Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute; Why Americans glorify war

The Revolutionary War. The First Barbary War. The War of 1812.  The Second Barbary War. The Mexican-American War. The Civil War. The Spanish-American War. World War I. World War II. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraqui War.

You are welcome for that 10 second tour of 236 years of United States history. Just under two decades it takes for this country to get involved in a "major" declared war. I say major because that list ignores numerous "minor" or undeclared wars...such as the "Indian Wars" (a broad phrase incorporating more than 2 centuries of almost continuous, non-stop warfare against hundreds of nations), "inconsequential" conflicts such as Granada, Afghanistan, Bosnia...the list goes on.

In short, there have been more years with the U.S. engaged in armed conflict than there have been without.

Warfare is part and parcel of the American culture and has been almost from the moment Europeans landed on the shores of the New World. It became part of the national identity early on.

How often battles against the peoples who already populated the land, the French to the North and West, or the Spanish to the South and East actually happened was not as important as the perception that those battles were always happening. Living with the threat of terminal combat was part of every day life and filled the literature of the times. Heroes were men of action, skilled with musket, hatchet and sword.

The nation was born in blood and violence. Its early history, middle history, and recent history have been awash in blood and violence. It is embedded in the national psyche, the volksgeist of the people.

The funny thing and large, the United States has adopted roman theory. The wars have been defensive.

Early English settlers on this shore saw no forts, no castles, no king, and settled in open areas that belonged to nobody. Please note...when I say belonged to nobody, I speak of their perception. That was not the case all over the Americas.

To the North the French primarily came to get furs and did not settle particularly heavily and, in fact, often adopted the ways of the Native Americans they encountered. To the South and East the Spaniards and Portuguese actively sought out the natives and coerced, co-opted, outright killed, enslaved, abused, murdered, slaughtered, wiped out, enacted genocide...well, i think you get the point.

The English spawned tidal wave of humanity, however, primarily was after land. Owning a piece of land, worshiping the way they chose (or, in rare and seldom reported cases, chose not to) was the goal, and seeing empty, unoccupied land as they perceived it, they went there.

This naturally led to conflict with people who felt that, even if they did not fence it in or spend time on it overly often, it was their land.

Violence escalated and the frontier certainly was a terrifying place to live as both sides wreaked ever-worse atrocities.

When a people broadly believes they are in the right, it is almost impossible not to demonize the enemy. More to the point, when "innocent" whites were attacked or stolen from, it justified overwhelming response to most of the people.

Just as justified were the various brush wars with the French. They were extensions of the heinous European power attacking the mother country and thus justified.

The Revolutionary War was an act of self defense against the unreasonable demands of the mother enacting a tax that lowered the price on tea.

The First Barbary War (Tripolitan War if you insist) was a reaction to the attacks on US shipping.

The near-war with the French shortly prior was over the same thing and, depending on who you believe, gave rise to the phrase, "Millions for defense, not one penny for tribute" as uttered by either Robert Goodloe Harper (correct) or Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as generally believe (false; his answer was 'not a sixpence')

The War of 1812 was over British impressment of sailors, or so the story goes (please note that issue is nowhere in the peace treaty...though many land claims can be discovered there).

The Mexican American War was over border disputes.

By the time the Civil War rolled around, the country had been involved in essentially continuous armed struggle either externally or internally since before its inception. Furthermore, those wars, rightly or wrongly, were presented as being for national defense. Every. Single. War. (Some would argue the Mexican-American War was a deliberate expression of Manifest Destiny. Others would dispute that claim.)

The point is, the national psyche was programmed to glorify the men who could get the job done in warfare. The nation was born in violence, raised in bloodshed, and would continue to find identity through warfare.

The US entered World War I largely isolationist, and emerged seeing itself as a major power. We entered World War II as the victimized nation and emerged as THE power in the free world, two-time rescuer of the French in particular, Europe more generally and the world by extension.

The men honored by this country have primarily been men of war...Washington, Jackson, Sherman, Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Audie Murphy, Patton, Eisenhower, etc.

People wonder sometimes why the US is so eager for war. The answer is so much simpler than sometimes presented; it is because that is what we have been taught is important, it is those men who walk tall on the pages of history. In fact, men who were not men of war are pilloried in modern teaching.

There is perhaps one exception...Benjamin Franklin seems to have escaped the revision of histories presentation relatively unscathed. But Thomas Jefferson is a slave owner and philanderer, Edison stole all his inventions or at best took credit for the work of others, the captains of industry are all robber barons and men of evil...

Find the bright, the beautiful, the well-known American heroes and they are people of action who have bathed in the blood of the enemies of this nation of ours and came out the stronger.

Even the exceptions, the movie stars, have traditionally shined brightest when they portrayed violent men; the Duke was forever a gunfighter or hard-bitten trail boss. Cowboy stars blazed hot across Hollywood from the earliest silents on through the 50s and 60s. War movies, action yarns, these are the things that gave us names like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Snipes, Li, Chan, Lundgren...okay, so nobody admits to having seen a Lundgren movie, but the point stands.

We are trained to glorify war. Then we talk about hating it. Somewhere there is a disconnect. If only I could figure out what it is.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go pay a guy one penny.


Would be different if I had millions for defense...


Riot Kitty said...

In short, there have been more years with the U.S. engaged in armed conflict than there have been without.

That is the tragic and sad part, isn't it? But you're right, I don't know how to connect the disconnect.

G said...

Interesting post. Curious to know why you chose this topic today.

Darth Weasel said...

RK, the worst part is...that is between the START of each war...and very few of those wars finished in the same year they started...

G, I do not know. Sometimes things just intrigue me for no apparent reason

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