Violence is the American Way
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"Increasingly, Americans are a people without history, with only memory, which means a people poorly prepared for what is inevitable about life -- tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity -- and therefore a people reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues."
-- Elliot Gorn, "Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and Past," Chronicle of Higher Education (April 28, 2000).
In August 2002, President George Bush began to drum up a war fever in America with a view to toppling Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, alleged to be the possessor of weapons of mass destruction. Bush did so without providing the evidence, the costs, the "why now" explanation, or long-term implications of such a war.
And by October 2002, The United States Congress not only granted the president a virtual declaration of war for an historically unprecedented "pre-emptive war," but did so without raising any questions about the whys, the evidence, the costs, or long term implications for the nation -- and for the world -- of such an unprovoked invasion.
Only a democratic society accustomed to war -- and predisposed to the use of war and violence -- would accept war so quickly, without asking any questions or demanding any answers from its leaders about the war.
And only the opposition of the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese finally forced some Americans to raise questions about what was actually being planned. This, coupled with the anti-war demonstrations on February 15th, 2003 by millions of people in 350 cities around the globe, delayed President Bush from actually launching this war against Iraq by mid-February 2003.
Nothing, however, seemed to stop the bush administration's drive for war. Nor did the failure of American diplomatic efforts to get authorization from the United Nations' security council seem to bother the members of the congress, virtually all of whom remained silent or in support of war. The incessant polls showed that a majority of the american population continued to support a preemptive war even as -- or perhaps because of -- increasingly angry objections were voiced by important longterm allies and antiwar demonstrators all over the world.
The reality untaught in American schools and textbooks is that war -- whether on a large or small scale -- and domestic violence have been pervasive in American life and culture from this country's earliest days almost 400 years ago. Violence, in varying forms, according to the leading historian of the subject, Richard Maxwell Brown, "has accompanied virtually every stage and aspect of our national experience," and is "part of our unacknowledged (underground) value structure." Indeed, "repeated episodes of violence going far back into our colonial past, have imprinted upon our citizens a propensity to violence."
Thus, America demonstrated a national predilection for war and domestic violence long before the 9/11 attacks, but its leaders and intellectuals through most of the last century cultivated the national self-image, a myth, of America as a moral, "peace-loving" nation which the American population seems unquestioningly to have embraced.
Despite the national, peace-loving self-image, American patriotism has usually been expressed in military and even militaristic terms. No less than seven presidents owed their election chiefly to their military careers (George Washington, 1789, Andrew Jackson,1828, William Henry Harrison, 1840, Zachary Taylor,1848, Ulysses S. Grant,1868, Theodore Roosevelt,1898, and Dwight David Eisenhower, 1952) while others, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, for example, capitalized upon their military records to become presidents, and countless others at both federal and state levels made a great deal of their war or military records.
Starting with President Woodrow Wilson early in the 20th century, national leaders began to use moralistic rhetoric when they took the nation to war. They assured Americans that the nation's singular mission in the world required the nation to go to war, but that when it went to war, America only did what was morally right.
Secretary of State John Hay, in 1898, lauded the Spanish-American War as a "splendid little war." Commentators have touted World War II as the good war and those who fought in it, "The Best American Generation," and President George Bush, as he was about to launch a War against Iraq on January 29, 1991, asserted: "We are Americans; we have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom. And when we do, freedom works."
This is not to suggest that all American wars have been fought for base motives, cloaked by self-serving moralistic rhetoric, but rather that Americans have little genuine understanding of the major role played by war throughout the American experience.
Historians, however, are well aware that war taught Americans how to fight, helped unite the diverse American population, and helped stimulate the national economy, among other significant things. But this is not the message that they have presented to the American people, concerned perhaps they might undermine Americans' self-image.
Just how frequent war has been, and how central wars have been to the evolution of the United States, only becomes clear when you start to make a list.
American wars begin with the first Indian attack in 1622 in Jamestown, Virginia, followed by the Pequot War in New England in 1635-36, and King Philips' War, in 1675-76, which resulted in the destruction of almost half the towns in Massachusetts. Other wars and skirmishes with Native American Indians would follow until 1900.
There were four major imperial wars between 1689 and 1763 involving England and its North American colonies and the French (and their Native American Indian allies), Spanish, and Dutch empires. During roughly the same years, 1641 to 1759, there were 18 settler outbreaks, five rising to the level of major insurrections (such as Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677, Leisler's Rebellion in New York, 1689-1692, and Coode's Rebellion in Maryland, 1689-1692), and 40 riots.
Americans gained their independence from England and boundaries out to the Mississippi River, as a consequence of the Revolutionary War.
The second war against England, 1812-1815, reinforced our independence, while 40 wars with the Native American Indians between the 1622 and 1900 resulted in millions upon millions of acres of land being added to the national domain.
In 1848, the entire southwest, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and Wyoming, was obtained through war with Mexico. The Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was simply the bloodiest war in American history.
America's overseas empire began with the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902) by which the U.S. gained control of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Then, there were World Wars I and II, the Korean Police Action (1949 - 1952), and the longest -- and most expensive war -- in American history, the Vietnam War between 1959 and 1975.
Meanwhile, between 1789 and 1945, there were at least 200 presidentially directed military actions all over the globe. Among other places, these military actions involved the shelling of Indochina in 1849 and the U.S. military occupation of virtually every Caribbean and Central-American country between 1904 and 1934. Indeed, in his effort to justify U.S. military intervention in Cuba against Fidel Castro, on September 17, 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk presented a list to a U.S. Senate Hearing of all of these 200 plus "precedents" (now called "low intensity conflicts") from 1789 to 1960.
During the Cold War between 1945 and 1989, the U.S. waged war, directly or through surrogates, openly and covertly, from military bases all over the world.
After the Cold War ended in 1989, other important military actions have been undertaken, such as the Gulf War (January and February 1991 in Iraq), in the former Yugoslavia (in 1999), and the 2001 war against the Taliban government and international terrorists in Afghanistan and the Philippines in 2003. To this roster, we must add the 2003 war against Iraq, to be followed, perhaps, by one with North Korea, which has lately brandished its nuclear weapons and missiles.
American historians have avidly studied war, especially the Civil War and World War II, but their focus has almost always been on war causation, battles, generalship, battlefield tactics and strategy, and so on. Overlooked, for the most part, are the general and specific effects of war upon American cultural life; the possible connections between war and civilian violence is still largely unexplored territory. Has war directly or indirectly encouraged an American predisposition toward aggressiveness and the use of violence or was it the reverse?
This question has never been satisfactorily investigated by American historians or other scholars. Yet, the overwhelming majority of historians have always known that America was -- and is -- a violent country. But they have said very little about it, depriving the population of a realistic understanding about this important aspect of their national culture. This omission is most clearly observable in U.S. history textbooks used in high schools, colleges and universities, on the one hand, and popular histories derived from these texts, on the other, which have never devoted serious attention to the topic of the violence in America, let alone sought to explain it.
Consequently, there seems little genuine understanding about the centrality of violence in American life and history.
The overwhelming majority of American historians have not studied, written about, or discussed America's "high violence" environment, not because of a lack of hard information or knowledge about the frequent and widespread use of violence, but because of an unwillingness to confront the reality that violence and American culture are inextricably intertwined.
Many prominent historians recognized this years ago.
In the introduction to his 1970 collection of primary documents, "American Violence: A Documentary History," two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: "What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue." Indeed, Hofstadter wrote the "legacy" of the violent 1960s would be a commitment by historians systematically to study American violence.
But most American historians have studiously avoided the topic or somehow clouded the issue. In 1993, in his magisterial study, "The History of Crime and Punishment in America," for example, Stanford University Historian Lawrence Friedman devoted a chapter to the many forms of American violence. Then, in a very revealing chapter conclusion, Friedman wrote: "American violence must come from somewhere deep in the American personality ... [it] cannot be accidental; nor can it be genetic. The specific facts of American life made it what it is ... crime has been perhaps a part of the price of liberty ... [but] American violence is still a historical puzzle." Precisely what is it that historians are unwilling to discuss? Basically, there are three forms of American violence: mob violence, interpersonal violence, and war.
What is the extent of mob violence?
Indiana University Historian Paul Gilje, in his 1997 book, "Rioting in America," stated there were at least 4,000 riots between the early 1600s and 1992. Gilje asserted that "without an understanding of the impact of rioting we cannot fully comprehend the history of the American people."
This is a position that director Martin Scorsese just made his own in the film, "Gangs of New York," which focuses on the July 1863 Draft Act Riots in New York City as the historical pivot around which America's urban experience revolved. However, occasional gory movie depictions of violent riots, or Civil War battles, as in "Gods and Generals," provide little real understanding of a nation's history.
M.I.T. Historian Robert Fogelson, in his 1971 book, "Violence as Protest: a Study of Riots and Ghettos," concluded that "for three and a half centuries Americans have resorted to violence in order to reach goals otherwise unattainable ... indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the native white majority has rioted in some way and at some time against every minority group in America and yet Americans regard rioting not only as illegitimate but, even more significant, as aberrant."
Part of the fascination with group violence is the spectacle of mob rampages. But for historians there is more; group violence is viewed as a "response" to changing economic, political, social, cultural, demographic or religious conditions. Thus, however violent the episodes were, historians could see larger "reasons" for these group behaviors; somehow, these actions reflected a "cause."
(This might be likened to the way many American historians still view the southern secession movement and Civil War. Seeking to maintain their institution of human slavery, southerners started the bloodiest war in American history which almost destroyed the union. But because they claimed to be fighting for their "freedom," historians have treated their action as a legitimate cause, whereas in other nations such action is ordinarily viewed as treason).
Now, to the nitty-gritty: How many victims did riots and collective violence claim over the 400-year American historical experience?
This can never accurately be known, considering it includes official and unofficial violence against Native American Indians, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asians and untold riots, vigilante actions and lynchings, among other things.
But a conservative guesstimate of, perhaps, about 2,000,000 deaths and serious injuries between 1607 and 2001 (or about 5,063 each and every year for 395 years) seems a reasonable -- and quite conservative -- number for analytical purposes, until more precise statistics are available.
At least 753,000 Native American Indians were the intended victims of warfare and genocide between 1622 and 1900 in what is now the United States of America, according to one scholar. The number for African-Americans might equal or exceed the estimate for the Indians, 750,000.
The total number of deaths for all other forms of collective violence seems well under 20,000. The greatest American riot, the New York City Draft Act riots of July 1863, resulted in between 105 and 150 deaths, while the major 1960s riots (Watts, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and Detroit, Mich., accounted for a total of 103 deaths, and the 1992 Los Angeles riot claimed 60 lives. The estimate of deaths from the 326 vigilante episodes is between 750 and 1,000. Approximately 5,000 individuals were known to have been lynched between 1882 and 1968, and about 2,000 more killed in labor-management violence.
Horrendous as this sounds -- and it is horrendous -- this 2,000,000 figure pales when compared to the major form of American violence which historians have routinely ignored until very recently. Historians of violence have largely ignored individual interpersonal violence, which, in sharp contrast to group violence, is very frequent, sometimes very personal -- and far deadlier than group violence.
In 1997, two distinguished legal scholars, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, compared crime rates in the G-7 countries (Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) between the 1960s and 1990s in their book, "Crime Is Not The Problem: Lethal Violence In America Is." Bluntly, they stated their conclusion: "What is striking about the quantity of lethal violence in the United States is that it is a third-world phenomenon occurring in a first-world nation."
Instances of personal violence include but are not limited to barroom brawls, quarrels between acquaintances, business associates, lovers or sexual rivals, family members, or during the commission of a robbery, mugging, or other crime.
How does the carnage in this category contrast with the 2,000,000 victims of group violence between 1607 and 2001?
During the 20th century alone, well over 10 million Americans were victims of violent crimes -- and 10 percent of them -- or 1,089,616 -- were murdered between 1900 and 1997. The "total" number of "officially reported" homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes between 1937 and 1970 was 9,816,646, but these were undercounts!
Every year during the 20th century at least 10 percent of the crimes committed have been violent crimes -- homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes and robberies. Between 1900 and 1997, there were 1,089,616 homicides. How were they murdered? 375,350 by firearms and the rest were due to other means, including beating, strangling, stabbing and cutting, drowning, poisoning, burning and axing.
Between 1900 and 1971, 596,984 Americans were murdered. Between 1971 and 1997, there were another 592,616 killed in similar ways.
More Americans were killed by other Americans during the 20th century than died in the Spanish-American war (11,000 "deaths in service"), World War I (116,000 "deaths in service"), World War II (406,000 "deaths in service"), the Korean police action (55,000 "deaths in service"), and the Vietnam War (109,000 "deaths in service") combined. ("Deaths in Service" statistics are greater than combat deaths and were used here to make the contrast between war and civilian interpersonal violence rates even clearer.)
So, what accounts for the American ability to overlook collective violence, interpersonal violence, and war?
The explanation lies, first, with historians' abdication of responsibility systematically to deal with the issue of violence in America ... and, second, with the American population's refusal directly to confront any very ugly reality -- which came first I do not know. This is what historians refer to as " mutual causation."
There are, of course, several factors that have enabled Americans to overlook their violent past. Many of these were actually defined by Richard Hofstadter in his 1970 introduction to "American Violence: A Documentary History." First, Americans have been told by historians that they are a "latter-day chosen people" with a providential exemption from the woes that plagued all other human societies. Historians of the 1950s had not denied that America's past was replete with violence; they just preferred during the Cold War to emphasize a more positive vision of America. Historians refer to this as the "myth of innocence" or the "myth of the new world Eden."
In an open, free, democratic society, graced with an abundance of natural resources, and without the residue of repressive European institutions, virtually any white person who worked hard had the opportunity to achieve the "American Dream" of material success and respectability.
Violence, especially political violence when it erupted, was dismissed out of hand as somehow "un-American," an unfortunate by-product of temporary racial, ethnic, religious and industrial conflicts.
Second, American violence had not been a major issue for federal, state or local officials because it was rarely directed against them; it was rarely revolutionary violence. Rather, American violence has almost always been citizen-against-citizen, white against black, white against Indian, Protestant against Catholic or Mormon, Catholic against Protestant, white against Asian or Hispanic.
The lack of a violent revolutionary tradition in America is the principal reason why Americans have never been disarmed, while in every European nation the reverse is true.
So, for the most part, Americans, laymen and historians alike, have been able to practice what some historians have termed "selective" recollection or "historical amnesia" about the violence in their past and present. Since the 1960s, historians' works, cumulatively, have demonstrated a causal connection between American culture and the American predisposition to use violence. We might now be experiencing yet another by-product of this national penchant for violence -- a willingness to engage in a major war without asking very many hard questions. It's the American Way.
Ira M. Leonard has been a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University for over 30 years. This article is adapted from a speech presented to the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in January 2003.