Tag Archives: Iraq

Age of Anxiety: The Quest for Freedom from Fear in America

Norman Rockwell's  Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of Americans getting safley tucked in an night while London experienced the Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of American kids getting safely tucked in at night while England experienced The Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Be afraid, America, be very afraid. It’s a dangerous world out there, with a never-ending series of threats laying siege to the republic from every possible angle, each of them exposing the quivering globule of disquietude that is modern society. If Americans have wanted nothing else over the span of their history, they’ve wanted freedom from fear, but they never seem to get it. With each passing era, new fears arise in the form of internal and external threats that shake American society to its foundations. Sometimes these fears have been real and justified; other times they’ve been born of prejudice and paranoia, but the results have always struck terror into the American collective psyche. Indeed, it’s no stretch to say that U.S. history has been one long age of anxiety.

Let’s do a run down of the numerous threats currently invoking fear in American society, shall we? There’s Ebola, of course. Recently, news outlets confirmed the first documented U.S. case of the deadly virus via an unnamed patient now being quarantined in Dallas, Texas. Americans (nearly 40 percent, according to one poll) are pretty terrified of the virus that’s been ravaging West Africa, and their fear isn’t entirely unwarranted. Ebola is awful: it spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes uncontrollable bleeding from multiple orifices, as well as bloody discharges (yeah, those kind of discharges), rashes, and all kinds of corporeal pains. But Ebola isn’t the only thing Americans fear. There’s also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest nutball incarnation of radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS fighters have been waging guerilla war in the middle-eastern crescent that’s already fertile with chaos, and they’ve taken barbarism to scarily casual new levels by beheading American journalists and making threats via their savvy PR machine.

But, of course, Ebola and ISIS aren’t the only things that Americans fear these days. Depending on their political inclinations and individual composure, Americans are afraid of economic recession; inflation; deflation; domestic mass shootings; gun control; terroristsvoter fraud; voter suppression; illegal immigration; drug gangs; black people; white peoplethe government; money in politics; Democrats; Republicans; environmental destruction; environmentalists; Obama the dictator; Obama the weakling; the Koch Brothers; George Soros; the End Times; war with Iran; war with Russia; war with North Korea; war with China; the Federal Reserve; Wall Street; FEMA internment camps; the New World Order, and, perhaps the most terrifying thing of all: Obamacare.

The fact that Americans are fearful of, well, A LOT of things makes sense given that most of U.S. history is littered with events and happenings that scared the hell out of people at any given historical moment. American identity is, in part, defined by the fear of losing American freedoms.

During the colonial era for example, white settlers on British America’s frontier regions lived in a constant, paralyzing fear of ambush-style Indian attacks. As historian Peter Silver notes in his excellent book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, “the violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible.”* For white frontier settlers, the fear of violent Indians who killed men, women, and children alike; who struck without warning, and who refused to recognize the rules of “civilized warfare” was the greatest possible threat to (white) American freedom. On the British American frontier, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could literally be taken away by the swipe of a tomahawk.

The threat of Inidan attacks permetaed everyday life for white colonial settlers.

The fear of Indian attacks permeated everyday life for white colonial settlers.

Indian attacks provided the quintessential example of how a determined, violent “other” seemingly threatened American freedom, and so powerful was this example that Americans applied a variation of it to most major events in their history. Fear of British tyranny fueled the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. The buildup to the Civil War pitted southerners who feared slave-stealing abolitionists against northern factions who feared the excessive influence of the “Slave Power” in the national government. The terrors of Reconstruction came from fears that former slaves would achieve theretofore unheard-of levels of political and social power. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reforms of the Populists and the Progressives were inspired by fears of the excessive power of Big Business. The fear of the social and moral detriments of alcohol inspired Prohibition. And conflicts in Europe, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all variously fueled by fears that fascists, Nazis, communists, “Japs,” socialists, rogue dictators, and Islamic terrorists all threatened American freedoms.

Fear, and the freedom to be free from fear, have always been a part of the American D.N.A. In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, political scientist Corey Robin argues that “American Style” political fear is a truly omnipresent beast. He defines “political fear” as “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being — the fear of terrorism, panic over crime, anxiety about moral decay — or the intimidation wielded over men and women by governments or groups.”* Robin observes that fear has consistently been a major source of unity in a pluralistic, decentralized democratic society where unanimity on anything rarely exists. “We [Americans] savor the experience of being afraid,” Robin writes, and, citing the experience of unity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argues that, “only fear, we believe, can turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”* As Robin notes, however, fear divides as much as it unites, and it inspires actions both heroic and stupid.

The historical influence of fear in American society helps explain why FDR’s famous first inauguration quip that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seems so clear and yet so mysterious. In 1933, Roosevelt urged Americans not to fear the Great Depression, but to instead fear the fear of the Great Depression. It was “fear itself” that would cripple America’s ability to deal with the economic crisis, because whatever the consequences of the Depression, to tackle it based on fear — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” — would only make the problem worse. But if fear was a detriment to combating the Depression, it was also a source of unity: only “fear itself” could rally a nation behind a new leader tasked with alleviating an economic catastrophe the likes of which the U.S. — and the world — had never seen before.

So integral was fear to addressing the events of mid-twentieth century American history that FDR made “Freedom from Fear” a part of his “Four Freedoms” that every American deserved. In his January 6, 1941 Annual Message to Congress, Roosevelt declared Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear to be integral to the American experience. He invoked these freedoms to combat both foreign and domestic threats. As historian David Kennedy writes in his epic study Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, “at this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”*

President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans to action during the Depressiona nd World War II.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans into action during the Depression and World War II.

Roosevelt explicitly invoked his “Four Freedoms” to contrast the U.S. with the growing dictatorships of Europe and Asia, where governments threatened to take away freedoms, not preserve them. Yet even as FDR championed “Freedom from Fear,” he paradoxically invoked fear — the fear that the four freedoms could be taken away from Americans by an increasingly unfree world — as a source of motivation for Americans to fight for, and preserve, those freedoms. A world characterized by Freedom from Fear, FDR stated, “is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Thus, the determination to be free from fear — and the things that inspired that fear — nonetheless relied on making Americans afraid of what would happen if they failed to defeat the forces of dictatorship. To stop a world from falling to fear, Americans needed to be very afraid of that world. Americans intuitively understood this because fear had been a motivating force in U.S. society since the colonial era. The Indians and dictators of the past have become the terrorists and diseases of today. The more things change…

Given the long-standing and important role that fear has played in U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Americans are still afraid of an endless barrage of potential foreign and domestic threats. Some of these threats are very real; others are overblown, and still others are the products of unhinged hysteria. And while we might lament the at-times overwhelming presence of fear in U.S. society, it’s at least worth remembering that fear, for better or for worse, is utterly central to the American experience. The age of anxiety has always been with us, and it probably always will be. Hopefully, that fact won’t scare you — too much.

* See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian Warfare Transformed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 41.

* See Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 470.

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Iraq, ISIS, and the Legacy of American Redemptive Violence

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missle that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missile that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Iraq. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, amiright?! You’d think that after America flexed its collective freedom muscles and bombed the shit out of liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — the dictator that America once supported — that all of the Fertile Crescent would rejoice at the chance to bow before the benevolent, freedom-extolling Yankee occupying forces. Because, after all; freedom! But nooooooo, Iraq had to go ahead and turn itself into one of the biggest American foreign policy blunders ever — maybe even out-porking the Bay of Pigs. And so, the current American President, Barack Obama, has been forced to deal with the latest Mesopotamian morass known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, for short.

I discussed ISIS in a previous post about the dangers of American nation-building, but let’s briefly recap who these jolly jihadists actually are. ISIS is essentially a group of über pissed off Sunni Muslim extremists, and they trace their origins to the Al Qaeda faction that emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Conservatives in particular are making ISIS out to be the scariest group of foreign brown people since the last scary group of foreign brown people. But the group’s military gains in Iraq aren’t particularly impressive when you consider that the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Iraqi army decided to run without even cutting, thereby allowing ISIS to capture several Iraqi cities and seize plenty of military goodies to further their goals.

And their goals are quite lofty. As the BBC reports, not only does ISIS want to control Iraq and Syria (you know, that OTHER Middle-Eastern country that’s in total chaos right now) but it also wants to “create a broader Islamic caliphate.” Hey, give them credit for thinking big.

And so, facing increasing pressure from American conservatives (who have soooo much credibility when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East) to stop being “passive” about ISIS’ reign of terror, president Obama gave a speech on  September 10, 2014 in which he outlined his plans for dealing with the latest Iraq sh*tstorm. Obama’s speech was actually well-thought-out. He reiterated that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as a whole — since most of the group’s victims have been Muslims — and noted that the U.S. had already been conducting air-strikes against ISIS. But the president also noted that U.S. forces alone can’t — and shouldn’t — destroy ISIS, so he outlined a multi-pronged strategy based on a combination of continued air-strikes, collaboration with anti-ISIS forces and the Iraqi government, and general anti-terrorism strategies that will, with luck, help put a stop to the cock-sure caliphatin’ conquerors. But above all else, Obama emphatically reassured Americans that the fight against ISIS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

This was about as reassuring as any American president, regardless of his political party, could be in this type of situation. What Obama is wrestling with, nay, what America is wrestling with, is the world’s continued refusal to accept the supposedly superiority of U.S. freedom-by-gunpoint. Violence has always been an essential part of American identity, and throughout its history, the U.S. has embraced the redemptive power of violence in order to influence people inside and outside of its borders into embracing the supposed righteousness and beneficence of freedom, American-style.

Now, let’s be clear: I certainly don’t mean to condone ISIS, or any other of the Middle East’s Islamic terrorist clubs. These guys are downright barbaric; the worst type of religious fundamentalist scum, and every single one of them deserves to get a missile up his ass and lice in his beard. But the problem in Iraq goes beyond ISIS or any other single group. The real problem is the United States’ history of embracing a providential mission to violently spread its own vision of freedom in the world. The history of American violence is bolstered by a potent mix of secular and sacred beliefs, and America’s vision of making the world embrace its own brand of freedom has too often been a vision that mistakes strength for wisdom, substitutes forethought with vengeance, and creates wrathful enemies instead of passive subjects.

President Obama is aware of the need to maintain an extremely delicate balance between appeasing national calls to reign down Hell on the ISIS insurgency while also trying to make sure that the U.S. isn’t stuck playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Iraq for the next hundred years. A key moment in his speech came when Obama tried to embrace the long-held belief that America must use violence to redeem the world in the name of freedom while acknowledging that, quite often, this type of violence only begets more violence and chaos. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he said, “it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” But the president also admitted that, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

Therein lies the problem: America has always welcomed the responsibility to lead, but sometimes it doesn’t realize that its leadership might be misguided. The U.S. has too often demonstrated its “endless blessings” through religiously motivated, redemptive violence, and the results have been the “enduring burden” of unintended — and often violent — consequences.

In their essay collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, scholars John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel emphasize how the sacred embracing of violence has colored American identity since the colonial era — with alternately beneficial and catastrophic results. Religion, they write, “has been operative in the background culture of American violence” for a very long time. The most famous of American wars: The Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — all “have been infused with religious rhetoric and faith-based ‘othering.'”*

This “othering” has almost always employed religious justification for violence. Consider the case of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate clergy spouted spiritually sanctioned rhetoric to urge their respective sides to violent victory over the enemy “other.” In his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, historian Harry Stout observes that violence North and South had to be “augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another.” Indeed, Stout notes that, “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance,” and the result was that “thousands of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South” became “especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct.”*

But quite often, Civil War-era clergymen were cheerleaders for violence in the name of a higher, providential purpose. Thus, at the outbreak of the conflict, men like the northern Universalist minister J.G. Bartholomew proclaimed that, “‘Never before since the days of the Revolutionary memory and fame has there been a call to arms that has so thrilled the great heart of our people…and set the pulse of patriotic feeling beating.'”* Similarly, James H. Elliot, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina, warned that the outbreak of war constituted “‘instinctive warnings of great importance in God’s government of the world,'” and claimed that, after the fall of Fort Sumter, the South had “‘a signal display in the powerful providence of God.'”* For both sides, the message was clear: violence should be used to annihilate enemies and enshrine American greatness because the head honcho of heaven willed it.

In the 1860s, this ‘signal display’ justified bloody war against the “other” in the name of national redemption and the promotion of earthly freedom. But the idea that God has granted America the authority to wage redemptive violence still rings loudly in the twenty-first century — a continued “enduring burden.”

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Indeed, who exactly constitutes the “other” is relative and always changing. Moreover, regardless of whether the “other” deserves to be vanquished, plenty of people will die. In some cases, the foes that America has identified as “others” to fight, reform, and/or vanquish have been true villains; the Nazis, for example. In other cases, these “others,” such as Native Americans, Mexicans, and Iraqi civilians, have been unfortunate casualties who died in the name of American imperialism. By there’s an additional process to the violence that complicates America’s tendency to “other-ize” different groups: some foes, like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, might deserve a good beating, but the question remains: should America actually administer that beating?

This is the question vexing America in 2014 as it deals with yet more violent strife in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In its willingness to use violence as a redemptive force, America has transcended its former position of supposedly speaking for a higher power and, instead, has acted the role of a small “g” secular god in itself; one that deems itself worthy of righting perceived worldly wrongs. The U.S. is willing to use violence not only to protect its own interests, but also to make sure that non-Americans get a lesson in U.S.-style freedom. President George W. Bush embarked on just such a sacredly secular adventure in Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. is still dealing with the fallout. After all, if the history of religiously motivated violence tells us nothing else, it’s that you can’t bask in the glory of the angels without encountering a few demons. And for the U.S., some of the worst demons, from Confederate rebels to ISIS, have been self-created.

Although a generic Christianity has historically justified American redemptive violence (largely because Christianity has been the majority American religion since the beginning), in 2014, American violence represents no particular denomination and is waged in the name of a civic religion that retains its Christian flavor but extols the virtue of a more general American Exceptionalism.

It’s tragically fitting that America now finds itself waging redemptive violence against Islamic foes. Islam is, after all, Christianity’s historical antagonist. And while Barack Obama, unlike past presidents (cough, cough, Dubya) tends to not wear his faith on his sleeve, he can’t help but succumb to historically established spiritual precedents for American redemptive violence. Even as the President admitted that America’s “endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he nonetheless concluded his speech with the refrain, “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is making similar pleas for Allah to bless their own cause, and the results will no doubt be burdens that endure for many years to come.

* See John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 15.

* See Harry M. Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006),  xvii, 37, 44.

American Nation-Building and the Endless Fight in Iraq

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos.

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos. It’s all Obama’s fault, of course.

What in Sam Hill is going on in Iraq? Yeah, remember that country? It’s the one in the Middle-East that seems to be constantly riven with ethnic strife, religiously motivated terrorism, and a spectacularly corrupt government. Okay, I guess that really doesn’t nail it down, now does it? More specifically, Iraq is that Middle-Eastern country run by a former mustachioed dictator whom the United States used to support because we wanted his oil and didn’t give a damn about how his iron-fisted tactics made the phrase “human rights” into little more than a punchline. Wait — that doesn’t narrow it down either. Okay, let’s try this one last time: Iraq is the country that President George H.W. Bush kicked out of Kuwait in 1991 in the name of freedom oil and President George W. Bush invaded in 2003 because it was supposedly a threat to freedom oil.

Bush-the-Younger’s dunder-headed excursion into Iraq became the Biggest Mistake in American Military History. Now, Iraq is once again descending into chaos — and no one knows what in the Hell to do about it. In recent weeks, ethnic and religious strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq has exploded into civil war-like conditions (seriously, how many times have we heard a variation of that headline?) and the epic finger-pointing has begun.

As Mother Jones reports, a Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda-linked group known as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which grew out of Iraq’s Al Qaeda faction that sprouted up in the wake of the U.S. invasion — has been stirring up all kinds of badness. In the last year or so, the ISIS has joined forces with other goon squads such as the local Sunni militants and former Baath officials from Saddam’s old ruling party to launch deadly “dirty war” style insurgent strikes on key enemy targets — especially the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The ISIS has taken control of northern Iraq, and they look to cause more nastiness now that the U.S. has been withdrawing it’s troops from the country.

The Republicans, of course, are blaming Obama for the chaos in Iraq. South Carolina senator/ventriloquist dummy Lindsay Graham warned that “If Baghdad falls, if the central government falls, a disaster awaits us of monumental proportions.” Alongside Graham’s blubbering, former losing presidential candidate, and Montgomery Burns doppelgänger Mitt Romney whined that “what has happened in Iraq and what we’re seeing with ISIS is a good deal predictable for the failure of Obama to react.”

And really, this Republican criticism makes sense. I mean, remember back in 2003 when President Obama told the country that Iraq had lots and lots of Weapons of Mass-Destruction (WMDs) and that if the U.S. didn’t invade the country and drop a ton of freedom bombs, democracy grenades, and liberty missiles, Saddam Hussein would invade Flyoverville, Indiana and make every chicken-wing eating, cheap beer-guzzling, freedom-inhaling American Cletus swear eternal allegiance to the Muslim devil and turn every church into an Islamic terrorist training camp? Yeah, I don’t remember that either. But I do remember how American conservatives, led by then-president George W. Bush, lied about WMDs in Iraq, and I remember how these same chicken hawks spent the last ten years trying to cover their asses as Operation Iraqi Freedom spawned enough quagmires to drown a sauropod herd.

Insurgant Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashiion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom.

insurgent Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom. Photo by AP.

So, of course, the American right-wing is now calling for yet more troops to be sent back into Iraq. Led by John “The Surge” McCain (R-AZ), these Republican proponents of still further military intervention in the Mesopotamian Quagmire of Doom are scratching an age-old American itch: the desire to nation-build. But the thing is, the U.S. has engaged in plenty of nation-building experiments in the past during which American armed forces have been deployed to rebuild war-torn countries into stable democracies and/or dictatorships, depending on how well one or the other served American interests. And these attempts at nation-building have, with few exceptions, failed.

From the Philippines to El Salvador; from the defeated Confederate South to Vietnam; from Korea to Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States, drunk on a huge kegger of American-exceptionalism ale, has stumbled blindly out of other countries’ military and political quagmires, and like a barfly being ejected after last-call, they’ve usually left these places messier than when they arrived. This is because using the military as an apparatus through which to rebuild societies from the ground up is bound to fail. The American army, like all armies, is built to destroy things, not to rebuild them. When it’s been tasked with nation-building, the U.S. army has often found itself fighting what historian Russell Crandall calls “Dirty Wars,” in which U.S. forces have been pitted against irregular, insurgent forces who employ hit-and-run, guerilla-style attacks and bleed into the native population like ghosts — all with the end goal of expelling the invaders.

In his book America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror, Crandall takes a long view of America’s historical attempts to nation-build at home and abroad while trying to fight protracted dirty wars that have stymied such noble efforts. “What American leaders have forgotten at their peril is that, by definition, dirty wars are dirty,” Crandall writes, “civilians are disproportionately targeted, the line between combatant and innocent is often intentionally blurred, and there is a great temptation to ‘fight fire with fire’ against foes who refuse to play by the ‘rules’ of warfare.”* Crandall reminds us that America’s status as the (allegedly) world’s greatest democracy has usually hampered, rather than aided, its nation-building plans.

The U.S. likes to employ political rhetoric claiming that its nation-building efforts are being done for all the ‘right’ reasons, like spreading democracy, fighting terrorism, standing up for human rights, etc. All that’s well-and-good, but such idealistic stances are difficult to uphold in the face of relentless insurgent attacks that drive U.S. forces to get dirty and fight down in the guerilla mud. Nation-building fails because, beyond the dubious reasons for invading other countries in the name of freedom oil, when America fights dirty, it tends to overly rely on brute force that doesn’t help win the hearts and minds of the locals. Thus, as Crandall notes, “the outcomes of these wars has been nebulous, domestic support for them has been precarious, and in them American forces have committed atrocities.”* After all, it’s tough to convince a shell-shocked Iraqi that you bombed the shit out of his house and family in the name of “freedom,” and it’s tough to convince Americans citizens that they should keeping paying for these types of freedom bomb missions.

And the thing is, you’d think that Americans would know better at this point, but instead, these just keep on trucking, fueled by the hope that more troops, more bombs, and more targeted drone strikes will eventually convince people in a foreign land that American-style democracy is the greatest thing since craft beer. And why should the U.S. know better, you may ask? Because in the 1860s and 1870s, the American military tried — and failed — to rebuild a nation in its own backyard: the defeated Confederate South after the Civil War.

When the southern Confederacy surrendered to Union forces in 1865 after four brutal years of combat, American government and military officials were tasked with rebuilding a vast swath of U.S. territory — the South — that had been reduced to ruin during the conflict. This sounds simple enough, right? I mean, the Confederate South wasn’t Afghanistan; in 1861 it was still literally a part of the American nation, and not all of the southern states even seceded from the Union. But the ones that did secede found their world turned upside down in the wake of military defeat: much of their infrastructure was destroyed, tens-of-thousands of their men were dead, and, most significantly, their slaves were freed. And those freed slaves were bound to start agitating for, you know, political rights — and the South would have none of that.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and teh Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government's experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and the Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government’s experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

In order to deal with the newly freed slaves and “reconstruct” the South back into the Union, the American government divided the South into five military districts occupied by U.S. troops, and it established a federal humanitarian aid agency, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — better-known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — to help aid the former slaves’ transition to freedom. But American military and civilian forces in the South soon found that the local yokels were restless: white southerners remind defiant in the face U.S. forces attempts to rebuild their society according to rules hammered out in Washington D.C., and they remained especially hostile towards any attempts to integrate newly freed African-Americans into southern society as the political and social equals of whites.

So southern whites organized into irregular bands of paramilitary insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues, the Red Shirts and others. These domestic terrorist groups waged a campaign of political intimidation, property destruction, and murder against freed people and northern Republicans across the South. They usually attacked at night using guerilla tactics to burn houses and assault blacks and political opponents of the southern Democratic Party. During the daytime they melted back into the civilian population, which often tacitly, and sometimes openly, supported the white supremacist insurgents.

U.S. forces tried to squelch these terrorist groups, and sometimes they succeeded. But in the long run, tamping down on southern insurgent violence and enforcing the rights of freed blacks always meant more violence, more troops, more political will, and more money — with no end in sight. A weary northern government and public eventually soured on this seemingly endless dirty war and gave up on reconstructing the South. By the late 1870s, the old-line white supremacists — many of whom had fought in the Confederate armies — were back in control of Dixie. Thus, after the Civil War, American forces found themselves caught up in a long-running conflict with local and national elements that was driven by ethnic factionalism and power-struggles over how political and economic resources were to be reorganized and controlled following a destructive conflict. The more things change…the more Americans try to nation-build.

So as America’s right-wing noise machine bellows incessantly about once again sending in the military to restore peace to Iraq and other foreign quagmires, maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a step back and consider the numerous historical instances in which fighting dirty wars in the name of nation-building blew up in America’s face. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll carefully analyse the costs and benefits of U.S. military campaigns and determine that American forces are ill-equipped to serve as mediators in the face of long-held political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. And maybe, just maybe, someone will pay me to write this blog. But we can all hope, right?

* See Russell Crandall, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 13.

To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

Despite a recent American cultural penchant towards mistaking force for strength and resorting to violence throughout the world without a full examination of the consequences, Americans have always been more divided than is commonly assumed over the use of violence in the name of grand ideals like “freedom,” “liberty,” “peace,” and, I should add, “Union.” Echoing my earlier post on how violence begets violence, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania served as justification for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even though no connection existed between that country and the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, when thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in cities like New York and Washington D.C. to protest then President George W. Bush’s proposal to go to war with Iraq, they were continuing a long tradition in which some Americans, rightly or wrongly (but in this case, rightly), vehemently resisted what they considered dubious reasons for American use of violence.

These protesters had strange kindred spirits among the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” During the American Civil War, the Copperheads adamantly opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Confederacy and generally supported the South’s right to own slaves. The Copperheads were strongest in mid-western states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Republicans gave them their nickname, likening peace Democrats to the venomous snake because they supposedly represented a sinister internal threat to the Union war effort. The most famous Copperhead was Ohio congressman  Clement L. Vallandigham, whom Abraham Lincoln had arrested in May of 1863 on charges of aiding enemies of the United States via his outspoken anti-war and pro-slavery views.

The Copperheads, then, acted as more than mere political opponents of the Republican Party. As historian Keith Altavilla observes in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Ohio Valley History (sorry, membership only through the Filson Historical Society, so take my word for it), the Copperheads served as a sort of internal “fifth column”— to use a phrase lobbed by conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan at anti-Iraq War protesters — that Union soldiers in the field saw as a domestic uprising against the necessary war against the Confederacy. Copperheads disrupted pro-war rallies and meetings, fielded anti-war, pro-Confederate political candidates, and inspired fears among some Union soldiers of secret Copperhead societies infiltrating all aspects of northern society. For northern soldiers in the field, Copperheads represented such a dire threat because they were neighbors, friends — even family members. As Michael Corleone once observed, nothing is more sinister than enemies who are as close as your friends.

Now, lest I get accused of (very) latent Copperhead support, let me be clear: the Copperheads were wrong. They were wrong about supporting Southern secession and they were wrong about supporting slavery. But the Copperheads do demonstrate that those who (misguidedly) spoke out against American war in the past found themselves both justly and unjustly vilified for refusing to immediately support more violence as a solution to a problem that began with violence in the first place.

During the 2002-2003 build up to the Iraq War, for example, right-wing commentators lobbed a series of nasty epithets at war protesters, accusing them of treason, cowardice, emasculation, and, worst of all, of being FRENCH. And why were anti-war protesters accused of liking baguettes and Gérard Depardieu? Because they didn’t support an equally violent response to the violent 9/11 attacks. Never mind that links between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks were fabricated; these loathsome, treasonous, granola-scarfing, patchouli-dipping, unwashed hippies needed a lesson in patriotic duty, a duty defined in large part by violence.

Unlike the Copperheads, however, who were wrong about the futility of the Union war effort, the Iraq War protesters were right: not only was the connection between Iraq and 9/11 non-existent, but the entire military operation against Iraq turned into a quagmire of untenable nation-building for the U.S. and tribal sectarianism for Iraq itself. Heck, opposing the Iraq War even got another lawyer from Illinois elected president. So in the right were the Iraq protesters that even Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan issued a pleading mea culpa for his misguided support for pre-emptive war.

The point is not that Copperheads and Iraq War protesters are quite the same. They aren’t. The Copperheads were wrong-headed supporters of secession and slavery who often employed anti-war rhetoric as an anti-Republican partisan cudgel. The Iraq War protesters, though some were unquestionably guilty of dirty hippie-ness, nonetheless recognized that going to war is not an act to be taken lightly or under shady pretences, even when calls for vengeance were loud and influential. But the Copperheads and the Iraq War demonstrators are part of a distinct tradition in American history in which some group, usually the minority, has been willing to question U.S. decisions to rectify damage done through violence  with yet more violence. This is the great legacy of September 11, 2001. For all of the post-attack calls for unity, what 9/11 really did was reawaken American divisions over violence that had largely been dormant since the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, as President Obama half-heartedly tries to convince a justifiably skeptical American public on the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria, he simply cannot escape the shadow of 9/11 and the disastrous Iraq War that it spawned. So when remembering 9/11 today, also try to remember that the question of “to kill or not to kill” probably shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Just ask this guy:

Mission Accomplished