WALK CLUMSILY AND CARRY A BIG STICK
An historically myopic recipe for national self-immolation
I often find that the sources of today’s problems can be traced to the failure to learn from yesterday’s problems. This dynamic is often imprecisely referred to as “history repeating itself.” The history of US foreign military involvements immediately comes to mind, especially World Wars I and II. I think the most tragic thing about these wars is that their histories have been simplified by the victors into horrifically bloody fairy tales of good versus evil. In truth, both contests were precipitated by complex international financial and political interactions that belie such binary diagnosis.
World War I was, among other things, a case of European powers trying to jockey for greater power, while at the same time using war as a method of diverting exploding populist (in some cases communist- and socialist-influenced) energies within their borders. Wilson and his sponsors wanted in on the war because it was a chance for them to mark their place in the post-war imperial/colonial pecking order.
The ‘sleeping giant’ myth of the US’s entry into WWII is just that: a myth. The conventional story has Nazi Germany rising miraculously from the ashes of Versailles and the global depression to be a formidable military and economic regional power. This is utter bullshit. The Nazis were able to rebuild the German war machine and general economy because they had a wealth of foreign investment from wealthy families and corporations who admired their strident anti-communism and the money-making promise of their fascist philosophies. There was no doubting the Germans’ imperial aspirations, especially after their open (and quite brutal) assistance of the fascist Franco in Spain. Even after the bombing of civilians in Guernica, though, the cash kept flowing, especially from US financial interests. Ironically, US citizens who went– without the blessing of their government– to fight against Franco and the Nazis are, to this day, seen by many as ‘misguided.’ So much for the US standing up to fascism (I won’t even get into the US ‘response’ to Italy’s genocidal invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s).
The Japanese, brutal imperialists that they were, didn’t attack Pearl Harbor as a pretext to a West Coast invasion of the US. They simply thought that by crippling US Pacific naval power, they could buy time to successfully wrest colonial ‘properties’ from their European and US competitors. The plan actually worked, if only for a few weeks. Note, however, that the US, the British, and the French didn’t fire an official shot to protect the Chinese— who were being overrun and slaughtered in the mid-30s– until after Pearl Harbor.
War is a complicated, nasty business, but it never starts with the first shot. That’s why the US is failing in Iraq and Afghanistan; you can’t start out wrong and expect it to turn out right. The problems the Bush administration claimed to be ‘fixing’ took decades of political meddling and countless billions of US taxpayer dollars to create, and recent experience has proven that they won’t be solved or mitigated through illegal and/or ill-conceived military operations.