The Ism That Won’t Go Away

Recent anthropological studies of the Turkana people, “a nomadic society in east Africa that lacks a centralized government,” find that they can “regularly muster armies of several hundred warriors, most of whom have never met before” by relying on fear of punishment or marginalization as the price of dissent and by exploiting kinship loyalties expected to “benefit the ethnolinguistic group.” A new theory holds that warfare “has played an integral role in our evolution” throughout our tribal histories and has “turned into the modern ability to work towards a common goal.”

The word “tribalism” was traded for nationalism once humanity began to organize on a larger scale and needed to overcome increasingly arbitrary associations in order to summon the collective will for war. This nationalism manifests itself in various civic dogmas and state myths about America and Americanism. It is precisely what permits state warfare in our modern imperialist age.

The militarism of the George W. Bush administration, although fundamentally a continuation of a long tradition of ruthless expansionism in American foreign policy, shocked much of the world with its boldness and grandiosity. Bush framed the Sept. 11 attacks as an assault on freedom, on a particular Americanness, and in doing so provided implicit moral justification to an ambitiously belligerent response. The terrorists “attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender,” Bush proclaimed. He then mixed this uninquiring posture with a war of aggression against a non-threatening Iraq by preying upon feelings of unity and nationhood. “The long-term security of America and civilization itself” forced America to confront the threat of dangerous “weapons in the hands of terrorists or hostile regimes.” “History has called us to these responsibilities,” Bush declared before invoking a “special mission.”

Political scientist Paul T. McCartney wrote that “enduring nationalist themes provided the basic structure in which Americans organized their comprehension of and reaction to the terrorist attacks” and that America’s “insular preoccupation with its own lofty distinctiveness” galvanized “a sense of mission, which sometimes emerges as a crusading mentality.” It was “productive of little,” he explained, “but superstition and bloodshed.”

Some expected a departure from Bush’s martial frivolity with the election of Barack Obama, but the religious jingoism that has always provided the backbone for aggressive military interventionism remained and thus was taken full advantage of by the guarantor of change. In announcing a military surge in Afghanistan, Obama told Americans that our values “are a creed that calls us together … behind a common purpose.” Doctrines of exceptionalism were the rallying cry of his speech on the intervention in Libya. “America is different,” he said, and it is “our common humanity” and “values” that have impelled us to war. In announcing the eventual withdrawal of surge troops and the continuing commitment to warfare in Afghanistan this month, Obama said we must be steadfast in “extending the promise of America.”

These rallying cries do not differ from those propagated within any other state; they don’t even differ from how the Turkana people manage to motivate “several hundred warriors” of “participants [that] are not kin or day-to-day interactants” to “incur substantial risk of death” in order to “produce collective benefits.” George Orwell wrote that “the abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” Political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called this unit an “imagined community” made up mostly of strangers held together by pretenses about their countrymen, rather than actual connections to most or even any of them. “Ultimately,” Anderson wrote, “it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

In both primitive and modern societies, fear of punishment or social ostracism is an imperative tool in reinforcing nationalism. During the First World War, one of the most fiercely nationalistic times in American history, President Woodrow Wilson set up the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a propaganda ministry meant to build public support for the war effort. It succeeded in turning a largely pacifist population wary of foreign intervention into fervent nationalists. The CPI distributed propaganda in news stories, street posters, advertisements, and films. It launched pro-war lecture circuits to mobilize public opinion, and publicly criticizing the president or the war effort was criminalized. One woman, Rose Pastor Stokes, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act for writing a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star that said the government was allied with the war profiteers.

Ganging up on “the other” has a way of fortifying this fraternity and war fever. Americans became aggressively anti-German during the First World War. They called sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” In 1918, a mob in St. Louis attacked a German immigrant named Robert Prager, who had tried to enlist in the Navy. They beat him up, wrapped him in the American flag, and lynched him. A jury found the mob leaders not guilty, citing a case of what they called “patriotic murder.” That’s a nice little microcosm of how war works: convince a people of their own righteousness and purpose in the course of history — as Wilson and his CPI did — and they can justify all kinds of horror.

It is “imaginings” about our place in history and the superiority of our group that caused Americans to excuse the Bush administration and the military for raiding a hospital in Iraq in 2004 and throwing patients on the ground with their arms tied behind their backs, which is considered a war crime under international law. These imaginings also made Americans gullible enough to believe that the rationale for raiding that hospital was that it was a “refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda against allied forces.” These imaginings are precisely what enables Americans to demand respect for sovereignty here at home but disregard it completely when our leaders profess the necessity of conducting a drone war in Pakistan or Yemen. It lent credence to Obama’s call for intervention, and ultimately regime change, in Libya, while he managed not to blush that his own clients elsewhere in the region were committing the same crimes as Gadhafi. As Orwell put it:

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral color when it is committed by “our” side.

In 2004, “new atheist” Sam Harris wrote that “religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man,” and to mitigate such inhumanity we need “the end of faith.” The abolition of faith needs to carry over and indeed be concentrated on the end of nationalism. If, as Randolph Bourne said, war is the health of the state, then nationalism is the health of war. Any hope for a departure from U.S. militarism will be shattered if it rests upon electing a seemingly sober new leader or making minor changes in policy. The change must be in how Americans think of themselves; it must be an abandonment of that timeless tribal tendency to perpetrate savagery in the interest of the group.

Author: John Glaser

John Glaser is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.