What makes the most fantastic and undocumented war-launching and war-prolonging lies credible are differences and prejudices, against others and in favor of our own. Without religious bigotry, racism, and patriotic jingoism, wars would be harder to sell.
Religion has long been a justification for wars, which were fought for gods before they were fought for pharaohs, kings, and emperors. If Barbara Ehrenreich has it right in her book “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War,” the earliest precursors to wars were battles against lions, leopards, and other ferocious predators of people. In fact, those predatory beasts may be the base material from which gods were invented — and unmanned drones named (e.g. “the Predator”).
The “ultimate sacrifice” in war may be intimately connected with the practice of human sacrifice as it existed before wars as we know them came to be. The emotions (not the creeds or accomplishments, but some of the sensations) of religion and war may be so similar, if not identical, because the two practices have a common history and have never been far apart.
The crusades and colonial wars and many other wars have had religious justifications. Americans fought religious wars for many generations prior to the war for independence from England. Captain John Underhill in 1637 described his own heroic war making against the Pequot:
“Captaine Mason entering into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house; then hee set fire to the West-side…my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre; many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately…so as they were scorched and burnt…and so perished valiantly…Many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children.”
This Underhill explains as a holy war:
“The Lord is pleased to exercise his people with trouble and afflictions, that hee might appeare to them in mercy, and reveale more cleerely his free grace unto their soules.”
Underhill means his own soul, and the Lord’s people are of course the white folks. The Native Americans may have been courageous and valiant, but they were not recognized as people in the full sense. Two and a half centuries later, many Americans had developed a far more enlightened outlook, and many had not. President William McKinley viewed Filipinos as in need of military occupation for their own good. Susan Brewer relates this account from a minister:
“Speaking to a delegation of Methodists in 1899, [McKinley] insisted that he had not wanted the Philippines and ‘when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them.’ He described praying on his knees for guidance when it came to him that it would be ‘cowardly and dishonorable’ to give the islands back to Spain, ‘bad business’ to give them to commercial rivals Germany and France, and impossible to leave them to ‘anarchy and misrule’ under unfit Filipinos. ‘There was nothing left for us to do,’ he concluded, ‘but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.’ In this account of divine guidance, McKinley neglected to mention that most of the Filipinos were Roman Catholic or that the Philippines had a university older than Harvard.”
It is doubtful many members of the delegation of Methodists questioned McKinley’s wisdom. As Harold Lasswell noted in 1927, “The churches of practically every description can be relied upon to bless a popular war, and to see in it an opportunity for the triumph of whatever godly design they choose to further.” All that was needed, Lasswell said, was to get “conspicuous clerics” to support the war, and “lesser lights will twinkle after.”
Propaganda posters in the United States during World War I showed Jesus wearing khaki and sighting down a gun barrel. Lasswell had lived through a war fought against Germans, people who predominantly belonged to the same religion as Americans. How much easier it is to use religion in wars against Muslims in the twenty-first century. Karim Karim, an associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, writes:
“The historically entrenched image of the ‘bad Muslim’ has been quite useful to Western governments planning to attack Muslim-majority lands. If public opinion in their countries can be convinced that Muslims are barbaric and violent, then killing them and destroying their property appears more acceptable.”
In reality, of course, nobody’s religion justifies making war on them, and U.S. presidents no longer claim it does. But Christian proselytization is common in the U.S. military, and so is hatred of Muslims. Soldiers have reported to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that when seeking mental health counseling, they have been sent to chaplains instead who have counseled them to stay on the “battlefield” to “kill Muslims for Christ.”
Religion can be used to encourage the belief that what you are doing is good even if it makes no sense to you. A higher being understands it, even if you don’t. Religion can offer life after death and a belief that you are killing and risking death for the highest possible cause. But religion is not the only group difference that can be used to promote wars. Any difference of culture or language will do, and the power of racism to facilitate the worst sorts of human behavior is well established. Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R., Ind.) offered the Senate his own divinely guided rationale for war on the Philippines:
“God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.” The two world wars in Europe, while fought between nations now typically thought of as “white,” involved racism on all sides as well. The French newspaper La Croix on August 15, 1914, celebrated “the ancient élan of the Gauls, the Romans, and the French resurging within us,” and declared that,
“The Germans must be purged from the left bank of the Rhine. These infamous hordes must be thrust back within their own frontiers. The Gauls of France and Belgium must repulse the invader with a decisive blow, once and for all. The race war appears.”
Three years later it was the United States’ turn to lose its mind. On December 7, 1917, Congressman Walter Chandler (D., Tenn.) declared on the floor of the House:
“It has been said that if you will analyze the blood of a Jew under the microscope, you will find the Talmud and the Old Bible floating around in some particles. If you analyze the blood of a representative German or Teuton you will find machine guns and particles of shells and bombs floating around in the blood.…Fight them until you destroy the whole bunch.”
This kind of thinking helps not only in easing the war-funding checkbooks out of the pockets of congress members, but also in allowing the young people they send to war to do the killing. Killing does not come easily. About 98 percent of people tend to be very resistant to killing other people. A psychiatrist has developed a methodology to allow the U.S. Navy to better prepare assassins to kill. It includes techniques,
“. . . to get the men to think of the potential enemies they will have to face as inferior forms of life [with films] biased to present the enemy as less than human: the stupidity of local customs is ridiculed, local personalities are presented as evil demigods.”
It is much easier for a U.S. soldier to kill a hadji than a human being, just as it was easier for Nazi troops to kill Untermenschen than real people. William Halsey, who commanded the United States’ naval forces in the South Pacific during World War II, thought of his mission as “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs,” and had vowed that when the war was over, the Japanese language would be spoken only in hell.
If war evolved as a way for the men who killed giant beasts to keep busy killing other men as those animals died out, as Ehrenreich theorizes, its partnership with racism and all other distinctions between groups of people is a long one. But nationalism is the most recent, powerful, and mysterious source of mystical devotion aligned with war, and the one that itself grew out of war making. While knights of old would die for their own glory, modern men and women will die for a fluttering piece of colored cloth that itself cares nothing for them. The day after the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, the first state (New York) passed a law requiring that school children salute the U.S. flag. Others would follow. Nationalism was the new religion.
Samuel Johnson reportedly remarked that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, while others have suggested that, on the contrary, it is the first. When it comes to motivating warlike emotions, if other differences fail, there is always this: the enemy does not belong to our country and salute our flag. When the United States was lied more deeply into the Vietnam War, all but two senators voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. One of the two, Wayne Morse (D., Ore.) told other senators that he had been told by the Pentagon that the alleged attack by the North Vietnamese had been provoked. Morse’s information was correct. Any attack would have been provoked. But the attack itself was fictional. Morse’s colleagues did not oppose him on the grounds that he was mistaken, however. Instead, a senator told him:
“Hell Wayne, you can’t get into a fight with the president when all the flags are waving and we’re about to go to a national convention. All [President] Lyndon [Johnson] wants is a piece of paper telling him we did right out there, and we support him.”
As the war ground on for years, pointlessly destroying millions of lives, senators on the Foreign Relations Committee discussed in secret their concern that they had been lied to. Yet they chose to keep quiet, and records of some of those meetings were not made public until 2010. The flags had apparently been waving through all the intervening years.
War is as good for patriotism as patriotism is for war. When World War I began, many socialists in Europe rallied to their various national flags and abandoned their struggle for the international working class. Still today, nothing drives American opposition to international structures of government like our interest in war and insistence that U.S. soldiers never be subject to any authority other than Washington, D.C.
THAT’S NOT 10,000,000 PEOPLE. THAT’S ADOLF HITLER
But wars are not fought against flags or ideas, nations or demonized dictators. They are fought against people, 98 percent of whom are resistant to killing, and most of whom had little or nothing to do with bringing on the war. One way to dehumanize those people is to replace all of them with an image of a single monstrous individual.
Marlin Fitzwater, White House Press Secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said that war is “easier for people to understand if there’s a face to the enemy.” He gave examples: “Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic.” Fitzwater might well have included the name Manuel Antonio Noriega. When the first president Bush sought, among other things, to prove he was no “wimp” by attacking Panama in 1989, the most prominent justification was that Panama’s leader was a mean, drug-crazed, weirdo with a pockmarked face who liked to commit adultery. An important article in the very serious New York Times on December 26, 1989, began:
“The United States military headquarters here, which has portrayed General Manuel Antonio Noriega as an erratic, cocaine-snorting dictator who prays to voodoo gods, announced today that the deposed leader wore red underwear and availed himself of prostitutes.”
Never mind that Noriega had worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including at the time he’d stolen the 1984 election in Panama. Never mind that his real offense was refusing to back U.S. war making against Nicaragua. Never mind that the United States had known about Noriega’s drug trafficking for years and continued working with him. This man snorted cocaine in red underwear with women not his wife. “That is aggression as surely as Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland 50 years ago was aggression,” declared Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger of Noriega’s drug trafficking. The invading U.S. liberators even claimed to find a big stash of cocaine in one of Noriega’s homes, although it turned out to be tamales wrapped in banana leaves. And what if the tamales really had been cocaine? Would that, like the discovery of actual “weapons of mass destruction” in Baghdad in 2003, have justified war?
Fitzwater’s reference to “Milosevic” was, of course, to Slobodan Milosevic, then President of Serbia, whom David Nyhan of the Boston Globe in January 1999 called “the closest thing to Hitler Europe has confronted in the last half century.” Except, you know, for all the other ones. By 2010, the practice in U.S. domestic politics, of comparing anyone you disagreed with to Hitler had become almost comical, but it is a practice that has helped launch many wars and may still launch more. However, it takes two to tango: in 1999, Serbs were calling the president of the United States “Bill Hitler.”
In the spring of 1914, in a movie theater in Tours, France, an image of Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, came on the screen for a moment. All hell broke loose.
“Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant,” according to Stefan Zweig. But the French would not be fighting Kaiser Wilhelm II. They would be fighting ordinary people who happened to be born a little ways away from themselves in Germany.
Increasingly, over the years, we’ve been told that wars are not against people, but purely against bad governments and their evil leaders. Time after time we fall for tired rhetoric about new generations of “precision” weapons that our leaders pretend can target oppressive regimes without harming the people we think we’re liberating. And we fight wars for “regime change.” If the wars don’t end when the regime has been changed, that’s because we have a responsibility to take care of the “unfit” creatures, the little children, whose regimes we’ve changed. Yet, there’s no established record of this doing any good. The United States and its allies did relatively well by Germany and Japan following World War II, but could have done so for Germany following World War I and skipped the sequel. Germany and Japan were reduced to rubble, and U.S. troops have yet to leave. That’s hardly a useful model for new wars.
With wars or warlike actions the United States has overthrown governments in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, not to mention the Congo (1960); Ecuador (1961 & 1963); Brazil (1961 & 1964); the Dominican Republic (1961 & 1963); Greece (1965 & 1967); Bolivia (1964 & 1971); El Salvador (1961); Guyana (1964); Indonesia (1965); Ghana (1966); and of course Haiti (1991 and 2004). We’ve replaced democracy with dictatorship, dictatorship with chaos, and local rule with U.S. domination and occupation. In no case have we clearly reduced evil. In most cases, including Iran and Iraq, U.S. invasions and U.S.-backed coups have led to severe repression, disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture, corruption and prolonged setbacks for the democratic aspirations of ordinary people.
The focus on rulers in wars is not motivated by humanitarianism so much as propaganda. People enjoy fantasizing that a war is a duel between great leaders. This requires demonizing one and glorifying another.
IF YOU’RE NOT FOR WAR, YOU’RE FOR TYRANTS, SLAVERY, AND NAZISM
The United States was born out of a war against the figure of King George, whose crimes are listed in the Declaration of Independence. George Washington was correspondingly glorified. King George of England and his government were guilty of the crimes alleged, but other colonies gained their rights and independence without a war. As with all wars, no matter how old and glorious, the American Revolution was driven by lies. The story of the Boston Massacre, for example, was distorted beyond recognition, including in an engraving by Paul Revere that depicted the British as butchers. Benjamin Franklin produced a fake issue of the Boston Independent in which the British boasted of scalp hunting. Thomas Paine and other pamphleteers sold the colonists on war, but not without misdirection and false promises. Howard Zinn describes what happened:
“Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
As Zinn notes, prior to the revolution, there had been 18 uprisings against colonial governments, six black rebellions, and 40 riots, and the political elites saw a possibility for redirecting anger toward England. Still, the poor who would not profit from the war or reap its political rewards had to be compelled by force to fight in it. Many, including slaves promised greater liberty by the British, deserted or switched sides. Punishment for infractions in the Continental Army was 100 lashes. When George Washington, the richest man in America, was unable to convince Congress to raise the legal limit to 500 lashes, he considered using hard labor as a punishment instead, but dropped that idea because the hard labor would have been indistinguishable from regular service in the Continental Army. Soldiers also deserted because they needed food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and money. They signed up for pay, were not paid, and endangered their families’ wellbeing by remaining in the Army unpaid. About two-thirds of them were ambivalent to or against the cause for which they were fighting and suffering. Popular rebellions, like Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts would follow the revolutionary victory.
The American revolutionaries were also able to open up the west to expansion and wars against the Native Americans, something the British had been forbidding. The American Revolution, the very act of birth and liberation for the United States, was also a war of expansion and conquest. King George, according to the Declaration of Independence, had “endeavoured (sic) to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” Of course, those were people fighting in defense of their lands and lives. Victory at Yorktown was bad news for their future, as England signed their lands over to the new nation.
Another sacred war in U.S. history, the Civil War, was fought — so many believe — in order to put an end to the evil of slavery. In reality, that goal was a belated excuse for a war already well underway, much like spreading democracy to Iraq became a belated justification for a war begun in 2003 overwhelmingly in the name of eliminating fictional weaponry. In fact, the mission of ending slavery was required to justify a war that had become too horrifying to be justified solely by the empty political goal of “union.” Patriotism had not yet been puffed up into quite the enormity it is today. Casualties were mounting sharply: 25,000 at Shiloh, 20,000 at Bull Run, 24,000 in a day at Antietam. A week after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves only where Lincoln could not free the slaves except by winning the war. (His orders freed slaves only in southern states that had seceded, not in border states that remained in the union.) Yale historian Harry Stout explains why Lincoln took this step:
“By Lincoln’s calculation, the killing must continue on ever grander scales. But for that to succeed, the people must be persuaded to shed blood without reservation. This, in turn, required a moral certitude that the killing was just. Only emancipation — Lincoln’s last card — would provide such certitude.”
The Proclamation also worked against Britain’s entering the war on the side of the South.
We can’t know for certain what would have happened to the colonies without the revolution or to slavery without the Civil War. But we know that much of the rest of the hemisphere ended colonial rule and slavery without wars. Had Congress found the decency to end slavery through legislation, perhaps the nation would have ended it without division. Had the American South been permitted to secede in peace, and the Fugitive Slave Law been easily repealed by the North, it seems unlikely slavery would have lasted much longer.
The Mexican-American War, which was fought in part in order to expand slavery — an expansion that may have helped lead to the Civil War — is less talked about. When the United States, in the course of that war, forced Mexico to give up its northern territories, American diplomat Nicholas Trist negotiated most firmly on one point. He wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State: “I assured [the Mexicans] that if it were in their power to offer me the whole territory described in our project, increased ten-fold in value, and, in addition to that, covered a foot thick all over with pure gold, upon the single condition that slavery should be excluded therefrom, I could not entertain the offer for a moment.”
Was that war fought against evil, or on its behalf?
The most sacred and unquestionable war in U.S. history, however, is World War II. In the minds of many Americans today, World War II was justified because of the degree of evilness of Adolf Hitler, and that evilness is to be found above all in the holocaust.
But you won’t find any recruitment posters of Uncle Sam saying “I Want You…to Save the Jews.” When a resolution was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1934 expressing “surprise and pain” at Germany’s actions, and asking that Germany restore rights to Jews, the State Department “caused it to be buried in committee.”
By 1937 Poland had developed a plan to send Jews to Madagascar, and the Dominican Republic had a plan to accept them as well. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain came up with a plan to send Germany’s Jews to Tanganyika in East Africa. Representatives of the United States, Britain, and South American nations met at Lake Geneva in July 1938 and all agreed that none of them would accept the Jews.
On November 15, 1938, reporters asked President Franklin Roosevelt what could be done. He replied that he would refuse to consider allowing more immigrants than the standard quota system allowed. Bills were introduced in Congress to allow 20,000 Jews under the age of 14 to enter the United States. Senator Robert Wagner (D., N.Y.) said, “Thousands of American families have already expressed their willingness to take refugee children into their homes.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt set aside her anti-Semitism to support the legislation, but her husband successfully blocked it for years.
In July 1940, Adolf Eichmann, “architect of the holocaust,” intended to send all Jews to Madagascar, which now belonged to Germany, France having been occupied. The ships would need to wait only until the British, which now meant Winston Churchill, ended their blockade. That day never came. On November 25, 1940, the French ambassador asked the U.S. Secretary of State to consider accepting German Jewish refugees then in France. On December 21st, the Secretary of State declined. By July 1941, the Nazis had determined that a final solution for the Jews could consist of genocide rather than expulsion.
In 1942, with the assistance of the Census Bureau, the United States locked up 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese in various internment camps, primarily on the West Coast, where they were identified by numbers rather than names. This action, taken by President Roosevelt, was supported two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1943 off-duty white U.S. troops attacked Latinos and African Americans in Los Angeles’ “zoot suit riots,” stripping and beating them in the streets in a manner that would have made Hitler proud. The Los Angeles City Council, in a remarkable effort to blame the victims, responded by banning the style of clothing worn by Mexican immigrants called the zoot suit. When U.S. troops were crammed onto the Queen Mary in 1945 headed for the European war, blacks were kept apart from whites and stowed in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from fresh air, in the same location in which blacks had been brought to America from Africa centuries before. African American soldiers who survived World War II could not legally return home to many parts of the United States if they had married white women overseas. White soldiers who had married Asians were up against the same anti-miscegenation laws in 15 states.
It is simply preposterous to suggest that the United States fought World War II against racial injustice or to save the Jews. What we are told wars are for is extremely different from what they are really for. In large part, wars are racism by other means.
David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie” from which this is excerpted. See https://warisalie.org
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