Tuesday, September 22, 2009

America: Too Weak for War?

As Gen. McChrystal threatens the nation with the "need" for more troops in Afghanistan, The Big Brother says he's "skeptical," and the liberals in Congress threaten to block any troop increase, I have one question I keep asking myself: Is American too weak for war?

I'm not talking militarily or financially. I'm not about to deliver some right-wing rant about peace-lovin' pussy liberals who hate America. Nor is this some longing for a fantasy time when America had to resolve to "get the job done" no matter the cost. I'm just wondering if we Americans are at a point in our history when we're no longer willing to conduct long military campaigns.

It's not as though Americans hate war. We're generally split down the middle before any military venture. But, as soon as the shock starts aweing, we pretty much follow the flawed "support the troops--not the war" logic into supporting our wars. The war-time President and the President's war are strongly supported time and time again. It's just how we do.

But, as time goes on, support inevitably wanes. The flagging support for Afghanistan and Iraq are no surprise, really. The same thing happened with Vietnam and Korea. Even our two most "just" wars--the Civil and World 2--suffered what would've been called "sagging poll numbers" after they dragged on year after year.

See, we Americans love our John Wayne wars--over in less than two hours--where the bad guys are evil and folks die stoically with very little blood--and nobody comes home permanently maimed to remind us of the sacrifice most of us really aren't willing to make (including, not-so-ironically, John Wayne, who refused to serve in WWII but made some classic WWII movies, instead).

The Duke refused to sign up for WWII
because his movie career was finally
taking off--but excoriated Vietnam War
draft dodgers

So, as I said, lagging support for Iraq (over six years now) and Afghanistan (going on nine) is absolutely no surprise. And yet, in terms of "blood and treasure," their unpopularity is a bit surprising. Not to diminish any life lost, but the Civil War saw some battles where over 10,000 bodies were left on the field; WWII saw something like 200 casualties a day; and Vietnam, 200 a week. In comparison, the 4,300 dead in Iraq and 800 in Afghanistan are quite light.

I've often heard it said that America has always been a "reluctant empire." But that's simply not true. Even before we became a country, Britain had its hands full trying to curb the Americans' appetite for land only to get another war with the French and a revolution for their troubles.

If I remember correctly, some of our forefathers thought the American experiment should have included all of North America including Cuba. One of the main reasons for the War of 1812 was our settling into the Northwest Territories and fighting the Indians there. And the Canadians and the British at the time thought we started the war in order to annex Canada. We were willing to buy land peaceably from Britain and France and to buy it at gunpoint from Mexico to make the US a continental power.

And, once we had all that land, we were willing to consolidate our gains by "any means necessary." Just like the Brits, we had no chivalric qualms with taking a Gatling gun to our technologically disadvantaged foes and open it up on warriors with spears, bows, arrows, and/or hatchets. And were more than fine with taking it to an unarmed village or two and kill women and children. All in the name of making America the "great country" it was meant to be.

Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota--1890

But it's not as though we were alone in this. These were the times of "manifest destiny" and the "white man's burden." Sure, our European overlords spoke grandly of "honor" and "duty"--probably with a tear in their eyes--and many men died for those concepts. But when push came to shove, whitey would fuck shit up.

So, when the Phillipines revolted against American rule in 1899, Uncle Sam had no problem with slaughtering every Filipino over 10 [the cartoon above] he could find until the population was subdued. It wasn't like they were committing "crimes against humanity" or being particularly barbarous. They were doing exactly what their British, French, Belgian, and Dutch compatriots were doing all around the globe.

(However, with the Spaniards' invention of the concentration camp in Cuba in the 1896 and the first Armenian massacres in 1895, human rights were starting to become a concern in the international community.)

Even during WWII, America and Americans were willing to be as brutal as it took to achieve victory. Yes, there was the firebombing at Dresden and the A-bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima--but Japan also underwent firebombing campaigns before Fat Man and Little Boy. In fact, the US high command, knowing that the Japanese lived in wood-and-paper dwellings, ordered napalm to be dropped on Tokyo. In three hours of bombing, American bombers killed over 100,000 Japanese. As Robert McNamara said in The Fog of War: "We were all war criminals."

With that statement, McNamara hit upon the key difference between the 19th and early 20th century and what we feel today: in light of Hitler and the Holocaust, the West has taken the notions of "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" to heart.

The world can be a barbarous place, and, to be an empire, one must be more brutal than the next Hun. Yes, we still believe in the notions of honor and bravery. We Americans love to believe that we are spreading peace and freedom and democracy as we kill those pesky native populations who don't seem to appreciate the gifts are guns are giving them.

But, in a highly-mediated world, where pictures and broadcasts of our victims can be beamed across the planet in the blink of an eye, it becomes harder and harder to hold onto these high falutin' notions. We never saw the Filipinos we killed nor the Haitians nor Nicaraguans during our 20-year occupations of those countries. We never caught a glimpse of the 100,000 Japanese we killed in 180 minutes. It was easy to believe we were being right and just back then. But seeing tiny villages napalmed and a scalded Vietnamese girl screaming naked down the road was one of the images that made us question our mission in Southeast Asia. Now, some 40 years later, our hearing of accidentally bombing a wedding party in search of Taliban makes us wonder what the hell's the point in our being in Afghanistan.

After WWII, Western Europe basically gave up on the idea of empire. The British whipped a little Gikuyu ass but still gave up Kenya. The French tortured all day long in Algeria and still lost the war. The Europeans still had the technological edge over their colonies. But those same colonies were no longer afraid of them and were willing to fight while the Europeans simply no longer had the stomach to actually use their edge to slaughter their subjects into submission. They couldn't very well nuke Rhodesia, and even that was no guarantee they would win in the end.

With the Cold War, we Americans were willing to play at empire along with the Soviets. But we didn't really have what it took to actually maintain one. We simply petered out in Korea and Vietnam, and we ran with our tails between our legs out of Lebanon. In fact, in the last 60 years, unless our victories can be quick and "clean" (like in Panama, the first Gulf War, and Grenada), we've proven we don't want to be in it for the long haul.

Marine barracks bombing--Lebanon, 1983

Our leaders don't realize that our notions of "honor" and "duty" have been diminished over the years. We still talk a good game about them, but we really don't mean it. That's why, even after 9/11, our leaders decided to extol the virtues of a "professional military" because they knew we wouldn't tolerate an actual draft to fight their "war on terror"--even if it meant exacting revenge on Osama bin Laden.

In truth, maybe only military personnel and their families still believe in honor and duty. We know that a lot of our leaders who wrap themselves in the flags, trumpeting those concepts, didn't even fight crotch rot when it was their turn to go to Vietnam. Nope, they stayed home. Most of them don't even let their sons and daughters fight this "war on terror" today. Their lives, their children's lives, are just too precious to be lost for such antiquated notions. That's why a flaming liberal with working class roots like me has had more military in my family (from grandpa in WWII to an uncle in Vietnam and a half-brother in Iraq and everything in between) than most of them have. Our nation, as a whole, from top to bottom, from left to right, just is not willing to sacrifice what it takes to be an empire and to execute an empire's wars.

That's why we never did have a serious discussion about a draft. That's why we never really debated what this "war on terror" actually meant and what it would cost to wage it. That's why we borrowed money from China and actually cut taxes during war time. That's why Osama is still out there with a robust recording career. Why Obama walked into office with two wars going on without an end in sight. And why General McChrystal, without a real strategy of his own for Afghanistan, is begging for more troops.

Whatever their resultant strategy (which should really just be "Get bin Laden and Get the Hell Out!"), our military and political leadership should look at our two latest military adventures and all the post-WWII conflicts leading up to them and realize that we Americans, despite our bluster, are not just a "reluctant empire." We don't really want to be an empire at all. We don't want to force-march the Cherokee of their land. We don't want to mow down 10-year-old Filipinos. We don't want to enslave, ethnically cleanse, or napalm 100,000 people. And most importantly, we don't want to die or have our children die in the process.

Let's face it: We Americans are just too damned weak for war.

Victims of the Tokyo firebombing, 1945

[Author's Note: To all you patriotic, pro-war prosyletizers who may object to this editorial,

The draft ages for WWI and WWII were 18-45. If you were between those ages and did not sign up for either Afghanistan and/or Iraq, you pretty much prove my point--unless, of course, you already served. For those of you who did, I salute you and admire you for standing up for your principles. Please keep your head down and look out for my "little" brother.


willis said...

I've speculated that we love the pomp and circumstance we generate when we think a war is over so much that it has an influence on us starting another one. Toward that end, I'm not real sure that WWI and WWII really exist as entities as the results of each spawned more wars (WWI in the case of WWI and Korea, VietNam from WWII). In other words, we never stopped just because of some armistice ceremony. The world has been at war at least since the beginning of WWI, probably before.
Great post Bill.

willis said...

Of course that would be....." WWII in the case of WWI....