This past Memorial Day, one year ago, I was visiting an island community off the coast of Wisconsin. There was a Memorial Day commemoration and I found myself in the middle of a modest parade or procession that began at a church and ended several blocks later at a cemetery.
At the cemetery, in a ritual perhaps repeated in hundreds of thousands of communities across the country on this day each year, there was the presenting of the colors and then an elderly gentleman from the American Legion sat in a folding chair and read from a list. It was a list of all the servicemen and women from the island who had died in combat in all the wars this country has fought. The litany of names seemed to go on forever. One name would have been too many.
When the recitation was over, the old man said: “I want you to consider that all your freedoms, ALL your freedoms, are a gift from veterans.”
This is a sentiment I’ve heard many times and sometimes seen displayed on billboards on country roads: Thank a Soldier for Your Freedom. I’m sure people will still be hearing this message 100 years from now, provided the planet is still here.
But it’s not true. It’s a lie. It’s propaganda and those who propagate it are intentionally misleading or are misled. Those who believe it are being duped.
People are born free. They are not made free or given freedom by someone else or by some institution, least of all the institution of war. All war does is kill people, rob us of our common wealth, and spoil our earth. To believe otherwise is nonsense.
Does war have a purpose?
So what is the purpose of war? If you believe the politicians or the mass media, it is to keep us free, or to bring freedom to some unfortunate people somewhere else, or to protect our “national security” or to bring peace. One of the worst wars, early in the last century, was supposed to “put an end to war.” Of course, it didn’t happen. War is a business that has been booming ever since. Think Dresden. Think Hiroshima. Think My Lai. Think Baghdad. Think Kabul.
If we can’t trust the politicians or the mass media to tell us the truth, whom should we turn to? I’ve always liked what Smedley Darlington Butler had to say. (No, I’m not making up that name. No, you probably didn’t read about him in your high school history class.) Butler was a Major General in the Marine Corps, the highest rank possible in his time, and the most decorated marine in US history when he died. He “spent 33 years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force.” I suppose he ought to know something about the purpose of war.
“During that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism,” Butler admitted. “Like all members of the military profession, I never had an original thought until I left the service.”
“Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested,” Butler wrote.
A little later in this five-page confession, Butler declared: “Since the Revolution, only the United Kingdom has beaten our record for square miles of territory acquired by military conquest. Our exploits against the American Indian, against the Filipinos, the Mexicans, and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the Japanese in Manchuria and the African attack of Mussolini. No country has ever declared war on us before we first obliged them with that gesture. Our whole history shows we have never fought a defensive war.”
It’s unfortunate that our military leaders today are not as honest. Perhaps, if they were, we would have real reason to thank them, if not for our “freedom,” at least for being truthful. The truth might set us free.
American Exceptionalism: The Deadly Sin of National Pride
I suppose that every nation has its story, a story that serves to bind its people together. There is probably some truth to all these myths or legends. The United States is no exception. It has its creation story: that we are an exceptional people. Unfortunately, the myth of American exceptionalism is intrinsically linked to the notion of violence. It is at its very core.
In an Amy Goodman conversation with retired army colonel Andrew Bacevich in 2008, he spoke about the American myth of exceptionalism: “It’s clear that from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies, from the time that John Winthrop [Puritan lawyer and governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony] made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill,” a light to the world–it’s clear that, from the outset, there has been a strong sense among Americans that we are a special people with a providential mission,” Bacevich said.
“In the twentieth century,” he continued, “probably going back to roughly the time of Woodrow Wilson, certainly since the end of the Cold War, this concept of a providential mission, a responsibility to the world, has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, an also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look.”
But the force and violence has always been there, since the beginning. The country is rooted in violence. It’s like the humus that nourishes the tree.
In introducing an essay by Ira Chernus on the website TomDispatch.com, journalist and historian Nick Turse wrote that “whether we’re ruminating on all-American mass killings or slaughter by foreign terrorists, it’s worth recalling that America was incubated in a rolling storm of atrocity and birthed in savage cruelty.
“Just two years after the first Thanksgiving,” Turse noted, “Pilgrim commander Myles Standish was knocking the head off a Native American chief to be displayed on a pike in front of the fort at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Not so long after, in present day Jersey City … settler soldiers fell upon a group of mostly women and children of the Wappinger tribe. Thirty were tortured to death for “public amusement.” About 80 others were decapitated and their heads carried across the river to present-day Manhattan where they were gleefully kicked about the streets of the town.
“Fast-forward to 1779 and the father of this country, George Washington, was dispatching troops to devastate Iroquois settlements in New York and Pennsylvania. A couple of infant America’s slain enemies were then skinned and turned into footwear. The better part of a century later, native blood was still being spilled in savage fashion. At Sand Creek, Colorado, U.S. forces massacred hundreds, scalping old women, killing babies, even violating the dead body of a “comely young squaw.” Soldiers collected penises of the men, sliced off the breasts of the women. One soldier even wore a breast as a cap.
“This is not to say that Native Americans didn’t commit horrendous atrocities, only that violence is intricately woven into America’s DNA, a winding helix of cruelty that then threaded its way through the Philippines and the Caribbean, through Hiroshima, No Gun Ri, and My Lai, through Haditha and Kunduz. Where this country went, so went implements of bodily destruction, weaponry designed to kill or maim: rifles and landmines, bombs and missiles. So too went cruelty and massacre, rape and torture, horrendous acts as bad as or worse than any imaginable depredations by an “evil” terror group,” Turse wrote.
Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, began his essay where Turse left off, with the concept of “evil” and how it relates to American exceptionalism. Chernus outlined six “mistakes” that seem to inevitably lead US policy-makers down the well-worn path to war.
The first is “treating the enemy as absolute evil, not even human.” Of course, it’s common knowledge that, in order to soften up the citizenry for yet another war, it’s a prerequisite that national leaders and the media dehumanize the enemy.
“Since we are human and they are not,” wrote Chernus, “we are the opposite in every way. If they are absolute evil, we must be the absolute opposite. It’s the old apocalyptic tale: God’s people versus Satan’s. It ensures that we never have to admit to any meaningful connection with the enemy. By this logic, it couldn’t be more obvious that the nation our leaders endlessly call “exceptional” and “indispensable,” the only nation capable of leading the rest of the world in the war against evil, bears no relationship to that evil.”
Mistake number two on the road to permanent war, Chernus concludes, is that, if it’s a “war against evil, God’s people must be innocent.” As a result, we don’t have to look honestly at our own history and the ways this nation contributes to or even instigates the spiral of violence.
And mistake number three, “blotting out history,” inevitably follows from the previous premise. We don’t need to examine the role of the US (and CIA in particular) in creation, arming and funding of the mujahidin in Afghanistan, who opposed the Soviets in the 1980s, which led to al-Qaeda. Or George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which “cracked the region open and paved the way for the Islamic State.”
Mistake number four, Chernus opined, is to “assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for the sake of doing it.” Even to think about the enemy’s motives, he says, “would smack of sympathy for the devil.”
After referring to several scholars and journalists who had dared to attempt to shed light on the motivation of ISIS, Chernus added: “It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military, too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits, youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that these young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the nature of the conflicts they may be involved in.”
Mistake number five reasons that, if the enemy is evil incarnate, then they are also “as relentless, intractable and implacable as the devil himself. As a result, we also imagine that nothing we could do might diminish their will to evil … And since they are just crazy–not capable of normal rationality–there is no point in trying to talk with them.”
This leads to the sixth and final mistake: “The belief that we have only one option: annihilation.” Chernus pointed out that in the last presidential campaign, the three major candidates, Trump, Clinton and even Bernie Sanders all called for the total annihilation of the Islamic State.
“The dream of a war of annihilation against evil has a long, long history in white America,” Chernus added. “It began in 1636 when Puritans in New England wiped out the Pequot tribe, promising that such a lesson would prevent further attacks by other tribes. In fact, it created a spiral of violence and counter-violence, and a war-against-evil template that the country still follows nearly four centuries later in its “war on terror”. “
Why this seemingly irresistible urge to fight yet another war against evil? Chernus asks. Perhaps it has to do with another American myth, he suggests. He calls it the myth of national insecurity. “It tells us that we will always be at war with evildoers bent on destroying us; that war … is the mission and meaning of our nation; and that the only way to feel like a real American is to enlist permanently in permanent war.
“Even as we stoke the Islamic State,” he speculates, “we stoke ourselves as well. The longer we fight, the more deeply we are seized by fear. The more we fear, the more fiercely we are determined to fight. Perhaps the point is not to win the war but to remain trapped in this vicious circle, which feels perversely comforting because it offers a sense of unified national identity as nothing else can in our otherwise deeply divided nation.”
Vincent Kavaloski, a philosophy professor at Edgewood College in Madison, WI, explored this theme of a national myth in 1990, writing in a newsletter of the Ecumenical Partnership for Peace and Justice of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. The myth of nationalism combines a sense of superiority with a claim to divine destiny in order to justify war, Kavaloski wrote. “Most national myths celebrate military conquest as an essential part of their story.”
The founding American myth was “strikingly different” on the face of it, he wrote. It was the story of a freedom-loving people escaping the oppression and corruption of an “Old World” to found a “New World” built upon liberty and equality. “We see here a creative combination of two Biblical themes: America as an innocent Eden; and the Exodus journey out of slavery.”
The third Biblical theme, according to Kavaloski, was “America as Messiah … the U.S. would be a “redeemer nation” for all humanity, the bearer of “manifest destiny”. The synthesis of these three Biblical themes created a potent but dangerous self-identity in the American psyche.” On one hand, we viewed ourselves as peaceful and innocent (Eden), as well as freedom-seeking (Exodus); but on the other hand, we believed we had the right, even the duty, to “save the world” (Messiah) through our military and economic power.
Kavaloski then quoted historian Ronald Wells, who said “the spiritual pride of the United States consisted in acting innocently upon the pretense of its special calling, despite the fact that it was almost constantly at war, either with the Indians at home, or with other nations.”
“Despite the historical record,” Kavaloski added, “most Americans continue to believe in the innocence and special destiny of the U.S. At one level, this demonstrates the power of myth over reason. From a theological point of view, the U.S. myth, like most myths of nationalism, is blasphemous. It portrays one nation as more “godly” than others, and hence above the moral law. It leads to what Senator Fulbright called the “arrogance of power”–an idolatrous worship of state power in pursuit of “vital national interests” (the new name for “manifest destiny”)”.
Kavaloski ended his essay with these words: “In the final analysis, the myth of the nation-state is a lie because it denies the fundamental truth of the oneness of humanity: that we share not only a common human nature and a common creation, but also a common propensity toward sin, pride and error.”
Next Time: The draft and the Drone: Distancing ourselves from war and North Korea and the US: Whose finger is on the button?