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Is the United States of America Addicted to War?

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Mikhail Gorbachev is not a frivolous man. He was the Soviet leader who introduced the conceptual breakthrough of "mutual security" to Soviet-American relations, as well as the man who did more than any other individual to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. (See ) In my opinion, he ranks as the greatest statesman of the twentieth century (something I was able to tell him personally, when we talked in St. Petersburg, Russia in May 2006).

So, when Mr. Gorbachev says, "Every US president has to have a war," and "I sometimes have the feeling that the United States is going to wage war against the entire world," - as was reported by the on May 7, 2008 -- I take him seriously. More to the point, Gorbachev's assertions probably elicited widespread agreement, not only in Russia, but also across Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

For, as historian Michael Sherry has put it: "Measured by its actions rather than its self-image, the United States is a warrior nation more than any other modern power is." Lawrence R. Velvel has been blunter still: "The United States is a nation which seeks war." As evidence, Velvel adds: "Since Hitler invaded Poland, we have fought World War II, the Korean War, the Viet Nam war, secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, the first Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and the second Gulf War. We have invaded, bombed, or 'quarantined,' among other places, Panama, Grenada, Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, the Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Libya. We have 'declared' a world wide war on terrorists. We spend more on our military, some say, than all the rest of the world put together. "["Why We Seek War," The Long Term View Spring 2004]

Even worse, many of America's wars were unnecessary. According to historian John L. Harper: "History shows that the United States has had a strong propensity to become involved in conflicts which, though it would be misleading to call them 'wars of choice,' were unnecessary wars." In Professor Harper's interpretation, the U.S. has fought only five wars that strictly were "wars of necessity": the War of Independence, the Civil War, World War II, the initial phase of the Korean war, and the Afghanistan War (following the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorist attacks).

After identifying two "borderline" wars - World War I and the first Gulf War - the U.S. still fought six wars that Professor Harper believes were unnecessary: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the second phase of the Korean War, the Vietnam war and Bush's invasion of Iraq. [John L. Harper, "Anatomy of a Habit: America's Unnecessary Wars," Survival, Summer 2005, pp. 58-59]

Moreover, each of "American's unnecessary wars adhere to a basic five-part pattern: (1) Each has been fought in the name of a broader mission that Providence has allegedly chosen the United States to carry out, (2) Self-deception has been at the heart of the decision to go to war, (3) each has been the handiwork "of a small, determined 'war party,'" (4) congressional opposition has been weak and the party in power calculates "that successful military action…[would] pay dividends at the polls," and (5) "More often than not, they have failed to advance the interests of the individuals and political parties who have advanced them." [Harper, pp. 59, 63, 69, 73, 76]

As Professor Harper concludes, "It should be a cause for serious reflection when contemplating military action in the future that the premises on which the United States decided to go to war in 1812, 1846, 1898, 1917, 1950, 1964-65 and 2002-03, were mainly false." [p. 79] Unfortunately, Harper's conclusion assumes that America's addiction to war is not the inevitable product of the very national characteristics that make Americans a uniquely warrior nation. More likely, as Geoffrey Perrett demonstrated in his book, A Country Made By War, America's wars "molded and mirrored its national identity."

Yet, consider the statement made in the May 2008 issue of Current History by a Russian scholar, Dmitri Trenin. "In recent years, Washington's attention has been largely focused on Russia's domestic evolution." Why? Because, "A country's external behavior is without question informed by its economic system, political order and system of values."

As "Exhibit One," supporting Trenin's observation, consider the assertions about Russia made by Republican presidential candidate, John McCain: "A decade and a half ago, the Russian people threw off the tyranny of communism and seemed determined to build a democracy and a free market and to join the West. Today, we see in Russia diminishing political freedoms, a leadership dominated by a clique of former intelligence officers, efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia, and attempts to manipulate Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas. We need a new Western approach to this revanchist Russia. We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyberattacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom. We must also increase our programs supporting freedom and the rule of law in Russia and emphasize that genuine partnership remains open to Moscow if it desires it but that such a partnership would involve a commitment to being a responsible actor, internationally and domestically." [John McCain, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007]

Imagine that! The very Arizona Senator (the son and grandson of swashbuckling U.S. Navy Admirals) who irresponsibly voted to authorize the Bush administration's illegal, immoral, preventive-war invasion of Iraq -- and who still defends his immoral vote today -- also hypocritically insists that Russia must become a "responsible actor, internationally and domestically." Like most warmongering Americans, McCain hypocritically whitewashes America's many sins, but is quick to spot sins elsewhere.

Curiously, so does Professor Michael Cox, while excoriating "Europe's Enduring Anti-Americanism," in that very same issue of Current History. Professor Cox specifically condemns Europeans who attempt to explain America's invasion of Iraq - or any of its many other sins -- "as merely the external manifestation of forces lying at the root of American society." According to Professor Cox, "Despite its rationality, there can be little doubt that such thinking is "anti-American," in that it condemns precisely what it identifies as the defining features of American society."

Yet, the overwhelming evidence presented above suggests there's a recurring method to America's military madness - a method suggesting addiction. Not only in the number of wars fought and the number of unnecessary wars fought, but also in the five-part pattern detected in America's wars.

Professor Cox, himself, acknowledges the widespread belief among Europeans that one of the defining features of American society is the deeply embedded and nearly universal (and obnoxious) belief that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Such a belief not only has given the U.S. its often exercised excuse to promote its superior values abroad, but also the obligation to enforce them at gunpoint, if necessary.

Witness the warmongering implicit in the Bush administration's assertion that America's national security depends upon its ability to advance American-style freedom abroad. It differs little from the rationale used by President James Polk, when he sent forces to invade and occupy parts of Mexico. He was simply extending "the area of freedom."

Thus, it's little wonder that wise men, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, see something more permanent and nefarious at work. Is Iran next?


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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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