There are no “good” wars!
Despite what Tom Brokaw writes, there was no “greatest generation” that fought World War II. (IMO, the generation of the 60s, that protested the Vietnam War, was far more aware, and, in that sense, “greater.”)
Every war is a failure—of leadership; common sense; “policy”; concepts of “manhood” or “courage”; of “loyalty” and “patriotism; of imagination.
Despite what the court historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, ... propagate on PBS, etc., there are no great leaders—Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt, Wilson—who agonize over the best ways to conduct warfare and invariably choose what’s best for their nations… and prevail.
Every war is a failure of empathy, a triumph of dehumanization: we cannot identify with our enemy. He (and, increasingly, she) is “barbaric,” “an animal,” “savage.” (“They” rape, pillage, torture, brainwash—even their kids. “We,” the techno-wizards of the centuries, would never stoop that low!) Every war represents a failure of our species to free itself from the shackles of expansionism, greed, colonization, exploitation, ignorance and violence. Every war is a failure of humanity.
There are no good wars, but there are an abundance of bad “peace treaties.” This should surprise no one since the men—mostly men—who write and sign the treaties are basically the same ones who prosecute the wars. The most infamous of “peace treaties,” perhaps, was the Versailles Treaty that ended the “Great War,” (or—take your pick—“The War to End All Wars”), raging yesterday—i.e., a mere 100 years ago. In various ways, the Versailles Treaty merely provided a brief hiatus between Great War I and Even Greater Great War II—followed by all the sputtering cataclysms we’ve “enjoyed” ever since.
Americans have been “sold” on war since our colonial days. We were happy to help our Mother Country—the British Empire—fight the French Empire during the so-called “French and Indian War” (1754-1763).
Americans have been “sold” on war since our colonial days. We were happy to help our Mother Country—the British Empire—fight the French Empire during the so-called “French and Indian War” (1754-1763). We were even happier to turn on our “Mother Country” and ally with our former enemies during our so-called “War of Independence.” Most Americans know as much about our Revolutionary War as they know about the wars and “revolutions” now devastating the Middle East. (I put a lot in quotes these days to signify that things are seldom what they’re called. Defense Secretary McNamara deemed his own and his country’s confusion about the Vietnam War a result of the “fog of war.” Today, we might talk about the “fog of memes.”)
If you’re a “war baby” or younger, you’ve grown up with a fog of memes. Coca-Cola: “It’s the real thing.” “America, the Beautiful.” “The Red Menace.” “The Yellow Peril.” “We must fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Madison Avenue. TV (“the guest in the living room”… who took over the living room and everything else—often with guns!). “The American Dream.” Davy Crockett—“king of the wild frontier.” The New Deal. The Fair Deal. The New Frontier. Reaganomics. The Cold War. Blah, blah, blah.
When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the population of the 13 American colonies was 1.6 million—almost 1/3 of whom were black slaves. The figure does not include “Indians”—who were deemed “savages” in the US Declaration of Independence—only worth mentioning derogatively. By the time the “Revolution” began, some 13 years later, the population had swelled to 2.9 million—an extraordinary increase of 50 percent –the greatest percentage increase in American history! Most of these newcomers were English, some were wealthy Scotsmen, a fair number were Germans. Moravians and other strange sects came seeking religious freedom. Many sought to establish themselves in the opening western territories of the colonies—i.e., the “Indian” territories!
Most Americans don’t know the extent to which “westward expansion” played a major role in our “Revolution.” It was, in fact, a Civil War as much as a Revolution, with more liberal (expansionist) Whigs against more conservative (non-expansionist) Torries to begin with, soon replaced by “Patriots” vs. “Loyalists.” It was also a generational war: most of the “patriots” in Washington’s Continental Army or the various militia groups were teenage boys who were “third wheels” on unproductive farms, or could not be apprenticed in the burgeoning “cities” of the time; they had nothing better to do and they sought a pay-check (usually delayed or cancelled), food and provisions, and “adventure.” Most of the Loyalists were older men and women of some property, with established means of support. The “Indians” were caught in the middle!
“Indians” were Cherokees, Choctaw, Shawnee, Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohicans, Mohawks, Iroquois, Chickamauga and others—poetic names lost to history; hardly worth mentioning in the stories of the “great men,” the “founding fathers.” Both Loyalists and Patriots solicited the support of the Indian tribes: they bribed the chiefs; threatened, ambushed, killed, imprisoned the “braves,” the older men and women. And the various tribes took sides; allied with one group of whites or the other according to who offered the best bribes, or threatened the most. When formerly friendly tribes attacked each other at the behest of the whites, scalps were taken and a circle of vengeance was created. The biggest losers of the American Revolution were not the Loyalists and the British, but the Indians, whose tribes were scattered, whose land was confiscated despite all the “treaties” made with the manipulative, deceptive whites on one side or the other.
The names we hear now are also poetic: Sunni, Shiite, Kurds, Syrians, Palestinians, Gazans, Iranian, Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Ukrainian. The wars fought in North America centuries ago were proxy wars between the French and British Empires. Wars fought now are proxy wars and limited total wars between the Global Empire (US, Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the EU) and those who resist its hegemony—chiefly, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Eastern Ukraine—and the tribal groups on the ground—the Islamic State (or ISIL or Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda in Iraq or Yemen or whatever the designation of the moment). What should be clear is that the supposed reasons for the conflict are strands in a complex tapestry.
Individuals rarely rise above the prejudices of their tribe, rarely perceive beyond the tribal framing. This was true in ancient Israel and it is true in contemporary America. Tribes are organized to maintain the power structure of those at the top. A pilot is burned alive by ISIL—a horrendous crime that leads to the immediate execution of prisoners in Jordan and a pledge of “revenge” from the king of Jordan.
Torture begets torture. The US sanctions torture to end the “War on Terror.” Isn’t torture, terror? Where does it end, where does it begin?
One wonders: how many civilians have been burned alive by illegal white phosphorous weapons during Israel’s recent wars in Gaza?
For that matter: how many civilians of a prostrate, eager-to-surrender Japan were burned alive when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—during what was surely the worst three-day period in the history of warfare on our weeping Mother Earth? (Hundreds of thousands died immediately and in the aftermath of the years.)
So… every war is a failure of humanity—a triumph of prejudices and ignorance; the innocents caught in the vises and machinations of the more clever, the more manipulative, the more immoral; the more “savage.”
As Pete Seeger used to sing, “When will we ever learn?”