Massacre is an acquired taste. The United States
is arguably the only country on the planet whose national personality
and self-image is rooted in centuries of unremitting expansion
through race war punctuated by massacre. There have always been
“free-fire zones” all along the coveted, ever moving peripheries
of white American power, from the “Indian country” surrounding
the settler beachheads of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown to the
“Sunni Triangle” of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Whole
peoples – millions – have been erased in the glorious march
of American Manifest Destiny.
It is true that the globe-ravaging European colonial
powers certainly killed more human beings in the course of their
imperial careers than their settler sons in North America. However,
the national characters of Britain, Spain, France, Holland and
Belgium were already formed when the Great European Breakout
and Worldwide Pillage commenced. Although their wealth was later
built on the blood and bones of faraway “natives” and slaves,
European civil societies were already shaped by long histories
of conflict among themselves, between classes and nations on
their small sub-continent. Britain and France stretched forth
their naval and army tentacles to ensure that wealth arrived
in Liverpool and Marseilles, but the colonized peoples did not
effectively intrude on the evolution of European society.
Nobody had to invent the historical personalities
of the Frenchman in France, the Englishman in England. Their
civil societies were deeply impacted – and some sectors greatly
enriched – by the existence of the colonies, but not
(until very recently) by the foreign peoples who died for European
The English settler colonies in North America
were different – unique. Masses of armed migrants came to steal,
and stay, and keep stealing. Theirs was an enterprise of aggrandizement
at the native’s expense, and unlimited expansion. Less than
a century and a half after the massacre and near-erasure of
Pequots – in celebration of which the Governor of Massachusetts
proclaimed the first day of Pilgrim Thanksgiving
– the white colonists decided that they were a distinct people,
no longer Europeans.
They were right. American colonial society was
shaped by constant depredations against non-whites, close up
and brutal. By 1776, one out of five non-Native American residents
of the colonies were Black slaves, the control and dehumanization
of which had become a daily collective duty of much of the
white population. Across the Alleghenies lay unconquered Native
American lands that, once cleansed, could usher into being a
white empire that would dwarf Europe. The English King and his
treaties with the Native Americans stood in the way; he had
The “American” mission was clear, manifest: to
endlessly expand through the elimination of impediments posed
by the External Other (“savage” Native Americans), while keeping
white society safe and separate from the “debauchery” of the
valuable, Internal Other (Black slaves). This is the foundation
on which the American iconography and celebration is based.
Lacking any other, it is the template of white American identity
and purported “civilization.”
From Outright Theft to Glorious Empire
By the turn of the 20th Century, with the Native
Americans dead or subjugated and African Americans forced into
the long nightmare of Jim Crow, soon-to-be president Teddy Roosevelt
– who called Blacks "a perfectly stupid race" – summed
up the great American adventure with the guilelessness of a
pure psychopath. In our March
16, 2004 issue, BC contributing writer Paul Street described
Roosevelt’s “massive, four-volume 1899 study Winning of the
West” as “a white-supremacist paean to Anglo-America's near-eradication
of North America's original civilizations.”
"During the past three centuries," Roosevelt
opined, "the spread of English-speaking people over the
world's waste spaces" (meaning spaces not occupied
by "progressive" capitalist-developmental Caucasians)
was a great and welcome "feat of power," for which
the "English-speaking race" could justly feel proud.
No such "feat" of "race power" was more
laudable, however, than "the vast movement by which this
continent [North America] was conquered and peopled" –
the "crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty
This is still the song that is sung, the imperative
to supremacy that cannot but lead to endless war and massacre.
Paul Street presents a long but necessarily incomplete chronicle
of the mass murder exclamation points in U.S. history that polite
white society now shakes its head in regret about, but which
remain the operative events and premises on which U.S. behavior
in the world is justified – celebrated! – today.
Roosevelt became a “hero” in the Spanish-American
War of 1898, a pushover conflict in which a decrepit Spain was
ejected from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The U.S.
was now a full-fledged imperial power with tens of millions
of “natives” under its boot – and proud of it. American Manifest
Destiny had gone truly global, as white as ever.
But the Filipinos, who had surrounded and almost
run out the Spanish before the Americans arrived, insisted on
claiming their independence. The U.S. embarked on a scorched
earth and bodies strategy – as usual.
American soldiers were confused, however. What would they call
these people who lived in the thousand-island archipelago “free-fire”
zone? With the Native American wars (massacres) still fresh
in their minds, and the lynching of thousands of American Blacks
the favorite pastime for many back home, U.S. soldiers wrote
to family and friends of the fun they were having killing the
“niggers” and “injuns” of the Philippines.
“Gooks,” “chinks,” and “hajis” would come later,
once the Americans got their feet wet in the blood of the world.
Mark Twain, an anti-war activist, wrote of how
30,000 U.S. troops caused the deaths of a half-million Filipinos.
One episode of many in the imperial
butchery occurred in 1906 when a whole village sought refuge
from the invaders in a dormant volcanic crater on the southern
island of Jolo. Sixteen-hundred were massacred
by American artillery, rifles and machine guns. U.S. officials
“This action was absolutely necessary to the welfare
of the people of Jolo. The position was first shelled by a naval
gunboat and then assaulted by the troops and constabulary. The
Moro women fought alongside the men and held their children
before them, having sworn to die rather than yield. In this
way a number of women and children were among the killed – an
unfortunate but necessary evil."
The same script we hear today had been written,
even then, just as the U.S. was stepping fully onto the global
stage. We will not list the atrocities that U.S. soldiers have
committed against (almost always) non-white peoples in the 100
years since the Jolo Crater Massacre, the Philippines. They
are legion, as were the massacres that occurred in the previous
centuries of the evolution of American Manifest Destiny.
The rabid expansionism at the core of the American
national personality has never been bound by fixed borders,
international law, or any other constraints. Steeped in racism,
it places no value whatsoever on non-white lives. That’s why
the Bush administration gets away with not counting the civilian
casualties in Iraq – only the American dead matter. And that’s
why contemporary Americans feel perfectly normal speaking of
“exporting American values” and other nonsense to cloak the
atrocities of nation-stealing that are but a “necessary evil”
in the fulfillment of some God-given mission – wherever it leads.
Continuity of Crimes
The Haditha, Balad, Ramadi, and Makr al-Deeb massacres
of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops are mere whiffs from the inferno
that has consumed up to a quarter
million Iraqis since the Americans set upon their mission
to accomplish – as in 1906 Jolo, the Philippines – what was
“absolutely necessary to the welfare of the people.”
In a post-Haditha
column that Cindy Sheehan, anti-war mother of a soldier
killed in Iraq, called “the most difficult article that I have
ever had to write,” she decried “the fact that our troops are
being turned into war criminals.” Sheehan recognizes that the
U.S. is in violation of international law – that the Iraq war
is a criminal enterprise.
“War turns our mostly normal American youth into
wanton murderers who have lost their own humanity and love of
others. Haditha in this war and My Lai in another disgusting
war were unfortunately not aberrations. War is the abominable
We commend Sheehan’s courage in describing the
U.S. government as criminal. In doing so, she is beginning to
confront the national mythology – at the core of the national
identity – that Americans are always seeking some “greater good”
and commit crimes only by mistake or through the “aberrations”
that are inevitably unleashed once wars are started.
But even the brave Ms. Sheehan cannot face the
truth. The (white) American public still cannot discuss why
the U.S. glories in having become the ultimate imperial power
of all time, to the acclaim of the overwhelming majority of
its citizens whose whole history and culture has prepared them
to accept this “burden.” Wars may be aberrant experiences in
the lives of most human individuals, but some nations
are serial aggressors. American society is unique in having
been formed almost wholly by processes of aggression against
external and internal Others.
Societies willingly go to war when they have been
primed to do so by an already existing mass internal dynamic
that is easily manipulated by scheming rulers. White America
has been constantly at war with Others, internal and external,
since long before the founding of the Republic. George Bush
just played the right chords, in Iraq. Now the music is sounding
way off key, which causes majorities of Americans great concern
and confusion. Yet these same citizens react just like their
pre-Iraq selves when the Bush regime choreographs a near-identical
run-up to war with neighboring Iran – another country
they know nothing about except that it's not "white"
in the American sense. Are white Americans stupid, or have they
been conditioned by a national ethos born of habitual aggression,
fundamental expectations of impunity, and an idiotic assumption
Cindy Sheehan tries to find the soft spot in America
by blaming the crimes in Iraq and Vietnam on something called
“war,” but sadly winds up in the same place as apologists for
slavery and genocide, who claim these systematic crimes were
“aberrations” not fundamental to the American national character
Slavery was not an aberration; it created the
wealth that allowed the United States to emerge as a world power
only a century-and-a-quarter after the Declaration of Independence,
and to become a magnet for successive waves of European immigrants.
Genocide of Native Americans was not an aberration; it was the
logical outcome of the original European hemispheric-theft project,
and became the national project with the triumph of the settlers
over the British. The ever-expanding United States was born.
Was it an aberration?
At the very least, we must hope the planet survives
the United States. In a world that is becoming inter-dependent
at breath-taking speed, there is no room for a superpower nation
born in and nurtured by centuries of massacre and endless war,
always with the majority support of its white citizenry.
A Change of Values
Most Black Americans understand that the U.S.
has never been up to any good in the non-white vastness of the
world, because we realize that most American whites have been
steeped in either blood or lies about our own Black corner of
the society. African Americans react with learned cynicism when
white anti-warriors call for a “return” to “American values”
– for obvious historical and contemporary reasons. What values?
“American” values are the problem.
The American-instigated crisis that threatens
to widen the arenas of war is not just an “aberration” that
can be corrected by getting the Bush men out of office – although
that would be welcome. In truth, most Americans care little
about the world, unless they have a privileged position in it,
imposing their will on everyone else. They are collectively
hostile to their own fellow citizens who are Black, and many
are rousing themselves for a fierce confrontation with yet another
Other: Latino immigrants. It’s the same historical dynamic,
that can only lead to more massacres and endless wars – foreign
Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are writing a book
to be titled, Barack Obama and the Crisis in Black Leadership.
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