of Annihilation: Total War in US History
to Russell F. Weigley’s The
American Way of War (1977), the United States’ approach
to military strategy has long rested on what is called total war.
In a nutshell, total warriors make war on an enemy’s entire society
– what the anthropologists might call its material culture – that
is, on the enemy’s resources, food and other economic production,
and on anything which might sustain the enemy’s ability to keep
military forces in the field. Such war is not exclusively modern,
but looks backward towards ancient warfare, which often entailed
the slaughter of all enemy males, enslavement of enemy women and
children, and eradication of the enemy’s whole existence as an independent
political society. Rome’s triumph over Carthage comes to mind.
the centuries – from St. Augustine forward – many Christian churchmen
and writers sought to lessen the horrors of war by means of Just
War theory. Their goal was to leave society in general, that is,
civilians, as untouched as possible by conflicts set off by
the quarrels of the political classes. This aim was not always realized.
According to historian John U. Nef, it was the prosperous bourgeois
city-states of Renaissance Italy which implemented the practice
of limited warfare, which came fairly close to the just war model.
rise of large territorial monarchies, from the late 1400s onward,
broadened the scale of warfare, and the costly and bitter wars following
upon the Reformation were a setback for the notion of "civilized
warfare." It may indeed have been the sheer destructiveness
of the so-called wars of religion, which led, over time, to greater
acceptance of limits on war-making. Wars were "bad for business,"
and the growing importance of bourgeois enterprise in Europe gave
added weight to arguments against large-scale war. The 18th
and 19th centuries saw increased adherence to a code
of civilized war.
is true enough that rules were not followed very strictly in wars
involving different civilizations or cultures. There is little to
recommend the conduct of European powers in their overseas empires.
But in Europe at least, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues in Democracy:
The God That Failed, territorial monarchs had institutional
incentives both to limit the causes over which they fought their
rivals and to restrict the costs and scope of such wars. In British
North America, colonial frontier wars, or "Indian" wars,
often took on the character of wars for survival. Weigley believes
that such wars gave American war-making an early push towards the
psychology of total war. Likewise, Americans tended to conceive
of the French presence in North America as a total problem. Here
an inherited English anti-Catholicism played its role, as it did
later with regard to the Spanish Empire, or its successor states
the American Revolution, destruction of British political control
was the key to victory. In regions with numerous "Tories"
the war resembled civil war and, accordingly, did approach total
war. Still, partisan warfare by local forces seeking to drive out
invaders need not become total war, if only because the enemy did
not bring his own civilians with him to serve as targets. The Americans
prevailed on the basis of a protracted war but without developing
a doctrine of total war.
wars set off by the French Revolution provided a long-run threat
to the persistence of civilized, rule-bound warfare. Able to conscript
hundreds of thousands of ideologically motivated republican citizens,
the new French state put colossal armies in the field. Napoleon
Bonaparte, an evil genius of sorts, showed how to use such mass
armies, and other powers struggled to catch up. In Prussia, Karl
von Clausewitz sought to draw theoretical lessons from these developments
had become colossal exercises in logistics and maneuver, drawing
more and more of a nation’s population into their maw. In the early
20th century, the German strategic writer Hans Delbrück
attempted to sum up matters thus far. He held that there were at
bottom two kinds of war strategy: that of Niederwerfung,
"suppression," and that of Ermattung, "attrition."
It should be added that these kinds of war could conceivably obtain
between actual combatants, leaving society relatively unscathed.
The steady upward ratcheting of the scale and costs of wars had
farther to go before unalloyed total war could stand forth in fullness.
was in North America that the new model was first perfected. The
old union faltered in 1861. The ensuing war presented serious problems
to those who wished to "save" the union. Under the existing
rules of warfare, the defending Confederate States had a number
of natural advantages. To counter those, total war entered into
Union strategy from at least 1862. The old-school generals sacked
for being "ineffective" were precisely those who drew
back from the new philosophy of war put into practice by Generals
like Pope, Sherman, and Sheridan.
policy-makers soon theorized their practice. Here Francis Lieber
has pride of place. Lieber, a German immigrant who had fought in
the wars against Napoleon, was – out of some combination of liberalism,
romanticism, and nationalism - extremely sentimental about the state
(which Nietzsche, by contrast, called the coldest of cold monsters).
Thus Lieber could write in 1838 that "the state stands incalculably
above the individual, is worthy of every sacrifice, of life, and
goods, of wife and children, for it is the society of societies,
the sacred union by which the creator leads man to civilization,
the bond, the pacifier, the humanizer, of men, the protector of
of this pseudo-Hegelian waffle comes the notion that freedom can
be realized only within the modern abstract state; in the US, this
meant the allegedly indestructible union. Along with this perilous
modification of liberalism came, in practice, a legal-positivist
approach to the laws of war, embodied in General Orders No. 100,
which Lieber wrote for Lincoln’s War Department.
15 of these Orders reads: "Military necessity admits of all
direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and
other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable
in the armed contests of war....." Naturally, the decision
as to which persons it was "whose destruction is incidentally
unavoidable" was best left to commanders in the field,
or their superiors.
cynic might well say that this "code" allowed for the
after-the-fact justification of anything a commander might claim
had been "necessary" to achieve military objectives. One
such cynic was James Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, who commented:
"[I]n this code of military necessity... the acts of atrocity
and violence which have been committed by the officers of the United
States and have shocked the moral sense of civilized nations are
to find an apology and defense." Further, "a military
commander under this code may pursue a line of conduct in accordance
with principles of justice, faith, and honor, or he may justify
conduct correspondent with the warfare of the barbarous hordes who
overran the Roman Empire...."
1915, historian John Bigelow characterized the war thus: "Depredation
and spoliation, especially in the latter part of the war were the
general policy of Lincoln’s government; and as a matter of fact
Eastern Virginia and other parts of the South were swept clearer
than the Shenandoah Valley of everything useful to man and beast."
And historian Charles Royster observed in 1991 that the "Civil
War, as practiced by the belligerents and characterized by Sherman,
implemented two propositions which later wars took much further:
that the nation and the nation’s professed ideals admit no necessary
limit in their fight to prevail; that the methods of waging war
do not differ categorically if at all between the belligerent whose
cause is labeled just and the belligerent whose cause is labeled
unjust. Neither of these propositions commands universal assent,
yet modern belligerents have acted as if they were true."
the assumption of a right to win, the property and even the
lives of enemy civilians began to weigh much less than they had
in the older rules of war. Faced with such matters, Lincoln apologists
typically resort to what historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel calls the
Hitler-Stalin-Mao test. Clearly, Sherman’s March falls far short
one such historian, the fact that Northern soldiers did not directly
shoot civilians is a sufficient proof of the humanity of the war.
This is all well and good, but one would like an explanation for
the roughly 50,000 missing Southern civilians of all colors and
creeds. They seem to have perished from causes attendant on the
war, once it became a war against property and economic resources.
July 1862, Lincoln rather typically told Southern unionists, who
were complaining of Northern seizures of property that "broken
eggs cannot be mended" – a statement which puts him directly
in the line of Jacobin-Bolshevik political ruthlessness. As a result
of all this, Lincoln has become "famed for his compassion,"
in historian James M. McPherson’s words. It would appear that Lincoln’s
myth has long since outrun the facts.
why dwell on that war? One dwells there precisely because
that war became the template, the ideological framework, within
which policies were made and within which all respectable discussions
took place ever after. To be very brief, General Grant showed what
could be done with grand Napoleonic battles of annihilation (or
"combats" in Weigley’s terms) undertaken with cheap conscripts.
Confederate commanders obliged him by doing much the same. This
was very costly in manpower, and more importantly, politically.
Northern war weariness threatened to bring about peace before salvation
of the union had been achieved. The Southern States had only to
break out of this box, the Northern leadership turned Sherman, Sheridan,
and others loose on Southern society as such. By living off the
resources of the enemy, Sherman could ignore problems of supply
while "making Georgia howl," as he delicately put it.
Of $100 million dollars in property damage inflicted on his famous
march, Sherman bragged that just $20 million had a real military
purpose and the remaining $80 million was "simple waste and
the preferred strategy became one of making war on the enemy’s society
generally, to undermine his armies in the field. Having led to victory,
Lincoln’s policies are now taken as sacred text, precedent, and
proof that all later actions of a like kind are rightful and just,
without anyone ever offering proof that the original acts were rightful
and just. For the moment, we may chalk this up to an ineradicable
American pragmatism, and go on. After all, Lincoln’s generals won,
and this carries great moral weight in some circles.
military technician, ignoring questions raised by old-fashioned
morality, could easily consider Sherman’s strategy a brilliant shortcut.
Such was the judgment, for example, of Captain B. H. Liddell-Hart,
British military theorist and historian. Defenders of total war
make much of the way in which it allegedly "saves lives"
by shortening the war. It seems likely that total war distributes
deaths differently between the belligerents than would otherwise
happen – and at higher total numbers.
drawing any conclusions, we must continue our cook’s tour of US
wars. The connection between total war and Indian Wars has already
been mooted. It is probably no accident that General Sherman had
seen service in the Second Seminole War in the early 1840s. He hated
being attacked by mobile opponents able to disappear, and called
for total eradication of the Seminole people.
for General Sheridan, he told his subordinates about to engage western
Indians, "I want you to be bold, enterprising, and at all times
full of energy, when you begin, let it be a campaign of annihilation,
obliteration and complete destruction...." In these little
wars, wanton destruction of buffalo herds was aimed at eliminating
the enemy’s food source. Pained by criticism of his total war tactics
against Indians, Sheridan - in a letter to his old comrade Sherman
– asked rhetorically, "Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg
or Atlanta because women and children were there?" Of course
they had not.
at Prussian Headquarters as an observer during the Franco-Prussian
War (1870-1871), Sheridan espoused the gospel of total war. "The
people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the
war," he told the Prussians. The New World thus enlightened
War and Philippine "Insurrection"
Spanish-American War (1898) was too brief to offer much in the way
of advances in total war. It is mainly interesting as the beginning
of US overseas empire, formal and informal. What is interesting
is the sequel, the so-called Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902).
make good the real estate deal with Spain, which brought the Philippine
Islands under US sovereignty, a costly counter-insurgency was fought.
General Orders No. 100 were allegedly still in force, but proved
flexible enough to permit the deaths of some 200,000 Filipinos,
mostly non-combatants, before the US was able to claim victory and
begin administering its new-found "India."
keen on finding ironies might turn their attention from the American
South for a few minutes and savor these: The US, having denounced
Spanish "atrocities" in Cuba from 1895-1898, adopted the
same tactics to subdue the Filipinos. The US was simply more effective.
By a wonderful coincidence, Britain was in these same years waging
a counter-insurgency in South Africa against the Afrikaner people.
The Anglo-American relationship thrived on the shared experience,
and the two governments conspicuously refrained from criticizing
one another’s tactics in dealing with "rebels."
War I took the Napoleonic model of colossal combats, which sacrificed
big mobs of conscripted cannon fodder, to new heights. Millions
could take part. Now, Europeans experienced the costly sort of war
undertaken by Grant and Lee. In an effort to find a way out, short
of calling the damned thing off (that would never do), the powers
looked around for previously unlawful means of punishing the enemy’s
undertook a starvation blockade of Germany. Germany responded with
submarine warfare against neutral shipping. The latter helped bring
the US into the war with a mixed bag of sordid mercantilist goals
and high idealism.
across the board, the old rules of war gave way - in the direction
of total war. The most that can be said is that the settlement was
in some ways worse than the war itself, setting the stage for the
next European civil war as well as for the present excitement in
the Middle East. Finally, interesting experiments with aircraft
seemed to herald even better ways of making war on the enemy’s entire
Power Bids Fair to Solve All Technical Problems
the wake of World War I, Italian General Guido Douhet theorized
that aerial bombardment would be the key to winning future wars.
Intimidation of civilian populations would cause them to make their
governments yield to an enemy’s will. It was British and American
strategists who took up the theme and tailored their air forces
to the task of saturation bombing, unlike such powers as Germany
and Soviet Russia.
1925, Captain Elbridge Colby, US Army, helped formulate the US attitude
towards air power as an instrument of total war. He wrote that a
"belligerent will not wish to risk his planes and pilots, expend
his gasoline, or waste his munitions, on any objectives except those
of military importance." This was already problematic, given
the US tradition of defining "military targets" rather
went on to say that everyone knows that bombing is highly inaccurate.
"Innocent people are bound to be struck," he says,
even if the bomber’s intention is to strike a genuinely military
target [my italics]. He surveyed standing legal doctrine and concluded,
rather predictably, that since adherence to the rules would virtually
outlaw bombing, it was the rules, not the bombing, which must yield.
No one, he said, could possibly be expected to forego wielding such
a convenient and useful weapon. Interestingly, he cites British
bombing of Afghanistan in May 1919 as telling precedent.
War II and the Fulfilment of Total War
War II was the apotheosis of total war. This may explain its lasting
popularity with proponents of political management of human life.
Deliberate carpet-bombing of cities to kill civilians as such
came into its own. The most that one can say is that in Europe it
was mainly the British who insisted on targeting cities per se,
while the Americans stuck to targets of military significance, albeit
under their rather broad and careless definitions. In the Far East,
US air forces firebombed Japanese cities and civilians with great
abandon. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in both theatres.
David M. Kennedy writes: "[T]he great nuclear blast that obliterated
Hiroshima hardly represented a moral novelty by this date in the
conflict. The moral rules that had long stayed the warriors’ hands
from taking up weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations
had long since been violently breached…."
the bombings of Japan, General Curtis LeMay said: "You’ve got
to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough, they stop fighting."
This goes beyond even General Sherman’s wildest rhetoric – and action
– but states a proposition widely accepted as self-evident truth
by contemporary Americans. Nuclear bombs fulfilled the total warrior’s
dream, but had the odd side-effect of making major wars so potentially
costly as to be unthinkable for the foreseeable future.
Wars within the Cold War: Korea and Vietnam
the Korean War, the US doctrine of total war and hysterically broad
use of overwhelming firepower got further exercise. General Emmett
O’Donnell commented: "I would say that the entire, almost the
entire, Korean peninsula, is just a terrible mess. Everything is
destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name.... Just
before the Chinese came in we were grounded. There were no more
targets in Korea."
Churchill, never bomb-shy when it came to Germany, objected to US
use of napalm in Korea. (2,300 gallons were used in one attack on
Pyongyang.) To quote the jovial Curtis LeMay again: "We burned
down just about every city in North and South Korea both.... We
killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million
more from their homes." Given such a mode of waging war, one
might think that even those allegedly being "protected"
by these exercises would begin to have their doubts.
Vietnam, I shall say very little. Only those who have been asleep
will be unaware that civilian deaths in Southeast Asia resulting
from the US mode of warfare match, or exceed those in Korea, especially
when other parts of Indo-China are taken into account. It does not
change such facts to point at other ruthless forces, such as the
Khmer Rouge. In any case, consistency on the part of those doing
the pointing would require them to explain why such a public enemy
as Pol Pot could later be the recipient of US support after his
colorful career as murderer "of his own people."
the only novelty in Vietnam was the high-flown social scientific
theorizing attached to the bombing campaign. This was an interesting
application of behaviorist rat-psychology, which, however, cast
more doubt on the methodology than on the putative rats. As in World
War II, bombing did not have the desired and predicted effect
on enemy popular morale. Such unhappy outcomes have never made believers
in air power lose heart.
must note, in passing, extensive US bombing of irrigation dams in
North Vietnam in late 1972, intended to destroy rice crops on which
the population depended. This was a real Nuremburg War Crimes Trial
item, but no one ever appeared in court. Noam Chomsky heroically
brought these matters, both theory and practice, to public attention
many years ago, which may account for his skepticism about subsequent
US crusades. For this well-earned scepticism he is currently being
pilloried by the neo-conservatives.
War With A Human Face?
the post-Cold War period, we have begun to see a re-packaging of
US public doctrine into a new system of discourse or representations
of how wars are actually conducted. Bombs and rockets are now much
friendlier. Civilians are no longer harmed "unnecessarily,"
given the unspeakable accuracy and precision of the new, improved
spin is that no one who knows the deep moral rectitude of US statesmen
could now dream that civilians are ever targeted on purpose. Naturally,
there is some slippage in warfare, they say, but one has to expect
that. Even so, the deaths of some 600 Iraqi civilians in the Amiriya
bomb shelter during the Gulf War did require some fancy footwork
from the spokespersons, even granting the generous US notion of
what were the "targets" in Iraq? They were precisely what
applied total war doctrine says they should be: everything that
supports the enemy’s society – water systems, electrical production,
bridges, roads, - but the point is made. If these things can be
destroyed without directly killing large numbers of civilians,
so much the better in the new, kindlier total war.
PR flacks may reinvent total war all they wish, with ribbons and
bows, but the old concerns still peek out. Thus, an essay in the
Marine Corps Gazette (October 1989), written by five officers,
sketches out a theory of "fourth generation" warfare to
deal with changing conditions abroad. In this brave new world, "tactical
and strategic levels will blend as the opponent’s political infrastructure
and civilian society become battlefield [!] targets"
[my italics]. Elsewhere, this gets a friendlier face as "a
goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying
him [a distinction with not much of a difference?]. Targets will
include such things as the population’s support for the war and
the enemy’s culture [my italics]. Correct identification
of enemy strategic centers of gravity will be highly important."
sounds pretty total to me. Of course they also warn that we must
watch out for reprisals on American soil. Yes, one might wish to
allow for that.
public attention span is short. If a half million Iraqi civilians
(or more) die from lack of civilized infrastructure, combined with
a blockade poorly hidden behind the weasel word "sanctions,"
the public may never notice. This is the sheer genius of the present
transformation of total war. The new total war is indirect and subtle
and, therefore, less likely to arouse concerns about its costs,
much less its morality. Hence the effort to disguise each new effort
– Iraq, Kosovo, or the present ill-defined "war’ – with the
fig leaf of the UN, NATO, or some other coalition of the Good against
we see is an effort to achieve global hegemony on the cheap. It
is especially important that it be cheap politically – at home.
If it costs a large amount of money, that can be discounted as imperial
overhead, particularly if costs can be shifted onto some of the
overseas provinces. As self-licensed counterfeiters to the world,
US leaders can achieve some of this through routine monetary inflation.
And why should allied foreign power elites get a free ride, anyway?
State of Play at the Beginning of the Third Millennium
collateral damage, i.e., dead civilians, in the present campaign
against the Fuzzy Wuzzies, British Secretary of State for Defense
Geoff Hoon has lately opined: "There is always going to be
a risk that cannot be avoided." Not for him, one imagines.
This suggests that even having an air force adds up to an intention
to commit war crimes. Time was when one could tell a power’s air
strategy by the kinds of aircraft built. US total warriors have
ruined even this test by turning fighter jets into virtual bombers
by means of those much advertised rockets.
consider the phrase, "collateral damage." It has almost
become an embarrassment because of overuse during the Gulf War.
Nonetheless, it is organically linked to the doctrine of Good Intentions.
The US never intends to harm civilians. Therefore, any actual
harming of civilians is unintentional, accidental, and morally neutral.
The mere fact that, empirically, a broad notion of targeting and
seemingly endless munitions lead to rather sloppy results is not
felt as refutation of the foregoing. One might ask the several hundred
Panamanians – citizens of a friendly nation with whom the US was
not at war – killed during the comic opera "arrest" of
Manuel Noriega, about that.
now, we are back to Lincoln and the classic doctrine. As it now
stands, US total war doctrine holds that as long as one’s heart
is pure, one’s goals - however impossible – are "humanitarian,"
and one’s domestic political system is democratic, one may do literally
anything to defeat a proclaimed enemy society. This represents
a projection of the trauma of 1861-1865, as experienced by the Northern
leadership, onto the entire globe. Glory, glory, hallelujah,
untruths go marching on. This is why Lincoln is so heavily drawn
on, in these moments, as precedent, justification, and inspirational
(if depressive) genius and patron saint of all US wars.
have been many examples of the "if Lincoln did it, it must
be right" genre lately. Every leftist, liberal, centrist, and
neo-conservative defender of empire has weighed in just such terms,
mainly in aid of increased surveillance and new inroads on civil
liberties. In his useful book, Crusade:
The Untold Story of the Gulf War (1993), Rick Atkinson played
this card to rationalize the famous "turkey shoot," i.e.,
the mass slaughter by US-coalition forces of tens of thousands of
retreating Iraqi conscripts. Those defeated forces in no way endangered
allied forces, unless the US coalition really intended to occupy
and reinvent Iraq. Nonetheless, allied forces simply massacred them
because it was in their power to do so. Little of the warrior ethic
was on display there.
Atkinson brings the ultimate argument to bear: "The law of
war - the orders signed by Abraham Lincoln before Gettysburg were
an example - permitted an attack on enemy combatants, whether advancing,
retreating, or standing still." Further: "The prevalent
American military philosophy since the Civil War had embraced a
‘strategy of annihilation,’ the relentless bludgeoning of an enemy
to destroy his armed forces and ability to wage war."
is time, then, for a discussion of ends and means in relation to
war and peace. Clever fellows like Jonah Goldberg like to deconstruct
the popular saying, "The end doesn’t justify the means."
Quite so. Means do justify ends. The question is whether or not
particular ends hallow any and every old means one could come up
total warriors have had their say about this for nearly a century
and a half. Their later theorizings, most notably during the High
Cold War at the hands of such worthies as Hermann Kahn, Henry Kissinger,
and the like, amounted to a gross distortion of Just War theory.
They sought to focus all attention on jus ad bellum, i.e.,
whether or not a particular cause was just. It cannot be
said that they did a strikingly good job on this front or that their
efforts had much to do with actually existing US foreign policy.
jus in bello, i.e., what means were morally supportable
in war, they said rather little. The Good Intentions took
care of that. This goodness radiated outwards, enveloping all US
military practices – and indeed all conceivable US military practices
– with the all the finality of a newly discovered 14th
Amendment "penumbra" wiping out a longstanding constitutional
interpretation. The Good could do no Bad. Conversely, the Bad could
do no Good. No weapon, however massively destructive, was immoral
or frightening in the hands of the Good, just as no weapon, however
modest or plausibly related to self-defense, could be suffered in
the hands of the Bad.
this genial doctrine, there are entirely good nations, whose every
act, of whatever kind, against certified entirely bad nations must
needs be rightful and true. Doubters are told to gird themselves
up with a pseudo-Stoicism which holds that "broken eggs cannot
be mended." Things just happen, you know, when just crusades
begins to wonder if this construction is not as crazy and unlimited,
in its own way, as Soviet Marxism-Leninism ever was. A look at the
recent rash of neo-conservative writings on the present crisis suggests
that only an explanation in terms of mistaken theology will suffice.
This brings us to the decayed Puritanism of the "savers"
and re-founders of the Union (the Founders having been mainly Southerners).
Historian William Appleman Williams writes of the New England Puritans
that their externalization of evil onto their opponents "not
only distorted the Puritans’ own doctrine, it inclined them toward
a solution which involved the extension of their system over others."
Q. E. D.
world outlook, decayed or otherwise, still partly animates the ongoing
US crusade. Matters are even worse in that US leaders have the resources
to pursue their post-Protestant "vision of omnipotence"
(to quote Williams again), since the American economy still functions
fairly well, in contrast to the late Soviet economy. They have in
hand the means to pursue their Faustian dream. And yet, despite
all the expensive "defense" they provide us with, we seem
Might Be the Alternative?
let us return to the strategic front. Weigley observes that already
in 1926, a writer in the Naval Institute Proceedings, William
Howard Gardner, had spotted a flaw in the US leaders’ ambitions:
is great importance in the fact that in a war between the United
States and an Asiatic power the latter’s aims would seem distinctly
‘limited’ to many Americans, whereas, in order to maintain our position
in Asiatic affairs, we might have to aim at ‘unlimited’ reduction
of the enemy’s country, though not necessarily by invasion in force.
In other words, the geographic distribution of interests is such
that the inauguration of a ‘limited’ war by an Asiatic power would
be likely to compel us to carry through an ‘unlimited’ war to victory
as the only alternative to accepting defeat. Consequently, the enemy’s
combativeness would be aroused to the utmost while some among us
probably would rather yield than continue the war."
is interesting that Weigley refers to this as "the American
problem" [my italics]. It certainly is that, provided US
leaders insist on world hegemony. One has to believe in quite a
lot of high-flown and farfetched world-land theory in the tradition
of Mackinder and Haushofer to buy that project. I shall soon undertake
a web search to see if Zbigniew Brzezinksi, an architect of our
"successful" Afghan caper of the 1980s, has written much
on whether or not the moon is made of ice.
only hope of deliverance from our pending transformation into an
ersatz British Empire lies in adopting a different conception of
American foreign policy. This would mean giving up Lincoln’s idea
of America as the "last best hope" of mankind, and his
successors’ program of exporting our blessings by force. This would
mean a final, fond farewell to the civic religion forged in the
fires of Atlanta and Columbia.
Russell Weigley has been a good guide to the United States’ philosophy
of war, he has said little about the necessity or merits of those
wars. For this, we turn to Williams, whose work was a single-minded,
radical critique of the US Empire and its Open Door ideology. To
this we add the free market economics of Murray Rothbard, which
shows us how to disaggregate, or unpack, the ideological categories
of the prevailing system.
those quasi-Hegelian categories, the empire is the only possible
"realm of freedom." Freedom is, in fact, precisely
that which the empire allows or commands. All else is anarchy or
oppression. Rothbard starts with the simplest lesson of all: the
state is not the nation, the state is not the people, and the state
is not society. See especially, Murray N. Rothbard, "War, Peace,
and the State" in Egalitarianism
as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (2000), pp.
115-132, for the wide-ranging consequences of this simple insight.
have no space here to dwell on how war invariably strengthens the
state. I take that as given. With empire, we have far too many opportunities
for war, and therefore for state aggrandizement. Americans need
to decide whether they wish to regain their freedoms. If they do
not, they can sign up for the "national greatness" and
imperialism offered by the neo-conservatives.
of the burdens Americans will bear, if they choose the latter path,
will be the costs – in life, liberty, property, and social morality
– of total war. The point of this essay has not been to make anyone
feel guilty about the methods used in past wars. I know no
one, personally, who burned Atlanta or bombed Dresden. It is just
that, given the track record of the strategists we have had, if
we stay on the imperial highway, sooner or later some of us will
be asked to undertake, or acquiesce in, the inglorious deeds of
total war, however sanitized and repackaged they may be. I don’t
know if we should really want that for our children or our grandchildren.
is needed is an historically formed understanding of the pattern
of US wars; how certain kinds of challenge, and not others, call
forth an armed response; how pretended "negotiations"
always break down, systematically; how loveable, local revolutionary
"allies" are always shoved to one side while the US appropriates
their cause, from 1898 on; how war immediately becomes total war;
how the proper authorities always demand Unconditional Surrender,
as if such a demand were normal; how widespread destruction gives
way, after victory, to sentimental but profitable "reconstruction"
of the chastened foe. In short, what we need is the historical vision
we never got in high school.
his exhaustive account of US military practice, Weigley remarks
that America has produced only one gifted practitioner of the
war of attrition (partisan war), General Nathaniel Greene. I ask,
Why might that be? I answer that it is because the Revolution
was in most respects a just war of defense, and not a war for empire.
It has been a long time since we fought a war which was clearly
of that character.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com