Saturday, June 10, 2006
Massacre is an acquired taste. The United States is arguably the only country on the planet whose national personality and self-image is rooted in centuries of unremitting expansion through race war punctuated by massacre. There have always been "free-fire zones" all along the coveted, ever moving peripheries of white American power, from the "Indian country" surrounding the settler beachheads of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown to the "Sunni Triangle" of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Whole peoples – millions – have been erased in the glorious march of American Manifest Destiny.
It is true that the globe-ravaging European colonial powers certainly killed more human beings in the course of their imperial careers than their settler sons in North America. However, the national characters of Britain, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium were already formed when the Great European Breakout and Worldwide Pillage commenced. Although their wealth was later built on the blood and bones of faraway “natives” and slaves, European civil societies were already shaped by long histories of conflict among themselves, between classes and nations on their small sub-continent. Britain and France stretched forth their naval and army tentacles to ensure that wealth arrived in Liverpool and Marseilles, but the colonized peoples did not effectively intrude on the evolution of European society.
Nobody had to invent the historical personalities of the Frenchman in France, the Englishman in England. Their civil societies were deeply impacted – and some sectors greatly enriched – by the existence of the colonies, but not (until very recently) by the foreign peoples who died for European prosperity.
The English settler colonies in North America were different – unique. Masses of armed migrants came to steal, and stay, and keep stealing. Theirs was an enterprise of aggrandizement at the native's expense, and unlimited expansion. Less than a century and a half after the massacre and near-erasure of the Pequots – in celebration of which the Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed the first day of Pilgrim Thanksgiving – the white colonists decided that they were a distinct people, no longer Europeans.
They were right. American colonial society was shaped by constant depredations against non-whites, close up and brutal. By 1776, one out of five non-Indian residents of the colonies were Black slaves, the control and dehumanization of which had become a daily collective duty of much of the white population. Across the Alleghenies lay unconquered Indian lands that, once cleansed, could usher into being a white empire that would dwarf Europe. The English King and his treaties with the Indians stood in the way; he had to go.
The "American" mission was clear, manifest: to endlessly expand through the elimination of impediments posed by the External Other ("savage" Indians), while keeping white society safe and separate from the "debauchery" of the valuable, Internal Other (Black slaves). This is the foundation on which the American iconography and celebration is based. Lacking any other, it is the template of white American identity and purported "civilization."
From Outright Theft to Glorious Empire
By the turn of the 20th Century, with the Indians dead or subjugated and African Americans forced into the long nightmare of Jim Crow, soon-to-be president Teddy Roosevelt – who called Blacks "a perfectly stupid race" – summed up the great American adventure with the guilelessness of a pure psychopath. In our March 16, 2004 issue, BC contributing writer Paul Street described Roosevelt's "massive, four-volume 1899 study Winning of the West” as "a white-supremacist paean to Anglo-America's near-eradication of North America's original civilizations."
"During the past three centuries," Roosevelt opined, "the spread of English-speaking people over the world's waste spaces" (meaning spaces not occupied by "progressive" capitalist-developmental Caucasians) was a great and welcome "feat of power," for which the "English-speaking race" could justly feel proud. No such "feat" of "race power" was more laudable, however, than "the vast movement by which this continent [North America] was conquered and peopled" – the "crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty movements."
This is still the song that is sung, the imperative to supremacy that cannot but lead to endless war and massacre. Paul Street presents a long but necessarily incomplete chronicle of the mass murder exclamation points in U.S. history that polite white society now shakes its head in regret about, but which remain the operative events and premises on which U.S. behavior in the world is justified – celebrated! – today.
Roosevelt became a "hero" in the Spanish-American War of 1898, a pushover conflict in which a decrepit Spain was ejected from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The U.S. was now a full-fledged imperial power with tens of millions of "natives" under its boot – and proud of it. American Manifest Destiny had gone truly global, as white as ever.
But the Filipinos, who had surrounded and almost run out the Spanish before the Americans arrived, insisted on claiming their independence. The U.S. embarked on a scorched earth and bodies strategy – as usual.
The American soldiers were confused, however. What would they call these people who lived in the thousand-island archipelago "free-fire" zone? With the Indian wars (massacres) still fresh in their minds, and the lynching of thousands of American Blacks the favorite pastime for many back home, U.S. soldiers wrote to family and friends of the fun they were having killing the "niggers" and "injuns" of the Philippines.
"Gooks," "chinks," and "hajis" would come later, once the Americans got their feet wet in the blood of the world.
Mark Twain, an anti-war activist, wrote of how 30,000 U.S. troops caused the deaths of a half-million Filipinos. One episode of many in the imperial butchery occurred in 1906 when a whole village sought refuge from the invaders in a dormant volcanic crater on the southern island of Jolo. Sixteen-hundred were massacred by American artillery, rifles and machine guns. U.S. officials reported:
"This action was absolutely necessary to the welfare of the people of Jolo. The position was first shelled by a naval gunboat and then assaulted by the troops and constabulary. The Moro women fought alongside the men and held their children before them, having sworn to die rather than yield. In this way a number of women and children were among the killed – an unfortunate but necessary evil."
The same script we hear today had been written, even then, just as the U.S. was stepping fully onto the global stage. We will not list the atrocities that U.S. soldiers have committed against (almost always) non-white peoples in the 100 years since the Jolo Crater Massacre, the Philippines. They are legion, as were the massacres that occurred in the previous centuries of the evolution of American Manifest Destiny.
The rabid expansionism at the core of the American national personality has never been bound by fixed borders, international law, or any other constraints. Steeped in racism, it places no value whatsoever on non-white lives. That's why the Bush administration gets away with not counting the civilian casualties in Iraq – only the American dead matter. And that’s why contemporary Americans feel perfectly normal speaking of "exporting American values" and other nonsense to cloak the atrocities of nation-stealing that are but a "necessary evil" in the fulfillment of some God-given mission – wherever it leads.
Continuity of Crimes
The Haditha, Balad, Ramadi, and Makr al-Deeb massacres of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops are mere whiffs from the inferno that has consumed up to a quarter million Iraqis since the Americans set upon their mission to accomplish – as in 1906 Jolo, the Philippines – what was "absolutely necessary to the welfare of the people."
In a post-Haditha column that Cindy Sheehan, anti-war mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, called “the most difficult article that I have ever had to write,” she decried "the fact that our troops are being turned into war criminals." Sheehan recognizes that the U.S. is in violation of international law – that the Iraq war is a criminal enterprise.
"War turns our mostly normal American youth into wanton murderers who have lost their own humanity and love of others. Haditha in this war and My Lai in another disgusting war were unfortunately not aberrations. War is the abominable aberration."
We commend Sheehan's courage in describing the U.S. government as criminal. In doing so, she is beginning to confront the national mythology – at the core of the national identity – that Americans are always seeking some "greater good" and commit crimes only by mistake or through the “aberrations” that are inevitably unleashed once wars are started.
But even the brave Ms. Sheehan cannot face the truth. The (white) American public still cannot discuss why the U.S. glories in having become the ultimate imperial power of all time, to the acclaim of the overwhelming majority of its citizens whose whole history and culture has prepared them to accept this "burden." Wars may be aberrant experiences in the lives of most human individuals, but some nations are serial aggressors. American society is unique in having been formed almost wholly by processes of aggression against external and internal Others.
Societies willingly go to war when they have been primed to do so by an already existing mass internal dynamic that is easily manipulated by scheming rulers. White America has been constantly at war with Others, internal and external, since long before the founding of the Republic. George Bush just played the right chords, in Iraq. Now the music is sounding way off key, which causes majorities of Americans great concern and confusion. Yet these same citizens react just like their pre-Iraq selves when the Bush regime choreographs a near-identical run-up to war with neighboring Iran – another country they know nothing about except that it's not "white" in the American sense. Are white Americans stupid, or have they been conditioned by a national ethos born of habitual aggression, fundamental expectations of impunity, and an idiotic assumption of innocence.
Cindy Sheehan tries to find the soft spot in America by blaming the crimes in Iraq and Vietnam on something called "war," but sadly winds up in the same place as apologists for slavery and genocide, who claim these systematic crimes were "aberrations" not fundamental to the American national character and worldview.
Slavery was not an aberration; it created the wealth that allowed the United States to emerge as a world power only a century-and-a-quarter after the Declaration of Independence, and to become a magnet for successive waves of European immigrants. Genocide of Native Americans was not an aberration; it was the logical outcome of the original European hemispheric-theft project, and became the national project with the triumph of the settlers over the British. The ever-expanding United States was born. Was it an aberration?
At the very least, we must hope the planet survives the United States. In a world that is becoming inter-dependent at breath-taking speed, there is no room for a superpower nation born in and nurtured by centuries of massacre and endless war, always with the majority support of its white citizenry.
A Change of Values
Most Black Americans understand that the U.S. has never been up to any good in the non-white vastness of the world, because we realize that most American whites have been steeped in either blood or lies about our own Black corner of the society. African Americans react with learned cynicism when white anti-warriors call for a "return" to "American values" – for obvious historical and contemporary reasons. What values? "American" values are the problem.
The American-instigated crisis that threatens to widen the arenas of war is not just an "aberration" that can be corrected by getting the Bush men out of office – although that would be welcome. In truth, most Americans care little about the world, unless they have a privileged position in it, imposing their will on everyone else. They are collectively hostile to their own fellow citizens who are Black, and many are rousing themselves for a fierce confrontation with yet another Other: Latino immigrants. It's the same historical dynamic, that can only lead to more massacres and endless wars – foreign and domestic.
Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are writing a book to be titled, Barack Obama and the Crisis in Black Leadership.