Rome, Paris, London, Indianapolis — hey, wait a minute! Something’s wrong here. Or is it? Might Americans have overlooked a truth that has been staring them in the face from the very beginning of their residence on this continent?
Rome, Paris, and London were each in times past the capital of a great empire — vast territories conquered by bellicose Romans, Frenchmen, and Englishmen. Among many other monuments of these conquests, Rome has the Arch of Constantine, Paris has the Arc de Triomphe, and London has Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Indianapolis has the State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
I found myself in Indianapolis recently on business. Although I had visited that city several times before, I had never spent much time in the downtown area, as I did on this occasion. One afternoon, having a little time free, I set out to have a look at the city. Almost immediately, I arrived at Monument Circle, a large circular plaza ringed by a traffic roundabout and substantial buildings and dominated by an immense, towering monument. The great limestone shaft at its center stands more than 284 feet high; at its top, a statue of “Victory” adds another 38 feet. Having traveled fairly extensively in this country, I am never surprised to come upon a monument to the War Between the States in a northern city — although on these monuments the war is never given this name, being called instead, and rather tendentiously, the War for the Union, the War of the Rebellion, or the Civil War. The Indianapolis shrine, however, certainly ranks as the most kick-ass war monument I’ve ever encountered in this country.
It does not confine itself to celebration of the northern victories of 1861—65. Every American war you’ve ever heard of before World War I, as well as some you haven’t heard of, receives commemoration at this temple, which was completed in 1902. Walking around the great circle, I became more and more impressed — appalled may be a more accurate word — by this immense limestone-and-bronze celebration of war and conquest. The northern Americans, it would appear, thoroughly kicked the asses of the British and their Indian allies, then the asses of other Indians farther west, then the asses of the Mexicans, then the asses of the southerners, then the asses of the Spaniards and the Filipinos, then, as we need no monument to tell us, the asses of the Germans (twice) and the Japanese. When, one can’t help wondering, will this magnificent ass-kicking cease?
For the record, I note that I saw nothing to attest that the northern Americans had kicked the asses of the Koreans, the Vietnamese, or the Iraqis. Perhaps the monument commission is working on apt representations of these more recent wars, too, and will add them to the exhibition in due course. And who knows: a entire new circle cum mega-monument might be devoted to the Great American Victory in the Cold War — topped, I suppose, by a 50-foot-high statue of Commander in Chief Ronald Reagan, adorned by his most memorable words, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
You can learn a lot from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and the associated museums and Web sites. You probably didn’t appreciate, for example, that the War Between the States was won, in considerable part, by German soldiers, who rallied to the colors at the first sound of that stirring old American battle cry, Achtung, deutsche Patrioten! Other things, however, you probably won’t learn at these sites: for example, why did all of these men need to kill and be killed in a War Between the States in the first place? That sort of information is, shall we say, simply taken for granted. Perhaps the authorities have placed it on a “need to know” basis.
You’ll find a clue, however, if you read the address that President Benjamin Harrison, himself an Indiana native and a brevet brigadier general in the not-so-civil war, gave on August 22, 1889, when the monument’s cornerstone was laid at a grand public ceremony. In his brief speech, the president found time to say, according to the New York Times: “This is a monument of Indiana to Indiana soldiers. But I beg you to remember that they were only soldiers of Indiana until the enlistment oath was taken; that from that hour until they came back to the generous State that sent them forth they were soldiers of the Union. [Great applause.]“
As this passage suggests, before the war the union was, as time-honored usage represented it, these United States; afterward, it was the United States. The dual sovereignty, or true federalism, that had been stitched into the constitutional fabric in 1787 had been ripped out once and for all. Henceforth, in the crunch, every American’s loyalty was to be not to his state or locality, but to the mighty Union, subject to severe penalties for noncompliance. This result was precisely what Benjamin Harrison — a stalwart Republican whose grandfather was the Whig President William Henry Harrison — and his ilk had hoped to achieve by forcibly subjugating the secessionist states.
The Unionists’ success could scarcely have been greater. Only thirty-three years after the troops of Indiana and the other northern states had triumphantly terminated their rampage of murder and destruction through the South, southern men clamored to sign up for service in the U.S. forces setting out to kick ass in Cuba and the Philippines, seemingly unconcerned that the flag under which they now enlisted had waved over the armies that invaded and ravaged their home states in the days of their fathers and grandfathers. Forgive and forget, I suppose. Moreover, as if to add injury (often including their own) to the insult (to their forebears), southerners have distinguished themselves ever since as the most ardent cannon fodder in the country for service in U.S. imperial adventures around the world.
So, the reader can see that I hold no brief against the bloodthirsty men of Indiana in particular. The virus that infected their ancestors and now infects them has found a receptive host in the tissue of Americans throughout the land from the very beginning. A folklore exists in this country that we are a peace-loving people. Although a peace-loving American may perchance be found here and there, the generalization is manifestly false. Not for nothing did Geoffrey Perret title his 1989 history of the United States A Country Made by War. If you think Americans in general have a strong preference for peace, you have not been paying attention; nor have you been immersing yourself in history books. The country in which Americans take such pride today is the product of people who were willing, and often eager, to kill anyone who obstructed what they presumed to be their Manifest Destiny. And since 1898, having subdued a vast, resource-rich continent and confined its surviving aboriginal people to desolate tribal reservations, they have made the entire world their blood-soaked sandbox.
Today, the nation finds itself mired in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and after the many years that these conflicts have continued, some of us despair that peace will ever be restored. U.S. leaders speak almost lovingly of the “long war” that, they promise, constitutes the “new normalcy.” Some people cry out desperately, When will this country again be at peace?
Perhaps the answer is simpler than anyone imagined: we will be at peace as soon as we wish to be. So long as the great mass of Americans affirmatively supports or timidly acquiesces in this nation-state’s global belligerence, however, the killing will continue, because there’s a great deal of money and power in such aggression for its principal movers and shakers, and these kingpins will continue to grasp the bloodstained prizes for as long as they can get away with doing so. But when Americans en masse — in Indiana and elsewhere — decline to sacrifice their lives, liberties, and properties on this statist altar any longer, these unnecessary, wasteful, and immoral wars will stop. Between that majestic day and the present day, however, lies a cultural change of gigantic proportions. It scarcely stretches the truth to say that in order for the United States to achieve a lasting peace, Americans will have to become a new kind of people.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.