The United States began with a war. Early pioneers were not too keen on taxation without proper representation, so they formed a government and fought a war over it. Modern Americans don’t object to taxation without proper representation nearly as much as they did, but that isn’t the only thing our collective opinion has changed about. Americans yesterday saw fighting a war as the only way to gain their freedom; Americans today are more likely to see war as an inevitability.
How is it that this attitude has changed so much?
Some people put wars into categories, good wars and bad wars. Others say there’s no such thing as a good war. The only thing most modern Americans can really agree on is that war is unavoidable, but this is actually the first time in history that this has been true. In fact, a few generations ago there were not a lot of people that even put wars into categories. When it was time to fight, everyone knew there must be a good reason.
That first war is a pretty good example of why early Americans saw things that way. They had to fight the greedy empire that was essentially trying to run the world at the time, to gain their independence. After that, they had to fight to abolish slavery. Then the big one came along, and this country had a big decision to make. Some people think they waited around to see who would win, and jumped in on their side at the last minute; but history shows us that something deeper caused that hesitation.
Early Americans knew that defending their land or the rights of those living in it was a cause worth fighting for. They may not have known that putting down one empire would pave the way for a greater one to come along and try to rule the world their own way. It may have even escaped their attention that Abraham Lincoln was clearly racist, or that he started the Civil War because he wanted to form a federal government far more than he wanted to free slaves. What they did know is that fighting for your homeland in your homeland is much different than fighting foreign troops in faraway lands.
Back then, America was very much about being left alone. The wars they needed to fight had been fought, and veterans could look back with pride on what they had done. It was clear to them that evil existed in the world; but they saw this new land of opportunity as something that needed to be protected and defended against that. The moment invading ships approached our shores, virtually everyone who could fight was ready to; until that moment came, Americans back then were happy to live and let live. Interfering in global politics was against everything America stood for, and both citizens and politicians were loath to interfere.
It may have been the country’s collective conscience that finally resulted in a change of heart. It may have been the possibility that we would need allies in invasions to come, and we saw a way to get them. It may have even been the financial opportunities that presented themselves during wartime; this was when income tax in America began, after all. Most likely it was a combination of all these things, and the United States decided to jump in and fight the final battles alongside our allies.
America’s stated intent for joining that first world war was ‘a desire to make the world safe for democracy’. That pretty much put us on the path we are on now, and guaranteed our participation in the next world war. Although Hitler stated clearly that he had no desire to invade America, we were pretty gung ho about invading Germany. It took a couple years for us to jump in again, and a lot of allied lives were lost before we did; but we finally found an excuse to fight and a way to guarantee victory. We dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan; they surrendered, so we dropped another one.
Thus began the greatest ‘don’t fuck with us’ campaign ever. America went from a country full of people that were obsessed with protecting our way of life to a population that is obsessed with inflicting our way of life on others. It only took a few generations to establish a pattern. After just a few years of public school history lessons, it was pretty clear to me that some kind of war would break out right around the time I graduated high school. I expressed my fear of this to my parents, and they assured me that America had changed with the occupation in Vietnam. The country had learned its lesson, and war was now forever in our past. Even if there was a war, there would be no draft.
Then came high school, and The Gulf War began right on schedule. It was one of those occasions where being able to say ‘I told you so’ came with zero feelings of triumph. At least they were right about the draft.
It turns out this was a slow decline, going from hoping that last war really would be the last war to viewing the next war as an unavoidable reality. My parents were optimistic about these things, as were their parents before them. The funny thing is, each generation loses a little more of that optimism. A hundred years ago, most people thought war was over in America. Fifty years ago, those numbers started evening out. Nowadays, the majority of Americans believe war is inevitable.
That’s a pretty big shift, over a relatively short period of time. You might say we’ve learned from experience, or that we finally saw a lesson that had been staring us in the face the whole time. Even if folks in modern America don’t like war, they still tend to think another one is always on the horizon. In fact, you might say…
War is more popular than ever!
Some politicians aren’t all bad, at least historically. European lore is peppered with accounts of heroic noblewomen and noblemen that were very popular among those they ruled. During an ancient war, one in particular stood up to defend the common folk. Unfortunately, much of what is said about him is spun in a strange direction. Especially that one popular saying. It should go ‘Robin Hood stole from the crooked government and gave it back to the people’. Instead it goes ‘Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor’.
That’s just rude, to both rich people and hard-working folk. But enough of that for now. We’ll talk about it next week, in a post called…
‘The Robin Hood saying is wrong!’
Thanks for reading!
All the best,