April 30, 2002



Two of my favourite emailers... hey, what's wrong with you people, use the forum now, it works! Honest!... where was I? Oh, yeah, two of my favourite emailers wrote to say Americans have fought more unprovoked wars than I gave them credit for:

Nell L. of Virginia writes:

Wasn't there some little thing back there in the 1960s...? Or do you believe there was a real provocation in the case of Vietnam? If so, what was it?

Tom R. of New Mexico writes:

The Mexican War and the Spanish-American War were both overt wars of aggression, and most of the Indian wars were equally aggressive. A pretty good argument can be made that Wilson's Anglophilic foreign policy in 1914-17 led directly to US intervention in the affairs of Europe for reasons that had little to do with the Lusitania, although this is much more subtle than any of the examples I cited above. Vietnam can be analysed the same way, as an aggressive intervention in the internal affairs of a foreign country for anti Communist motives. In any case about WW I or Vietnam, the US government has not considered aggressive wars as being beneath its policy perview, especially as it generally picks such fights where it thinks that it will win at low cost. Vietnam obviously was a mistake in this light, and Iraq may well be one also, although I'd doubt Iraq will be much of a problem militarily.

Good point about the Indian wars, of course. They were often launched without provocation. I could also have mentioned numerous U.S. military interventions in the early 20th century in Latin America, but I was being a little facetious, I admit.

As to the major wars, however, what I was trying to get at was how the bad guys almost always have had to be seen to fire the first shot. The Mexican War is a classic example: yes, President Polk was in favour of annexation, and as I alluded to he had sent Fremont on some skulduggery to California... but by luck or happenstance, the first actual incursion across the border in 1848 was by Mexican soldiers into Texas... allowing the forces Polk had previously built up there to counterattack back into Mexico with perfect justification. In 1898, again, it was lasting suspicions about the fate of the Maine in Havana harbour that allowed McKinley to declare war... to the popular mind, the Spanish had fired the first shot. In 1917 again, Wilson was anglophilic, true, but it was the Lusitania and the Zimmermann telegram that convinced the American public war was necessary. And again in Vietnam... Johnson could not send combat troops or non-covert support until after the Tonkin Gulf incident had shown (it was thought at the time, I believe honestly) that the North Vietnamese had started firing on American naval warships.

As I said before, I don't believe this is any evidence of conspiracy. But consistently, for nearly 200 years the American government has only launched foreign wars after the American public had come to believe the other guy had struck at them first. The American democracy seems to require of its leaders that they demonstrate all means short of war have been demonstrated to fail before they will consent to an aggressive military policy... the trouble is, often times the effort to use those other means (the buildup on the Mexican border, the covert support of South Vietnam, the oil embargo on Japan... even the attempt to resupply Fort Sumter) lead to some kind of angry response from the other side... which then is held up as convincing evidence that "the other guy started it."

Given the historical pattern, the logical response to saber rattling by an American leader is to do absolutely nothing at all that could possibly provoke the American public. That certainly seems to be Iraq's strategy at the moment. But if the pattern plays out here, the American leadership will soon put forward some alternate non-war option for accomplishing its (stated) goals with respect to Iraq, with war as a fallback option if Iraq does not capitulate. Pressure will then be ratcheted up until Iraq feels it has no choice between striking out and total capitulation, at which point it will strike out, probably in some annoying but ineffectual fashion, and the American public will fall in lockstep behind its leader and mount a sustained war effort. I just don't believe that George Bush would ever feel comfortable just saying, "Okay, I've decided. We're going to war" without the usual preliminaries, and expect any kind of sustained support from the people for his actions. It would certainly be a historical first.

So, no, I'm sticking by my interpretation of history. Americans don't fight unprovoked wars well.

PS: The problem with Iraq isn't their military. It's the high likelihood of urban combat, and the almost inevitable Jenin-style massacre allegations that would quickly wilt any American sense of purpose, if the American public's dander wasn't well up beforehand (see above).

Posted by BruceR at 12:05 PM