The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

US_Flag_Backlit

W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

America’s Longest Wars

Just a few of the battles fought against Native Americans
Just a few of the battles fought against Native Americans

W.J. Astore

A popular headline in the media is to describe the Afghan War as “America’s longest,” as in this brief summary today from Foreign Policy:

The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is now formally over. The 13-year war, which claimed more than 2,200 American lives and cost more than one trillion dollars, ended quietly at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday. U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders promised their ongoing commitment under the rebranded Operation Resolute Support and insisted the war was a success. But the Taliban is poised for a comeback with a recent surge in violence in Kabul and around the country. There are concerns that Afghanistan’s military and fragile political institutions will crumble as the United States leaves.

There’s a big problem with this.  America’s longest war, by far, is not the recent Afghan War; it was its more or less continuous effort against Native Americans from the early 1600s to the late 1800s.  Americans like to forget that native peoples populated the land before European settlers began to arrive, and that these native peoples had to be killed, or corralled, or otherwise subjugated or shunted aside in the name of Manifest Destiny and in the pursuit of profit.

As historian John Grenier notes in The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814,

For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war … [that included] razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.

For Grenier, America’s “first way of war” relied on “extravagant violence” often aimed at “the complete destruction of the enemy,” in this case various Native American peoples.  This was indeed America’s longest war. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) its long duration and brutal violence, the war against indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned today, especially by those who seek to promote American exceptionalism.

Another longer war than the Afghan one, more recent in America’s memory, was the Cold War we fought against the Soviet Union and its allies from the close of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  Lasting nearly half a century, this war ended in victory of a sort for the United States, even as its legacy continues to poison U.S. culture and foreign relations.  For the Cold War left us with an enormous military-industrial-Congressional complex, to include nuclear forces capable of destroying the planet, which the U.S. continues to feed and even to enlarge.  The result has been the growth of a second “shadow” government, a national security and surveillance state of enormous power, an apparatus with wide-reaching and unaccountable powers that is potentially a greater threat to American freedoms than the Soviet Union ever was.

When America forgets its longest wars, and especially when Americans forget the legacies of these wars, it’s more than history that suffers.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I came across this article on corporate “land grabs” that continue to bedevil Native Americans.  Some would argue that the long war against native peoples never really ended.  And to state a point that is perhaps obvious: the Afghan War grew out of the Cold War and U.S. efforts to embroil the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam in 1980.  U.S. efforts to support the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviets contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who would eventually turn against the U.S. in the 1990s.  America’s Afghan War, in other words, is not a 13-year war.  To understand it, one must look back to 1979-80 and the machinations of a U.S. foreign policy establishment that was much more concerned with hobbling the Soviets than with helping the Afghan people.

War Is Becoming Obsolete — In 1884

At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)
At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)

W.J. Astore

One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books.  The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884).  Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day.  Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.

From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end.  In his words:

The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy.  It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.

War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884.  Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller.  Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.”  What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?

We all have blind spots.  For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites.  Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.

Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be.  American exceptionalism is certainly one.  Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God.  This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box.  A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems.  Consider global warming.  It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels.  Our solution?  Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism.  Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic.  But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.

What are we dismissing?  What are we missing?  I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet.  I encourage you to add your thoughts below.

The United States: Empire or Umpire?

Is this really the role of the United States in the world?
Is this really the role of the United States in the world?

Daniel N. White.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Is the United States an empire or umpire?  This is the intriguing question raised and interrogated in the latest probing article by Dan White.  Since I’m a baseball fan as well as a student of the U.S. military, let me take a swing at an answer.  An umpire is supposed to be a neutral observer and arbiter.  He is disinterested and dispassionate.  By definition, an umpire can’t be a player, and certainly not a main player, a “star.”  Umpires are supposed to fade into the background, plying a demanding profession without pursuing private agendas or personal glory.

Does that sound anything like the role the United States plays in the world?  But I’ll let Dan White take it from here.  W.J. Astore

Yes, We’re An Empire: Just Look At How We Treat the Natives

Daniel N. White

Recently I attended a guest lecture/seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, hosted by Jeremi Suri, a rising star of UT’s History department.  The topic was “The US—Empire or Umpire?”  Suri, a personable sort, brought in another mainstream historian, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, to promote her latest tome which argues that the US is not in fact an empire but instead acts abroad as an umpire.

There are some lawyerly arguments that suggest that because the US does not enslave the rest of the world for its own financial benefit—this is fundamentally the argument made by Suri and Hoffman—the US isn’t an empire.  Cobbs Hoffman was proud that in her recent US history classes a majority of the students came in thinking that the US was an empire but left, after a semester of her ministrations, thinking otherwise.

How swell.  Lawyerly arguments are for lawyers in courtrooms attempting to convince other lawyers who all think along the same narrow lines.  Most lawyerly arguments aren’t but petty quibbles about word definitions.  For the rest of us, we are wise to heed instead the evidence of our senses and the stirrings of our hearts.

The most fundamental evidence of America as an empire is the wars we wage abroad.  Countries that have done us no injury have the “privilege” of the US waging a war in their land with their inhabitants having no say in the matter.  The most telling giveaway to the question of empire is our regard for the inhabitants in those countries who fight on our behalf.  Fundamentally, we have none.  They are our tools, nothing more.

During the Vietnam War, the weekly casualty lists routinely had South Vietnamese military (ARVN) killed and wounded exceeding ours.  Only two weeks in the entire war did American casualties exceed ARVN’s—the two weeks following the Tet Offensive.  South Vietnam, whose population may have been 14 million during the war, paid a terrible butcher’s bill for its leaders assenting to and participating in an American war in their country.

Yet how much reportage was there ever in the US press about the South Vietnamese army and its casualties?  ARVN troops were in it for the duration, unlike US troops, and they and their sacrifices were ignored almost entirely by the US press, people, and government.  Once a week, Walter Cronkite would recite ARVN casualty figures, when the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) released that week’s figures.  But that was all the attention the US press ever gave them.

That same neglect of the natives the US claims to be “liberating” has been repeated in our recent wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Where are the articles about the Afghan Army and its casualties in the US media?  The Iraqi Army and its casualties?  We corral the inhabitants in those countries into our schemes for our uses and have paid them—their lives, their hurts, their deaths—no attention, just as we paid ARVN no attention during the Vietnam War.

If we’re not an empire to behave like this, then we are surely the cruelest and most heartless race of people wandering the globe.

What follows is an illustration of the gruesome results of our imperial wars—the kind of illustration that never made our news reports.  Richard Critchfield was a war reporter in Vietnam, after which he wrote several superlative books about rural life, both in the US and in the Third World.  In 1965 Critchfield encountered a young Vietnamese draftee at Cong Hoa, ARVN’s largest military hospital.  The wounded draftee had just arrived after a 50-mile ambulance ride:

From Villages, by Richard Critchfield, pp 62-3:

After he (the ARVN doctor, a civilian drafted into ARVN six years earlier) read the student’s chart, the doctor’s manner softened.  He patted the boy gently on the shoulder and lifted up the cotton sheet from the foot of the stretcher.

‘Foot blown off with a mine,’ he told me in English.  He spoke to the boy again in their own language, then turned back.  ‘After treatment here, the boy will go back to his unit in My Tho to wait for the local military council to meet.  The council will decide whether he can go home or not, of whether he must stay in the army to do some light job.  He wants to go home.  He should go home.  When the wound has healed, we will send him to the rehabilitation department for an artificial limb.  He says his wife came south with him.  She rents a house outside the camp.  They have a two-month old son.  It must be a very small house.’  He said that as a private with one son, the boy got the equivalent of eighteen dollars a month; totally disabled, he would get thirty-five dollars a year.  The doctor thought there were at least fifty thousand partially disabled veterans in the country already; perhaps it was a blessing he did not know the war would last another ten years.

The doctor spoke to the boy again.  ‘He says he is an infantry rifleman and that he has never killed anybody.’  A wounded sergeant in a nearby stretcher muttered, ‘Who knows where the bullets go?’  The doctor lifted up the bandages from the boy’s forehead; the right eye was shut and swollen.  Unclipping an X-ray from the foot of the stretcher and holding it up to the light the doctor motioned me over.  The black film showed the boy’s skull; in the black socket of his right eye was a jagged rectangular shape a quarter inch long.  ‘Steel fragment.  That eye will have to come out.’  An orderly called the doctor and he went away.

I saw that the boy was moving; painfully, and with great effort, he reached down, groped for the X-ray on his legs where the doctor had left it, clutched it and held it up to the light.  We didn’t dare stop him.  There was no outcry, just thought—the deep private thought of someone faced with the final, tragic collapse of so much of his life.  After a moment he lowered the X-ray carefully back to where it had been, put his head down, and stared upward.

I told my interpreter to ask if there was anything we could do.  At first the boy did not seem to hear.  We waited.  Then he spoke and said, yes, he wanted to send telegrams to his wife and his mother, who did not know what had happened to him nor where he was.  The words started pouring out then; my interpreter could only catch part of it.  ‘The war must end….so there is no more killing…so I can go home…I want to go home…I want…my brothers*…’  He was crying hard now and the tears streamed down from his good eye.  In shame he tried to dab at them with his pajama sleeve.  I thrust some piaster notes into my interpreter’s hand to give to the boy and went outside to stare hard at the hedges shaped like rabbits and elephants.

Critchfield elsewhere tells another revealing story of Americans abroad at war, again from his Vietnam War days.  From p. 183 of Villages:

“Tran Van Huong, when prime minister of Vietnam in the 1960s, once told me no American had ever asked him, ‘What do you need and how can we help you?’”

In all my years of reading about the Vietnam War, I can’t recall any other American reporter ever asking any Vietnamese that same question of Critchfield’s.   I rather doubt that any American military officer, USAID worker, or diplomat ever asked that question at any time during the war.  Maybe some NCOs in the Army did.  Maybe.

And I can’t recall any US reporter with snap and wit enough to ever ask any Afghan or Iraqi official that same question: What do you need and how can we help you?   If they had they most certainly would have received the same answer as PM Huong gave Critchfield in 1965.

Once again, Americans ignore that our butcher’s bill in both these wars is a fraction of our much less populous allies’.  Except that this time there is never any word of Afghan or Iraqi military casualties in US war reports in our media.  Our total lack of interest in “the natives” is worse now in our globalized today than it was in our provincial yesterday.

Fifty years after Vietnam the US is still treating our “allies” as third-world primitives.  US reporters, politicians, academics, and moral leaders are just as blind to it this time around as they were then.  They are content with childish slogans and arguments about our inherent goodness.  Nguyen Cao Ky was right when he said that Americans are like big children.  We have a child’s self-centered view of ourselves, a child’s disregard for actions and their consequences to others, and we embrace childish rationalizations and arguments.

Our wars abroad are all about us and our plans and wishes.  They aren’t at all for the benefit of the host country and its peoples.  That makes us either an empire or a bunch of criminal lunatics.

What it most certainly doesn’t make us is an umpire.

*The young ARVN trooper had been a student from a coastal village, youngest of three brothers.   Both of his brothers had already been drafted into the ARVN and killed before he was drafted.  Unlike the US draft, there were no sole surviving son deferrals for the ARVN draft.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.