Pages -- horizontal menu

Idolatry American Style

by Berry Friesen (September 16, 2015)

How can a generation that has lived through the deceitful U.S. wars of aggression against Vietnam and Iraq continue to give its leaders the benefit of the doubt in Syria and the Ukraine?

How can it not notice the fact that the U.S. government has changed sides in the so-called war on terror, and that in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen has supported the terrorists against legitimate governments?

These are questions I brought to Ted Grimsrud’s book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters (Cascade Books, 2014).

Grimsrud doesn’t deny that we Americans have a long history of using violence to achieve our ends.  Yet he insists there was such a thing as an American reluctance to support war—especially overseas—and an American skepticism about empowering the federal government with military assets.  Thus, the U.S. traditionally had no standing army during peacetime; armies assembled for purposes of war were promptly demobilized when the fighting ended. As a result, the economy did not become dependent on war or preparations for war.

That all changed with World War II.  During the seventy years since, the United States has maintained a permanent war economy and has been almost continuously at war. Richly funded security institutions have become permanent fixtures of the national context.  We have become a thoroughly militarized society, solidly supportive of violent interventions abroad and violent behavior by police at home.  There is no discernable difference between our leading political parties in their backing for all of this. Public resistance to the government’s use of violence is rare.

With remarkable clarity and concision, Grimsrud explores how WWII brought about this transformation.  It isn’t a simple story and Grimsrud hasn’t provided a simplistic explanation.  But neither has he written a wonky book.  Instead, he stitches together the context that helps us understand—perhaps for the first time—how well-intentioned Americans responding to grave provocations followed a path that led to the betrayal of the very purposes for which they fought.

What made up this path to betrayal?  Grimsrud points to a variety of factors.  A major element was the way the Allied powers conducted the war with little regard for the safety of civilians.  The fire-bombing of German cities, the utter devastation of the Soviet campaign along the eastern front, the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the most obvious cases in point.

Protection of the Jews never entered the equation until after the war was over.

Government duplicity also played a major role.  It was present at the very beginning as President Franklin Roosevelt asserted an intention of staying out of the wars in Europe and Asia while taking deliberate actions to make U.S. participation inevitable.   It was present at the end of the war as President Harry Truman defended his decision to use the nuclear bomb rather than respond to Japanese desires for a negotiated surrender.

And it has been present ever since as the powerful war-dependent institutions that emerged during the war (the Pentagon, the CIA, the weapons-and-security complex) made sure that one of the war’s primary goals—disarmament—never happened.

Grimsrud shows how repeatedly over the past seventy years, efforts to return the U.S. to a peaceful footing were turned back at the last moment by some external event that seemed to require a military response.  America’s war lobby did not cause all of those events; some—such as the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons, North Korea’s violation of the armistice and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—had origins outside of the US government.  But the war lobby was directly involved in defeating the democracy movements of Greece, Iran and Guatemala; it was directly involved in opposing Vietnam’s struggle to end colonialism; it was directly involved in the resistance to Cuba’s, Chile’s and Nicaragua’s efforts to achieve economic justice.

Thus, not only did the American institutions created by WWII betray a second purpose for which the war was fought—national self-determination—they used the international crises precipitated by their interference to elicit fear from the American people.  This is the cynical game Grimsrud exposes.

Many of us have lived through this history.  We remember Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua.  What we lack is a narrative that recalls the context, connects the dots and helps us imagine a time when our moral vision had not been corrupted by hubris and deceit.  Grimsrud’s book does that for us.

So do we Americans now BELIEVE in war?  Yes, many of us do; our moral blindness is no longer just political, it has become part of our culture.  In contrast to our ancestors who lived free of the cognitive captivity induced by WWII, our default stance is supportive of imperial interventionism.  Now, the burden of proof is on those who oppose war, who claim the world would be better off if the U.S. demobilized its forces and stopped its violent interference in the affairs of others.

Earlier this month, Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, released their latest book, Exceptional:  Why the World Needs a Powerful America.  Here’s the book’s core message:  “We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known . . . Our children need to know that they are citizens of the most powerful, good, and honorable nation in the history of mankind, the exceptional nation.”

I don’t expect many Christian preachers in the U.S. will denounce such idolatry. 

There is an antidote to such blindness, however.  Grimsrud ends his book by highlighting communities of dissent that have maintained their moral vision throughout this time of captivity.  Some have emphasized political resistance, some social transformation, others acts of service to meet primary human needs.  Together, such communities have served us all by “creating spaces to be human.”

Modest as that sounds, it is where the renewal of moral vision begins.