Which U.S. Wars Actually Defended Our Freedoms?

When pondering which of our wars literally protected the liberties of U.S. citizens, it is important to first note that war tends to eradicate freedoms. Throughout U.S. history, war often meant curtailment of privacy rights (mass surveillance), speech rights (imprisonment for dissent), and even the freedom to choose your own fate (the draft).

It also should be stated upfront that this article is only meant to address the trope that “freedom isn’t free” — that military action overseas protects the rights and liberties we enjoy here at home (even if virulent bigotry meant different people had very different rights throughout our history and into our present). It will not focus on the freedoms of citizens in other nations that the U.S. may have helped establish or sustain through war, nor non-American lives saved in other countries. However, it will address legitimate threats to American lives (such a right to life is not de jure, but expected).

As a final caveat, I do not in any way advocate for war. That has been made exceptionally clear elsewhere. While violence may at times be ethically justified, in the vast majority of cases it is not, for a broad array of reasons. So nothing herein should be misconstrued as support for imperialism or violence; rather, I merely take a popular claim and determine, as objectively as possible, if it has any merit. To a large degree I play devil’s advocate. To say a war protected liberties back home is not to justify or support that war, nor violence in general, because there are many other causes and effects to consider which will go unaddressed.

In “A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression,” I outlined hundreds of American bombings and invasions around the globe, from the conquest and slaughter of Native Americans to the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere today. It would do readers well to read that piece first to take in the scope of American war. We remember the American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and the War on Terror. But do we recall our bloody wars in Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and the Philippines? Since its founding in 1776, 241 years ago, the United States has been at war for a combined 220 years, as chronicled by the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG). 91% of our existence has been marked by violence.

How many of those conflicts protected the liberties of U.S. citizens? How many years did the military literally defend our freedoms?

Well, what precisely is it that poses a threat to our freedoms? We can likely all agree that what qualify as freedoms are 1) rights to actions and words that can be expressed without any retribution, guaranteed by law, and 2) the total avoidance of miseries like enslavement, imprisonment, or death. Thus, a real threat to freedom would require either A) an occupation or overthrow of our government, resulting in changes to or violations of established constitutional liberties, or B) invasions, bombings, kidnappings, and other forms of attacks. If you read the article mentioned above, it goes without saying the U.S. has much experience in assaults on the freedoms of foreign peoples. Much of our violence was the violence of empire, with the expressed and sole purpose of seizing natural resources and strengthening national power.

So what we really need to ask is how close has the U.S. come to being occupied or U.S. citizens attacked? How many times have either of these things occurred? We must answer these questions honestly. Should it be said fighting Native American or Mexican armies protected freedom? No, the only reason our nation exists is because Europeans invaded their lands. We will include no war of conquest, from our fight with Spain over Florida to our invasion of Hawaii. We killed millions of innocent people in Vietnam. Were they going to attack America or Americans? No, we didn’t want the Vietnamese to (democratically) choose a Communist government. Now, you can believe that justifies violence if you wish. But the Vietnam War had nothing to do with defending our freedoms or lives. Neither did our invasion of Cuba in 1898. Nor our occupation of the Dominican Republic starting in 1916. Nor our wars with Saddam’s hopelessly weak Iraq. Nor many others.

Using this criteria, my estimate to the titular question is that only four wars, representing 19 years, could reasonably meet Qualification 1 (some also meet the second qualification). These conflicts protected or expanded our liberties by law:

The American Revolution (1775-1783): While the Revolution was partly motivated by Britain’s moves to abolish slavery in its colonies, it did expand self-governance and lawful rights for white male property-holders.

The War of 1812 (1812-1815): While U.S. involvement in the War of 1812 had imperialist motives (expansion into Indian and Canadian territories) and economic motives (preserving trade with Europe), Britain was kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve on their ships (“impressment”). This war might have simply been included below, in Qualification 2, except for the fact that Britain captured Washington, D.C., and burned down the Capitol and the White House — the closest the U.S. has ever come to foreign rule.

The Civil War (1861-1865): Southern states, in their declarations of independence, explicitly cited preserving slavery as their motive. Four years later, slavery was abolished by law. Full citizenship, equal protection under the law, and voting rights for all men were promised, if not given.

World War II (1941-1945): The Second World War could also have simply been placed in Qualification 2 below. Beyond freeing Southeast Asia and Europe from the Axis, we would say the U.S. was protecting its civilians from another Pearl Harbor or from more German submarine attacks on trade and passenger ships in the Atlantic. Yet it is reasonable to suppose the Axis also posed a real threat to American independence, the only real threat since the War of 1812.

Had Germany defeated the Soviet Union and Britain (as it might have without U.S. intervention), establishing Nazi supremacy over Europe, it is likely its attention would have turned increasingly to the United States. Between the threat of invasion from east (Germany) and west (Japan), history could have gone quite differently.

German plans to bomb New York were concocted before the war; Hitler’s favorite architect described him as eager to one day see New York in flames. Before he came to power, Hitler saw the U.S. as a new German Empire’s most serious threat after the Soviet Union (Hillgruber, Germany and the Two World Wars). Some Japanese commanders wanted to occupy Hawaii after their attack, to threaten the U.S. mainland (Caravaggio, “‘Winning’ the Pacific War”). After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. did not declare war on Germany; it was the reverse. Japan occupied a few Alaskan islands, shelled the Oregon and California coasts, dropped fire balloons on the mainland, and planned to bomb San Diego with chemical weapons. Germany snuck terrorists into New York and Florida. The Nazis designed their A-9 and A-10 rockets to reach the U.S., under the “Amerika Bomber” initiative. Also designed were new long-range bombers, including one, the Silbervogel, that could strike the U.S. from space. Hitler once said, “I shall no longer be there to see it, but I rejoice on behalf of the German people at the idea that one day we will see England and Germany marching together against America.” While an Axis invasion of the United States is really only speculation, it has some merit considering their modus operandi, plus an actual chance at success, unlike other claims.

19 years out of 220 is just 8.6% (we’ll use war-time years rather than total years, erring on the side of freedom).

Qualification 2 is harder to quantify. U.S. civilians in danger from foreign forces is a far more common event than the U.S. Constitution or government actually being in danger from foreign forces. We want to include dangers to American civilians both at home and overseas, and include not just prolonged campaigns but individual incidents like rescue missions. This will greatly expand the documented time the military spends “protecting freedom,” but such time is difficult to add up. Many military rescue operations last mere weeks, days, or hours. The Centre for Research on Globalization’s list focuses on major conflicts. We’ll need one that goes into detail on small-scale, isolated conflicts. We’ll want to look not just at the metric of time, but also the total number of incidents.

But first, we will use the CRG list and its year-based metric to consider Qualification 2. The following wars were meant, in some sense, to protect the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. They do not meet the first qualification. Conflicts listed in Qualification 1 will not be repeated here. Five wars, representing 36 years, meet Qualification 2:

The Quasi-War (1798-1800): When the United States refused to pay its debts to France after the French Revolution, France attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

The Barbary Wars (1801-1805, 1815): The United States battled the Barbary States of Tripoli and Algiers after pirates sponsored by these nations began attacking American merchant ships.

The Anti-Piracy Wars (1814-1825): The U.S. fought pirates in the West Indies, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

World War I (1917-1918): The Great War nearly found itself in Qualification 1. After all, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II made serious plans, in the 1890s, to invade the United States so it could colonize other parts of Central and South America. During World War I, Germany asked Mexico to be its ally against the U.S., promising to help it regain territory the U.S. stole 70 years earlier. However, invasion plans evaporated just a few years after 1900, and Mexico declined the offer. The Great War appears here for the American merchant and passenger ships sunk on their way to Europe by German submarines (not just the Lusitania).

The War on Terror (1998, 2001-2017): It is very difficult to include the War on Terror here because, as everyone from Osama bin Laden to U.S. intelligence attests, it’s U.S. violence in the Middle East and Africa that breeds anti-American terror attacks in the first place. Our invasions and bombings are not making us safer, but rather less safe by widening radicalism and hatred. However, though this predictably endless war is counterproductive to protecting American lives, it can be reasonably argued that that is one of its purposes (exploitation of natural resources aside) and that killing some terrorists can disrupt or stop attacks (even if this does more harm than good overall), so it must be included.

36 years out of 220 is 16.4%. Together, it could be reasonably argued that 25% of U.S. “war years” were spent either protecting our constitutional rights from foreign dismemberment or protecting citizen lives, or some combination of both.

But we can also look at the total number of conflicts this list presents: 106. Four wars out of 106 is 3.8%, another five is 4.7%. Let’s again err on the side of freedom and split the Barbary and Terror wars into their two phases, making seven wars for 6.6%. Adding 3.8% and 6.6% gives us 10.4% of conflicts protecting freedom.

Any such list is going to have problems. What does it include? What does it leave out? Does it describe the motivation or justification for violence? Does it do so accurately? Should recurring wars count as one or many? Does the list properly categorize events? This list labels U.S. forces violating Mexican territory to battle Native Americans and bandits as repeated “invasions of Mexico.” If Mexican forces did the same to the U.S., some of us would call it an invasion, others might rephrase. And couldn’t these incursions into a single nation be lumped together into a single conflict? Oppositely, the list lumps scores of U.S. invasions and occupations of most all Central and South American nations into a single conflict, the Banana Wars — something I take huge issue with. The solution to issues like these is to either create a superior list from scratch or bring other lists into the analysis.

Let’s look at “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad,” a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). It is a bit different. First, it includes not just major conflicts but small, brief incidents as well, and it’s smarter about lumping conflicts together (no Banana Wars, no Anti-Piracy Wars, but the U.S. incursions into Mexico to fight Native Americans and bandits are listed as one conflict). Thus, 411 events are documented. Second, even this is too few, as the list begins at 1798 rather than 1776. Third, it does not include wars with Native Americans like the first list. This list is highly helpful because the CRS is an agency of the Library of Congress, conducting research and policy analysis for the House and Senate, and thus its justifications for military action closely reflect official government opinion.

We will apply the same standards to this list as to the last. We’ll include the nine conflicts we studied above if the timeframe allows, as well as any events that have to do with civilians, piracy, and counter-terrorism. We will thus modify 411 events in this way:

– 38 incidents/wars that involved “U.S. citizens,” “U.S. civilians,” “U.S. nationals,” “American nationals,” “American citizens,” etc.

– 9 incidents/wars related to “pirates” and “piracy” (does not include the rescue of U.S. citizen Jessica Buchanan, already counted above, nor Commodore Porter’s vicious 1824 revenge attack on the civilians of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who were accused of harboring pirates)

– 6 official conflicts: the Quasi-War (“Undeclared Naval War with France”), two Barbary Wars, the War of 1812, and two World Wars (the Revolution does not appear on this list due to its timeframe; the Anti-Piracy Wars are included above, the War on Terror below)

+ 1 Civil War (it must be added, as it is not included on this list because it did not involve a foreign enemy)

– 27 incidents/wars related to combating “terrorism” or “terrorists”

That gives us 81 events that match Qualifications 1 and 2. 81 out of 412 is 19.7% — thus about one-fifth of military action since 1798 in some way relates to protecting Constitutional freedoms here at home or the right to life and safety for U.S. civilians around the globe. Of course, were we to only look at Qualification 1, we would have but three events — the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II — that preserved or expanded lawful rights, or 0.7% of our wars since 1798.

The CRS list does not break down some incidents into times shorter than years, and documenting those that are by days, weeks, or months is an enormous chore for a later day. Thus the estimation for time spent defending freedom will have to come from the CRG list: 25% of the time the military is active it is involved in at least one conflict that is protecting freedom. Also, just for some added information, there are 20 years on the CRS list where there is not a new or ongoing incident. That’s since 1798. This is almost identical to the 21 years of peace since 1776 in the CRG analysis. So of the 219 years since then, we’ve spent 91% of our time at war, the same as the CRG list since 1776 (or trimmed to 1798).

(A list created by a professor at Evergreen State College goes from 1890-2017 and has five years of peace. We’ve been at war 96% of the time since 1890. It lists 150 conflicts, with only 3 having to do with rescues or evacuations of Americans [2%], 11 having to do with the War on Terror in Arabia and Africa in 1998 and after 9/11 [7.3%], plus World War I [0.6%]. That’s 9.9% for Qualification 2. Throw in another 0.6% for World War II, and thus Qualification 1, and we have 10.5% of conflicts since 1890 protecting freedom. Because this list begins so late, however, we will not use it in our averaging. Doing so would require us to trim the other lists to 1890, cutting out the piracy era, the Revolution, the Civil War, etc.)

Averaging the percentages from the two lists relating to total conflicts gives us 2.3% for Qualification 1 and 15% for Qualification 2. 17.3% all together. Trimming the CRG list to begin at 1798 yields about the same result.

In sum, it could be reasonably asserted that the U.S. military protects our freedoms and lives in 17.3% of conflicts. (If we take out the War on Terror for its deadly counter-productivity, which I would prefer, that number drops to 10.8%, with 17% of war years spent defending American freedom.)

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U.S. to Russia: Bombing the Middle East Only Creates More Terrorists

On October 2, 2015, Russia began dropping bombs in Syria, which has been engulfed in civil war since an uprising against brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. Over 210,000 have died, and millions of refugees are fleeing to Europe.

Russia claimed to be targeting the Islamic State (ISIS), the extremist group that’s taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, but the U.S. quickly accused Russia of focusing more on anti-Assad forces (which the U.S. is supporting) than ISIS (which the U.S. is bombing). Russia supports Assad, in the same way the U.S. has spent a century aiding the most murderous dictators in the Middle East and around the globe.

In reality, ISIS is an anti-Assad force, just one the U.S. doesn’t fund and arm. ISIS policy is to overthrow Assad and take the rest of Syria. So the Obama administration is both supporting and bombing anti-Assad forces, insisting it supports only “moderate” rebels.

But a classified Pentagon report from August 2012, exposed this past May, revealed the U.S. supported AQI, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other extremist groups in their fight against Assad (this was later acknowledged by the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). The report predicted these extremists would combine to form something like the Islamic State, helpful in “unifying the jihad” against Assad, but warning it could “create grave danger” to the region. The military decided to continue supporting the extremists despite this risk.

The U.S. instantly condemned Russia for getting involved, declaring the deaths of civilians under Russian bombs “will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.”

The Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, while insisting U.S. drones were far more accurate than Russia bombers and thus didn’t kill as many innocents, said, “We believe if you inadvertently kill innocent men, women and children, then there’s a backlash from that…. We might kill three and create 10 terrorists. It really goes back to the question of are we killing more than we’re making?”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Russia was “pouring gasoline on the fire,” warning the bombings would “backfire.”

These were all said with straight faces. If only they were honest warnings against making the same mistakes as the U.S., rather than an unhealthy mix of hypocrisy, historical amnesia, and nationalist lust to control global events. Everything the officials said was true, they just don’t believe it applies to the U.S.

Yet without question violent U.S. foreign policy creates new terror groups. The bloody U.S. bombing and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, which killed over 1 million people, attracted terrorists from throughout the Arab world, some of whom formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which later formed ISIS.

After September 11, 2001, intelligence officials warned the Bush administration that violence would breed more enemies. According to foreign policy intellectual Noam Chomsky (Hopes and Prospects), a Pentagon advisory panel, referring to a quote from Bush, said, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies.” A CIA official in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden called the U.S. “bin Laden’s only indispensable ally” because how our wars fueled extremism.

Abu Musab Al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda strategist, said “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement.” Acting CIA director Mike Morell said in last month that Al-Qaeda’s “great victory” was the spread of its ideology in the last 14 years.

Looking back even further, bin Laden, originally waging jihad against the Soviets occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, declared war on the U.S. after U.S. military interventions in the Middle East in the 1980s and 90s.

In his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” and his 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden gave his justifications for violence: U.S. military bases near Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, the massive death toll of innocent Muslim civilians in Somalia, Lebanon, and especially Iraq during and after the 1991 Gulf War (over 500,000 Iraqi children under age 5 died as a result of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Iraqi army was driven from Kuwait; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeline Albright infamously said, “We think the price is worth it”).

Bin Laden wrote in 2002, “Why are we fighting and opposing you? …Because you attacked us and continue to attack us…. [Y]our forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them.”

The rest of the story is easy enough for Americans to remember: Al-Qaeda bombing the World Trade Center, American embassies, and an American warship in the 1990s, and finally the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001.

This backstory does not serve to justify the atrocities committed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the like. It illustrates the cause-and-effect relationship of foreign military intervention and terrorism, how violence creates more violence.

Bombing Middle East nations, supporting brutal dictators, and aiding certain factions in a civil war could very well lead to Russia’s own 9/11.

And as for the U.S.? The day after it condemned Russia’s attacks, the U.S. bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 people, including three children.

90% of U.S. Drone Victims Innocent Bystanders

Despite the claims of the Obama Administration, drone warfare is in no way precise.

A collection of classified documents known as “The Drone Papers,” just leaked to The Intercept by a whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community, reveal that nearly 9 in 10 people killed in drone bombings across the Middle East and Africa are unintended deaths–“collateral damage.”

So much for precise. As Philip Snowden said on the eve of World War I, “Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war.”

Only 10% of victims were accused of being enemy combatants; emphasis on accused, as a trial to build a public case for their elimination is out of the question for the United States. Immediate execution is their method, despite the high risk of operating with faulty intelligence.

According to The Intercept:

The source underscored the unreliability of metadata, most often from phone and computer communications intercepts. These sources…are the primary tools used by the military to find, fix, and finish its targets.

“It requires an enormous amount of faith in the technology that you’re using,” the source said. “There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty.” This, he said, is a primary factor in the killing of civilians.

“It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

By then, the charred, unrecognizable corpse of the mother is in a grave.

The Drone Papers’ revelations are consistent with previous findings that drones destroy far more innocent men, women, children, and elderly people than suspected terrorists.

Attempts to kill just 41 targets resulted in the deaths of 1,147 bystanders in Pakistan and Yemen, as reported by The Guardian. The U.S. massacred 128 people, including 13 children, trying to kill one man. Two drone strikes killed 76 children and 29 adults, and failed to kill the single terrorist leader being hunted. Hundreds are torn to pieces at weddings.

Flawed intelligence, U.S. officials admitted, even ended up killing an American hostage in an Al Qaeda compound in Pakistan in January 2015.

Of course, the death of American citizens is not always an accident. The State strips U.S. citizens of their Constitutional right to a trial if suspected of involvement in terror networks. Obama used the Authorization to Use Military Force decree of 2001 to justify the assassination of a U.S. citizen in Yemen in 2011.

As of February, 2015, 2,500 people had been killed by drones since Obama took office. True, this is a drop in the bucket of the 1 million Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis killed during our “War on Terror,” yet the justification for drone warfare reveals much about the American psyche.

Not only do U.S. bombings breed more violent extremists, the defense “Civilian casualties are a shame, but these terrorists must be killed” is without question morally repugnant.

Clearly, there are different types of terrorism. One is a group against a State. Another, a State against a group. This is U.S. terrorism against foreign civilians. Ethically speaking, in a decent society, it would be unacceptable for the State to slaughter terrorist enemies if innocent people burned in the same fires.

Would we find it acceptable for the State, whether ours or of a foreign power, to massacre 1,000 Americans to kill a few dozen terrorists? To kill 9 innocent Americans for every 1 guilty person? If not, what then is the difference between U.S. civilians and Pakistani, or Iraqi, civilians?

In order to remain mute over the death of non-American men, women, and children, regardless of whatever “noble” cause being pursued when such death occurred, one has to consider those innocents less worthy of life. Accepting “collateral damage” is Machiavellian and devalues innocent men, women, and children who simply live in a different spot on Earth (or perhaps follow a different religion?).

If reading of Americans being killed by drones created within you a stronger emotional reaction than the massive death toll of foreigners, that should drive the point home.

From where does this belief originate?

We are all indoctrinated since birth to glorify the State, the flag, the military, and American global power. We are encouraged to think of our nation as better than others.

As a consequence, we consider our citizens more worthy of life than the people who die in the flames of American bombs overseas. We look the other way when the U.S. government commits atrocities. As Emma Goldman said, we believe it is natural that the world is divided into little spots, and that everyone within each spot thinks it right to die or kill for their spot.

Until we move past this, until we consider non-Americans just as worthy of life as Americans, the atrocities committed by the U.S. will go unexamined. Drone warfare will not end.

And neither will war.

A History of Violence: How the War on Terror Breeds More Terror

 

 

From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.

While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.

The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.

Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.

The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.

These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.

*   *   *

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush told perhaps the greatest lie in American history, during a speech to a joint session of Congress and a national audience. Explaining the motives of Al-Qaeda terrorists, Bush said:

Americans are asking, “Why do they hate us?”

They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other… These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.

While it is true that ultraconservative Islamists have no interest in democracy or individual liberties, but rather religious repression and domination, the idea that the September 11 attacks were motivated by an intense hatred of “our freedoms” was absurd on its face. Would the system of government and civil rights of a nation on the other side of the globe, 7,000 miles away, really inspire men to kill themselves while massacring innocent people? If so, why not attack Switzerland on 9/11? With its direct democracy, it is more democratic than the U.S. Why not bomb Australia? Or Hong Kong, Canada, or Norway? There are many democratic countries with just as many individual freedoms as the U.S., some with more. Even America’s conservative Cato Institute knows 30 nations have greater personal freedoms than the United States. One of the most free nations on earth, Denmark, is much closer to the Middle East — why bother crossing the Atlantic?

We can put aside such thoughtless, juvenile ideas. There are more sensible explanations, provided by Osama bin Laden himself. He explained in detail why he declared war on and attacked the United States.

In short, U.S. military interventions into the Middle East enraged him and many other Arabs and Muslims — enough to plot revenge.

Our relationship with bin Laden began as a friendly one. In the 1980s, the U.S. gave weapons and money to Islamic rebel groups in Afghanistan to help push out the Soviet Union—one group, which became Al-Qaeda, was led by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Islamic fundamentalist from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden “developed a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency and received American funds to help build his mountain bases” (Foner, Give Me Liberty!). 

Not only did Afghanis want their independence from a foreign occupier, some Muslims throughout the Middle East saw it as their duty to wage holy war against the atheistic Communists, to defend Islam. When the conflict was over, violent groups turned their attention to American intervention in other Arab countries, what they perceived to be a new front in the war against Islamic nations, based on U.S. atrocities in Lebanon and Somalia, the Gulf War of 1991, the sanctions that directly killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, etc. You read about these sorts of American actions in Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression.

To establish the Muslim caliphate across the Middle East that Al-Qaeda envisioned, the U.S. would have to be dealt with in the same way as the Russians. Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, a symbol of American global power, in 1993, killing six people. They did the same to the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 200, mostly Africans. In 1999, they bombed the U.S.S. Cole in a port in Yemen, killing seventeen.

In 1996, bin Laden published in a London newspaper his “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which refers to his home country of Saudi Arabia, which has Islam’s holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina (Saudi Arabia, a brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime, is a close U.S. ally and oil partner). He saw the foreign policy of the U.S., Israel, and their allies (the “Zionist-Crusaders alliance”) in the Middle East as a war against Islam:

It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina took place, massacres that send shivers in the body and shake the conscience…. The people of Islam awakened and realised that they are the main target for the aggression of the Zionist-Crusaders alliance.          

While bin Laden laments the “occupation” of Jerusalem by the hated Israelis, he said the “greatest of these aggressions” was the “American Crusaders” in Saudi Arabia, “the foundation of the house of Islam, the place of the revelation, the source of the message and the place of the noble Ka’ba….” He was enraged at his Saudi Arabian government for allying with the U.S.: “The King said that: ‘the issue is simple, the American and the alliance forces will leave the area in few months’. Today it is seven years since their arrival and the regime is not able to move them out of the country. The regime made no confession about its inability and carried on lying to the people claiming that the American will leave.”

Nearly all the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi Arabians.

He condemned Saudi economic ties to the U.S., mentioning the “oil industry where production is restricted or expanded and prices are fixed to suit the American economy ignoring the economy of the country.” He called for a boycott of American goods, saying: 

It is incredible that our country is the world largest buyer of arms from the USA and the area biggest commercial partners of the Americans who are assisting their Zionist brothers in occupying Palestine and in evicting and killing the Muslims there, by providing arms, men and financial supports. To deny these occupiers from the enormous revenues of their trading with our country is a very important help for our Jihad against them.

Bin Laden called on all Muslims to begin “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy.” There was no mention of American freedoms or democracy. In 2002, bin Laden offered his justifications for the 9/11 attacks in a “Letter to America”:

Why are we fighting and opposing you? …Because you attacked us and continue to attack us…you attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon…you have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day…your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the World Trade Center attack, wrote something similar in 2015: the “U.S. reaped what it sowed on 9/11.” He condemned the U.S. building “military bases in the Arabian Peninsula in Tabuk, Dhahran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and U.A.E – which is prohibited by Sharia laws – to secure a non-stop flood of oil to [the U.S.] at the cheapest price” and U.S. support for “dictatorial rule of monarchial families and oppressive, corrupt, dynastic regimes” around the world, including “the Indonesian dictator Suharto when his army-led massacres slaughtered hundreds of thousands of landless farmers” and the “Shah of Iran and Safak, the brutal Iranian intelligence agency, for 40 years.”

He mentions the sanctions against Iraq and Madeleine Albright’s approving comment, U.S. support for Saddam Hussein “even when he was using poison mustard gas against the Kurds,” and how we “protect repeated Israeli crimes” at the U.N. “You can keep your military bases in Japan, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, but Muslim land will never accept infidels army bases in their land.” He concludes, “If your government and public won’t tolerate 9/11, then how can you ask Muslims to tolerate your 60 years of crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula and the whole Muslim World?”

A study of 52 instances of terrorists targeting the U.S. found that their motives included “boiling” anger at U.S. foreign policy, such as “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” and our “country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.”

The War on Terror, as it increased U.S. involvement in the region, increased terrorism (by 2015, over 1 million Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis were dead due to Bush and Obama’s war, providing plenty of fuel for anti-American hatred and radicalization).

After 9/11, the CIA and international intelligence officials warned the Bush Administration that war would breed more enemies and new terror attacks. A Pentagon advisory panel, referring to the quote from George W. Bush, advised, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). 

During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East was severely destabilized and hatred of the American government spread. American military incursion served bin Laden, in that it further validated his claims about American aggression and encouraged more people to join terrorist networks; for this reason, a CIA official in charge of tracking bin Laden called the U.S. “bin Laden’s only indispensable ally” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Abu Musab Al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda strategist, believed that “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement.” The Charlie Hebdo, Boston, and Orlando terrorists cited U.S. invasions, drone bombings, and torture as motives for their attacks.

Al-Qaeda, originally operating primarily from Afghanistan, spread across the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia: into Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, India, Indonesia, etc. In 2014, the organizations the U.S. had set out to destroy in 2001 were estimated to still be strong: the Taliban had 36,000-60,000 fighters, Al-Qaeda 3,700-19,000. Acting CIA Director Mike Morell said Al-Qaeda’s “great victory has been the spread of its ideology across a large geographic area.” Al-Qaeda increased its terrorism against religious, ethnic, and political enemies in many countries. ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan spread terror as well. In 2000, there were 3,361 global terror fatalities, but over 11,100 in 2012, nearly 18,000 in 2013. This means a fivefold increase in fatalities since 9/11.

Iraq and Pakistan were thrown into chaos. Iraq went from a nation with no recorded suicide attacks in 2003 to 1,892 by 2015, killing 20,000 people. Between 1978 and 9/11, Pakistan saw a single suicide attack; between 9/11 and 2015, 486 attacks, killing over 6,000.

Nations that joined the U.S. invasion became bombing targets, like Spain in 2004 (191 killed) and Britain in 2007 (52 killed). In 2013, terrorists set off a bomb in Boston that killed three Americans. After France took a leading role in bombing ISIS, the terror group killed 129 people in Paris in November 2015. 

“This is an act of war,” French President François Hollande said, echoing Bush. “An act committed by a terrorist army, [ISIS], against France, our values, who we are, a free country that speaks to the entire planet.”

But what Louis Caprioli, former head of DST, France’s retired anti-terrorism unit, said of the attacks was more accurate: “This attack is linked to our engagement in Syria and Iraq, to our engagement in the Sahel [Africa],” as reported in a Bloomberg article titled “France Pays Price for Front-Line Role From Syria to West Africa.” Further,

This isn’t the first time France’s involvement abroad has led to terrorism at home. In 1995, Algerian Islamists set off eight bombing attacks that killed eight people and wounded 200 in Paris to punish France for supporting the government in that country’s civil war…

“For 20 years we have fought this Salafist doctrine,” Caprioli said.

France began bombing ISIS in September of 2014, launching over 200 airstrikes, mostly in Iraq. Even before this, France was supplying violent Islamic groups with weapons to fight Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In October 2015, France bombed Raqqa and other targets in Syria. 3,000 French troops were also active in Africa to counter Islamic militants with allegiances to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

This is in stark contrast to the French refusal to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, for which many Americans vilified them.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, leaving no question that French military intervention was its inspiration. It called France a “crusader nation,” echoing bin Laden.

Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), and as long as they boast about their war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets, which were of no avail to them in the filthy streets and alleys of Paris. Indeed, this is just the beginning. It is also a warning for any who wish to take heed.

The ISIS statement also touched on the well-established fact that Islamic extremists view Western military intervention as part of a broader religious war, calling Paris “the lead carrier of the cross in Europe” and saying the attackers were “hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake, doing so in support of His religion, His prophet…”

As with the American experience after 9/11, only a few dissenting voices in France, drowned out in the screams for more war and revenge, pushed for a deeper understanding of why the Paris attacks occurred and warned that more war will only create more terrorism.

France’s NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) was one such voice. Its statement after the Paris attacks said:

This contemptible cruelty in central Paris responds to the equally blind and even more fatal violence of the bombings by French planes in Syria following the decisions of François Hollande and his government… Imperialist cruelty and Islamist cruelty feed each other.

The NPA called for “the withdrawal of French troops from all countries where they are present, in particular in Syria, in Iraq, in Africa.”

The U.S. has a similar relationship with ISIS, like Al-Qaeda before it.

The bloody sectarian wars in Iraq caused directly by the U.S. invasion birthed new terror groups like the Islamic State in Iraq, which grew out of AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and later joined with rebel groups in Syria to become ISIS. Even during a “War on Terror,” the U.S. was not opposed to arming terror groups to meet short-term goals, only later watching former assets step out of line, as had occurred so often in the past, like with bin Laden.

A classified Pentagon report from August 2012 revealed the U.S. actively supported the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI as the extremist groups attempted to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad. The Pentagon predicted these groups would evolve into some sort of Islamic state, saying this could be helpful in “unifying the jihad” of the Sunnis against Assad and the other Shia power, Iran, but also noting it “will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of territory.” This came true. After arming rebels and welcoming a quasi-state of Sunni Islam extremists, the U.S. watched ISIS grow too powerful, launching a campaign of conquest, rape, and ethnic and religious cleansing. ISIS tortured, mutilated, and massacred Christians, Shia Muslims, Druze, and others. When the U.S. began bombing ISIS — after the group took over Syria and northern Iraq and was approaching Iraqi oil fields—ISIS publicly promised revenge. The use of the American military has left us in an endless cycle of destruction and death.

A group of Americans who lost family in the 9/11 attacks perhaps understood this. They condemned revenge and pleaded for peace, founding an organization, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to help eradicate Islamophobia and find nonviolent solutions to terrorism. Many wrote President Bush condemning violence, and some visited Afghanistan in 2002 to console the parents of U.S. bombing victims. A woman whose husband died at the Pentagon said:

I have heard angry rhetoric by some Americans, including many of our nation’s leaders, who advise a heavy dose of revenge and punishment. To those leaders, I would like to make clear that my family and I take no comfort in your words of rage. If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband. (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States) 

There are many other groups with similar aims, such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, which call for an end to war.

American officials will even condemn intervention, when referencing other nations. In October 2015, after Russia bombed anti-Assad forces in Syria, the U.S. declared the deaths of civilians “will only fuel more extremism and radicalization”! The Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, while insisting U.S. drones were far more accurate than Russia bombers and thus didn’t kill as many innocents, said, “We believe if you inadvertently kill innocent men, women and children, then there’s a backlash from that…. We might kill three and create 10 terrorists. It really goes back to the question of are we killing more than were making?” The day after the Russian airstrikes, the U.S. bombed a hospital in Afghanistan for nearly an hour, killing 22 people, including three children.

Yemeni journalist Farea Al-Muslimi, after his village was drone-bombed, explained how such things spread the anti-American hatred that radical Islamic terrorists long for: “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant” (Chomsky, Because We Say So).

Terror attacks being revenge attacks for U.S. military incursions and wars in the Middle East should not be surprising, nor controversial. Whether you think such assaults are morally justified, despite how many innocent people die and despite oftentimes dubious motives like straightforward corporate gain, that is the cause of anti-American hatred and terrorist violence.

Nor should it be remarkable if religious zealots see their cause through a religious lens, using religion to broaden support and justify killing oneself and others. Some are convinced Western nations are trying to destroy Islam itself, though there is no evidence this has ever been among America’s dubious motives. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist extremists earnestly believe their deity wants them to kill Americans — waging a war to protect “Muslim lands” and Islam from foreigners and get revenge for prior U.S. interventions and alliances — simply does not change the actual historical cause of the conflict. After all, in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were no Muslim military bases in the United States and neighboring nations; Muslims did not drop bombs on Denver and Charleston; Muslim armies did not land troops on the east coast; Muslim governments did not help Muslim corporations seize large portions of American natural resources like oil. But the U.S. did all these things in Muslim nations of the Middle East, for half a century (for example, U.S. oil companies were operating in the Middle East by the 1940s, protected by the British, who occupied much of the region after World War I).

This examination is not to justify bloody terror attacks, in the same way most of the bloody U.S. interventions discussed in Part I: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression cannot be justified by ethical people free from the blinders of patriotic indoctrination. But it does help us understand why 9/11 and other attacks occurred, and how a “War on Terror” cannot be won, how it is a cycle of U.S. invasions (drone bombings, too) and extremist revenge attacks, each feeding the other — it is endless war. The only way to stop the war is to withdraw — and never repeat our foreign policy mistakes.

These things make us consider how we might react if America was a weaker, poorer nation and subject to the kinds of blows we dealt to Middle East nations for decades. Some would surely take up our arms and plot revenge in the home nations of enemies, and like Muslims convinced deadly U.S. policies are part of an attack on Islam itself, some Americans would surely come to see Muslim invasions of Iowa and Illinois as motivated by something equally inaccurate and nonsensical — freedom, perhaps.

The Other American Soldier: Anti-War and Anti-Empire

Many Americans tend to view the military as a homogeneous group, an army of automatons with the same beliefs and values — namely, that when it comes to war the American government is always in the right. Therefore, civilian opposition to U.S. invasions, bombings, huge military budgets, global military presence, or glorification of the army, the flag, and the State are all called “disrespectful,” “not supporting our troops,” “un-American,” “anti-American,” “spitting in the face of” or “giving the middle finger to” our soldiers.

Yet what of the soldiers who oppose war? What of the veterans who wish to see the military budget slashed and the 800 American bases in 80 nations shuttered? As easy as this may be for patriotic civilians (and perhaps soldiers) to ignore, some of the loudest voices demanding we “ring the bells of peace” and put “an end to war” are veterans or active servicemen.

The military (despite the immense pressure to conform and follow orders) does not seem to be full of single-minded, patriotic drones, but rather a group of independent, diverse thinkers.

 

Thousands of veterans join passionate anti-war groups

One example is Veterans for Peace, founded in the 1980s during the horrific U.S. military interventions into Central America under Reagan that killed tens of thousands of innocent people. Their mission is to raise awareness of the true costs of war, aid our victims, “restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations,” “abolish war as an instrument of national policy,” and move toward peace. After all, who better than veterans might understand the true horrors of America’s wars (see A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression)?

Their ideas and language are as fierce as any supposedly “unpatriotic” civilian. Veterans for Peace wrote on Facebook on November 11, 2014 that Veteran’s Day had “devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship ceremony for war and the valiant warriors who wage it.” On December 10, 2014 it wrote:

Sometimes it may seem that our leaders and fellow citizens simply cannot understand that militaristic values and ongoing war creates only more problems, both internationally and here within our own country. The battle is definitely uphill. However, history tells us that lessons about the futility of war has been understood in the past, no doubt by those fighting on the front-lines.

Similar groups include Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War — yes, it’s still active. To quote A History of Violence: The American Slaughter in Vietnam, during that conflict, many

veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which “exposed the ugly truth about US involvement in Southeast Asia and our first-hand experiences helped many other Americans to see the unjust nature of that war.” The VVAW still exists today, as “our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world. Recently, American troops have been sent into combat in the Middle East and Central America, for many of the same misguided reasons that were used to send us to Southeast Asia.” Several other groups, like the Concerned Officers Movement, also formed and protested the war.

 

Many soldiers question what they are doing

Soldiers’ anti-war writings are as easy to find as anti-war groups. Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps major general and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, wrote a book in the 1930s called War is a Racket. He said, “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.” And:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.

Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Thomas Young, a man who enlisted after 9/11, was paralyzed by a sniper in Iraq and spent the rest of his life denouncing the war (he died in 2014, at 34).

He wrote to Bush and Cheney in 2013:

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all — the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans — my fellow veterans — whose future you stole.

After Al-Qaeda bombed American embassies in 1998, Vietnam veteran Robert Bowman wrote:

We are not hated because we practice democracy, value freedom, or uphold human rights. We are hated because our government denies these things to people in Third World countries whose resources are coveted by our multinational corporations. That hatred we have sown has come back to haunt us in the form of terrorism…. Instead of sending our sons and daughters around the world to kill Arabs so we can have the oil under their sand, we should send them to rebuild their infrastructure, supply clean water, and feed starving children…. In short, we should do good instead of evil. Who would try to stop us? Who would hate us? Who would want to bomb us? (Zinn, People’s History of the United States)

A young American soldier wrote home during Vietnam:

Dear Mom and Dad:

Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight! It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions… We fired into all the huts we could… Everyone is crying, begging, and praying that we don’t separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.

Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and food. Yes, we burn all the rice and shoot all the livestock.

 

Some soldiers refuse to follow orders, and commit “treason”

While some call them “cowards,” it is obvious that it takes tremendous courage to disobey or desert the military — risking being hunted down like an animal and imprisoned, in earlier years executed.

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via The Grind

Whether opposing war or simply fearing for one’s life, desertion is a way servicemen can make a political statement or take back control of their fate. 40,000 deserted the U.S. military during World War II, 13,000 during the Korean War, nearly half a million from 1966-1972 during Vietnam, and 8,000 in 2006-2007 alone during the invasion of Iraq.

Other soldiers defy the State by attempting to bring to light atrocities the military seeks to cover up, such as Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour after fellow U.S. soldiers massacred innocent people in My Lai, Vietnam. Or Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, a private who in 2010 exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and is now imprisoned for it. Perhaps people like them understand what Howard Zinn, a World War II veteran, once wrote (and a young soldier took to heart): “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people” (“Terror Over Tripoli,” Zinn).

A History of Violence: The American Slaughter in Vietnam

 

 

From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.

While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.

The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.

Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.

The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.

These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.

*   *   *

The conventional story of the American invasion of Vietnam usually goes something like this: Communist North Vietnam launched an invasion of democratic South Vietnam. The United States, always the defender of freedom and justice, came to South Vietnam’s defense. Through a series of unpredictable events, such as the liberal media “turning the American people against the war,” the ability of the enemy to blend in with the civilian population, and the enemy’s superior knowledge and use of their land, a peasant society defeated the most powerful military machine in human history.

Elements of this narrative are true, others have no basis in reality.

The real story begins in late 1945. Vietnam celebrated the surrender of Japan, which occupied Vietnam during World War II, having seized it from the French, who occupied it since 1887. There was immense hope that the decades of brutal foreign rule were over. To quote the U.S. Defense Department, “for a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam was — for the first and only time in its modern history — free of foreign domination, and united from north to south…” (A People’s History of the United States, by U.S. veteran Howard Zinn).

Much like the French and other peoples occupied by Axis forces, the Vietnamese formed a resistance movement against the Japanese and fought a guerrilla war to drive out their occupiers. This Vietnamese movement was led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh. His nationalist organization, the Viet Minh, was a U.S. ally — because it was battling Japan.

Ho Chi Minh was thus enormously popular among the Vietnamese, as popular as George Washington among the American patriots who overthrew the British. With the Japanese gone, 1 million people celebrated in the streets of Hanoi, and the resistance fighters issued a Declaration of Independence, based on similar documents created by freedom fighters elsewhere. The first words read:

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.” Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­ citizens.

Just as the American colonial leaders listed grievances against the British, so did the Vietnamese against the French: “They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned uprisings in rivers of blood… They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials… They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty… The whole Vietnamese people…are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.”

In their moment of self-rule, Ho Chi Minh founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Of course, to the West this was unacceptable. Powers like France and Britain still held large worldwide colonial empires that benefited them materially. The raw materials of Vietnam would not be willingly given to the Vietnamese. Vietnam could not be allowed to give other Third World colonies ideas concerning freedom.  

Britain’s armies quickly occupied the southern region of Vietnam and returned it to France. China took over the northern part of Vietnam, and the United States pressured the Chinese to give it back to France, which it did. Ho Chi Minh wrote letters to President Truman and the United Nations to ask for self-rule, which the U.S. and other Western powers had fought for and promised to the peoples of the world in their Atlantic Charter; he further pleaded for humanitarian aid for his country, which saw some 2 million people die of starvation due to a combination of French policies, natural disasters, and the world war. Truman ignored the letters.

As promised, the Viet Minh went to war with the French. But the French were quite weak from battling Germany during World War II, and when Communist movements suddenly came into power in China (1949) and Korea (1950), the U.S. decided it was time to aid the French. It began pouring weapons and money into Vietnam, by 1954 covering 80% of French war costs.

Did the U.S. want to stop Communism, as the narrative goes?

Certainly, there was fear that more nations would convert to Communism if Vietnam did, but actual democracy and freedom in Vietnam were not a priority of the United States, self-evident from the support of French rule and later the establishment of a brutal dictatorship in South Vietnam. As documented in Part I of the History of Violence Series: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression, the U.S. was also very interested in keeping open access to Vietnam’s “immense wealth” of rubber, tin, oil, coal, and other raw materials. As Communist states had a pesky habit of nationalizing economic industries, kicking foreign corporations out, and in general maintaining tight control over the resources on their own land (see Part I), Communism was a severe threat to U.S. economic interests. This is not to say the U.S. did not also want to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining another ally — indeed, a closer relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.S.R. would expand the latter’s sphere of influence and access to Vietnam’s natural resources. Limiting the Soviet sphere of influence during this Cold War was highly important to American officials.

Yet the reasons may not even end there. For example, protecting the American image (we’re already involved, we can’t back out now and “lose”) and Washington politics (Republicans vilified Truman for “losing” China, thus Democrats that came after him aimed not to experience the same).  

The question to ask ourselves is: Should we use violence to prevent another nation from creating a government we don’t approve of or won’t serve our interests? Even if it’s the will of that nation’s people? Would we think it acceptable for a foreign power, perhaps more democratic than our own, to wage war against us because we devised our own form of government or tried to the elect the “wrong” leader?

Ho Chi Minh was immensely popular and the U.S. government knew it. As an ally to the West during World War II and having based his Declaration of Independence on Western ones, he was also quite open to a relationship with the West. The U.S. Defense Department wrote that

…Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when…he overthrew the Japanese…established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for in-coming allied occupation forces… (see Zinn)

In 1947, the State Department noted Ho Chi Minh was “the symbol of nationalism and the struggle for freedom to the overwhelming majority of the population.” It called it an “unpleasant fact” that “Communist Ho Chi Minh is the strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina” (Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman).

Despite U.S. support, the French lost their war to hold Vietnam in 1954. A peace conference at Geneva determined the French would withdraw to the southern half of the nation immediately, then after two years there would be reunification: North Vietnam would join with South Vietnam and an election would be held to form a new government.

The United States was determined to prevent that. After all, a Joint Chiefs of Staff memo from 1954 declared that “free elections would be attended by almost certain loss…to Communist control” (Zinn). And what was an international peace conference to Washington power?

That was the path the U.S. chose. To prevent an undesirable outcome of free elections, it would go to any means necessary. The U.S. would battle Vietnam’s George Washington and its patriots. The peasants may have defeated the French, but they would surely fall to the whims of the United States of America. And by waging war in a place with mass Communist support among the people, mass killing of civilians was almost the logical path to victory. As a U.S. army officer said of a town in the Ben Tre province, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me), a way of thinking easily applied to the entire country of Vietnam.

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The U.S. government’s first method was to strengthen South Vietnam, make it its own state (the Pentagon Papers explained, “South Viet Nam was essentially a creation of the United States”). But it couldn’t be a democracy. The people supported Ho Chi Minh and unification. What the U.S. needed was a dictator. To quote General Maxwell Taylor, a “satisfactory government” would need to be “established,” perhaps with “a military dictatorship” (Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman).

It selected Ngo Dinh Diem, a former Vietnam government official. It flew him from his home in New Jersey and installed him as South Vietnam’s leader. Diem set about replacing local governors with military officials and imprisoning critics of his regime, one of obscene violence. He was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, Communist and anti-Communist alike. The largest anti-Communist political group protesting Diem were the Buddhists; they were crushed. The U.S. issued his government weapons and cash, and he rejected the promised elections, requested by Ho Chi Minh, repeatedly. In protest of the dictatorship, a Buddhist monk named Quang Duc burned himself alive in Saigon — he would not be the last.

Nor would Diem be the last dictator the U.S. installed in South Vietnam; he was followed by the likes of Khanh, Thieu, and Ky, all equally dispicable. Replacing leaders the U.S. grew unhappy with usually required U.S.-organized coups.

The Vietnamese understood they had been betrayed, understood the worthlessness of Western promises. In 1958, resistance fighters began a guerrilla war against Diem, with the support of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. In 1960, rebels formed the National Liberation Front (called the Viet Cong by the West), which had widespread support among the peasant population. South Vietnam was already falling apart.

In the early 1960s, the U.S. started sending military agents into North Vietnam to commit acts of sabotage. The U.S. had already sent thousands of military advisors into South Vietnam in the 1950s. Between U.S.-installed regimes and U.S. military actions, about 150,000 people had already died before the U.S. land invasion.

President Johnson and his administration, in 1964, invented a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval forces to justify a full-scale invasion. After all, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers, when U.S. leaders met in Honolulu two months before the alleged attack to discuss the possibility of war, they recognized that “public opinion on our Southeast Asia policy was badly divided in the United States at the moment and that, therefore, the President needed an affirmation of support.” So, as happened in the past, the government lied to rally the people to its cause.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was, according to the State, an unprovoked attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox, “while on routine patrol in international waters.” This was nonsense, of course. The Maddox was actually on a spying mission, in North Vietnamese waters, and no torpedoes were fired at it. Even before this, the CIA had secretly attacked North Vietnamese coastal installations. Johnson told an aide of the Gulf of Tonkin incident: “Those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish” (Loewen).

The lie served Johnson’s purposes. Congress granted him a war resolution, and American bombers attacked North Vietnam while U.S. troops flooded the South (the U.S. also hired hundreds of thousands of mercenaries from Korea and Thailand, also responsible for many atrocities). 

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1964 to 1975 were years of unimaginable horror. The North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front in the South committed some atrocities, of course, but nothing compared to the better-armed United States.

The U.S. used two to three times as many bombs as used in World War II by all parties — some 7 million tons of bombs (some of these were dropped on Laos and Cambodia, wars the U.S. government tried to keep secret, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people). There were an estimated 20 million bomb craters in Vietnam by the end of the war. The U.S. established “free fire zones,” in which any person, young or old, male or female, was considered an enemy combatant and could be bombed with abandon. Villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong were obliterated.

U.S. troops launched surprise attacks on villages, shooting all males of military age. American and South Vietnamese military officials beat, tortured, and executed prisoners of war and critics of the conflict, Washington, or the South Vietnamese regime; the U.S. financed and set up hundreds of prisons. In places like Con Son prison island, people were kept in chains in “tiger cages” for years, growing paralyzed due to lack of limb use. In the cities, American soldiers enjoyed prostitutes, and in the countryside countless women and girls were raped, including “extremely violent gang rapes, or raping women with inanimate objects like bottles or even rifles.”

Most Americans have heard of the My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, when U.S. soldiers entered a small village in the Quang Ngai province, pushed nearly 500 infants, children, women, men, and elderly people into a ditch and mowed them all down. Yet most Americans do not realize that this was standard practice in Vietnam. Colonel Oran Henderson, charged with covering up the My Lai slaughter, said, “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace” (Zinn). A soldier named John Kerry said killings like My Lai were “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” (Loewen).

Kerry described how U.S. soldiers had

raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam…in addition to the normal ravage of war.

GIs even collected and displayed Vietnamese ears as trophies. As Nick Turse put it:

…the way to prove the body count was to bring in an ear. This was a practice in some units. There were incentives tied to body count, winning R&R at a beach resort in country or extra beer, medals, badges…

There was also an active trade in body parts in Vietnam. Ears were worn on necklaces, one ear or maybe even a whole chain of ears. Some guys wore these to show their combat prowess. Others would collect these ears and sell them to people who wanted to project this image. In one unit they were cutting off the heads of enemies, and anyone who presented it to the commander got an extra beer ration. In one case, a sergeant had cut off a head and he boiled the flesh of it, and then traded the skull for a radio.

A soldier wrote back home of an incident (Zinn):

Dear Mom and Dad:

Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight! It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions… We fired into all the huts we could… Everyone is crying, begging, and praying that we don’t separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.

Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and food. Yes, we burn all the rice and shoot all the livestock.

Turse again:

I would talk to Vietnamese who would tell me about what it was like just to try and eke out an existence in the war zone. About having their home burned down five, six seven times. And then finally giving up rebuilding and starting to live a semi-subterranean life in their bomb shelter. About how they figured out ways to get out of that shelter, to get water or food or relieve themselves. And how their entire lives were just predicated on figuring out a way not to get killed.

Kerry and many other veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which “exposed the ugly truth about US involvement in Southeast Asia and our first-hand experiences helped many other Americans to see the unjust nature of that war.” The VVAW still exists today, as “our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world. Recently, American troops have been sent into combat in the Middle East and Central America, for many of the same misguided reasons that were used to send us to Southeast Asia.” Several other groups, like the Concerned Officers Movement, also formed and protested the war.

After My Lai, the Army formed the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, whose archives Turse used for his book Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The group, while doing nothing to prevent or punish war crimes, kept records of “massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation.”

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Turse says:

There was a shorthand in Vietnam: the MGR, or Mere Gook Rule. The idea is that the Vietnamese weren’t real people. They were subhumans. Mere gooks who could be abused or even killed at will. And this is something that was inculcated in troops from the earliest days of training. I talked to a lot of veterans who told me that as soon as they arrived at boot camp, they were told you never call them Vietnamese. You call them gooks, dinks, slants, slopes. Anything to take away their humanity. Anything to make it easier to kill them.

They were told by their superiors that all Vietnamese were likely the enemy. That children might carry grenades, women were probably the wives or girlfriends of guerillas, and they were probably making booby traps.

And even if there were rules of engagement on paper, or little cards handed out saying to treat the Vietnamese properly, the message that they were really given was that it was a lot safer to shoot first because no one was going to ask questions later.

He explained the American strategy:

You would kill your way to victory by piling up Vietnamese bodies, and the Americans were always chasing this crossover point when they would be killing more Vietnamese guerrillas than the enemy could put into the field. And the idea was that at that moment, the enemy would give up the fight…

The troops in the field, they were pressed for bodies. Their commanders were leaning on them heavily. You were told to produce Vietnamese bodies, and if you didn’t you were going to stay out in the field longer. They learned pretty quickly that the command wasn’t discerning about what bodies were turned in, that just about any Vietnamese bodies would do. This pushed American troops toward at least calling in all Vietnamese who were filled as enemies, and also to the killing of detainees and prisoners and civilians, and calling them in as enemy dead.

This coupled with the much higher level of strategic thinking like the use of “free fire zones,” which was basically a legal fiction that the US came up with to open wide swaths of the countryside to unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling. This caused tremendous amounts of death and destruction in the country side. And it opened it up to all this heavy firepower and made it inevitable that large numbers of civilians would be killed or wounded.

In 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton suggested the U.S. turn its attention from bombing villages in North Vietnam to causing mass starvation through attacks on infrastructure:

Destruction of locks and dams, however — if handled right — might…offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction doesn’t kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided — which we could offer to do “at the conference table”… (Zinn)

Rice fields had long been a target. In 1961 and 1962, Kennedy authorized the use of chemical weapons on South Vietnamese rice fields. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman write in Manufacturing Consent:

Between 1961 and 1971…the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of concentrated arsenic-based and dioxin-laden herbicides (mainly Agent Orange) on 6 million acres of crops and trees, besides using large quantities of the “super tear gas” CS and vast amounts of napalm and phosphorus bombs. An estimated 13 percent of South Vietnam’s land was subjected to chemical attacks. This included 30 percent of its rubber plantations and 36 percent of its mangrove forests, along with other large forest areas, destroyed by toxic chemicals in programs that included multiple “large-scale intentional effort[s] combining defoliation with incendiaries to produce a forest fire in South Vietnam.”

A 1967 study prepared by the head of the Agronomy Section of the Japanese Science Council concluded that U.S. anticrop warfare had already ruined more than 3.8 million acres of arable land in South Vietnam, killing almost 1,000 peasants and over 13,000 livestock. This policy of attempting to force enemy capitulation by destroying its food supply was not only contrary to the rules of war, it was notable in that it “first and overwhelmingly affected small children.”

Among the millions wounded, about 2 million Vietnamese were wounded from exposure to chemical weapons. But most were in the South. Why?

One reason for this was that North Vietnam had a government with links to other countries, so that the use of these barbarous and illegal weapons against it would have been widely publicized. South Vietnam was occupied by the United States and its client regime, so that the victimized people of the South were voiceless and could be treated with unlimited savagery.

With Agent Orange and CS soaked into Vietnam’s soil, trees, and plants, hundreds of thousands of children would be born with often lethal birth defects — this is still occurring today, with photos available for all to see.

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Likewise, 16 million acres of Vietnam today contain unexploded bombs and landmines left behind by the United States. Over 40,000 people died from them from 1975 to 2009, including many children.

What was left behind in the United States?

Of course, among some ultraconservatives, a belief that American intentions were pure and noble and — even more disturbing — that the means the U.S. used to meet its goals were “necessary,” even if a “necessary evil.” Clearly, a superpower working to keep poor people who longed for independence under foreign rule and killing millions to ensure they didn’t elect the “wrong” leader or political party (or restrict said superpower’s access to natural resources) would be seen as simply “evil” had the culprit been Vietnam and the victim the United States. Most Americans would suggest that America, even if on the verge of electing leaders that could one day oppress them, should be allowed to take that (possibly benign) risk, as “democracy” would suggest, without other nations deciding to “bomb them into the stone age” (U.S. General Curtis LeMay). But that courtesy was not extended to foreigners. So the United States was the “good guy” that somehow tripped over its own feet on its way to help others.

Some feel our military assault was “not sufficiently severe” (CIA director John McCone, 1965; see Zinn) to subdue the Vietnamese. In other words, if only the U.S. had dropped more bombs, sent more young American men into the bloodbath, killed more of the “enemy.”

Others hold to the idea that the U.S. would have won the war, had the “liberal media” not been so “pessimistic” and “critical,” turning the American people against the government, leading to the mass protests (nevermind the veterans participating in or leading the marches). Manufacturing Consent examines the reporting on the war at the time by the major media and shows that, with extraordinarily rare exceptions, the media supported U.S. government policy, preserving important narratives like that the South Vietnam people supported their U.S.-appointed dictators, even at times ignoring or covering up America’s most horrific crimes (for example, big publications like Life refused to report on My Lai when the story first broke).

And, as one might expect from a nation with so many patriots, detailed reporting on the war often caused popular support for the war to increase, not decrease. For example, conservatives often point to the Tet offensive (a massive Vietnamese counterattack that showed the U.S. had not in any way succeeded in crushing the enemy’s morale) as the best example of media reporting turning the people against the war. However, in early February 1968, the first few weeks of the Tet offensive, public opinion polls showed a shift toward increased American violence, toward the “hawks.” By the summer, when the Tet offensive was over, support for the war weakened.

Finally, comparing internal military documents, opinion polls, and media broadcasts and articles, Manufacturing Consent shows that the military and the common people were convinced long before the media that Vietnam could not be won (as documented above, public opinion was “badly divided” from the beginning). Not that this matters when considering the morality of the U.S. attack on Vietnam — whether the media turned the public against the war is irrelevant.

Despite last-ditch efforts (massive bombings called a “pacification campaign” by the State and the media), the U.S., with no victory in sight and its population near rebellion against the war, was forced to withdraw its military in 1975. North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces overwhelmed the last South Vietnam regime and captured Saigon.

They renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.

The United States lost about 60,000 soldiers in the war; hundreds of thousands more were maimed or cursed with PTSD. It is estimated that 3 million people perished in Vietnam, mostly civilians. We do not know for sure, because we do not count the bodies of our victims.

A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression

 

From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.

While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.

The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.

Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.

The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.

These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.

*   *   *

To begin the History of Violence series, we will consider a broad overview of American military use. Later segments of the series will examine interventions in detail. Better known conflicts like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World Wars are not included here, though not because they are unworthy of critical thinking — indeed, some of these will be included later in the series.

Neither is this a complete list of military use, dictators or terror groups the U.S. armed and funded, U.S. assassination plots (even in places like Germany and France), etc.

The historical record of U.S. aggression and crimes against humanity is not featured in public school textbooks, but is readily available to anyone who bothers to look. The following overview draws from the works of World War II veteran Howard Zinn such as A People’s History of the United States, William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military Interventions Since World War II and Rouge State, the works of Noam Chomsky such as Hegemony or Survival, Manufacturing ConsentBecause We Say So, Who Rules the World?, 9/11, Global Discontents, and Imperial Ambitions, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, a partial summary from Blood on Our Hands author Nicolas J.S. Davies, and convenient charts from The Evergreen State College (which includes U.S. nuclear threats and military evacuations of American civilians, which are not included in this analysis unless accompanied by warfare) and the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress (which also includes protection and evacuation of Americans, likewise not included here).   

After the Revolutionary War and throughout the 19th century, the U.S. military wiped out Native American nations and forced survivors onto desolate reservations. All the while, the young nation participated in the mass kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, which drained the African countries of millions of innocent people. There is even evidence Britain’s moves to end slavery in the early 1770s contributed to the colonial leaders’ push for independence (Blumrosen, Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution).

Foreign conflicts began innocently enough. When the United States refused to pay its debts to France after the French Revolution, France attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean (the 1798-1800 Quasi-War).

Indeed, stopping piracy spurned most of the first action abroad. The first foreign city to fall to U.S. forces (outside North America) was Derna in Tripoli (Libya) during our war with the North African (Barbary) states, which were sponsoring piracy against U.S. merchant ships. The Barbary Wars took place in 1801-1805 and 1815. The U.S. invaded Marquesas Island and established its first Pacific base in 1813. In the 1820s, marines stormed Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico. Who could forget Commodore Porter’s vicious 1824 revenge attack on the civilians of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who were accused of harboring pirates? The military hunted down pirates on Greek islands in 1827. They sacked Sumatra out of revenge in 1832. The Anti-Piracy Wars in the West Indies, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico lasted from 1814-1825.

While Britain was kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve on their ships (“impressment”), the War of 1812 also had imperialist motives (expansion into Indian and Canadian territories) and economic motives (preserving trade with Europe).

In the late 1840s, President Polk, craving the conquest of California, used a skirmish between Mexican and American forces in Texas to justify a long-planned invasion of Mexico. American soldiers made it all the way to Mexico City, and Mexico was forced to surrender the land that is today New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.

A common attitude of the time, not so different from the modern glorification of the U.S. under the doctrine of nationalism, was expressed by publisher John O’Sullivan, who wrote in 1839 that the U.S. was a country of “unparalleled glory,” free of the “crimes” of “antiquity,” “destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles” by bringing “glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field.” And in 1845, pushing for the annexation of Texas, he spoke of “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” In other words, any U.S. war of aggression was God’s will. America is somehow special in human history, her crimes justified, no matter the body count.

Other military actions kept secure American business and commerce. In 1833, U.S. forces landed in Argentina to protect American interests during a rebellion, and did the same in Peru in 1835. The military was back in Argentina in 1852, again in 1853. Commodore Perry used displays of force to open Japan to U.S. markets from 1853-1854, even landing marines twice. Troops landed in China during civil unrest in 1854.

That same year, after the Nicaraguans insulted the American ambassador, the U.S. Navy destroyed San Juan Del Norte.

American interests were protected in Uruguay during a revolution in 1858, Panama and New Grenada in 1856, China in 1859, Columbia and Panama in 1860. From 1860 to 1889, U.S. forces landed, for various reasons, in Panama, Japan, Mexico, China, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Colombia, Hawaii, Korea, and Egypt.

At the end of the century, the U.S. seized Hawaii, took over Cuba from Spain, and conquered the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain. The war in the Philippines left 600,000 natives dead, countless atrocities committed by the U.S. military — such as the purposeful slaughter of men, women, children, and elderly people widely considered racially inferior. Against early machine guns, the natives were no match for the U.S.

Mark Twain lamented of this war:

We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property in the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business partner, the Sultan of Sulu, and hoisted our protecting flag over that swag. And so, by these Providences of God—and the phrase is the government’s, not mine—we are a World Power.

The military also sent troops into Haiti to crush a black revolt against their slave masters in 1891, into Nicaragua three times, and into Argentina, Chile, Panama, China, and Samoa before the century closed.

In the first half of the 20th century, interventions increased. The U.S. military entered Panama six times between 1901 and 1958, interfering in elections, seizing the Panama Canal, breaking up strikes. Marines intervened in Honduras six times between 1903 and 1925, to influence the outcome of civil war and to protect trade. The U.S. invaded Haiti to open the nation’s land to American corporate use, and occupied it for 20 years (1914-1934). America occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924, Cuba off and on from 1898-1922, Nicaragua from 1912-1933, and even parts of China from 1911-1941. Soldiers shipped off to Russia to try to dismantle the socialist revolution in 1918.

Major General Smedley Butler, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, remembered his time in the military serving the interests of corporations in his book War is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.

I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.

The U.S. battled unionists in Guatemala in 1920, and helped overthrow its democratically-elected left-wing government in 1954 in the interests of American corporations like the United Fruit Company, which disliked Guatemalans hogging their own fertile land, plunging the nation into decades of bloody civil war. Later on, Reagan, aware of the genocide under the Guatemalan military regime, provided military aid in the 1980s, wanting the “Marxist guerrillas” and their “civilian support” destroyed. 200,000 people died from the 1950s to the 1990s. Reagan called one of Guatemala’s most murderous dictators, Montt, a “man of great personal integrity” pushing for “social justice” and “progressive efforts,” but was given a “bum rap” by human rights groups.

In 1945, U.S. forces under General Hodge took control away from the Communist Korean resistance group that battled Japan during World War II and had U.S. forces occupy the southern half of Korea. The U.S. installed Syngman Rhee as ruler of the new South Korea; he was a brutal dictator, killing and torturing Communists and dissenters, eventually destroying 100,000 lives. Rhee sought to invade North Korea, the same as North Korea sought to invade the South. During the Korean War (1950-1953), some 3 million people died, and the U.S. threatened nuclear strikes against North Korea and China. We bombed North Korea into ruin, even targeting dams and other infrastructure. Mass protests got rid of Rhee in 1960.

The U.S. helped command fascist forces (including Nazi collaborators) in Greece during its civil war against a popular leftist movement (founded by Communists) in the late 1940s. The leftists were defeated in 1949, and many were executed. The U.S. gave $2 billion by 1949 to Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek to help him defeat the widely supported Communist movement under Mao seeking to overthrow the dictatorship.

The CIA helped overthrow a democratically-elected government in Iran in 1953, and installed the Shah, a brutal dictator, partly over oil contracts. The U.S. then encouraged and aided the Shah in pursuing nuclear weapons, even allowing Iranian students to come to American universities to study nuclear engineering.

Marines crushed a rebellion in Puerto Rico and one in the Philippines. They swarmed into Lebanon in 1958. The U.S. also interfered in the affairs of Yugoslavia, Turkey, Mexico, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Egypt (the Suez Crisis) during this time. The U.S. recruited and trained Albanian exiles, including Nazi and Italian war criminals, to overthrow Albania’s Communist government.

The death toll grew since the 1960s. After Congo finally gained its independence from a foreign occupier, Belgium, and elected a prime minister friendly with the Soviets, Patrice Lumumba, the CIA immediately supported a coup that murdered him. Joseph-Desire Mobutu of the Congo army replaced him and ruled as a dictator for 30 years. He received half of all U.S. military aid to Sub-Saharan Africa during his tyrannical reign.

Between 1960 and 1975, 3-4 million people perished in Vietnam. After World War II, the U.S. helped a weakened France maintain its occupation of Vietnam, eventually taking over the effort to prevent Vietnamese independence, as the forces trying to oust foreign occupiers had Communist leanings. The U.S. installed barbaric dictators such as Diem and Thieu to maintain a firm grip on South Vietnam. The full onslaught of American bombs were justified by government deceit concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and not only did the U.S. intentionally bomb peasant villages, it purposefully bombed rice fields and other crops — causing mass starvation. U.S. soldiers routinely gunned down innocent women, children, and elderly people — the My Lai Massacre was only one of many massacres — and engaged in rape, mutilation, and torture.

Up to half a million died in the U.S. bombing and invasion of Cambodia (kept secret from the public from 1969-1970; national security advisor Henry Kissinger said, “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything about it. It’s an order, to be done. Anything that flies or anything that moves”), followed by some 2 million deaths under Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. supported when Vietnam marked Pol Pot an enemy. “How many people did [Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary] kill? Tens of thousands?” Kissinger said. “You should tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.”

The U.S. ensured the World Food Program fed Khmer Rouge troops, and the U.S. military provided them satellite intelligence and trained them in the use of landmines. Laos, another former French captive, was carpet-bombed after three CIA organized coups from 1958-1960 failed to keep leftist Pathet Lao out of office.

The U.S. supported the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, eventually overthrown by revolution. As Davies writes,

After the revolution, the CIA launched a long campaign of terrorism against Cuba, training Cuban exiles in Florida, Central America and the Dominican Republic to commit assassinations and sabotage in Cuba.  CIA-backed operations against Cuba included the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in which 100 Cuban exiles and four Americans were killed; several attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and successful assassinations of other officials; several bombing raids in 1960 (three Americans killed and two captured) and terrorist bombings targeting tourists as recently as 1997; the apparent bombing of a French ship in Havana harbor (at least 75 killed); a biological swine flu attack that killed half a million pigs; and the terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner (78 killed) planned by Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, who remain free in America despite the U.S. pretense of waging a war against terrorism. Bosch was granted a presidential pardon by the first President Bush.

Bombing targets included petrochemical plants and hotels. Crops and livestock were poisoned.

On top of this was an economic stranglehold. The State Department Policy Planning Staff wrote that the “primary danger we face in Castro is…in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). Successful defiance explains the historical hysteria over Cuba among U.S. officials, as Noam Chomsky explains. That’s why they were willing, under Operation Mongoose, to use “decisive U.S. military intervention” for “final success” in their aim: the “overthrow of the target government.” Eisenhower and his secretary of state, by the way, lamented that Communists could “appeal directly to the masses” to “get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.”

In 1963, the CIA supported the Ba’ath Party’s overthrow of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassem, who threatened British and American oil interests. Iraq’s new dictator, Ba’ath party member Saddam Hussein, became a close U.S. ally (the CIA had recruited him to murder Qassem). The U.S. government supported the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran. Reagan removed Iraq from the list of terrorist states so he could arm Saddam with military equipment—throughout the 1980s, the United States supplied Iraq with war machines and $40 billion worth of loans. The government sold Iraq biological and chemical weaponry, and the CIA instructed in their use. The Reagan Administration blocked U.N. resolutions condemning Saddam’s atrocities and use of illegal weapons. The U.S. military even assisted the Iraqis between 1987 and 1988. After 8 years, one million Iranians and Iraqis were dead. After the war was over, a war during which Saddam massacred Kurdish Iraqis and other ethnic minorities with anthrax, cyanide, and other chemicals, the U.S. continued to supply him with them. George H.W. Bush even invited Iraqi scientists to the U.S. for training in nuclear weapons production.

In 1962, General William Yarborough and his Special Forces advised the oppressive Columbian military, the general himself recommending “terrorist activities” against “known communist proponents,” which “should be backed by the United States” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). In 1964, we supported a coup in Brazil (Marines were ready to land in Sao Paolo to help) that installed a murderous regime that lasted 20 years. In 1965, the CIA assisted in an army coup in Indonesia — a struggle that eventually led to the deaths of half a million to 1 million people (the U.S. showed unwavering support to genocidal dictator Suharto).

In 1966, the CIA orchestrated a coup that got rid of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s anti-war, socialist president. Leftist prime minister of Greece Georgios Papandreou was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1967.   

In 1972, the U.S. backed the overthrow of the Philippine democracy and a coup in South Korea. The CIA backed a coup in Chile in 1973 that killed the democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, leading to the deaths of thousands and torture of tens of thousands by a brutal dictatorship under Pinochet. The American ITT corporation offered $1 million to the U.S. government to help get rid of Allende. Henry Kissinger called independent nationalism (self-rule that might lead to democratic socialism) a “virus” that could “spread contagion” to other nations (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). He also said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Elsewhere: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

The U.S. supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 — and was rewarded with access to East Timor oil. Indonesia, under the brutal dictator Suharto, killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, while the U.S. doubled military aid to him and blocked U.N. attempts to stop the slaughter. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote in his memoir, “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

In 1976, the government backed a military coup in Thailand. At about the same time, the CIA aided the Iranian secret police in torture techniques. The U.S. looked favorably at a military coup in Argentina in 1976 that led to the deaths of 30,000 human beings.

In 1982-1984, the U.S. military helped crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon. Grenada was invaded in 1983. The Navy and Air Force helped destroy a nationalist government in Libya in 1986. The American military invaded Panama in 1989, allegedly to arrest drug lord Manuel Noriega — a longtime CIA informant and ally. 2,000 people died. In 1991, the U.S. backed the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and formed a paramilitary force to crush Aristide support. Throughout the 90s, the U.S. increased its arms flow to Turkey as that nation killed tens of thousands of Kurds.

From 1992-1994, the U.S. led the U.N. occupation of Somalia during its civil war — U.S. atrocities killed thousands. The Clinton Administration bombed Sudan’s main pharmaceutical plant in 1998, alleging it was a terrorist plant producing chemical weapons — without the plant, tens of thousands died of illness.

In El Salvador, totalitarian government forces that killed tens of thousands were trained, armed, and advised by the CIA and U.S. special forces. The U.S. Army School of the Americas was vital in this effort. As Davies writes,

Major Joe Blair was the director of instruction at the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA) from 1986 to 1989. He described the training he oversaw at SOA as the following: “The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them—and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”

A U.S. cruiser in Iranian waters shot in 1988 shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 men, women, and children, which was on standard commercial air route—a naval commander on another ship thought the cruiser “hankered for the opportunity to show their stuff,” that is, a new weapons system (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?).

The military also shipped off to Iraq after Hussein devolved into an enemy by invading neighboring Kuwait to seize control of the Kuwaiti oil industry. The Bush Administration feared Saddam would also attempt to seize nearby Saudi oil fields — which were enriching U.S. oil companies. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died, half civilians. Even those who view the First Gulf War as a necessary evil may not know of how the U.S. treated its defeated enemy. Nearly 600,000 Iraqi children under age 5 died as a result of harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the war; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeline Albright infamously said, “We think the price is worth it.” An “Oil-for-Food” program introduced by the Clinton Administration sought to alleviate the starvation. Food would be shipped to Iraq if Saddam would sell large amounts of oil on the world market.

During this era, the military also entered, for various reasons, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic (fourteen-month occupation starting in 1965), Guatemala, Oman, Angola, Iran, Honduras, Bolivia, the Philippines, the Virgin Islands, Yugoslavia (U.S. bombings of Serbia and Bosnia, instead of halting ethnic cleansing and civil war, made both worse), Haiti (the U.S. actually reinstalled Aristide), Zaire, Afghanistan (where the CIA engaged in the drug trade while funding, arming, and training Islamic rebel groups, such as Osama bin Laden’s, in their fight against Soviet invaders), and Nicaragua.   

Noam Chomsky, in his book 9/11, reminded Americans of the terror during the Nicaraguan intervention:

Nicaragua in the 1980s was subjected to violent assault by the U.S. Tens of thousands of people died. The country was substantially destroyed; it may never recover. The international terrorist attack was accompanied by a devastating economic war, which a small country isolated by a vengeful and cruel superpower could scarcely sustain… The effects on the country are much more severe even than the tragedies in New York the other day. They didn’t respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They went to the World Court, which ruled in their favor, ordering the U.S. to desist and pay substantial reparations. The U.S. dismissed the court judgment with contempt, responding with an immediate escalation of the attack. So Nicaragua then went to the Security Council, which considered a resolution calling on states to observe international law. The U.S. alone vetoed it.

This was after the Sandinista Revolution of 1979 overthrew Anastasio Somosa, one of the most violent dictators in history, supported for over 40 years by the United States. The CIA recruited and trained the “contra” mercenaries (of Iran-Contra Scandal fame) to enter Nicaragua and commit acts of terrorism to shake Sandinista control. When the International Court of Justice found the U.S. guilty of war crimes in 1986, the U.S. simply declared it no longer recognized International Court of Justice authority.   

Osama bin Laden publicly stressed U.S. military interventions in the Middle East inspired the 9/11 attacks, one of many reasons why U.S. officials publicly acknowledged intervention breeds terrorism. After 14 years of the War on Terror, Al-Qaeda now inhabits a more massive geographic area, its numbers significant, reinforced by new members radicalized by the war, and global terror has increased fivefold.

This was predicted.

After 9/11, the CIA, FBI, and international intelligence officials warned the Bush Administration that war would only breed more enemies and new terror attacks. A Pentagon advisory panel, referring to a quote from George W. Bush, advised, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies.” A CIA official in charge of tracking bin Laden called the U.S. “bin Laden’s only indispensible ally” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Abu Musab Al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda strategist, believed that “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement.”

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, also justified with State lies, American oil companies like Baker Hughes and Halliburton (favored by top politicians like Vice President Dick Cheney, its former CEO) received contracts to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry, reaping billions from resources on foreign soil. (British oil companies like BP also reaped the spoils.) Bush even had to issue a “signing statement” to the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that declared he wouldn’t obey parts of the bill that forbade spending taxpayer money to, in Bush’s words, “establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq” or “to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.” Also, rather than disarming Hussein’s most barbaric security forces, the CIA recruited them and used them for American purposes.

Thus far, the War on Terror has killed over 1 million human beings, with many millions more war refugees. Refugees from Afghanistan found themselves in work camps in Pakistan, where children were sexually abused and given opium to increase work output.

Suspected terrorists, most of whom turned out to be innocent, were tortured with sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual assault, psychological warfare, and so on.

In the 21st century, besides the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. helped disarm Albanian rebels in Macedonia, helped crush rebels in the Philippines, Liberia, and Haiti (it removed Aristide for a second time in 2004), helped the Colombian military protect its oil pipelines from rebel forces, aided a new Honduran military government after a 2009 coup…a government that engaged in the mass murder of journalists, unionists, and political dissenters, and went after Muammar Gaddafi in Libya — after supporting his dictatorship for a long time.

The American government supported a coup in 2002 that briefly removed Hugo Chavez from power in Venezuela, until he was reinstalled by a largely loyal populace. The U.S. was involved in a 2014 coup that overthrew Ukraine’s president, who was replaced by fascists that killed thousands to solidify their power.    

Drone missile strikes against terrorists or national forces occurred in Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, and Libya; despite the government’s assurances that drones limit collateral damage, for every terrorist that dies by U.S. drone, nine innocent bystanders burn with him. Thousands have died in this manner.

The U.S. supported AQI, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other extremist groups in their fight against Assad, the Syrian dictator (publicly acknowledged by the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). The Pentagon predicted — accurately — that these groups would soon form something like ISIS.

*   *   *

Perhaps some of these wars can be justified on ethical grounds (that is, if they would also be justified when roles are precisely reversed). That is up to each reader to decide, though that requires a deeper look at the true reasons behind our interventions (“stopping genocide” or “killing the next Hitler” is often presented to the public to stir up support for war, but is not always the government’s main concern) and the manner in which we fight (it is likewise quite easy for the State to justify wiping out innocent women and children in peasant villages if they “aided the enemy”). The History of Violence series will offer that deeper look at some of our wars, both well-known and little-known.

Unquestionably, these horrors did not occur because political rulers reluctantly yielded to massive pressure from the common people to drop bombs. On the contrary, it often took widespread propaganda, the relentless stoking of patriotic fervor, and cunning deceit, such as the lies behind the Rio Grande affair that sparked the U.S.-Mexican War, the Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified the invasion of Vietnam, and lies about weapons of mass destruction and an Iraqi link to 9/11 that launched the Second Gulf War. The decision to use the military is not a democratic one, not one made by the people.

And as General Butler mentioned, war often exclusively serves the interests of corporate powers. If a private business grows into a powerful corporation willing to use money to influence state decisions, to use its “exclusive political sway,” as Karl Marx called it, it can mean death on a massive scale. The pursuit of new resources, markets, and profits has unquestionably caused the deaths of countless innocents.

U.S. corporations pushed for conquest and empire. War opens new markets, and gives firms greater access to natural resources and cheap labor. In the 1890s, for example, there was much talk among business elites, politicians, and in national newspapers on the need to open foreign markets, by force if necessary, for American products. Overproduction was threatening. “American factories are making more than the American people can use,” one senator said. The U.S. needed “a foreign market for our surplus products,” according to future president William McKinley. The steel industry stressed overproduction “should be relieved and prevented in the future by increased foreign trade,” and commercial farmers demanded the same (Zinn, People’s History). 

This influenced expansionist sentiment that soon took the U.S. military into Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, and other nations. After the military came railroad, lumber, fruit, sugar, and mining corporations. This pattern would continue in the future. Woodrow Wilson stressed in his 1912 campaign that “Our domestic markets no longer suffice, we need foreign markets,” and in 1914 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was pleased Wilson’s interventions had “opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.” Even after America lost the war in Vietnam, the head of a congressional committee said South Vietnam “needs foreign investment,” attractive because of its large, low-cost labor pool. “I also feel there is much profit to be made there. The combination of serving both God and Mammon had proved attractive to Americans and others in the past…. Vietnam can be the next ‘take off’ capitalistic showplace in Asia” (Zinn, People’s History).

Arms dealers and the iron industry supported war. Companies that make guns, planes, ships, tanks, and other military equipment profit enormously from war spending. For instance, the use of Raytheon’s missiles in a 2018 U.S. strike on Syria raised the company’s stock value $5 billion in a day. Helen Keller, Mark Twain’s friend, wrote before World War I, “The United States is preparing to raise a billion dollars and a million soldiers in preparation for war. Behind the active agitators for defense you will find J.P. Morgan & Co., and the capitalists who have invested their money in shrapnel plants, and others that turn out implements of murder.”

The U.S. spends more on weapons today than at the height of the Cold War; a slowdown would hurt the corporations that manufacture weapons. Since the heads of State are allies of the heads of business, there exists a profit-motive when politicians approve a budget heavy on military spending or decide to wage war. For instance, the budget Congress approved in 2014 allocated “$3 billion for weapons systems the Pentagon didn’t even request, but that companies like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin lobbied for.” The U.S. is the world’s leading supplier of weapons, meaning many of humanity’s wars are waged with tools bought from the U.S., reaping tens of billions in corporate profits. The National Security Council has flatly suggested military spending could aid economic growth. 

Internal documents concerning natural resources such as oil build on our understanding of why the U.S. frequently supports dictators and crushes governments, many socialistic and many democratically established, that threaten to “nationalize” oil industries, meaning take control of oil production from foreign corporations. People’s movements in places like the Middle East that aimed to overthrow dictators, reject political Islam, and establish democracy were opposed, oppressive totalitarian regimes (like close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, second-largest supplier of U.S. oil) embraced.

As a report to Congress by the Carter Administration said, “A number of countries with deplorable records of human rights observance are also countries where we have important security and foreign policy interests” (Zinn, People’s History).

In the 1940s, the U.S. government reached a legal agreement with Britain that would allow American oil firms to operate in the Middle East. A committee made up of State, Interior, Commerce, Navy and Army department members crafted a confidential “U.S. Petroleum Policy” that would “seek the removal or modification of existent barriers (legal, contractual or otherwise) to the expansion of American foreign oil operations and facilitate the entry or reentry of private foreign capital into countries where the absence of such capital inhibits oil development.”

By August 1945, a State Department officer was able to say that “a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity” (Zinn, People’s History). When Western Europe lay in ruins after World War II, U.S. planners cheered that the U.S. would hold “unquestioned power” in the region and aimed to limit the “exercise of sovereignty” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).

In 1948, with the Mexican government seizing control of Mexican oil from foreign corporations, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal pushed for “the appointment of ambassadors with some business experience and background…who would vigorously and continuously push the interests of American business.”

In the same era, U.S. planner and diplomat George Kennan called resources in Latin America “our” raw materials, and the answer to securing them may be “an unpleasant one…police repression by the local government.” A “strong regime” was desirable, if the outcome was “favorable to our purposes” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Dwight Eisenhower called the Middle East “the most strategically important area in the world,” and the State Department called it “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?).

In the 1950s, National Security Council objectives for Latin America included the “adequate production in Latin America of, and access by the United States to, raw materials essential to U.S. security”; also we must set about “convincing them that their own self-interest requires an orientation of Latin American policies to our objectives.” The State Department recommended the “exploitation of the colonial and dependent areas of the African Continent.” It went on to say that we must “maintain” our “position of disparity” (“we have about 50% of the world’s wealth”), but we cannot “afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction… We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

During the Vietnam War, the leaked Pentagon Papers revealed government preoccupation not with democracy or freedom in Southeast Asia, but rather tin, rubber, and oil. A National Security Council memo from June 1952 worried that “Communist control of all of Southeast Asia” would “jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests,” and threaten “the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities.” In 1953, a congressional study mission declared Indochina to be “a strategic key to the rest of Southeast Asia” due to its “immense wealth” in “rice, rubber, coal and iron ore.” Kennedy’s Undersecretary of State, U. Alexis Johnson, said, “What is the attraction that Southeast Asia has exerted for centuries on the great powers flanking it on all sides? Why is it desirable, and why is it important? First, it provides a lush climate, fertile soil, rich natural resources, a relatively sparse population in most areas, and room to expand. The countries of Southeast Asia produce rich exportable surpluses such as rice, rubber, teak, corn, tin, spices, oil, and many others…” (Zinn, People’s History).

Concerned about independent thought and action in Central and South America, the National Security Council in 1971 warned that if the U.S. could not control Latin America, it would be difficult to “achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).

In the Trilateral Commission of 1976, Samuel Huntington of Harvard, a consultant to the White House during the Vietnam War, wrote that the country was “governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment.’” He was not being critical of this. He believed there was an “excess of democracy,” recommending “limits to the extension of political democracy” (Zinn, People’s History).

Secret government memos reveal that when Arab nations cut off oil to Western powers in 1973, President Nixon was prepared to send paratroopers to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi. The public Clinton Doctrine claimed the U.S. had the right to “unilateral use of military power” to maintain “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” In 1995, the U.S. Strategic Command said in an internal report that we should not “portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed” when it comes to nuclear weapons use, but instead it should be made obvious that “the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).

In 1999, Dick Cheney told oil industry leaders, “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” Cheney set up a secret energy task force to plan how the U.S. could best control the world’s oil (Stone and Kuznick, Untold History). After 9/11, U.S. officials decided seizing Iraq would open the door to further interventions and tighter control of the region. As Stone and Kuznick write, “Pentagon officials foresaw a five-year campaign with a total of seven targeted countries, beginning with Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and the biggest prize of all, Iran.” In the National Security Strategy of 2002, the Bush Administration declared it had the right to launch pre-emptive wars against any nation that it perceived to be a future threat, and that no nation should be allowed to challenge America’s global dominance (see Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty).

Hillary Clinton wrote in 2011 of the need to open “new markets for American business,” that “a more broadly distributed military presence across the [east Asian] region will provide vital advantages…” Her State Department in 2009 allied with subcontractors for Hanes, Levi’s, and Fruit of the Loom to prevent a minimum wage increase in Haiti.

A 2017 U.S. Army War College study, while lamenting the decline in our “unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence,” emphasized that the U.S. must prevent any “purposeful, malevolent, or incidental interruption of access to the commons, as well as critical regions, resources, and markets” abroad. At about the same time, the Trump Administration was considering remaining in Afghanistan over mineral deposits that could be extracted by American companies.

Mike Prysner, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq, called himself the “real terrorist” and the U.S. occupation the “real terrorism.” He continued, “Our real enemies are not those living in a distant land whose names or policies we don’t understand; the real enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable…” Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that still exists, laments, “Today our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world”; the VVAW remains opposed to “senseless military adventures.” Veterans for Peace aims to “restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations” and “abolish war as an instrument of national policy” and move toward peace.

In his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. condemned “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” Since its founding in 1776, 241 years ago, the United States has been at war for a combined 220 years. 91% of our existence has been marked by violence.

Today, the U.S. maintains 800 military bases in 80 nations. Surveys indicate people around the world view the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace.