American Exceptionalism remains one of the innermost ideas shaping our national identity and still lies behind all of the war stories used to justify US foreign policy. Exceptionalism has been a part of American culture since the very first European settlers landed.
At its core, exceptionalism places America outside of normal history into a category of its own. Our initial “escape” from history followed two interrelated tracks: one was the religious radicalism of the Puritans, the other was the frontier experience. Both paths were the warpath.
The early settlers believed that they were “chosen” — blessed by a special relationship to their God. They viewed their “errand in the wilderness” as a holy mission destined to bring a new and better way of life to the world. God’s judgment on their progress was revealed in the bounty of a harvest or the outcome of a war.
Exceptionalism was not a free-floating idea but was forged into a lasting culture by the frontier wars aimed at the elimination or assimilation of native people and the conquest of land. America’s frontier history produced a lasting mythology that popularized empire and white settler culture while cloaking their many contradictions.
I know it is hard to believe that the Puritans are still camped out in our minds. The old religious radicalism has taken modern form in the liberal-sounding belief that the US military is a “force for good (read God) in the world.” The double-edged sword of exceptionalism traps us into repeating history: our high moral standards and special role in the world gives us license for wars and aggressions. It is the liberal elements of exceptionalism that are most seductive, most difficult to wrap our heads around, and the most effective at winning our consent to war.
Exceptionalism Wins Our Consent to War With A One-Two Punch
On the one hand, we have the “hard” exceptionalism like that of the Cold War (New and Old) and the War on Terrorism. These war stories revolve around a rigid binary of good and evil. After 9/11, in scores of speeches, George W. Bush repeated the mantra that there were “no gray areas” in the struggle between good and evil.
On the other hand, “soft” exceptionalism takes a slightly different tack by appealing to the liberal in us. Stories of rescue, protection, democracy and humanitarian efforts assure us of our goodness. Obama mastered this narrative by claiming the US had a “duty to protect” the weak and vulnerable in places like Libya.
These two strains of war stories are the narrative one-two punch, winning our consent to war and empire.
Here is how war propaganda works: if authority figures in government and media denounce foreign leaders or countries or immigrants as an evil threat and repeat it thousands of times, they do not even have to say, “We are the chosen people destined to bring light to the world.” They know that millions of Americans will unconsciously refer to the exceptionalist code by default because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. Once made brave by our exceptional character and sense of superiority, the next moves are war, violence and white supremacy.
Myth Meets the American War in Vietnam
The Vietnam War, and the resistance to it, profoundly challenged all existing war stories. At the heart of this disruption was the soldier’s revolt. Thousands of US soldiers and veterans came to oppose the very war they fought in. An anti-war movement inside the military was totally unprecedented in US history. The war-makers have been scrambling to repair the damage ever since.
Following the defeat of US forces in Vietnam, the elites shifted gears. The idea that the US could create a new democratic nation — South Vietnam — was an utter illusion that no amount of fire-power could overcome. In truth, the US selected a series of petty tyrants to rule that could never win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people because they were the transparent puppets of American interests. The ruling class learned a lesson that forced them to abandon the liberal veneer of “nation-building.”
The Next Generation of War Stories: From “Noble Cause” to “Humanitarian War.”
Ronald Regan tried to repair the damaged narratives by recasting the Vietnam War as a “Noble Cause.” The Noble Cause appealed to people hurt and confused by the US defeat, as well as the unrepentant war-makers, because it attempted to restore the old good vs. evil narrative of exceptionalism. For Regan, America needed to rediscover its original mission as a “city on a hill” — a shining example to the world. Every single President since has repeated that faith.
The Noble Cause narrative was reproduced in numerous bad movies and dubious academic studies that tried to refight the war (and win this time!). Its primary function was to restore exceptionalism in the minds of the American people. While Regan succeeded to a considerable degree — as we can see in the pro-war policy of both corporate parties — “nation-building” never recovered its power as a military strategy or war story.
The next facade was Clinton’s “humanitarian war.” Humanitarian war attempted to relight the liberal beacon by replacing the problems of nation-building with the paternalistic do-gooding of a superior culture and country. In effect, the imperialists recycled the 19th Century war story of “Manifest Destiny” or “White Man’s Burden.” That “burden” was the supposed duty of white people to lift lesser people up to the standards of western civilization — even if that required a lot of killing.
This kind of racist thinking legitimized the US overseas empire at its birth. Maybe it would work again in empires’ old age?
From the “War on Terrorism” to the “Responsibility to Protect.”
After the shock of 9/11 the narrative shifted again. Bush’s “global war on terrorism” reactivated the good vs. evil framing of the Cold War. The “war on terror” was an incoherent military or political strategy except for its promise of forever wars.
Just as the Cold War was a “long twilight struggle” against an elusive but ruthless communist enemy, terrorists might be anywhere and everywhere and do anything. And, like the fight against communism, the war on terrorism would require the US to wage aggressive wars, launch preemptive strikes, use covert activities and dodge both international law and the US Constitution.
9/11 also tapped into deeply-rooted nationalistic and patriotic desires among everyday people to protect and serve their country. The first attack on US soil in modern memory powerfully restored the old binary: when faced with unspeakable evil, the US military became a “force for good in the world.” It’s easy to forget just how potent the combination is and how it led us into the War in Iraq. According to The Washington Post:
Nearing the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional investigators say they have no evidence of this.
The mythology is so deep that at first the people, soldiers especially, just had to believe there was a good reason to attack Iraq. So we fell back on exceptionalism despite the total absence of evidence. Of course Bush made no attempt to correct this misinformation. The myth served him too well — as did the official propaganda campaign claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
But in due course, some of the faithful became doubters. A peace movement of global proportions took shape. But in the US far too much of what appeared as resistance was driven by narrow partisan opposition to Republicans rather than principled opposition to war and empire.
But fear not war-makers — Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton came to the rescue! As they continued Bush’s wars in the Middle East and expanded the war zone to include Libya, Syria and then all of Africa, they sweetened “humanitarian war” with a heaping dose of cool-coated “Responsibility to Protect.” Once again, American goodness and innocence made the medicine go down and our wars raged on.
Obama restored legitimacy to the empire so effectively that it took years for the illegal, immoral, racist and “unwinnable” wars to reveal themselves to the public. I was told by one of the leaders of About Face: Veterans Against War that they almost had to close shop after Obama was elected because their donor base dried up. Obama’s hope was our dope. Just as the daze was finally lifting, Trump started to take the mask off.
Is The Mask Off?
Today’s we face an empire with the mask half off. Trump’s doctrine — “We are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists.” — is a revealing take on military trends that began with the first US – Afgan War (1978-1992). US leaders gave up nation-building and opted for failed states and political chaos instead of the strong states that nation-building, or its illusion, required. The US military began to rely on mercenaries and terrorists to replace the American citizen-soldier. The soldier revolt of the Vietnam Era already proved that everyday Americans were an unreliable force to achieve imperial ambitions.
Nothing rips the mask off of the humanitarian justifications better than the actual experience of combat in a war for oil and power — so the war managers tried to reduce combat exposure to a few. And they succeeded. The number of official US troops abroad reached a 60-year low by 2017. Even still a new resistance movement of veterans is gathering steam.
Can the mask be put back on? It’s hard to say, because as The Nation reports, Americans from a wide spectrum of political positions are tired of perpetual war.
Can the “Green New Military” Put The Mask Back On?
The recycled imperial justifications of the past are losing their power: Manifest Destiny, White Mans’ Burden, leader of the free world, nation-building, humanitarian war, war against terrorism, responsibility to protect — what’s next? If only the military could be seen as saviors once again.
A last-ditch effort to postpone the collapse of the liberal versions of war stories might just be the “Green New Military.” Elizabeth Warren’s policy claims, “Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change.” It’s a wild claim that contradicts all evidence unless she is also calling for an end to regime-change wars, the New Cold War and the scaling down of our foreign bases. Instead, Warren is all about combat readiness. She did not invent this — the Pentagon had already embraced the new rhetoric. Given that the Working Families Party and some influential progressives have already signaled their willingness to accept Warren as a candidate, she might just silence dissent as effectively as Obama once did.
But, the lie is paper-thin: “There is no such thing as a Green War.” You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time but you cannot fool mother nature one little bit. War and climate change are deeply connected and ultimately there is no way to hide that.
The New Cold War and More of The Same Old Wars
So far the New Cold War against Russia and China has recycled the anti-communist conspiracy of the old Cold War into the xenophobic conspiracy theory of Russia-gate. Even a trusted tool like Mueller could not make it work as a coherent narrative but no matter — the US did not skip a beat in building up military bases on Russia’s borders.
The media and political attacks on Russia or China or immigrants, or Iran or Syria are likely to continue because propagandists cannot activate the exceptionalist code without an evil enemy. Still, it takes more than evil. An effective war story for the US ruling class must project the liberal ideas of helping, protection, saving and the spread of democracy in order to engineer mass consent to war. Hence the need for “Humanitarian War,” “Duty to Protect” or maybe the”Green New Military.”
Let anyone propose a retreat from any battlefield and the “humanitarian” war cry will rally the empire’s pawns and savior-types. If we practice our exceptionalism religiously — and religion it is — then the US empire will never ever pull back from any war at any time. There is always someone for the empire to “protect and save:” from the “Noble Savages” and innocent white settlers of the frontier, to the Vietnamese Catholics, to the women of Afghanistan, to the Kurds of Syria.
We so want to see our wars as a morality play, just as the Puritans did, but the empire is all about power and profit.
“War is the Continuation of Politics by Other Means.” — Carl von Clausewitz
All the Big Brass study Clausewitz because he is the founder of western military science — but they are so blinded by the dilemmas of empire that they make a mess of his central teaching: War is politics.
None of the war narratives and none of the wars can solve the most important question of politics: governance. Who will govern the colonies? The overwhelming verdict of history is this: colonies cannot be democratically or humanely governed as long as they are colonies. Until the empire retreats its heavy hand will rule in places like Afghanistan.
The empire is reaching the limits of exceptionalism as both war narrative and national mythology. This is why our rulers are forced to desperate measures: perpetual war, occupation, intense propaganda campaigns like Russia-gate, the reliance on mercenaries and terrorists, and the abuse and betrayal of their own soldiers.
Just as damning to the war machine is the collapse of conventional ideas about victory and defeat. The US military can no longer “win.” The question of victory is important on a deep cultural level. According to the original mythology, the outcome of wars waged by “the chosen people” are an indication of God’s favor or disfavor. In modern terms, defeat delegitimizes the state. Endless war is no substitute for “victory.”
But it’s not military victory we want. Our victory will be in ending war, dismantling the empire, abolishing the vast militarized penal system and stopping irreparable climate chaos. Our resistance will create a new narrative but it can only be written when millions of people become the authors of their own history.
The empire is slipping into decline and chaos – one way or another. Will we be actors deciding the fate of the American Empire or will it’s collapse dictate our fate? But these wars will, sooner or later, become the graveyard of empire — or else America is truly exceptional and we really are God’s chosen people.
1/ Check out these two important recent works that discuss both the history and modern forms of American Exceptionalism: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich and American Exceptionalism and American Innocence by Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong