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Tomgram: John Dower, Body Count for the American Century

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: With some pride, I'm announcing today the newest Dispatch Book. It's also the capstone on eminent historian John Dower's work on America's wars, including his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning War Without Mercy and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Embracing Defeat . His new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, is about to be published. Given the deluge of "news" that is the Trump era and everyone's sudden lack of reading time, it's a mercifully short, sharp, timely, and definitive look at what "the American Century" has really meant in terms of violence. I consider it a true must-read for our moment. And I'm not alone.

Among a crowd of people who have praised the book, Noam Chomsky says: "John Dower ends this grim recounting of 75 years of constant war, intervention, assassination, and other crimes by calling for 'serious consideration' of why the most powerful nation in world history is so dedicated to these practices while ignoring the nature of its actions and their consequences -- an injunction that could hardly be more timely or necessary as the Pentagon's 'arc of instability' expands to an 'ocean of instability' and even an 'atomic arc of instability' in Dower's perceptive reflections on today's frightening world." Andrew Bacevich adds: "A timely, compact, and utterly compelling expose' of the myriad contradictions besetting U.S. national security policy... a powerful book." And Seymour Hersh writes: "No historian understands the human cost of war, with its paranoia, madness, and violence, as does John Dower, and in this deeply researched volume he tells how America, since the end of World War II, has turned away from its ideals and goodness to become a match setting the world on fire."

I hope all TomDispatch readers will pick-up a copy. You can go to Amazon.com and pre-order one now (and make TD a few cents at no cost to you) by clicking on this link or you can order a copy directly from Haymarket Books at an exclusive discount for TD readers of 50%, simply by clicking on this link and following the checkout instructions you'll see there. However you do it, buy The Violent American Century and support our new book publishing program! Tom]

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Recently, the historian Marilyn Young, an old friend, died. She spent her life writing about America's wars and a country at war. Her New York Times obituary quoted this telling passage from a speech she gave to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations:

"I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war. I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace, or postwar. Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold."

Curiously enough, with the exception of World War II and Vietnam (for quite different reasons), Americans have lived through our many wars of the last century, years drenched in blood and suffering when this country became the most dominant power on the planet, in a state of relative obliviousness. Nonetheless, peaceable as the United States seemed in those decades domestically, its wars did come home in all sorts of ways or you would have a hard time explaining the militarization of this country, the growth of the Pentagon budget to staggering proportions, and the rise of the national security state (and its surveillance systems).

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That's why John Dower's new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, arrives at such an opportune moment, just as the era of Donald Trump begins with a visible ramping up (yet again) of America's wars across the Greater Middle East. It offers a rare assessment of what that century's human toll actually looks like and of our country's involvement in it. In his article today, adapted from that book's first chapter, Dower offers some striking thoughts on how to begin to measure the toll of the last 75 years of global war and conflict. And I must admit that, under the circumstances, it seems particularly fitting to me that Marilyn Young gave what must have been the last blurb of her life to his book, writing, "In The Violent American Century, John Dower has produced a sharply eloquent account of the use of U.S. military power since World War II. From 'hot' Cold War conflicts to drone strikes, Dower examines the machinery of American violence and its staggering toll. This is an indispensable book." Tom

An American Century of Carnage
Measuring Violence in a Single Superpower World
By John W. Dower

[This essay is adapted from "Measuring Violence," the first chapter of John Dower's new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.]

On February 17, 1941, almost 10 months before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Life magazine carried a lengthy essay by its publisher, Henry Luce, entitled "The American Century." The son of Presbyterian missionaries, born in China in 1898 and raised there until the age of 15, Luce essentially transposed the certainty of religious dogma into the certainty of a nationalistic mission couched in the name of internationalism.

Luce acknowledged that the United States could not police the whole world or attempt to impose democratic institutions on all of mankind. Nonetheless, "the world of the 20th Century," he wrote, "if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century." The essay called on all Americans "to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such measures as we see fit."

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States wholeheartedly onto the international stage Luce believed it was destined to dominate, and the ringing title of his cri de coeur became a staple of patriotic Cold War and post-Cold War rhetoric. Central to this appeal was the affirmation of a virtuous calling. Luce's essay singled out almost every professed ideal that would become a staple of wartime and Cold War propaganda: freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, self-reliance and independence, cooperation, justice, charity -- all coupled with a vision of economic abundance inspired by "our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills." In present-day patriotic incantations, this is referred to as "American exceptionalism."

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The other, harder side of America's manifest destiny was, of course, muscularity. Power. Possessing absolute and never-ending superiority in developing and deploying the world's most advanced and destructive arsenal of war. Luce did not dwell on this dimension of "internationalism" in his famous essay, but once the world war had been entered and won, he became its fervent apostle -- an outspoken advocate of "liberating" China from its new communist rulers, taking over from the beleaguered French colonial military in Vietnam, turning both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts from "limited wars" into opportunities for a wider virtuous war against and in China, and pursuing the rollback of the Iron Curtain with "tactical atomic weapons." As Luce's incisive biographer Alan Brinkley documents, at one point Luce even mulled the possibility of "plastering Russia with 500 (or 1,000) A bombs" -- a terrifying scenario, but one that the keepers of the U.S. nuclear arsenal actually mapped out in expansive and appalling detail in the 1950s and 1960s, before Luce's death in 1967.

The "American Century" catchphrase is hyperbole, the slogan never more than a myth, a fantasy, a delusion. Military victory in any traditional sense was largely a chimera after World War II. The so-called Pax Americana itself was riddled with conflict and oppression and egregious betrayals of the professed catechism of American values. At the same time, postwar U.S. hegemony obviously never extended to more than a portion of the globe. Much that took place in the world, including disorder and mayhem, was beyond America's control.

Yet, not unreasonably, Luce's catchphrase persists. The twenty-first-century world may be chaotic, with violence erupting from innumerable sources and causes, but the United States does remain the planet's "sole superpower." The myth of exceptionalism still holds most Americans in its thrall. U.S. hegemony, however frayed at the edges, continues to be taken for granted in ruling circles, and not only in Washington. And Pentagon planners still emphatically define their mission as "full-spectrum dominance" globally.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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