Monday, March 29, 2010

War and Empire - The American Way of Life

American school children are not known for their detailed knowledge of geography or history, depriving them of the essential tools to understand their country's place in the world. It is thus refreshing when an American professor of history sets the record straight in showing that in spite of the lofty principles upon which the American enterprise was allegedly founded and which it keeps pronouncing, its actual rise has been built on brute force from the very start. In "War and Empire - The American Way of Life", published by Pluto Press (ISBN 978-0-7453-2764-8), Paul L. Atwood does not mince his words. Its introduction alone would serve as a primer for those who need to acquaint themselves with what drives the current American psyche.

"By and large the nation's students imbibe what the American historian James W. Loewen calls the 'Disney version' of the nation's past which propagates a collective hallucination that the US is the primary source of human progress.", he states, and continues:

"Americans delude themselves when they insist that we are a peace-loving people who will go to any extreme to avoid violence. War is the American way of life. The American project began in violence, the nation was born amidst blood and the growth of the American republic is matched by a corresponding chain of carnage from the Pequot Massacre to Wounded Knee to My Lai and to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; all alleged to be the fault of others."

"For a people outraged at the murder of our civilians on 9/11 we are morally anesthetized when it comes to admitting the crimes our own actions, votes and tax dollars have wrought."

Atwood starts his exposition of how war featured in the American mindset from the very beginning - provided it was carried out by choice and against an enemy with little chance of posing an existential danger - by first describing the brutal reality of exterminating the indigenous red Indian population and then the revolt against British rule, followed by a continuous land grab and extension of America's sphere of influence, culminating in her role as global police to enforce her "Open Door" trade policy.

"The real history of Columbus' arrival in the 'New World' is a woeful account of enslavement, murder, torture and genocide that, in terms of proportion and absolute numbers, was far more successful than the race murder that Hitler attempted. Within 50 years of Columbus' arrival the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola dropped from 8 million to a mere five hundred. That was only the beginning." - Luckily for Atwood he is not a German citizen where he could face a prison sentence under German's Draconian laws against "dishonouring the memory of the dead", where comparing the extermination of any other people to that of the Jewish race amounts to unacceptable "relativism". Unperturbed by such censorship he writes:

"All Americans know that the native peoples of the Americas were largely displaced, but little attention is paid to the methods. Just as Indian lands in the seventeenth century were 'expropriated through trickery, legal manipulation, intimidation, deportation, concentration camps, and murder', so the model continued, becoming, in short, the prototype of what is now condemned by the US as 'ethnic cleansing'. All of these measures have been employed against every non-white enemy the US has created for itself: from Virginia to Vietnam, from the Pequot massacre to Sand Creek, to Wounded Kne, to My Lai to Haditha and Falluja."

"The fate imposed upon the native peoples of the Americas has justifiably been called the 'American Holocaust'. As Stanard rightly says in American Holocaust, 'massacres of this sort were so numerous and routine that recounting them becomes numbing'."

"Of course the co-called civilizing mission was always ultimately a lie. The real venture was to take land and resources from others and transfer these to the conquerors, or to open or maintain sources of gain that would deprive the other of self-determination."

As for the lofty aims of American independence: "In the United States the American Revolution is celebrated as a near impossible victory over a mighty and tyrannical empire made possible by the heroism of those who introduced the concept of equality and self-government into a benighted world. ... Had the crown not been so preoccupied with continental threats from France the real strength of imperial Britain would have been deployed, instead of inept commanders and foreign mercenaries."

"From the beginning in the US a self-selected and tiny elite spoke of 'We the people' and 'democracy' but actually feared popular rule, and created two-tiered political institutions designed to thwart it, much like their model, the British Parliament."

"The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution selected themselves as representatives of 'We the People' but acted primarily in their own interests. Virtually all of them were plantation owners and slaveholders, or had extensive commercial and banking interests, and all feared genuine popular democracy."

"So the American revolution was not really a revolution. It was a rebellion that was fortunate to win and while it instituted key reforms and unique adaptations, such as a written constitution and a Bill of Rights, it was really a transfer of power from the British government to an American self-elected elite who ensured that governance would be held by them."

Atwood then proceeds to describe the gradual empire building the Founders of the new Republic engaged in: "The war in North America quickly led to naval engagement in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Asia. Thus the Seven Years War was the first truly global war which foreshadowed ever more destructive wars and signaled the degree to which imperial rivalries would shape the future of the planet. In this early stage of world-wide struggle for supremacy, unconventional methods of warfare would first make their appearance."

"In their efforts to banish Spain from the hemisphere US policy-makers faced a glaring problem. The Cuban liberation movement was winning and it seemed quite likely that Spain would grant independence to Cubans. Since the real goal of US policy was to take over from the Spanish and then label American rule a victory for 'democracy', this turn of events simply would not do. American war hawks now moved with alacrity."

"In short order, with a crushing victory over Spain, the Caribbean Sea became, as the Romans used to say, mare nostrum, 'our sea'. All four island-nations became de facto American colonies, exploited as bases for the American navy and for their resources, their people now serving American masters. Cuba's constitution was written in Washington and came with the proviso known as the Platt Amendment that the US could intervene militarily on the island any time American interests were said to be at risk."

For those who think the current cancellation of civil rights as part of the "War on Terror" is an aberration in the history of the United States of America, the mention of laws enacted with similar ferocity and intent during the World War I is instructive:

"Many groups had been outraged over Wilson's betrayal of neutrality. His government's response was to enact legislation designed to silence the opposition, going so far as to jail many of those who took the First Amendment at face value. A highly unpopular draft law was enacted, only the second in American history. The Espionage Act of 1917 outlawed speech against the war as interference with military recruitment and carried 20-year jail sentences for those convicted... Effectively nullifying the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech against the government's wartime policies illegal."

"Most chilling of all was the Sedition Act that effectively nullified the First Amendment to the constitution and led to the arrest of numerous journalists and editors who voiced opposition to the war with France. They were condemned as traitors. These measures, coming so soon after passage of the Bill of Rights, were an overt attempt to invalidate it and revealed how deeply many of the Framers opposed popular dissent and democracy itself, especially when the issue was war or peace. Their counterparts in every era of American history would enact similar measures intended to cow the voice of popular opposition, right up to the present."

"Though most Americans have been conditioned recently to perceive the FBI as a primary force in the 'war on terror', its initial mandate was to intimidate political opposition to the dominant parties."

With war there always came justification, usually by describing the opponents as uncivilised or subhumans, deserving of subjugation or extermination. "Well before the nation of Germany came into existence the roots of Nazi race theories were being set in the United States, and for the same reasons. New pseudo-sciences of phrenology and 'craniology' in response to abolitionism, focused on claims of African inferiority, but were also put to use rationalizing the conquest of Mexico and native peoples. These ideas were paralleled by the ever more popular doctrine of 'Anglo=Saxonism'."

Atwood illustrates this doctrine by a quote from a senator from Virginia at the time: "It is peculiar to the character of this Anglo-Saxon race of men to which we belong, that it has never been contended to live in the same country with any other distinct race, upon terms of equality; it has, invariably, when placed in that situation, proceeded to exterminate or enslave the other race in some form or other, or, failing that to abandon the country."

In both world wars, it wasn't the support of idealistic principles, but the interests of the industrial ruling oligarchy that America had become, which motivated America's entry. "War production was manifestly the only real factor that had ended the Great Depression, but even so it had absorbed only a fraction of those formerly unemployed. The bulk of young would-be workers were now wearing military uniforms, Wilson's answer was a 'permanent war economy'. But for that a permanent enemy, or enemies, would be required."

"Though American policy-makers asserted that lassez-faire principles continued to drive the economy, and decried state management of the economies in the communist world, the marriage of political Washington to the industrial-financial sectors created as similar model in the US, with the critical difference that public investment would result not in social returns but in private profit. Sometimes called the 'welfare-warfare state' American prosperity would be maintained via a permanent war economy."

"In the final analysis the US entered World War II by stealth, not to redress the crimes committed by Axis powers such as saving Jews, liberating enslaved peoples and fostering democracy, but to preserve the mainstay of American foreign policy - the Open Door to the resources, markets and labor power of the territories that were threatened with closure. Popular culture maintains that the oft-repeated ideals were the nation's primary motivations but the genuine circumstances surrounding the war's outcome belie such mythology."

"One reason that the state of Israel was supported and created by allied post-war leaders was precisely to prevent large numbers from settling in the United States and England."

"The primary motivation for US entry into the war was the prospect that Germany would dominate most of the European continent and the oil reserves of the Middle East, and establish a closed continental system that would exclude most American trade and investment, a 'nightmare' scenario from the perspective of American policy-makers. Yet there was no possibility of defeating Hitler without an alliance with the Soviet Union. The American public forgets, or the reality has been consistently downplayed, that the Soviets did most of the dying to defeat Hitler."

A quote from Truman in 1941 illustrates the American "pragmatism" and duplicity that has been in evidence then and now: "If we see that Germany is winning the war we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible."

I have only two criticisms of Atwood's analysis: When it comes to the Soviet Union, he seems to ignore the fact that the Bolshevik revolution was originally instigated by American bankers or that, in the arms race following the deliberate detonation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, America secretly helped Russia in the development of its military capability in order to maintain the perception of the Soviet threat. Secondly, whilst deploring the hypocritical response by Washington to 9/11, he continues to buy the official line that al-Qaedah bore responsibility for the attacks on the twin towers, an official story increasingly discredited by now. Atwood's account of how the American administration deliberately engineered the attack on Pearl Harbor as a pretext for entering the war shows that it was not out of character for them, to sacrifice some of their own people for corporate ends.