The American way of war

Lenin wrote Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916 to address an issue that had been raised by J. A. Hobson and Rudolf Hilferding in their works about the changing nature of capitalism towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Lenin recognised that the war then taking place was an imperialist one between the old imperialist powers of Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia. Britain was the leading power at the time and included vast swathes of Asia and Africa in its empire. With the exception of France and Turkey, all were monarchies.

By the end of the war Britain’s status had been undermined, and it was in debt to the United States. Woodrow Wilson, an isolationist American president (like Donald Trump), had brought America into the “war to end all wars.” He was also instrumental in the establishing of the League of Nations. After the war Wilson reverted to isolationism, and the United States never joined the League.

The establishment of the Soviet Union and the growth of independence movements around the world meant that the old imperialism was under attack. Initially the old empires had attempted to stifle the Russian Revolution, and when that failed they spent the 1920s and 30s trying to undermine the Soviet Union and any democratic movement. The League was ineffectual in the face of the growth of fascism and gave effective support to the fascists in Spain.

Inevitably, the conflicts between the growth of democratic movements, the existence of the USSR controlled by workers, and the old imperial powers seeking to maintain their empires and fossilised way of life, together with the growth of fascism, led to war on a global scale. At the end of it the USSR had consolidated its position and had demonstrated that it could defeat fascism.

The United States was now the leading imperialist power, displacing Britain and the others, who were now to play a secondary role, despite occasional attempts at their old-style behaviour, as in Suez.

The United States, while declaring itself to be democratic, was in fact an old-style imperialist, every bit as bad as, if not worse than, the countries it displaced.

Imperialist culture, rhetoric, arrogance and practice is part of the DNA of the United States. When the first white settlers arrived in North America they found a land already occupied by an indigenous population with their own culture and languages. The various nations were cultivating the land, growing corn and other crops, hunting and fishing in a sustainable manner. More importantly, they did not have a philosophical outlook based on private property. This concept was completely alien. After all, the Earth was alive, so how could you own it?

In Capital (volume 1, chapter 31) Marx describes how the Puritans of New England “set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured redskin.” The privatisation of land and thus the primitive accumulation of capital meant that anyone who resisted had to be characterised as lazy, stupid, or savage. Basically, the same methods were used as had been employed in Ireland: attack the social system, language and culture of the indigenous population. Exterminate and enslave if possible. Scalping and the taking of ears were all used as in Ireland, and would be used again in Viet Nam against the Vietnamese in the twentieth century.

The core group of planter colonialists in North America were the settlers known as Scots-Irish. These had a firm belief in their own righteousness. Over time they developed a method of warfare still employed by the United States: “razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalising enemy non-combatants; and assassinating enemy leaders” (John Grenier, The First Way of War).

They also developed two other aspects of the American way of war, both demonstrated in Viet Nam in the 1960s to 1970s and again more recently in Iraq and other theatres of war: unlimited war, and irregular war. This included the use of agent orange in Viet Nam; carpet bombing; bombing civilian areas; the use of irregular forces such as Rangers (they still use Robert’s Rules of Rangering from the colonial wars of the eighteenth century); and private contractors.

The indigenous population was suppressed and driven off their land. However, they have never given up their resistance. “Geronimo” was the code name used by the American SEALs (special forces) for Osama Bin Laden; anything not controlled by the military is regarded as “Indian Territory.”

The wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are deeply embedded in the culture of American imperialists. So are the legal rulings from those wars. Perhaps the most glaring is the decision made in 1873 as justification for the execution of “Modoc Jack” (Kintpuash, a leader of the Modoc people of California and Oregon). He had killed General Edward Canby, and it was decided in the attorney-general’s “Modoc Prisoners Opinion” that because the killing was deemed so uncivilised, the Modocs were savages and therefore outside the law.

This opinion is used as justification for the torture of those held in the Guantánamo concentration camp and for other crimes perpetrated by US armed forces. Lenin, when he wrote Imperialism, had not studied America (for obvious reasons, given the time at which he wrote the pamphlet). He does say that unless the “economic essence” of imperialism is studied “it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics.” I believe the culture, rhetoric and philosophy could also be worth study.