Who we are is revealed by what we do and act. We Americans believe we are peace-loving and abhor war. However, our history suggests something different. When did we begin worshiping war? Maybe the more appropriate question is, when didn’t we?
Like most of us, I grew up believing the United States was peace-loving and we were people who avoided war. After all, for a large part of our history, the military establishment and its emulation was kept very small. It was intentional. We didn’t want a large military that might become a threat to our government and institutions. Our founders were wise.
What changed us? What changed our view and our course?
Perhaps the only thing that has changed is our awareness. It seems what we teach in school leaves out some essential details, facts, and information. Let’s take a look at our record. Here is a list of the US military and surreptitious operations in foreign countries from 1798 to 2005. World Wars I & II are omitted.
It would seem we have had no qualms about flexing our military muscle and meddling in other countries whenever it suited our purposes and interests. It would appear the roots of an empire run deep in our family tree. During my more than 75 years of life, we have been actively involved in military operations, wars, and other actions almost without interruption. The US maintains more than 800 bases in at least 80 countries. It is the largest arms dealer on the planet and spends more annually on defense than the next dozen countries combined. It is one reason our democracy is in such peril.
Some of our bellicose behavior, I realize, is a reflection of the time they occurred. Nations with the ability to do so have rarely restrained themselves from flaunting their military superiority to obtain their objectives. That should not be interpreted and accepted as an excuse for behavior in any era.
Our ancestors arrived on this continent with the intention of conquest, colonization, and removal of any obstacle to their designs by whatever means necessary. This behavior is embedded in our DNA. We are programmed to eliminate any who are perceived as competition for access to resources.
War and conflict have been a part of our heritage. Conflicts with indigenous tribes commenced as soon as our European ancestors stepped foot on these shores in 1607. It continued until the Wounded Knee Massacre near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. Major conflicts during the colonial period connected to events elsewhere included: Queen Anne’s War-1702-1713, King George’s War-1744-1748, and The French and Indian War-1756-1763. To this list, we can also add instances of slave rebellions in the South.
We were not predestined to be a warrior nation. History, circumstance, and perhaps something peculiar in our national makeup may have made it more likely. Was England’s sending of more than 50,000 convicted felons to the colonies before the Revolution a factor? Was it convicted felons plus thousands more of the poor and unwanted sent to the colonies as indentured servants? Did Evangelical Christianity that fed abundantly off emotion and ignorance play a part? Was it a chance outcome fueled by personalities willing to take high risks that came to the colonies and uninhibited by society norms? These are questions others with more understanding and expertise will have to ponder. The result, however, is evident. We are not shy about asserting ourselves and using force to get what we want.
For most of our history, we have downplayed and hidden our behavior and activities from view. Our many intrusions and adventures around the world and especially in Latin America were never discussed or acknowledged. These things were never talked about or mentioned in any history class. The portrayal of our conflict with Native Americans was almost always a reaction to aggression and barbaric acts. Our massacring villages were recorded as ‘battles.’ My college classes in diplomatic history never mentioned any but the most famous instances listed above. We portrayed ourselves as exceptional, believing repeating this lie will cleanse us of sin.
Two world wars, the Cold War, and the endless preparation for war pushed us past a tipping point. What these events did was to expose what has been shielded from view. Embracing empire, militarism, and glorifying soldiers as warriors allowed us to see behind the curtain. We got a glimpse of who we are. We may try to ignore it. We may try to hide it, but it is what it is, and we are who we are.
Acknowledging these things allows us to look at and view our history from a different perspective. The toxic mixture of right-wing zealotry, paranoid fears of communism, and the Cold War, changed our attitudes toward war. Seduced by material abundance served up by a booming postwar economy and fueled by the release of pent-up energy of millions of returning veterans threw open the door to a growing militarization of society. Public attention was distracted, intoxicated, and addicted to the acquisition of things.
I remember the early 1950s when we practiced duck and cover drills in elementary school. We had no idea what we were doing, but we did as we were instructed by teachers who were as confused as we were. I remember rumors in my small midwestern town promoting fears of Russian bombers. It was whispered there were plane spotters with binoculars in the tower at the junior high school every night to keep watch.
The gluttonous annual defense budgets, the peacetime draft supporting the bulging military establishment infiltrated our thoughts and took over our thinking. The way current events were presented heightened the fears and hysteria ensuring the defense department would be well funded. There was the Korean War, the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, the shock of Sputnik in 1957, the intervention to prevent China from invading Taiwan in 1958, culminating with the Cuban Missile Crisis during October 1962.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers posed by the growth of the military-industrial complex. No one listened. The page had been turned, and our conversion, not just to empire, but a highly militarized one that protected its interests, not necessarily the people’s.
An Empire is what we’ve been since Thomas Jefferson encouraged Congress to take advantage of Napoleon’s offer and purchased the vast center of the continent known as Louisiana Territory. It set a tone that has continued. We practiced ethnic cleansing and genocide on the indigenous peoples to clear the land. A manufactured war with Mexico gave us control over the continent, war with Spain freed us from North American containment. World War II ended with us in command. We controlled most of the world’s wealth, we had a large military, and we led in making the rules for the world that was to follow.
The Cold War facilitated the growing empire and particularly the military force required to enforce and control it. The Soviet Union became an unwilling but necessary partner in helping us achieve the militarization of society. They were the convenient boogieman used as an excuse for an ever-increasing military establishment.
The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991. The strain of trying to keep up with the US caused the Soviet Empire to collapse and disintegrate. The American Empire was unrestrained and able to impose its will for a time. But narrow thinking comes at a price, and we still have not acknowledged the terrible price we have paid. Nor have we experienced the impact of policies and activities that now threaten to come home and overwhelm us.
The rise of militarism was paralleled by the growth of the gun culture accompanied by pseudo-militias and other extremist groups. The culture was inundated by a fascination with violence. Our movies, TV screens, video games, and the evening news were filled with displays and portrayals of violence, particularly with a wild west shoot’em up attitude.
The constant threat of war and engaging in conflicts destroy a democracy. The Cold War caused a slow erosion and strangling of American democracy. Our transformation into a fascist empire was gradual. The change was subtle and almost invisible, revealed in small ways. Our servicemen and women were rechristened as warriors. There were constant references to those in uniform, thanking them for their service. Our leaders ended every speech with “God bless our troops.” Advertisements glorifying our armed forces filled the airways. However, the material support that would make their lives better or take care of them or their families in the event they were killed or injured was absent.
We spread our military tentacles of control around the planet. They are our means of influence and sway. Our goal is to maintain access to critical raw materials for Americans and our allies in poor and developing countries at prices we set. They have to adhere to the rules we made. The IMF, WTO, World Bank, and other international institutions are the enforcers.
Americans are confounded discovering how much we are distrusted and hated in the world. They are confused when the rest of the world watches the Star Wars saga and see the US identified with the evil empire. “Why do they hate us?”
What you send out into the world eventually comes home, and the policies and activities we developed and used in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere are returning to haunt us. It was inevitable that the means we use to influence and control other countries would be used for the same purpose at home. The temptation to use the tools you have developed to achieve the desired end on others is not going to be restricted “for foreign use only.”
Where do we go from here? Having an empire abroad leads inevitably to autocracy and dictatorship at home. History provides ample examples. A culture’s values are expressed by what it promotes and presents to others. When I was in the Middle East in 2016, I observed American movies flooding the TV screens. They were examples of the vilest and most violent films Hollywood has produced. It made me sad. We are better than this.
Our fascination with war and addiction to violence leads to death and extinction. We are not the first to tread this path. The historical graveyard is filled with other examples. We must decide if this is how we want the American experiment to end?
Note: This list does not pretend to be definitive or absolutely complete. Nor does it seek to explain or interpret the interventions. Information and interpretation on selected interventions will be later included as links. Note that US operations in World Wars I and II have been excluded.