Might Makes Right: An American Tradition


W.J. Astore (also posted at History News Network)

To hear Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, almost any act of violence is justifiable to defeat the enemy. Trump talks of torture, far worse than waterboarding, and total destruction. Cruz ups the ante, speaking of carpet bombing and making the sand glow, apparently via nuclear weapons. Both appear to treat the enemy as inhuman.

Sadly, for America this is nothing new. Just read Bernard Fall on America’s war against Vietnam. In an article for Ramparts (“This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain”), Fall wrote late in 1965 that the American military strategy in Vietnam was based on massive killing through overwhelming firepower:

The new mix of air war and of land and seaborne firepower in Vietnam is one of technological counter-insurgency — if you keep up the kill rate you will eventually run out of enemies. Or at least armed enemies. Of course, the whole country will hate you, but at least they won’t resist you. What you will get is simply a cessation of resistance — an acquiescence in one’s fate rather than a belief that your side and your ideas have really prevailed.

In other words, America sought to bludgeon the Vietnamese into compliance, rather than winning their hearts and minds through ideas or ideals.

“But what I really fear most,” Fall continued, “is the creation of new ethics to match new warfare. Indications are that a new ethic is already being created, and such influential men as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson have begun to provide its intellectual underpinning.”

Fall cited a speech at Amherst College in 1965 in which Acheson declared:

The end sought by our foreign policy . . . is, as I have said, to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish. Our policies and actions must be decided by whether they contribute to or detract from achievement of this end. They need no other justification or moral or ethical embellishment. . .

To keep the free world free, America was justified to do anything it desired, irrespective of ethics and morality. Acheson’s words in 1965 have become the essence of U.S. foreign policy today as advanced by men like Trump and Cruz. In short, the end (a “free” society) justifies any means (torture, carpet bombing, perhaps even nuclear weapons) to preserve it.

Fall went on to cite a Pastoral Letter from French Cardinal Feltin in 1960 during France’s war with Algeria. In that letter to French military chaplains, Cardinal Feltin noted:

There cannot be a morality which justifies efficacy by all means, if those means are in formal contradiction with Natural Law and Divine Law. Efficacy, in that case, goes against the very aim it seeks to achieve. There can be exceptional laws for exceptional situations. . . there cannot exist an exceptional morality which somehow takes leave of Natural Law and Divine Law.

Too often in the past as well as today, U.S. foreign policy has taken leave of natural and divine law. The ends do not and should not justify the means, especially when the means (torture, carpet bombing, and the like) contravene the end (a “free” society based on ethical and moral principles).

Rather than posing as protectors of the free world, people like Trump and Cruz should admit their own amorality. They should admit they see the world as a brutal place, occupied by brutes, and that only by slaying those brutes in a brutish way can America preserve its dominant position as chief brute.

Doubtless many of their followers would still salute them for this view. But more reflective souls would see the honesty of Pogo’s famous insight that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

9 thoughts on “Might Makes Right: An American Tradition

  1. It should be added that this mentality is not limited to Cruz and Trump but pervades the US foreign policy establishment since it “kicked the Vietnam syndrome” at the end of the Cold War. Exhibit A: the 140,000 U.S. bombs and missiles that have rained down on 7 countries since 2001. Bill and Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright laid the ideological groundwork for the expansion of U.S. militarism in the post-Cold War era, marginalizing the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on the threat or use of force and reasserting “vital interests” and “humanitarian intervention” as political (not legal) pretexts for war. They can now survey the ruins of a dozen countries, with at least 1.6 million human beings killed, and say, paraphrasing Hillary Clinton on Libya, “We came, we saw, they died.”


    1. How true. Partly this is because the U.S. sees airpower as a “blessing,” to quote Ted Cruz again. It’s all too easy to smite “evildoers” with Hellfire missiles and bombs when they have no opportunity to smite us back. Airpower is the “quick fix” in more ways than one — our leaders are addicted to it. It gives them a rush and makes them look “tough” and “decisive,” at least in the eyes of some Americans.


    2. Watching that viral video of You-Know-Her’s orgasmic, gleeful gloating over the horrid mob murder of Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadaffi, I thought that she said something more like: “He died. We saw. I came.”

      I have no doubt that this unreconstructed war-pig simply cannot wait until the day she can boast (like President Barack Obama) that “I’ve gotten really good at killing people.” I have no doubt that she longs for the day when her undead mentor, Henry Kissinger, rises from his crypt to approvingly advise bombing the living shit out of some helpless third world country, dismissively telling her: “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like [fill in the victim of your choice] doesn’t have a breaking point.”

      In November of this year, the voters of the United States will elect an amoral monster to preside over their corrrupt and venal government, either one who openly exults in his monstrous proclivities, or one who seeks to clothe hers in pious euphemisms like “humanitarian intervention.” As we used to say back in 1964-72: “No matter how you voted, you got more of Vietnam.”

      If only the Iraq-Nam-istan Syndrome had taught Americans to kick out of office the people who most require a really good boot in the ass: namely, the American President. It doesn’t matter which one.


  2. Back in 1969, while attending the U.S. Navy’s Counter-Insurgency School at Coronado Island, California, we had to read Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961) I also remember hearing somewhere that all U.S. military officers supposedly had to read this book before deploying to the now-defunct Republic of South Vietnam. I really doubt this, though. I don’t recall ever meeting one who had.

    Anyway, the book basically concludes that the American military intervention in Vietnam began going wrong virtually from its inception in the early 1960s, when the U.S. military began repeating every blunder that the French military had made years earlier. I cannot describe how it felt for this enlisted U.S. Navy electrician to discover that America had already lost its War on Southeast Asia eight years before I got orders to join in the already defeated misadventure.

    Anyway, I’ll post here just a few relevant notes from Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy which obviously apply to America’s ongoing defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and wherever else the U.S. military plants its odious boots:

    Chapter 14: The Second Indochina War

    The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them, but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon.
    The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-political aspects were.”

    Chapter 15: The Future of Revolutionary War

    “Why is it that we must use top-notch elite forces, the cream of the crop of American, British, French, or Australian commando and special warfare schools; armed with the very best that advanced technology can provide; to defeat the Viet-Minh, Algerians, or Malay “CT’s” [Chinese Terrorists], almost none of whom can lay claim to similar expert training and only in the rarest of cases to equality in fire power?
    The answer is very simple: It takes all the technical proficiency our system can provide to make up for the woeful lack of popular support and political savvy of most of the regimes that the West has thus far sought to prop up. The Americans who are now fighting in South Vietnam have come to appreciate this fact out of first-hand experience.”

    … just about anybody can start a “little war” (which the Spanish word guerrilla literally means), even a New York street gang. Almost anybody can raid somebody else’s territory, even American territory, as Pancho Villa did in 1916 or the Nazi saboteurs in 1942. No dictator has ever been totally safe from an assassin’s bullet. But all this has only rarely produced the kind of revolutionary ground swell which simply swept away the existing system of government.
    Conversely, once such a revolutionary movement exists, whether fanned from the outside or created out of internal pressures alone, it is difficult to suppress with the help of military specialists alone – particularly foreign specialists.”

    … guerrilla warfare is nothing but a tactical appendage of a far vaster political contest and that, no matter how expertly it is fought by competent and dedicated professionals, it cannot possibly make up for the absence of a political rationale. A dead Special Forces sergeant is not spontaneously replaced by his own social environment. A dead revolutionary usually is.”

    And yet, I read regularly of President Obama sitting in his Oval Office ordering the murder by drone of yet another “senior militant leader” somewhere in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. That the local environment keeps spontaneously replacing these dead “senior militant leaders” and enraging their relatives and countrymen seems never to dawn on our Commander-in-Brief. But in November of this already tedious year, the United States will spontaneously produce another amoral moron as its naked imperial pretender, this one proudly parading in her new invisible pantsuit.


    1. I have the fourth edition of Bernard Fall’s classic “Street Without Joy,” copyright 1965. It is truly a must read for anyone trying to understand the Vietnam War, and especially for anyone looking at American foreign policy failures and how and why they persist to this day.


  3. Humanity is the most stupid species ever to have evolved on Earth.

    All others appear to have died out of natural causes. Humans? They will likely destroy themselves – because of the naturalistic fallacy and argumentum ad baculum at the core of their societies: might somehow makes right.

    A pity. The species has produced much beauty.


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