The American Way of Life in its Foulest Manifestation

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is certainly no secret that the United States ensures widespread funding for its “defense” that over many decades has amounted to trillions of dollars and unremitting injury to many critical needs at home. Most citizens have a scant grasp of the extent to which their government has initiated or immersed itself in most wars everywhere across the planet since the end of the “Good War” when the United States quasi-achieved its overarching goal to become the principal military and economic power on planet Earth. Not so long ago the Pentagon declared quite publicly, and with no discomfort, its intent to accelerate that earlier resolve, namely to generate “Full Spectrum Dominance.”

The cold, hard fact is that war has always been the American way of life. Our nation as it is organized would not exist were it not for centuries of bloodshed and undeniable atrocities and the lies and distortions seeking to vindicate them. But the public’s grasp of this prolonged chronicle is constrained by lifelong propaganda that all of our wars have been the fault of enemies, adversaries and the “other” to which our government responds in the interest of airy and munificent principles  The icy facts are that America’s wars have always been wars of choice, contested not for morally infused abstractions and deceitful claims of threats to “national security” but for substantial material gains – “profit”-  the foremost proportions of which accrue to a small plutocracy, the real rulers of the nation.

The United States began as one of the first outposts of British overseas imperialism (Ireland was first). Since we are also indoctrinated from childhood that a desire for religious liberty was the primary inspiration for our origins, we rarely take note of the fact that the Puritans denied such freedom to the native population and subsequently brutalized them to near extinction. They persecuted fellow Brits – Quakers – even executing some for their “heretical” beliefs. A statue of one such victim, Mary Dyer, is situated at the entrance to the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Some years ago, in conversation, a student at my university informed me that he had graduated from King Phillip’s Regional High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts. I inquired if he knew why his school had so odd a designation and he replied that he supposed it was named after a British king.  I rejoined, “Why would Massachusetts, of all places, name a public school after a British king?” I still wonder if the school’s authorities bother to impress upon the student body why it is so weirdly tagged (and I also wonder if the school staff know) or whether he had simply not paid attention. Frankly, I doubt that one in 100,000 Americans have the smoggiest notion of their nation’s first war.

This first embrace of the American way of war in North America began in the colony of Massachusetts, so named after a clan of the larger tribe of Wampanoag. Only that name remains today. The hype surrounding the “Thanksgiving” holiday largely ignores the fact that the generosity of the native chieftain, Massasoit, extended to the new arrivals, enabled them to survive their first winter. But within a generation, so many colonists were arriving and seizing ancient tribal territories and their ample stocks of game, fish, and lumber et al that the indigenous peoples saw no alternative but to react with violence to protect and conserve their lands. By 1675 predominantly Puritan colonists numbered 65,000 while the Wampanoags and other indigenous tribes had been extremely reduced by new disease epidemics conveyed by Europeans to these shores. The colonists of course had firearms and the atrociously asymmetrical conflict ranged across Massachusetts and throughout New England and even into eastern New York. Given the total population of both sides, this first war produced the greatest ratio of deaths and casualties per capita of all other American wars. Need I note that the natives suffered a far greater proportion?

The sachem at the time of the indigenous resistance was Metacomet, the son of the very Massasoit who enabled the Puritan colonists to survive that first winter. Early on, when relations were still relatively amicable, he had taken the English name of Philip as a gesture of friendliness to the initial colonists and they then titled him king. King Phillip’s Regional High School thus celebrates the first bloody victory over indigenous Americans, the first real war on what is now American territory. Metacomet was beheaded and his head remained impaled upon a post for 20 years in the town of Plymouth. His body was cut into quarters and his limbs also hung on trees. His wife and child were then sold into slavery, as were many more natives.

When shall we introduce these facts into our Thanksgiving celebrations? Three centuries later, after the Wounded Knee massacre, the ongoing object of the colonization project was explicitly stated, by Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota: “They promised to take our land and they took it.” Of course, matters did not end there. Today we can take note of many neo-colonial projects underway planetwide such as areas containing rare earth minerals necessary to our high-tech future that are mined by neo-slaves we do not have to see.

While the subsequent wars on American territory are always cast as upright endeavors in support of noble ideals and principles their real aims have always been identical to that of the original British colonizer – to take or control territories and to profit from the resources therein   – not because “adversaries” had aggressed against the United States but to increase American economic and strategic power in the world at large.  The Puritans could not have accessed New England had they not been organized as a joint-stock company financed from London, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the investors of which wanted dependable returns. That meant that any impediment to such profit would be overcome by any means necessary. Thus began the modern American capitalist system.

I always ask my students if they can name the last time American soldiers fought a foreign enemy on American soil. Of course, the first and only “foreign” enemies against whom the nascent U.S. waged war on its territory were the British, the last time in 1815. The later wars against other native tribes and Mexico and Spain were effectively propagandized as the provocations of those nations or peoples. But these were lies, even Abraham Lincoln said so about the Mexican War though as a congressman he voted for it. By 1848 the U.S. was already poised to become a Pacific power so naval and commercial outlets had to be established along the western shores of North America at the expense of Mexico. Before long Washington and Wall Street began to look longingly at the potentials of what they branded the “Great China Market,” and so, in order to procure naval and commercial ports close to the landmass of Asia the U.S. government interfered directly in the internal affairs of Japan, thus setting the two nations on the path to future war. By the turn of the 20th Century the U.S. had made war against Spain, thus ensuring dominance in the Caribbean Sea, and a naval base in the Philippines. Pearl Harbor had been acquired earlier from the native inhabitants of Hawaii. In short order, the U.S. would enter the rapidly accelerating international competition for markets and resources that would produce World War I and then Round II in 1941.

American engagement in the “Good War” is perpetually characterized as a moral and self-sacrificing crusade against the criminal regimes of the Nazis and Japanese. Space does not allow a thorough examination of the reason Washington went to war but in essence, it was because German and Japanese control of the Central European and East Asian heartlands nullified American access to those markets, most especially during the calamitous depression.  Many Americans also continue to believe a major reason the U.S. entered the war was to rescue Jews though this is belied by the U.S. State Department’s refusal to allow admittance to those refugees who Southern congressmen derided as “refujews” even as Nazi crimes were in evidence. Certainly, the virtually immeasurable scale of atrocity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki easily equates to enemy crimes when we admit that the atomic bombings were not by any measure militarily necessary and that unleashing this new demonic evil was intended to intimidate Russia, thereby engendering the nuclear arms race. Today, the American military and financial support for Ukraine and Israel situate the entire human species closer to the edge of extinction. As I write, circumstances are ever more ripe for just that ominous consequence.

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