knows? [17] Conrad knew that empire is a thriving business opportunity and takes its momentum from those interests. The Manager’s uncle leads the EEE, making clear the close connection between the agents of empire and the business community profiting from it. Conrad would not have been surprised to find a Vice-President connected to the main supplier of the war. [18]

The business of the Central Station is jockeying for advantage within the Corporation. Here Kurtz’s name first appears. The Manager and his acolytes consider Kurtz a threat because Kurtz has succeeded in producing ivory. You would think that would help their careers, but Kurtz operates alone. The agents sent to help Kurtz are inefficient, unimaginative, and spies for their corporate masters. Worse yet, the Manager believes corporate executives in Brussels favor Kurtz. He assumes Kurtz wants his job. The Brickmaker-who-makes-no-bricks fears working for Kurtz, who abides no nonsense. Although Marlow wants only to restore the boat and get on with his mission, the Manager mistrusts him because the people who favor Kurtz recommended him. The brickmaker associates Marlow with the “virtue” crowd, who justify imperialism’s pillaging with notions of humane progress. Marlow finds the machinations of these petty Machiavels humorous, but they define the “Flabby Devil” misruling the global economy. [19]

Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle, discussing ridding themselves of troublesome competitors who threaten their project. These agents of progress are a law unto themselves. They will arrange to have this troublesome fellow hanged: the uncle explains, “Anything can be done in this country … nobody here … can endanger your position.” As a recent case against the Swiss firm Nestle demonstrates, corporate power abroad can do what it wishes. In Colombia one union leader after another has been labeled an enemy, then tortured and murdered. The Swiss government promoted delays until a statute of limitations expired. [20] The US military and contracted mercenary forces provide numerous examples. Locals in Somalia call the pink compound at the Mogadishu airport “Guantanamo,” the local CIA East-Africa franchise for rendition, torture, and murder of “enemies” and “criminals”. [21] When Kurtz threatens to murder the Harlequin and take his ivory, Marlow says “he did it because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him.”

Marlow’s listeners object to his indictment of imperialism. One grumbles when Marlow sympathizes with African suffering. Marlow, recalling coming upon a deserted African village, notes that English villagers would abandon their homes, too, at news of invaders conscripting workers for deadly labor. Marlow observes too the circumstances of Africans transitioning from idol worship to attending a boiler’s pressure gauge. He praises the cannibals’ restraint and takes these workers as human beings. This drives one listener to ask sarcastically why Marlow didn’t just join them for a dance and a shout. Marlow answers he was too busy watching the river for snags and shallows, but he does not say he would not have joined them. Marlow is surprised at the bond of humanity he feels for them.

His British masters, however, have deeper objections. Marlow associates the secure metropolitan center with the deadly madness that makes its comforts possible. There are surface appearances, the pleasant world we think we live in, and the deeper waters full of snags and shallows.  Marlow treads carefully, but at times implicates the corporate masters who listen to his tale. He muses that the jungle looks on mockingly at his silly efforts and then comments that it watches them, too … “you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? Half a crown a tumble …” And out of the darkness comes a growling voice “try to be civil, Marlow.” At that, Marlow recovers his care for boundary of offence and seems to apologize: “I beg your pardon. I forget the heartache that makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter if the trick be done well. You do your tricks very well” (p. 34). This apology, wrapped in cheek, concedes nothing.

Another listener objects that Marlow’s account of an attack is absurd. Marlow responds: “Absurd … Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal–you hear–normal from year’s end to year’s end. And you say, Absurd!”(p. 47). Civilization refuses to acknowledge the slaughter that supports its ease and safety. A visit below these surfaces threatens everything we think we know. This is the cost of imperialism: we cannot acknowledge our realities; we are shocked by coffins returning from abroad and the occasional slaughter brought home to our streets. [22]

Marlow’s employers would prefer not to know. They might chuckle when Marlow describes Brussels as a town where people are “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other” (p. 70) However, Marlow’s tale implicates London and the surfaces his listeners trust in for moral and intellectual equilibrium. These illusions require ideas of law and order that evaporate where profits accumulate: “You can’t understand. How could you?–with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums” (p. 49) The law, custom, and public opinion masks the violence applied to those who cannot resist. And Kurtz’s mother, after all, was half English.

When we reject Heart of Darkness because of the “N” word, or an affront to women, or to pan-African pride, we ignore Conrad’s insights. The United States has embraced the flabby devil. National honor has become a thin veneer masking arrogance, deception, and slaughter. Efficiency moguls misplace goals and purposes; Robert McNamara, architect of destruction in Southeast Asia, came to mourn the role he played in loosing death upon the world, as did John Perkins, regarding Latin America. [23] Expense is no concern for projects corporations justify to themselves. Corporations stand foremost … before governments, churches, and kings. The provisioners of war and occupation loot and pillage their own nations and are honored for their destructiveness. Young people patching together scraps of ideals, like a Joseph’s coat of many colors, seek a proper connection for their idealistic aspirations. And canny workers, the Marlows who would do the right things well, sour in disgust at corruption of the only world we have to live in.

Chinua Achebe and Edward Said, both of a particular brilliance, are dead. The discussion we need is thinner for their passing. However, their revolutionism has proved a fantasy while Conrad’s novel has sturdy historical foundation and continuing predictive power. The oppositional press, the one that owes nobody anything and tells the truth, delivers footnotes to Conrad daily. [24]


[1] Chinua Achebe, who died earlier this year, was the beloved author of Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel which makes its own strong case against European colonial actions in Nigeria. His remarks attacking Conrad were heard first in a Chancellor’s lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in February, 1975. Achebe published an essay in the Massachusetts Review in 1977 entitled “The Image of Africa”. A third version, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” (1988) appears in the Norton edition of Heart of Darkness, 1991, 336-349.

[2] Edward W. Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness,” 422-429, is excerpted from his Culture and Imperialism, (1993) and appears in the Norton edition, 1991.

[3] That would have included Joseph Schumpeter, The Sociology of Imperialism (1918); J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: a Study (1965); Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (1970); Owen and Sutcliffe, Studies in the Theories of Imperialism (1972); as well as Rosa Luxenburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913) and V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917).

[4] Stephen Zelnick, “Conrad’s Lord Jim: Meditations on the Other Hemisphere,” Minnesota Review, Fall 1978, 73-89.

[5] The two Boer Wars (1880-81; 1899-1902) pitted British forces against the Dutch settlers in the Transvaal and Orange Free State in southern Africa. The second war included the commitment of a large force of British military, and before it ended, the defeat of both the Boer military forces and the brutal suppression of a guerilla war which involved a scorched earth policy and the killing of “rebel” families.

Rowena Hammal, in History Today 2010, wrote the following:

“Although the Boer War was perhaps the apogee of jingoistic popular imperialism, it was also the cause of new anxieties about the Britain’s future. Imperialists were deeply worried by Britain’s inability to defeat the Boer farmers quickly. Although the Boers were well armed by Germany, they remained a small army, numbering no more than 40,000 troops at any one time.  Britain required three years and 500,000 troops to defeat them, sustaining 30,000 casualties in the process.

The conflict also revealed the brutal side of British imperialism. Cruelty was preferable to humiliation for the “island race,” and so, frustrated by the Boers’ guerilla tactics, the British burnt Boer farms and forced their inhabitants into concentration camps. This was a new method of controlling the enemy, whether civilian or otherwise, and as a result of illness, starvation and cold, 28,000 Boer children, women and men died in British camps.”

British Jingoism belongs to the period 1870-1914. Literature written for young boys prepared them for service against “the enemy”. The novels of G. A. Henty and H. Rider Haggard enticed young men to adventurous service for crown and country in distance and exotic locales. Conrad was well aware of these deceptions, and Heart of Darkness tells a ghastly truth, debunking conventional heroism.

[6] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979, the film relocated Conrad’s novella to Vietnam. It tells the tale of warfare and a mad Colonel Kurtz but does not explore the network of corporate imperialism.

[7] The last two novels are set in modern Lagos and trace the ill fortunes of Okonkwo’s descendants. A fourth novel, Man of the People, takes on Nigerian politics. These are angry novels, dark with foreboding, as Nigerians abandon their village world and its moral foundations.

[8] Citations are to the Norton Critical Edition, 1991, and will be provided in the text.

[9] Gospel of Matthew 23:27 — “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The quotation fits Conrad’s insistence that Europe’s gleaming surfaces mask the rot within. In Lord Jim, it is a melon that appears sound but on inspection reveals a soft spot of decay.

[10] Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s “Ripping Yarns” (1976-79; BBC) was a series of satiric tales, mocking the age of jingoistic boys’ literature.

[11] Gravesend is a town in Kent on the south bank of the Thames. Conrad mentions the town’s name for its dismal, end-of-an-era suggestions.

[12] Rome’s control of Britain extended from 43 AD until 410. England still carries the evidence of Rome’s presence, including Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern defense line. London is built on the ruins of a significant Roman town. Bath preserves its character as a Roman city that featured, then and at later times, a splendid spa.

[13] The Harlequin explains that the severed heads mounted on poles at Kurtz’s compound are the heads of “rebels”. Marlow comments sardonically: “Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear. There had been enemies, criminals, workers – and these were – rebels. Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks” (58). Imperialism requires this naming game to accomplish its violence. We have “enemy combatants” in our prisons and “collateral damage” dead at our bombing sites. In “rendition” we pick up people, chain and drug them, and haul them off to countries where torture is a specialty. In “enhanced interrogation” we bring “criminals” to the brink of agonizing death supposedly without torturing them. In Vietnam, the “pacification program” meant burning villages and murdering everyone who lived there. Once we had a “War Department”; now a “Department of Defense”. The killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Alaqui, was first termed “collateral damage”; that is, killing as the unintended result of targeting another person. At the moment, his killing has no name since no one can say just who was being targeted … not that it seems to matter.

[14] Lest we think that Western nations have a monopoly on imperialist destructiveness, we should note the arrival of Asian logging concerns in the Amazon. After rampaging through Malaysia and devastating their forests (and through that their rivers and farm land), the Chinese and others have arrived in the Rain Forest. Much of their clear cutting of trees is illegal – which means officials are being rewarded – and legal land acquisition has been at ridiculously low prices. Mining, headed by Anglo-American firms, has been proceeding at gold-rush pace. Mining requires the clearing of forests for roads and the damming of rivers for power sources. Tribal peoples are displaced as the rain forest shrinks and the global atmosphere loses another cleansing assistance.

[15] We tend to think “Eichmann” and the high drama of the Nuremberg Trials, but the ethics of a highly corporatized social structure require that this phrase applies everywhere. School teachers, physicians, lawyers, police, and so on, carry out acts they know are dreadful every day because they feel they must comply with regulations that govern their actions. As the Brickmaker-who-makes-no-bricks observes: “no sensible man rejects wantonly the confidence of his superiors” (p. 28).

[16] Kellogg Brown and Root is an outgrowth of Halliburton, located in Houston Texas and active world-wide. Along with Bechtel Industries, KBR has reaped huge contracts for occupation-based construction and military supplies.  KBR offers also private mercenary war capacity to a government that needs cover for its most violent tactical needs. Blackwater, once Xe, and now Academi, specializes in private army combat teams, and sups handsomely at the public trough. The producers of weaponry are in the war business for profits, as even Marlow’s aunt has discovered, and require US aggression abroad to sell their wares. A war economy grows naturally from imperialism and comes to dominate a nation’s purpose and self-understanding.

[17] The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot yet be estimated. At the outset, the Bush administration publicly anticipated a two-year involvement at a cost of approximately $100B. When Gen. Shinseki boldly testified to Congress it would be $300B, he was fired. Through 2011, direct appropriations by Congress had totaled 1.044T. Debt service through 2017 is estimated at $2.4T, which makes it the $3T war Joseph Stieglitz, Nobel Prize recipient, has called it. Some economists now mention $4-6T. In fact, no one knows, but these funds go to industries, banks, transportation corporations, fuel suppliers, medical facilities and suppliers, food services, universities, and on beyond what we can imagine. Imperialist wars are good business.

[18] Dick Cheney, a principal architect of the war and its deceptions, is the former head of Halliburton. His next thought concerning the nation’s welfare will be his first.

[19] Our wars are helpful; they remove tribal dictators and install in their place our own dictators. Often the local Presidents and Prime Ministers, by our accounts, have been elected in processes quite unreliable and untrustworthy, much like our own. Underneath the humane rhetoric, there is always something tangible like oil or rubber or bauxite or copper to make sense of it all when the humane effort turns bloody.

[20] When I began this section of the essay, I put a test to myself – see what tales of corporate violence would come my way in the next few days.  On Day One it was the abduction, torture and murder of yet another union leader in Colombia at the bidding of the Swiss corporation Nestle. Colombian trade unionist Luciano Enrique Romero died a slow death in 2005. The fired Nestlé factory worker, whose body was found in a paramilitary-controlled area of Colombia was tied up, tortured and then stabbed 40 times. The Swiss courts, however, have determined that time has expired for a court hearing. Romero’s murder was just one in a long line of executions of union activists. On Day Two it was Coca-Cola and death squad abductions and murder of union leaders in Guatemala and again Colombia. Day Three brought the report of Ford’s activities in Argentina during the Coup of 1976 and again the disappearances of union leaders. I begin to suspect that paying attention dredges stories like these out of the past daily.

[21] Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, 2013 reports this conversation with a Somali resident (there are no citizens) in Mogadishu.

[22] Government hides the cost of imperialism by exercising a policy of not noticing. The force that sustains regular and ghastly casualties in Afghanistan is an “International Force.” This helps us think they reported deaths might be UK or Canadian or German or French; but we know they will turn out to be American. The coffins arriving at Dover Air Force base have become invisible to the press. The revenges taken against western nations and their people by the victims of imperialist violence are termed senseless acts by deranged terrorists. When someone speaks as Marlow does — a Cornel West or a Noam Chomsky — that person is tainted by ideology, a leftist, a Marxist, an intellectual. Marlow has good reasons to be speaking strategically, even in a work of fiction. Conrad is trying to find a way to pass on the nightmares he suffers without terrorizing his listeners and causing them to stop listening.

[23] Robert McNamara had been a wonderfully successful CEO at Ford before he was selected by Lyndon Johnson to head up the war in Vietnam. The film by Errol Morris, “The Fog of War,” traces his growing recognition, years later, of what horror he had accomplished. Convenient phrases break apart as McNamara, a good man at heart, admits to the death and destruction he helped make possible. John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004) awoke to the damage he was creating world-wide while peddling World Bank Loans that enriched Bechtel and Halliburton and further impoverished economically weaker nations. When Perkins, like Marlow, tells his tale, he changes everything we think we know. Foreign Aid goes to Bechtel and Halliburton, who build vast infrastructure that does nothing for the poor. Those nations then find themselves in impossible debt, and can buy their debt freedom only by privatizing natural resources, further enriching US corporations. As Perkins explains, if we cannot corrupt their leaders, we send in “the jackals” and kill them. As Conrad noted, we do it because we can.

[24] If only our evening news did. However, the media has fallen into line; it, too, is made up of corporations with profits to consider and the friendship of governments to cultivate. Oliver Stone’s wonderful documentary, “South of the Border,” explains how major media make imperial ventures possible. Stone’s film, like the Perkins filmed interview, contains a hopeful premise. The new leaders of Latin America — in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Chile — represent a concerted anti-imperialist force. They are brave and decent and understand the game. Conrad’s novel Nostromo (1904), set in a fictional version of Colombia, suggested that they would.


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