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War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?

What experience and history teach us is this- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.

— Hegel

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

— Karl Marx

Will Trump’s foreign policy deviate from the immediate, or for that matter, the distant past? Many voters who supported him are mainly concerned with his pledge to bring back jobs yet the economic program Trump proposes will not remotely fulfill that promise. A trade war with China will nix that agenda and inflame the military tensions already in evidence from Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”  Throughout the campaign most pundits believed that Wall Street was backing Clinton yet it is extremely interesting that the stock market has soared into record territory with big banks, and arms businesses leading much of the gains.  He presents contradictory proposals. Throughout the campaign he has said he wants to renegotiate the terms of the NATO alliance, tamp down the demonization of Russia and stop the arms buildup along its borders. Yet, he is also talking tough on China. Based on a program pushed by the Heritage Foundation, Trump has also promised vastly to increase spending to rebuild the American military which he claimed has been allowed to atrophy and which he intends to unleash on ISIL. He seems to believe the defeat of Islamic terrorism will follow rapidly and thoroughly once this occurs. His “national security” team is top heavy with former military, congressional hawks, neo-cons and Islamophobes. What then will be the role of his bulked up military? History more than suggests that there is no reason to suppose that interventionist and aggressive foreign policy will now magically cease. After all war is and always has been the American way of life.

How else do we possess these dis-United States? The American people, colonists or citizens, have been at war since 1607. Of course our national mythology insists it was always the other guy’s fault. Absent from most mainstream accounts is the simple fact that U.S. policies have always had gain at other peoples’ expense at their core. We forget that the early British colonies were established as joint-stock companies, the antecedent of the modern corporation. Thus their primary function was to exploit the resources of the “new world”- fish, fur, lumber- and make profit for the investors. As the colonial markets grew, closely aligned in triangular trade to London and its other colonies, the principal measure of gain rapidly became pecuniary. As an astute French observer of the early American republic observed “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in (Alexis de Tocqueville)?”

During the early colonial period the preoccupation was the acquisition of land. Today we tend to dismiss the campaigns against the aboriginal peoples as insignificant, especially when compared to the world wars, or the Civil War. But warfare against those tribes was constant until the late 19th Century and resulted in enormous carnage and the extinction of many. The Massachusett come immediately to mind. Nothing but their name remains of them. In King Philip’s War, the first outright war waged in British North America between colonists and natives, a higher percentage of people per capita of total population (native and colonist) died than in any of the U.S.’s other wars. This was tragically ironic since the father of Metacomet, the native who led the campaign against the colonists had enabled the Plymouth Plantation to survive in the first place (that was Massasoit of the Thanksgiving legend). To ensure that natives got the message about resisting colonization Metacomet’s head was displayed in Plymouth Town square for twenty years. In a new study Benjamin Madley exposes how white Californian settlers and their political barons called for and acted to ensure what they had no trouble naming the “extinction” of that states aboriginal population well into the late 19th Century (An American Genocide). Visualize Ishi, found starving in 1911, after the remaining members of his tribe, the Yahi, had been killed the same year by white bounty hunters.

We also downplay the guerrilla campaigns to wrest the territory European powers-British, French, Spanish- claimed to the west of the original thirteen states. And then there was the Mexican War that extended the U.S. border “from sea to shining sea,” brought about by the mendacity of President James Polk who claimed that “American blood had been shed on American soil.” The truth was that U.S. soldiers were killed as they conducted raids on Mexican land in furtherance of a strategy to promote outright war and then expand the territory for slavery, the pillar of the American economy for two and a half centuries. Of course northern banking and commercial textile interests also stood to profit greatly. “Manifest Destiny” expansionists concurred in this land grab too since that would result in the acquisition of vital Pacific ports which then could launch further extension into the Pacific. William Henry Seward, who would later acquire Alaska as the “drawbridge to Asia” avowed that control of the North American continent would “ensure the controlling interest of the world”… “Multiply your ships,” he urged “and send them forth to the East… The nation that draws most materials and provisions from the earth, and fabricates the most and sells the most…must be, and will be the great power of the earth.” In short order (1853) seeking safe harbors from which to penetrate the landmass of Asia, the U.S. overtly threatened Japan with armed force to open her doors to commerce on terms dictated by American warships. The result was that the island nation would soon imitate and compete with her European and American challengers, seeking to beat them at their own game, leading ultimately to the Pacific War of the 20th century and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Americans are highly propagandized to believe that U.S. foreign policy has always had as its mainstay and central focus our “national security” not matters so dull as commercial exploitation and financial dominance. Indeed the Truman Administration created the “National Security State” immediately after World War II-the very moment when the U.S. wielded unparalleled and awesome military might while the former empires were at their weakest or lay in ruin. In other words, when there was absolutely no threat. Germany and Japan were prostrate but so were the U.S.’s allies. The Soviet menace was invoked as a grave peril but the reality was that the USSR was utterly devastated, had suffered upwards of 30 million deaths (compared to 400,000 American deaths), and had over 70,000 of its cities and towns reduced to rubble. It did have the largest land army on the planet but that force had been the principle and indispensable agent of Nazi defeat, though we like to imagine that was accomplished by American forces. The USSR had no navy or airforce capable of crossing oceans and displayed no intent to move beyond the territories wrested from Nazi control. Nevertheless much ink and rhetoric accused the Soviets of aggression and the illegitimate takeover of much of Eastern Europe as justification for the claim that now the USSR constituted a peril to world peace and order and had to be confronted at every turn.

Hidden was the simple fact that nations like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and even many Ukrainians had allied with the Third Reich and aided the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The USSR defeated those allies of Nazi Germany too and subjugated them, just as the Soviets and the U.S. occupied and co-ruled Germany. The so-called Iron Curtain was a shield against another armed invasion  from the West, the Soviet’s cordon sanitaire, however harsh it was for those under its rule, though to be sure Washington didn’t and doesn’t really care about human rights, all posturing to the contrary (note the brutal murderous dictatorships we have sponsored). Hidden too was the fact that the Soviets showed no evidence of the armed aggression proclaimed by Western propaganda. The Red Army withdrew from Mongolia, from Iran, from Korea and eventually from Austria. The U.S. could not have impelled them to retreat from areas they had taken with large cost. The Soviets withdrew on their own, thus disproving the claim that they were bent on “world conquest.”

During WWII neither Germany nor Japan had the military capacity to invade the United States and all in power knew this. Franklin Roosevelt lied to the public when he said that he possessed copies of a secret plan by Hitler to conquer the Western hemisphere. This document had been forged by British intelligence and the very idea was preposterous. Placing its services at the disposal of government, and in order to frighten the general public, Hollywood issued sophisticated propaganda films and faked footage to depict Japanese soldiers marching down Constitution Avenue.

Why this elaborate gambit to overcome public opposition to entering another global war? What was the real fear on the part of American rulers? FDR condemned the early anti-Jewish persecutions like kristalnacht but did nothing to rescue Jews except symbolically at the end of the war when two-thirds of Jews and many others were dead. We then have to make sense of Washington’s active recruitment of high-level Nazis to bolster the new CIA, and rocket and bio-warfare research. Our oft touted humanitarian concerns were duplicitous and hypocritical at best. Put simply, the Third Reich and Japan were sealing off huge areas of the globe from American commerce and investment and obstructing the main pillar of U.S. foreign policy, i.e. the Open Door to the resources, markets and labor power of the planet to be accessed on American terms. Closure of much of Europe and Asia by the Axis to American commercial and investment activity had exacerbated the continuing collapse of the American economy and social order brought on by the Great Depression As historian Thomas McCormick put matters, “living space for Germany and Japan was dying space for American private enterprise and for capitalism as an integrated world system.” Wall Street saw a “nightmare of a closed world.” The real issue after the defeat of the Axis was that the Soviets occupied about half of what the Nazis had seized in eastern Europe, and locked American commerce and capital investment out, just as the Nazis had.

Early on extremely intemperate voices, some from within the military, challenged Truman to employ the expanding atomic arsenal to get rid of the alleged threat immediately, calls that were often reported in the media, and to which the Soviets paid careful attention. There is no doubt but that such inflammatory declamations intensified  Soviet fears of the United States who stepped-up production of their own A-Bombs, leading to the result that the only true threat to our national security, if by that we mean physical military danger, is nuclear war. We have no one to blame but ourselves for that un-sheathed sword of Damocles hanging perpetually over our heads. The sheer cold-bloodedness of using A-bombs on the civilian population of a nation already defeated was not lost on the Soviets, or later the Chinese. Certainly Stalin recognized that the United States could be as ruthless as himself.

All of the above, according to Trumpites and many others, places me firmly in the camp of the enemy. I hope soon to be on the new McCarthyite blacklist and am proud to be associated with Counterpunch.  For 30 years now I’ve taught a highly critical view of United States foreign policy at the urban campus of a major state university. Most of the native born (as opposed to those with student visas) are working class or lower middle class and some can be quite incredulous and assertive in their reaction to my perspective but a majority want to hear more, certainly because they come from the classes most affected by war and economic downturns and uncertainty. Veterans often seek out my courses. Some are highly supportive of my perspective and conclusions. But some are viscerally opposed. One even wrote on our “free expression wall” some years ago that I should be lined up and shot. But if there is one sure thing I’ve learned in all these years it is that few students, or many among the greater public, know much of anything concrete and accurate about their nation’s past. What they have absorbed inevitably is the national mythology of exceptionalism that has been propagated from every source-school, religion, television, Hollywood, politics etc.- all their (our) lives.

Given the omnipresence and power of corporate controlled mass propaganda all citizens are constantly bombarded with messages about American exceptionalism, coupled with dishonesty, deceit and out right fabrications about current policies and the past. It is fortunate now that the alternative media exists in the electronic sphere and that universities, at least some, still adhere to free speech principles. If you think such rights are always safe examine the chronicle of censorship and vicious repression during World War I.

When leading discussion about “the American way of war” I sometimes get a version of the “killer ape” thesis popular back in the 1970s according to which humans are genetically aggressive and murderous toward the “other” like our close relatives the chimpanzees. To this assertion I always ask “how many people have you killed?” Of course the answer is always “none” (vets always remain silent here too). The fact is that murderousness in the general population, despite lurid and frightening headlines about violence, is confined to a small minority and consists most often of crimes of passion or pathology. It is not intrinsic to human behavior. I say this as someone who has been the victim of an anonymous street shooting that wounded me badly and killed two other people, all of us unknown to the shooter. Such outrages are on the increase but they signify growing social pathology and alienation owing to expanding poverty, economic insecurity, profound resentment and outright fear occasioned by the media. They do not prove the genetic aggression thesis. Given the all but effortless availability of guns, mass slaughter should be running rampantly every hour, if that proposition were true. Of course the media requirement that “if it bleeds it leads” falsely encourages this sense of widespread, omnipresent danger.

How then do we really account for our wars and the massive violence and casualties it visits on entire countries? How did the millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians killed during that war really threaten American national security? In all the handwringing about the suffering of desperate Syrians who in the corporate media acknowledges the fact that Washington encouraged the revolt against the Assad regime, and armed its “moderate” rebels who promptly shared them with Al Qaeda and ISIL? Iraq and Libya are in chaos as a direct result of American military actions, their populations living in misery. Yemen is being disassembled by Saudi bombing with U.S. aircraft. In all these cases the claim is made that the U.S. wished to liberate these nations from cruel dictatorships but given the slaughter that has followed from American military actions can anyone really take seriously the claim of “responsibility to protect”? Though all officials know that the U.S. is invulnerable to invasion in order to gain public acceptance some threat to our security must be invoked. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s the “permanent war economy” was in trouble but the void was filled quickly by the threat of Islamic terrorism though a citizen has a better chance of being struck by lightning than being killed by al Qaeda or ISIL. But the fear mongering works to frazzle whole segments of the population who thus condone the dispatch of troops.

Does the American military recruit only those who do show signs of homicidal intent? Such dangerous personalities do squeeze into the armed forces but preparing and motivating most soldiers to kill other human beings requires an intensive program of abusive psychological indoctrination and conditioning. Much of it centers on the constant drumbeat that the armed forces are the indispensable shield against all threats to American “freedom and democracy,” the firewall against the “evil doers.” But a good deal more than that is required to send troops thousands of miles away in search of monsters to destroy. Patriotism is rigorously defined and enforced as standing at attention and following orders unquestioningly. For those in the “military occupational specialties” focused on direct combat the training regime is brutal to civilian eyes and focused on a longstanding very specific cult of “manhood” in which physical prowess and nerve is esteemed and weakness and cowardice are the cardinal sins. Shame at failing to measure up is to be dreaded. Facing death for one’s country is the ultimate test of manhood. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Is it symptomatic of our metastasizing militarization that women are now trying to break into the deadly mystique of the “warrior” with the avowal that this corresponds to “equality.”

Yet the vast majority of soldiers never do kill. Even those in combat units do not usually kill “up close and personal” but from a distance using their weaponized machines and many never even see those whom their firepower has snuffed. And, despite all the operant conditioning, being exposed to the imminence of violent death and mass killing incurs profound spiritual and psychological consequences that will haunt many for life.

And let us stop ignoring the fact that with few exceptions those who initiate wars and send others off to kill or die have never themselves served in combat, or otherwise endangered their lives or fortunes on behalf of the republic, nor would they dream of putting their progeny at risk. That task belongs to the lower orders, the “expendables” as World War II soldiers often referred to themselves, or as “snuffies,” in the parlance of my generation.

So what are the real motivations of those who send our posterity off to kill and die? Since our present era is often labelled a new “Gilded age” and likened to similar circumstances more than a century ago the words of the barons of yesteryear illuminate that question just as readily for today.  The Gilded age was not golden for most Americans. Beneath the glitter severe depressions, unemployment, immiseration and social upheaval were the order of the day. To meet the dangers emanating from below the American ruling elites turned the public’s attention outward and leapt onto the stage of global competition with the other great and emerging powers.

The rapid evolution of finance and industrial capitalism and the emergence of steam power and electricity and the ascendance of mass production all but erased the previous lifestyles and occupations of millions of Americans. With farmwork formerly done by hand and draft animals now replaced by machines millions were cast into poverty and into burgeoning city slums. At the same time demand for poorly paid labor to service the machines increased exponentially and led to the admission of millions of immigrants and thereby exacerbated social tensions. In the willy-nilly scramble to profit in the new industrial order inevitable overproduction led to massive layoffs and depressions. Demands for a greater share of the wealth produced by the rapidly accelerating system inspired strikes and calls for unionization. Even the dreaded word “Socialism” filled the air. Faced with unparalleled upheaval the new barons and their political allies’ responded to the crisis from every quarter of the nation’s power and cultural institutions. To protect the imperative of profit and simultaneously meet the demands of the agitated population they determined only one solution-expansion.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued in The Significance of the Frontier in American History that the widespread availability of land in the West had conferred substantial independence upon many Americans. The “dominant fact of American life has been expansion” Turner declared. For centuries the ever present frontier in the west had served as the “safety valve” to vent pent up social pressures. Dissatisfied Americans could pack up and go west to acquire land to then enter the marketplace in cattle, crops, timber and minerals and profit. But industrial expansion, railroads, telegraph and mushrooming population had brought the country to a “watershed moment.” By the late 19th Century, the continental limit had been reached. The nation faced a choice: either alter American social and economic conditions radically or expand. Therefore a new frontier beckoned, said Turner, the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

Jealous of British naval supremacy the navy soon added its voice. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his enormously influential tract, The Influence of Seapower Upon History (still taught at the U.S. Naval Academy), urged political leaders to leap beyond the landed frontier to the oceans and establish “colonies” as markets for the surplus, sources for cheaper labor, and bases from which to protect and administer them. Mahan’s gaze fell upon China whose population he considered “sheep without a shepherd.” Seeing the vast land as “inefficient” he contended that its people were not entitled to control their own country, and even proposed that its capital Peking (Beijing) be moved southward out of Russian influence to become “the core around which to develop a new China.” The Chinese had other ideas though so in 1900 the U.S., along with other imperial powers, landed troops to quash the so-called Boxer Rebellion that arose in opposition to just such foreign intrusion. While most Americans have long since forgotten this episode the Chinese have not.

Such reveries would require the expansion of naval power, a proposition the emerging steel and ship building trusts and their Washington confederates, especially Theodore Roosevelt, leapt to initiate. As the U.S. provoked tensions with doddering Spain Teddy gushed that “I should say that I would welcome a foreign war. It is very difficult for me not to wish war with Spain for that would result at once in getting a proper navy. In strict confidence I should welcome almost any war.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, scion of Boston “Brahmins,” boasted that “We have a record of conquest, colonization and expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century …for the sake of our commercial prosperity we ought to seize the Hawaiian Islands now.” Roosevelt added that it “would be a crime against white civilization not to annex Hawaii.” Teddy then ginned up his war with Spain. Close advisers like historian Brooks Adams, descendant of John and John Quincy, thrilled that “this war is the first gun in the battle for ownership of the world.” In the Senate Albert Beveridge proclaimed that “The power that rules the Pacific rules the world.”

Spain was routed easily with aid from the “yellow press” and the U.S took over the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico claiming to have liberated the island peoples from Spanish tyranny. Washington had also promised their independence yet when Filipinos actually tried to exercise their sovereignty the U.S. immediately launched a vicious campaign to stifle any hope of autonomy in pursuit of its own dishonestly disguised imperial ambitions. Though proponents of war condemned the atrocities Spain committed against it subjects they were silent when American troops behaved with savagery toward Filipinos whom they openly called “niggers.” What is today called “waterboarding,” was exercised widely by American forces against Filipino insurgents. Numerous massacres of civilians took place. One general ordered troops to kill “anyone over the age of ten.” Mark Twain stoked opposition to the campaign against Philippine independence in his widely read “On the Slaughter of 400 Moros” (there were actually more than 1,000). Responding sardonically to the U.S. Army’s report of a great victory against Filipino insurrectionaries, Twain noted that in fact there was no “battle.” American troops had forced about 1200 Moro men, women and children, into a ravine where most of them were slaughtered in cold blood. In disgust he also reviled the blood-soaked hypocrisy of Theodore Roosevelt who cabled the commander of U.S. forces saying “I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.”

Some religious leaders condemned such atrocities and the new imperial thrust but most mainstream clergy rushed to bless the new empire. Josiah Strong, a leading and highly influential  Protestant figure, declared that “we are the chosen people” insisting “Anglo-Saxon” values had shaped America. In response to the urban and economic crisis he avowed that the world would “enter upon a new stage of its history, the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled…the representative of the purest Christianity, the highest civilization…and can anyone doubt that the results of this competition of the races will be the ‘survival of the fittest.” In sardonic mockery of such Puritan fundamentalism the journalist and social critic Ambrose Bierce wrote in contrast  that “Mammon (the ancient god of money) is the god of the world’s leading religion. The chief temples are on Wall Street in the holy city of New York.”

Remarkably, “Christian Imperialism” dovetailed with new secular ideas supposedly based upon religion’s nemesis, science. No sooner had Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution gained traction among the “educated” classes than it was deformed into Social Darwinism to validate imperial conquest by Europeans and Americans alike. As white imperialists annexed or otherwise dominated non-white societies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the very fact of their dominance was asserted  to “prove” that natural law imposed the rule of the “fittest.” Historians like Brooks Adams, a descendant of two presidents and advisor to Theodore Roosevelt even argued that the new economy had arisen in the natural order of evolution writing that … “Masses take the form of corporations and the men who rise to the control of these corporations rise because they are fittest. The process is natural selection.” A corollary of this theory, of course, insisted that those who toiled as mere wage slaves or as colonial subjects were the least fit and deserved the place they occupied in society.

While Social Darwinian suppositions were developed at Yale and Cambridge universities, and therefore had the halo of “science” around them, the more gruesome applications like the massacre of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890 employed a long established racism.

In the Senate, at the moment the U.S. took its place among the imperial powers of the planet, Albert Beveridge of Indiana defended the brutal war against Philippine independence and its atrocities when he encapsulated and conflated all of the prevailing ideological strands of his day in a speech remarkable for its sanction of naked imperialism.

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No he has made us master organizers of the world…that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples…The Philippines are ours forever…and just beyond the Philippines lie China’s illimitable markets. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world…the Philippines give us a base at the door of the East…it has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. Senators, remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.

Forgotten today, Brooks Adams’s books had enormous influence and clearly the ideas he expounded yesteryear still remain the bedrock of American foreign policy today. In America’s Economic Supremacy he argued that the nation’s elites should centralize the economic and political life of the nation, acquire and safeguard key sources of energy, gain control of Asia and its markets and elevate someone “brimming with martial spirit” to lead the American people on what he saw as a “crusade” to fulfill the nation’s destiny.

What fundamentally has changed?

But wait! There is one major difference. In 1900 the U.S., as its rulers planned, stood ready to contend for global dominance. In 2000 the Project For a New American Century took ever U.S. foreign policy, noting that the collapse of the Soviet Union presented a virtual carte blanche ticket to American global supremacy. Today that fantasy lies in ruins but the masters have yet to realize this fact. Nor, as usual, have they shown any inclination to learn from history. Many now nominated or vying for position in the Trump Administration show every evidence of hostility toward all of Islam, with little distinction between Sunni ISIL or Shia Iran, bitter enemies both. Even before taking office Trump is trumping traditional diplomatic behavior toward China and deliberately ratcheting up friction, and despite Trump’s attitude toward Russia, the military itself sees that nation as the U.S.’s “existential threat.” The truly existential threat to our national security lies in the supremacist policies pursued since 1945 which have led to war after war and the slaughter literally of millions and which have led other nations, in fear of our own, to acquire nuclear weapons. As the Great Game of empire plays out and the consequences of the industrial age ravage the climate and ecology of the planet the trajectory of history more than implies all out nuclear war. Are we really going to let this end game play out?

Paul Lewis Atwood is a member of Veterans for Peace and is semi-retired from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His book War and Empire: The American Way of Life was published in 2010. He can be reached at  paul.atwood@umb.edu.


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Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.

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