Introduction: In September 2012, I wrote the following piece on U.S. imperialism, inspired by an old sound recording. It came to mind as I read a review in The Nation of a new book by Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Its reviewer, Brenda Wineapple, notes the terrible toll of America’s “splendid little war” against Spain in 1898, followed by the campaign to conquer and control (or, to use the expression from those days, to “civilize”) the Filipino people. Here’s an excerpt from her review:
The war in the Philippines, however, was far from over. Even after McKinley’s assassination, US soldiers continued to ravage the country, killing Filipinos, burning their villages, and laying waste to crops; after three years of such “counterinsurgency,” Kinzer writes, “Americans lost whatever national innocence had survived slavery, anti-Indian campaigns, and the Mexican War.” Twain and the anti- imperialists had never seen any innocence to speak of: “Lust of conquest had long ago done its work…. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket,” Twain wrote.
At the end of 41 months, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians had died, and at least 20,000 insurgents—far more than had perished in the 350 years of Spanish rule. But, Kinzer argues, no lessons had been learned: US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries may spring from an ambivalence to intervene in the world, but it continues to represent itself as benevolent when it does so for its own economic self-interest.
She and Stephen Kinzer mention President William Howard Taft, which brings me again to my article from 2012. I can still faintly hear Taft’s voice, emerging from my friend’s old phonograph horn, telling Americans how they had to embrace “the ignorant masses” of the Philippines. How deadly that embrace would prove for so many Filipinos …
The Siren Song of American Imperialism (2012)
Considering the scale of our mistakes over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we as a country truly want to pursue a leaner, smarter, more effective foreign policy, the first step we must take is to stop listening to the siren song of our own imperial rhetoric. We need to stop posing as benevolent caregivers and start being more honest with ourselves.
And that honesty extends to our own history. The French have a saying that translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The appropriateness of that saying was brought home to me last week when a good friend of mine played an old campaign speech of William Howard Taft. In 1908, when he was running for president to succeed Teddy Roosevelt, Taft recorded several speeches on Edison-era cylinders. Fortunately for me, my friend collects vintage Edison phonographs and cylinders.
As I stood in front of the large trumpet-like horn of the player, Taft’s voice came alive for me. As Taft sought to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines, it occurred to me that the rhetoric he was using a century ago was the same as that of Presidents Bush and Obama in justifying our most recent foreign misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taft, as we shall see, was if anything more direct and honest than our most recent commanders-in-chief.
The thrust of Taft’s speech was that Americans were lifting up the benighted and “ignorant masses” of the Philippines. In Taft’s words, we were involved “in a great missionary work that does our nation honor,” one that “is certain to promote … the influence of Christian civilization.” Evidence of our progress included improvements to Filipino infrastructure such as the building of harbors, roads, and railroads. More evidence included our role in building up Filipino police forces to improve internal security. Education was also cited as decreasing “the dense ignorance of the ninety percent.”
Having portrayed our presence in the Philippines as purely benevolent and disinterested, Taft ended with a rousing dismissal of critics who were advocating what today would be termed “cutting and running.” To relinquish the “burden” of our civilizing mission in the Philippines, Taft concluded, would be “cowardly.”
Considering Taft’s rhetoric and comparing it to that of Bush and Obama, it’s clear that little has changed in one hundred years. It’s true that we no longer talk openly about spreading “Christian” civilization. And we’re more circumspect about portraying native peoples as “dense” and “ignorant.” But other than that, our imperial rhetoric hasn’t changed at all. Our presidents still praise our country as being motivated entirely by benevolence; as evidence of our generosity and “progress,” they still tout infrastructure built and native police forces trained; and they still dismiss critics of our imperial efforts as misguided (at best) or cowardly (of the worst kind of “cut and run” variety).
But the truth is that it’s tragically hard to win hearts and minds overseas when we don’t even recognize what’s in our own hearts and minds. We venture forth on “civilizing” missions when our own culture could use some civilizing. We think we’re pure of heart, but “civilizing” missions based on military occupation inevitably contain a heart of darkness.
Whether it’s the presidential election of 1908 or our current one of 2012, we’ve heard enough speeches about how great and noble and honorable we are. To chart a new course, let’s educate our own “ignorant natives” in the USA before we try to cure ignorance elsewhere. Let’s rebuild our own crumbling infrastructure. Let’s tame our own passions. And let’s reconnect with a virtue that, though not unique to Christianity, was then and is now closely associated with it. The virtue? Humility.
To put this in words that may have resonated with Taft, the self-styled “Christian missionary,” let’s first work on removing the beam from our own eye before focusing on the motes in the eyes of others. For it’s only after removing our own beam that we’ll succeed in charting a smarter foreign policy — as well as a far less hypocritical one.
To paraphrase Taft, it would be cowardly indeed to lay down the burden of removing that beam until our purpose is achieved.
In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.
Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.
The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.
All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.
When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.
As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.
Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.
Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.
“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”
Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year). U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones. This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism. All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units). The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans. For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.
I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today. You can read it in full here. I’ve included some excerpts below. I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.
Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism
The United States is a peculiar sort of empire. As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before. Empire — us? We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago. Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology. In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers. There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.
Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted. As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists. Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…
Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic. To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while). If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).
And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end. In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.
The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won. Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. They miss the point. Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …
It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught. Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay. The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.” For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down. It was home. They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.
Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat. And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands. Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones. There’s often a new one every year. (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area. Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…
At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed. That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics. It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us). Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.
But foreign lands and peoples? We can’t control them. We don’t understand them. We can’t count on them. They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy. What they aren’t is truly real. They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.
The U.S. military today openly boasts of global reach, global power. Full spectrum dominance is the goal, with that spectrum encompassing land, sea, and air operations, but also extending to space (“the shining stars, and beyond,” one Air Force advertisement claimed) and cyberspace.
The desire for global dominance has deep roots in American strategic thought. In American strategic circles the foremost proponent of this vision was Alfred Thayer Mahan. More than a century ago, Mahan promoted a vision of American dominance achieved through naval power, in those days big-gunned battleships. Mahan believed America was the successor to England and was destined to build a great empire.
Mahan’s imperial vision was occasionally superseded by American tendencies toward isolationism, in which case the U.S. Navy sold its fleet as America’s best defender. (This is also how early airpower proponents sold bombers in the 1920s; even though airpower enthusiasts embraced the offensive, they could spin on a dime to promote bombers as being more cost effective than naval ships and army coastal artillery in defending America’s coasts when isolationism held sway.)
Today’s U.S. military is inherently Mahanian. Even though most Americans think of our military as defensive (after all, it’s advertised as the Department of Defense), our military is obviously structured to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warriors” are forever leaning forward in the foxhole, forever on alert, forever ready for the next exercise in global reach, global power.
In part, we can thank Mahan and England’s boisterous imperialism for this. What follows is an essay I wrote in 1992 for a Strategic Studies Seminar. Perhaps it’s still worth reading, at least as a precis on how we became a country that openly sought (and brazenly exercised) global power. It all started with Mahan and the navy, today’s “global force for good.”
Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Naval Strategy before World War I (Written in 1992)
Prior to World War I, an uncritical demand for naval power, or Navalism, led to the greatest warship building boom in history. Nations built great battle fleets to help establish and protect colonial empires whether they could afford them or not. As Chancellor Bulow of Germany declared, “The question is not whether we want to colonize or not, but that we must
colonize, whether we want it or not.”
The rapid growth of England’s empire provided the justification for Navalism. In 1800 the British Empire had 20 million subjects, spread over 1.5 million square miles. In 1900 she had 390 million subjects, spread over 11 million square miles. Explaining England’s success was one mission of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, United States Navy (USN). In his Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, Mahan plainly stated England dominated the world because of her holy naval trinity of merchant shipping, colonies, and, most importantly, her navy. He observed “a country’s power and influence must depend upon her hold upon regions without her own borders, and to which the sea leads. The influence of the little British islands gives a lesson our people will surely learn.” Mahan’s primary purpose in Influence was rhetorical: to persuade Americans that a large USN built around battleships was essential for their wealth and security, and to move them to support, with their votes and purses, such a navy.
This rhetorical subtext drove Mahan’s writings on naval strategy. Of the three traditional naval strategies — superior fleet, fleet in being, guerre de course — Mahan heaped scorn on the latter two while brazenly proclaiming the superiority of the former. “It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys…that strikes down the money power of a nation,” Mahan observed; “it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves… This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies.”
Mahan further drove home his lesson that superior fleets bring command of the sea and its subsequent benefits of national growth, prosperity, and security by using examples from history. He warned Americans they were “being led, by a like [that is, like France’s] redundancy of home wealth, into the same neglect of that great instrument [a navy].” France’s “false policy of continental extension swallowed up the resources of the country,” asserted Mahan, “expos[ing] the greatest source of [her] wealth [commerce and colonies] to be cut off, as in fact happened.” The one instance the French got it right was during the American Revolution. The French rebuilt their navy and got temporary control of the seas, partly due to blunders by the Royal Navy. To support his call for a larger USN, Mahan cleverly quoted George Washington on the decisive role the revitalized French fleet played at Yorktown.
To understand Mahan’s fixation on the superior fleet strategy, we need to study the distinctly American context in which he wrote. Mark Shulman showed in The Journal of Military History that there was an influential movement in America in the 1880s to reinterpret the War of 1812 between the United States and England. This movement played up the role of the USN at the expense of the Army, and emphasized the need for a powerful navy to protect America and to project American power abroad. Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882, was a prime example of the revisionist literature of this group. Mahan’s book is only the best known polemic of an American Navalist movement which sought to revitalize a USN struggling through fifteen years of post-bellum neglect.
Neglect there was. Elting Morison, a leading naval historian, has said that for about twenty years after the Civil War, “In [US naval] strategy the highest thought was that you existed to protect the coastline. You went out on station if there was a war and waited for the enemy to come to you. You then went close to her and at very short ranges either boarded or rammed or poured broadsides into her.” Mahan would have agreed with Morison; in his words, there was no formulated naval policy after the Civil War, only “apathetic drift,” a period of “decadence.” And while some pointed to the stunning successes won by the USN pursuing guerre de course in the War of 1812 as a possible future strategy, Mahan stressed our dismal failure to command the seas, which allowed the nasty Britons to burn our capital, stop our commerce, and threaten our national existence.
Mahan’s vision was a USN that would at least rival the Royal Navy. He thus unashamedly simplified naval strategy to mean battleship building, as when he stated “Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” The USN needed to grow, and a superior fleet strategy provided the most room for the USN’s future growth.
Mahan turned to Jomini when he dealt with the specifics of naval strategy. He quoted with approval Jomini’s definition of strategy as deciding where to act. Under “strategy” he listed such issues as the selection of the theater of war, the paramount importance of securing lines of communication, the role of military ports, and the choice of the objective and how to achieve it. Like Jomini, he stressed the geometry of strategy and the value of concentration, warning the USN must never divide the fleet into Atlantic and Pacific squadrons.
Mahan helped speed-up naval modernization in the US, and his efforts appeared justified by the Spanish-American War of 1898. But Mahan’s influence went far beyond American shores, and for several reasons. First, Mahan, imitating Jomini, searched for scientific or timeless principles of naval warfare. His Influence is a practical handbook enlivened by history, not a Hegelian tome obscured by dialectic like Clausewitz’s On War. Second, Mahan writes well. I hesitate to quote once again his melodramatic depiction of Nelson’s navy, “those far-distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which Napoleon’s soldiers never looked, [that] stood between them and the conquest of the world.” Nonetheless, it is worth quoting to demonstrate Mahan’s popular appeal. One can’t imagine Kaiser Wilhelm committing every word of Clausewitz to memory, good Prussian though he was. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mahan wrote the perfect book for the time. England had already voted for the Two Power Standard in 1889, which Mahan’s book seemed to verify as wise. His most attentive audience, however, was in Germany, where the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz seized upon his work to justify their naval buildup in pursuit of Germany’s place in the sun and world-power status.
Mahan’s drawbacks are well-known and many: he overestimated the decisiveness of navies in warfare, subordinating history to his “artistic” (as he termed it) vision of a powerful USN ruling the seas, and he almost completely ignored land-sea cooperation. Although he paid homage to the political dimensions of war, he preached almost exclusively that “victory goes to the side with the bigger fleets,” in effect reducing naval strategy to naval shipbuilding.
While it is true Mahan neglected such traditional naval functions as amphibious operations, he probably did so so as to not water down his argument for a powerful, blue water navy. His heavy-handed dismissal of guerre de course and fleet-in-being as viable strategies can be seen in a similar light. With respect to the former, Mahan admitted the importance of commerce raiding as a secondary naval operation, but he stressed “the great object of naval warfare” was first to get command of the sea through decisive fleet actions. The side commanding the seas, Mahan predicted, could severely restrict an enemy’s commerce-raiders (mostly cruisers at this time) by capturing their coaling stations. He did not foresee the rise of submarines as commerce-raiders, but this is hardly surprising, given the primitive state
of submarine technology. He did remark, based on second-hand knowledge of the Russo-Japanese War, that submarines, because they lay so low in the water, had a limited horizon and thus had difficulty locating ships.
He also criticized the fleet-in-being strategy, saying its utility had “been much overstated” and that the superior fleet would always sink or otherwise neutralize the inferior. Events in the Russo-Japanese War seemed to support his ideas. The Russian fleet in being at Port Arthur proved of little value, Mahan wrote, and the Japanese simply “masked” it by blockade. He did observe that if one was stuck with an inferior fleet, the proper strategy was to divide the enemy’s superior fleet by some tactic, then crush it in detail. He termed this the “defensive-offensive,” and here he spoke highly of the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter’s efforts against the Royal Navy during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.
Mahan exerted a powerful influence over naval strategy in the United States, Japan, and Germany. In America, the USN became a top-heavy force of mainly battleships, serving as the nation’s “first line of defense.” Mahan’s dictum of “Never divide the fleet!” remained gospel up until World War II. In Japan, Mahan’s Influence was adopted as a text in all her naval and military colleges. In Germany, the Kaiser had it translated and boasted that all his naval officers were reading it. But while the United States and Japan prospered by following his teachings, Germany embarked on a dangerous and costly naval arms race with the Royal Navy. In building dreadnoughts to win command of the sea, the Germans created a cold war between themselves and the British while wasting valuable resources that could have been devoted to land warfare.
It is within the context of an England threatened by Germany’s naval program that we need to place Julian Corbett and his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, published in 1911. Two obvious differences — the time and the country in which he’s writing — separate his work from Mahan’s. Corbett had little need to convince his fellow Britons of the importance of a navy, nor did he need or want to win over a world audience already enthralled by Mahan. War loomed, and Corbett wanted to ensure the Royal Navy had given the matter some thought. His book is a sophisticated reading of Clausewitz and how the Prussian’s ideas can be applied to naval warfare.
Corbett, who taught naval history at the Royal Navy college at Greenwich, defined maritime strategy as the mutual relations of navy and army in a plan for war. War itself he defined in Clausewitzian terms as the continuation of policy by other means. Corbett’s strategic theory is more modern sounding than Mahan’s precisely because of his use of Clausewitz, but also because he believed that through close cooperation, armies and navies could produce a synergistic effect. While he should be applauded for his lack of service parochialism, Corbett was reasserting the critical role the navy played in strategy at a time when the British Army was controlling the terms of strategic debate in England.
Corbett defined naval strategy in relation to maritime strategy. Naval strategy was the movement and actions of the fleet which best advanced the maritime strategy. While this might involve attacking the enemy fleet and gaining command of the seas, it might also involve amphibious operations. The strategy adopted would depend on the circumstances of the conflict. Reading the circumstances and taking the proper actions, Corbett believed, were skills enhanced by the study of history and strategic theory. Most commonly, gaining command of the sea was the primary object of naval warfare. Once command was gained, either through battle or blockade, one could then control the all-important lines of communication or trade routes. Command was best gained by battleships, whereas control was best exercised by cruisers which could protect one’s own trade while interdicting the enemy’s.
Corbett’s distinction between gaining command of the sea and exercising that command was crucial to his thinking. His approach to naval strategy was thoughtful and descriptive, rather than prescriptive. He recognized a fleet-in-being could dispute control of local communication lines and prevent a superior fleet from gaining positive results, as the German High Seas fleet did to some extent during World War I. Like Mahan, though, he rejected guerre de course as a viable strategy. Commerce raiders would have limited range, and he thought improvements in technology such as wireless radios favored the defense. He saw submarines working in concert with fleets-in-being to threaten superior fleets, but he overlooked their potential as commerce raiders.
Keeping the German fleet firmly in mind, Corbett cautioned the Royal Navy and the Fisher school against reckless attacks to obtain an immediate decision by fleet action. If the Germans refused to sail, Corbett recommended a blockade, distinguishing between its naval and commercial functions. Through a blockade, which most likely had to be “open” or “loose” because new technologies such as torpedoes made close blockades too risky, the Royal Navy could prevent the Germans from putting to sea, thereby effectively gaining command of the sea. With command won, the navy would mount a commercial blockade to control trade. The ultimate target was Germany’s will and her finances. This is essentially the strategy the Grand Fleet and Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty followed against Germany during the Great War. It was exhausting sea duty lacking in glory, but it worked.
To conclude, Mahan charted the dimensions of naval strategy, while Corbett plumbed its depths. Both of their strategies must be understood in their context. Mahan developed a strategy for a navy adrift and in need of ideas. At a time when strategic naval thought was arguably neglected in England, Corbett forced his navy to think more deeply about their rich tradition and come up with strategies which fit the crisis at hand. Both men repay reading, although Corbett, like his mentor Clausewitz, is more thought-provoking.
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 neverany 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 atLouis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
Just posted a new article to Huffington Post. Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):
The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.
There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.
In her words:
Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…
Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”
I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.
Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.
Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.
At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”
All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”
At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?
Remember in 2011 after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and Disney wanted to trademark the unit’s name for a collection of toys and games and miscellanea?
It’s one of those blips on our collective cultural radar that seems insignificant, yet it points to our tendency to see war and empire as a game, as a form of entertainment, as a product.
This attitude is not confined to corporations like Disney. Consider this telling passage from Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which discusses the potential attractions to service in places like Afghanistan:
“It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”
Our tendency to view foreign lands and peoples as an opportunity for adventure and escape is hardly new, of course. But it certainly says something about our failure to understand and confront the severity of the challenges once we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recall President George W. Bush’s weirdly wistful comment in 2008 about Afghanistan being a sort of Wild West, a romantic adventure, a place of excitement and danger. Bush said he envied our troops and their opportunity for Afghan romance.
I wonder why as a young buck he didn’t go to Vietnam in the 1960s for romance and danger. And I gather he’d never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s take on the pleasures awaiting the young British soldier on the Afghan plains:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
It was said about the British that they acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness. Did we acquire our empire in a fit of pure escapism?
Wanton and wasteful imperial entanglements are only accelerating our national decline. Yet we continue to treat foreign lands as a sort of Disney theme park. Troops smile and pose under Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords (at least they used to) or in front of Predator drones and other exotic weaponry. Everything overseas is a photo op and an opportunity to win a trophy (or a medal).
But even as we seek “romance” and “danger” in foreign lands, a place “to reinvent ourselves,” we paradoxically bring with us all the trappings of consumerist America, hence our steroidal bases with all the conveniences of home (well, in Muslim lands, maybe not liquor, at least openly).
And when we get fed up with the natives and roughing it, we know we can just leave.
But if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that the price of admission is far too high. We should keep our theme parks and our fantasies where they belong: right here in America.