American Way of War
The history of the American Way of War is a transitional one, as Weigley shows in his landmark work of the same name. The strategy of war went from, under Washington, a small scale, elude and survive set of tactics practiced by what seem today to be relatively “quaint” militias, to — in the 20th century — a full-scale operation known as “total war.” True, “total war” was not a concept invented by the Americans in the 20th century. The North eventually practiced “total war” against the Confederates when Sherman’s campaign left utter destruction of civilian territory in its wake. The ancient Romans practiced it when, under the direction of Cato, they destroyed Carthage because its mere existence, they felt, posed a threat to their prosperity. In the 20th century, however, “total war” received an enormous boost of technical support when the inventors of the atom bomb detonated their weapon for the first time — and later watched in horror as it was used not once but twice to destroy civilian populations in Japan. “Total War” was launched in Vietnam and it has been used in the Middle East in the wars that followed 9/11. As Weigley has observed, “the strategy of annihilation against Germany in World War II so added to the brutalizing of war that apparently they could not but blur the moral vision of their authors.”
“Moral restraint,” as Weigley calls it, was gone. It has never yet looked back. This paper will explain how we have arrived at today’s American Way of War, which is one of brutal indifference, where strategic attacks are performed by remote control and result in the deaths of thousands of civilians, though the proposed target be a mere handful of “terrorists”; a way of war that is used for geopolitical purposes rather than for the ideals of the Founding Fathers, such as Washington, who himself faced the cannons, unlike most of today’s national leaders; finally, it is a way of war, which has been practiced with some consistency since Washington’s farewell, except that now it is practiced on a much larger scale, with much grander technological ability, and much fewer apparent scruples.
The American Way of War was made possible thanks to a little justification called “Manifest Destiny,” penned by an obscure editor named John L. O’Sullivan in an 1845 essay, which espoused Protestant America’s God-given role in the domination of the Western frontier. The essay provided a national power-structure of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants the “justification” it needed to conquer the West — and to turn against its own States, when they wished to secede, and conquer them as well. It is essential to outline the culture of America before proceeding, because that culture plays an integral part in the adoption of the American Way of War that we know today.
The first European schools to be established in America were not Harvard or Yale or the other East-cost Ivy League schools of renown, but schools erected by the Catholic missionaries who followed Columbus to the New World. They were, for the most part, established in the southwestern part of the nation, and today’s cities remind us of their Catholic heritage — San Francisco, Santa Fe, San Diego, San Jose, San Antonio, etc. However, with the recall of the Jesuits to Europe in the 18th century, European missionaries were replaced by English conquerors. It was these same conquerors who waged war against the Native Americans — the same Native Americans that the missionaries attempted to peacefully convert (or die trying). The White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of England and Northern Europe came to America out of a sense of religious fervor or to escape persecution. These were, foremost, of Puritanical sense, and it was this same Puritanism which informed the generations of Americans who grew up in their shadow. Thus, the same country that could go off to slaughter Europeans in two world wars could outlaw the sale of alcohol, the possession of marijuana, and the solicitation of women for sex. But that was all to come — in the 20th century — and in the years leading up to it, the American Way of War is visible and visibly based on the Puritan doctrine that American Protestants are the Elect — and everyone else is just in their way.
So, the American Way of War was fought under the banner of “Manifest Destiny” — it was claimed that the grabbing of lands from natives (whether Mexican or Native American, or Filipino — as was seen in the Spanish-American War — or Middle Eastern, as has been seen time and time again since 9/11 as American military bases sprout like mushrooms in the near East) was their right as WASPs. The Mexican-American War was a war of cultures: Mexico had recently won its independence from Spain, and though it suffered internal convulsions, it was united against an independent Texas.
As retired U.S. Marine Corps General Smeadly Butler said, “War is always a racket.”
The racket in this case was geopolitical. The English had ambitions for northern California, and the American Expansionists wanted a port on the Pacific so that they could deter any such ambitions. Mexico stood in the way. The U.S. offered it millions for the territories, but Mexicans were not inclined or prepared to negotiate any such transactions. The U.S. was not in any position to wait. General Taylor received orders from President Polk to take the Rio Grande. It was a declaration of war. So goes the American Way of Negotiation: if the counterpart cannot be bought, take what is wanted by force.
There were those who objected, of course. Young Whig Abraham Lincoln was such a one. (Fifteen years later he would have no such objections to waging war against his own countrymen — such is the power of political ambition: it allows one’s moral compass to turn with the way the winds of favor are blowing). In fact, Lincoln’s denunciation of Polk’s war-making privileges could just as easily have been applied to him when he dared to “reinforce” Ft. Sumter in order to make Davis blink and open fire with the first shots of the bloodbath that takes the ironic name of Civil War.
The Mexican-American war began on 13 May 1846, with the U.S. invading Mexico on two fronts. And just as the American Way of War has always done, it made the military grow by leaps and bounds. Before the war, the army stood at a mere 6000 — after, it had more than 100,000. And just as the army grew, so too did the territory of the U.S. — by more than a million square miles. The nation could now install the new railroads that would soon connect east and west coasts, moving material goods from production site to storefront and persons from home to frontier and back again. It would be these same railroads that the secessionists dared to disrupt with the withdraw from the Union just a few short years later.
The Civil War was not a war over slavery — though the topic was a hot-button one at the time and even served several political pundits as a handy excuse for waging war against the South. Nor was it a war over cultures, though the South was essentially a “different world” from the North, Southerners seeming merely to go through “the formula of living” without the disruptions of novelty impinging upon their retirement.
No, the primary reason for the war was the same as always: business. The Constitution which did not, in effect, forbid secession — and therein, it was argued by the Southern States, allowed it — did forbid the waging of war by the President without Congressional consent. Nonetheless, Congress has rarely been an impediment to the Executive Office’s decision to make war. When Lincoln sent a ship to Ft. Sumter, he intentionally provoked Davis’s hand, after Davis had made clear that he wanted Ft. Sumter evacuated of its Union troops.
The American Way of War showed its true colors throughout the first half of the 1860s. War profiteers were numerous: Brooks Brothers, for example, was commissioned to supply the Union soldiers with uniforms — it did so with cheap materials that dissolved in the rain. And men who could succeed at no other station in life, like U.S. Grant, found their stride in combat: Grant, for example, was a disaster in civilian life, but was fearless in battle and inspired his troops, whom he led with more confidence and guts than he did brains.
The war was conducted without mercy from the start. Lincoln was determined to hold the Union together, whatever the cost — though by the end of the war, he would be laying the blame for the war on the “sins of men,” whom God was punishing through war.
Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves has gone down as one of the greatest moments in American history — yet in comparison to what happened to the African-Americans afterwards, it can hardly be hailed as a victory for egalitarian principles. The war was not about freedom, or unity, or states’ rights (though that point was certainly held by the South). The war was about subjugation: the subjugation of all states to the Central authority in Washington, D.C. This has always been the highlight of the American Way of War: the enthronement of power in the office of the White House. (Today, that throne has shifted and even been divided among powers within the “deep state,” as Peter Dale Scott calls it).
With the Union preserved following a brutal campaign, America could now set about doing what it did best — grow. American Industrialists were getting fat and the nation itself was exceeding its borders. It now had to look overseas for more lands to consume — and that is what it did, as America the nation became America the Empire. And it did so by way of war.
And once again there were those who objected. This time it was the Anti-Imperialist League, with voices like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) lending their celebrity to its formation. But these were saner voices in a match already declared victorious by the Elect, whose military wing was now being led by men like Gen. Butler (who would, upon retirement — and some reflection — go on a speaking tour around the U.S. To describe for his listeners what he himself witnessed and eventually realized, namely that he had been nothing but muscle for racketeers). The problem was not in quieting the Anti-Imperialists. The problem was how to start a war and make it look like the enemy’s fault. Lincoln had done this masterfully at Ft. Sumter — no one blamed him for sending “supplies” to Ft. Sumter; on the contrary, they rallied behind him in the face of what they perceived to be Southern aggression.
So, too, with the Spanish-American War — only this time, it wasn’t just shots fired and a fort destroyed (without, incidentally, loss of life). This time an entire ship was blown up — The Maine — and so began a new theme in the American Way of War: the destruction of sea vessels by the enemy and a clear and distinct provocation and justification for war. (It worked in WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania; it worked in WWII with the bombing of the naval base at Pearl Harbor, where all the ships were lined up in a nice, little row as though just waiting to be shelled; it worked in Vietnam with the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” — only, it turned out, there were no actual instigating shots fired at U.S. ships — just sonar that they mistook as threatening sounding.
False flags, so it has been claimed, all of them. Each remains a controversial topic for scholars who dare to challenge historical claims. Some historians fail even to accept such evidence as the history of Operation Northwoods clearly exposes, and rather continue to write the same tired, glossed over “details” of a politically acceptable narrative, claiming that Americans were “attacked” and not the “attackers”
Nonetheless, The Maine was destroyed and blamed on the Spanish, who had a presence in the Gulf. The newspapers were the first to give a verdict and the general public was quick to support retaliation, as is usually the case in the American Way of War (it was certainly the case following 9/11, and the rush to condemn Saddam Hussein with his “mobilized weapons labs,” the only proof of which were cartoon renderings — because there was no actual evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 — but proof is beside the point in the American Way of War: provocation is all the matters).
The causes of the American shift from Isolationism to Internationalism beginning with the Spanish-American War are three-fold: first, the principle of Manifest Destiny, as has been stated; second, Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations; and third, the rise of Industrialization and the need to command the world’s natural resources. The internal consequences of this shift were, first, a split in domestic political identity between imperialists and anti-imperialists; second, an inter-war identity crisis fueled first by a sense of immense prosperity and then by a sense of economic depression; and finally, the growing political clout of financial America and Big Business, leaving American youth with an overall feeling of disenfranchisement.
The first cause of the shift may be located in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which, by the end of the 19th century was looking to new horizons. It ushered in the era of New Expansionism — beginning with the Spanish-American War, which saw American forces beginning to take over parts of Latin America (the Banana Wars) and the Philippines under the auspices of self-preservation (but in reality for corporations like United Fruit). President McKinley himself admitted it was so in a 1903 interview in which he stated that the U.S. simply could not “leave [the Filipinos] to themselves — they are unfit for self-government” and that, besides, were the U.S. To hand the Philippines “over to France and Germany — our commercial rivals in the Orient — that would be bad business and discreditable.”
Thus, McKinley helped to spread the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the 20th century. He clarified it as well, linking it inextricably to Big Business — and covering it in pseudo-religious babble, such as the nonsensical idea that America would “uplift and Christianize” Filipinos (who had already been Christianized — did not McKinley know? — and converted to Roman Catholicism under Spanish rule). The arrogance of McKinley’s remarks was a perfect illustration of the main cause of America’s shift from isolationism to internationalism in the 20th century.
The consequence of America’s burgeoning policy of New Expansionism and Imperialism was a split in domestic thinking: there were those who reacted against the exploitation of foreign peoples for the sake of the corporatocracy. They were the anti-imperialists, led by men like Mark Twain. There was also the other side, the side which swallowed the line of McKinley and promoted the idea of an American Empire, taking care of the world, its resources, and its people, as good God-fearing Protestants ought to do. This side was supported by the political mouthpieces of Big Business, who made capitalistic exploits a seeming virtue. Such was the gist of John Hay’s Open Door Circular in which he urged the major powers to respect one another’s “sphere of interest” in East Asia.
One defiant retired Marine Corps. Major General by the name of Smedley Butler, however, toured the U.S. In the inter-war years giving a speech entitled “War is a Racket.” The thrust of it was to draw attention to and condemn the merger of business and government and most of the war profiteers. Butler’s speech was popular but did little in the long run to stem the tide of imperialism. A political course had already been set in motion by then.
This brings us to the second cause of America’s shift from isolationism to internationalism: Wilson’s League of Nations. Wilson had campaigned for the presidency on the platform that he would keep the U.S. out of the war — but it was a campaign promise he did not intend to keep. Wilson determined that if the U.S. were to stay out of WW1, it would have no deciding role in the carving up of the nations and empires that would surely take place once the war was over. Wilson’s war message to Congress in April, 1917, smacked of illogic and political hypocrisy: “Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organizational force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of the people,” he said with straight face.
It perhaps did not dawn on him that he was describing the U.S. government in the latter half of that sentence. A year later he was rattling off his 14 Points to Congress — calling for disarmament and free trade — points that would have rendered impotent the age of Empire just getting under way.
Wilson’s hope of directing the peace at the end of the war went unsatisfied as the major powers took what they wanted and left Germany with the tab — thus all but assuring a future conflict in due time.
The consequence of Wilson’s desire to go international was, of course, to convince Americans to enter WW1. This meant painting the German war machine in obnoxious colors and insisting that American lives were at risk (a familiar script used time and time again by sitting presidents). America entered late, did relatively little, and felt good about itself when it “came home.” The 1920s became known as the Roaring Twenties and the Lawless Decade. It was a time when Americans tried to convince themselves that they had not lost their moral compass, in spite of their becoming an imperialistic nation engaging in all sorts of acts that the Founding Fathers would have condemned. Instead of assaulting the bond between Wall Street and the White House which was well intact when McKinley took office and stayed well intact, Americans assaulted themselves, bringing Prohibition down upon their heads and welcoming the Hays Code in Hollywood in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Meanwhile Charles Ponzi set about defrauding investors and establishing the banking paradigm that would be repeated by financial fraudsters time and time again. Ponzi and others of his ilk (even major banking firms like Goldman Sachs) initiated the crisis that culminated in the Great Panic and Depression of 1929. The domestic consequences of Wilson’s internationalism were internal collapse: looking outward, greedily, on behalf of the banking and business firms which stood to profit from a geopolitical rearrangement following WW1, the president and his successors failed to see the dangers lurking right underneath their own noses at home. Keynes said, “The war has impoverished us, but not seriously.” He was wrong — in more ways than one. America was becoming bankrupt both morally and economically. Politically, its strings were pulled by party bosses, lobbies, investors, financiers, and the agents of capital. Keynes was such a one.
The third cause of the shift from isolationism to internationalism was that which Keynes represented: the moneyed interests. Industrialization and the need for resources meant that more than “freedom” and “democracy” were at stake. It was just the opposite, in fact. Industrialization and the need for resources meant that whoever commands the resources, commands the world. The rhetoric coming from Washington at this time was as idealistic as ever — and completely phony. The most outspoken critic of Washington, the Socialist Eugene Debs, ran for the office of the President — from prison. (It is naive to say that America has never had its political prisoners.) Debs understood that it was “the working class who make the supreme sacrificesâ€¦who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, [and yet who] have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.”
Debs shared these words with his listeners in Canton, OH, in 1918. They were not exactly treasonous words — more like honest ones. But by lashing out at the same ruling powers, he invited punishment. Did his listeners take heart? Roosevelt understood that the last thing Americans wanted was another war — but like Wilson, he too was bitten by the bug of internationalism — or at least knew how to act like he was. In a private letter to Colonel E.M. House in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt confessed that “the real truthâ€¦is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson.”
WW2 would open the door to these centers and to America’s use of covert operations under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency, overseen by every president from Eisenhower on. Covert operations were wars waged by the moneyed interests (the Dulles brothers — one a future Secretary of State, the other a future director of the CIA — were lawyers for the same moneyed interests who profited through business partnerships with Nazi Germany before and during WW2). They were the modus operandi of the top-down government of the American Empire. The words Benito Mussolini used to define Fascism apply precisely to the United States at this time: “For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence.”
One could easily substitute America in place of Fascism in Mussolini’s entry for Fascism in the 1932 Italian Encyclopedia. America was Fascist — even as it declared war against Italy.
The consequence of America’s new political, social, and economic outlook was a new domestic rhetoric, spun with gold threads by Roosevelt himself, who, of course, knew better. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had the pretext he needed to urge Congress to vote for war. In his 1941 war speech, he stated, “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.”
He did not define those hostilities as he did in his private letter to Col. House. He cited Japan as the threat. His successor, Truman, would drop two atomic bombs on the nation — in a move that was unprecedented, unnecessary, and without moral justification. With Truman at the helm, WW2 would, in one sense, never end. Truman’s “doctrine” was sheer imperialism colored over by pat phrases like this: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
It was smoke and mirrors. American militarism fueled the Cold War, which was really just an extension of WW2. Americans were increasingly desensitized and disillusioned. The one bright spot was Kennedy’s hesitation at starting a nuclear war with Russia — a war he knew would be as disastrous as the weapon of war itself.
The supposed war to end all wars was simply the beginning of an unending war — as Mussolini noted was the desired state of a nation devoted to Fascism. The consequence of imperialism by 1945 was an exhausting fear. The only reason Americans had to celebrate was for the return of loved ones from abroad. That joy was short-lived, for before two decades were past the threat of nuclear holocaust and extinction of the human race would be real for every American. That fear would give way to youthful rebellion, radicalism, rioting, and protest in the decades of the 60s and 70s.
By that time, there was little that the next generation could do but yell. The only question was this: who, in any real position of power, was listening? In a strange twist to his own career, Nixon would make a midnight visit to a handful of these very protestors at the Lincoln Memorial. His conscience, for a moment, was working that night.
But Nixon, at that moment, was only one man in the new “deep state.” His own members of staff failed to carry out his commands (Kissinger, for example, with regard to Israel).
The American Way of War, by the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, relied on the objectives of the “deep state” and its influence to remain in perpetuity. The American Empire had turned into an “Empire of Chaos,” in which a zero-sum game was being played; where destabilization was the key (effectively detailed by think tanks like PNAC and AIPAC); where American animosity towards war was pacified with rhetoric about how there would be no “boots on the ground” because they were being replaced by drones in the air. The means of delivering destruction may have changed, but the objective has not: it is still all about America’s Manifest Destiny even in the 21st century. The only problem is that in the East, two powers also believe they have a destiny: Russia and China. Now as a new skirmish is being set up (in the Ukraine and in the Pacific Seas), a new chapter in the American Way of War is about to begin. The strategies of war may have changed since the days of Washington — but the same spirit that fueled the Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, WW1, WW2, Vietnam, and the post-9/11 wars remains the same.
This essay examines the American Way of War, from its earliest manifestations (under the auspices of Manifest Destiny) in its war against Mexico to its latest manifestations in its drone wars in the Middle East. It traces the evolution of the ideology behind this “way of war,” which has moved America from an isolationist nation to an imperialist nation.
The 19th century was a catalyst in really developing this “way of war” as that was the century of Industrialization, which saw the rise of Big Business and the need for New Expansionism. America had already expanded West as far as it could by the late 19th century and so it turned to foreign shores, in order to shore up a stronghold in the global marketplace that would come into being in the following years.
As retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler insisted, the American Way of War was a “racket,” one which was practiced for the sake of racketeers — for the purposes of business. For that reason, governments in foreign countries were overthrown, free citizens forced to accept American interests into their country, and American citizens forced to watch as their nation enacted a policy of drastic hypocrisy. Often, the war has been conducted as a form of retribution: by provoking enemies to attack us, America has had an “excuse” to go full tilt into “total war,” annihilating its enemies for reasons not fully explained to American citizens (many of whom have never heard of the PNAC papers), but understood all to well by foreign nations who receive the fire from America’s deadly drones, which have now come to replace the more traditional style of warfare.
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