An Introductory Warning to American Readers:
In the words of former WBC world boxing champion Kevin Kelley, this post will smoke your boots.
You are about to look in the face America´s secret, inner essence -- its ἁμαρτία (hamartia).
The word is at least 2,000 years old; Aristotle used it as an analytical tool in his discussion of Greek tragedies.** As is always the case with expressions rooted in the unconscious, the exact meaning of hamartia is unclear. It has been translated as fatal flaw, tragic error, error in judgment, ignorance, mistake, sin, evil deed, offense, accidental wrongdoing, trespass, frailty, miscalculation, vice, moral error. Most scholars agree, however, the basic meaning of hamartia is missing the mark. (For more on the subject, see our post of February 28, 2014, "The ´Hamartia´ of Rafael Correa.")
Happy Independence Day! We say it genuinely, but in a way you never saw before -- and most likely will never see again.
* * *
"I think that nations, like men, almost always show,
from a very young age, the traits of their destiny."
-- Alexis de Tocqueville*** --
While working out in Earls Court Gym in London, three jihadists surrounded me. I will never forget how their eyes blazed.
Determined to get my goat, they engaged me in a discussion about whether or not the United States military is the most powerful in the world. They asked/answered, Did not Vietnam win its war for independence and unification against the USA?
The population of Vietnam in 1975, when it won the war, was 50 million. Iran today has 77 million. If the United States invaded Iran, the jihadists asked, would Iran win?
"Wouldn´t surprise me," I said: "The United States has never won a war."
If your jaw dropped to the floor, dear reader, you are not alone. You should have seen the jihadists.
"Except one," I added.
How could anybody dare say such a thing? Contemptible, preposterous.
I assure you my position engages in no fancy, lawyer-istic finagling about the definition of war. (I wish the same could be said for my opponents.) A definition of war is vital, but will not be addressed here.
Sidebar: for readers who seek to define war, the starting place is Carl von Clausewitz´s classic, On War, Chapter 1. He defined war in composite terms: it is "an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will," notably "to disarm;" war is "never an isolated act" or "a single instantaneous blow;" the result of war is "never an absolute;" war is "no pastime...no mere passion for venturing and winning; it is a serious means for a serious object;" finally, war is a "political instrument" with a "political object."
Scholars will tell you that certain aspects of Clausewitz´s work, first published in 1832, are dated. Be that as it may, other aspects are still very much alive. On every page, Clausewitz will make you think.
O.K., Americans, West Point, Annapolis and Air Force Academy professors, students, alumni: What was the one and only war the United States of America won? And what´s the story with all those other wars it did not win?
1. The American Revolution. I bet that was your first best guess. Simple, no? On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The Treaty of Paris of September 30, 1783, formally ended the war. The American colonies won independence from England.
The country of the United States of America did not win the revolutionary war.
The reason is that country did not exist.
Countries definitely existed at the time; the Peace of Westphalia, which formally instituted the nation-state system, was concluded in 1648. However, the United States of America was not among them.
The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, was proclaimed by the "thirteen united [sic] States of America." What explains the small "u": the 13 colonies fighting for independence saw themselves as 13 separate nation-states. In fact, they were recognized as such by The Treaty of Paris:
"His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states..."
That recognition simply recognized the obvious. The American colonists had no notion of themselves as one country when they adopted the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781, seven months before Cornwallis surrendered:
"The Stile of this Confederacy shall be
´The United States of America´.
II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship..."
A confederacy is not a country. A league of friendship is not a country. A union, such as the European Union, is not a country.
The country of the United States of America was born on March 4, 1789, when the government created by the United States Constitution began operating.
2. The War of 1812 officially started on June 12, 1812, when the United States Congress declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Treaty of Ghent formally ended the conflict on December 24, 1814.
To hear songster Johnny Horton tell it ("The Battle of New Orleans"), 23-year-old America literally beat the British going away:
We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin.
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and they began to runnin' on
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lily-livered, crumpet-munching tea-sippers...
Sorry, Horton fans: It´s Reality Therapy Time. The battle of New Orleans was exactly that -- a battle.
The more you read about the War of 1812, the more you scratch your head. Who won? Anybody? Who lost? A classic draw, if there ever was one. Canadian author Pierre Berton: "It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning..."
Well, almost nothing changed. Besides Johnny Horton, the War of 1812 inspired poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner." There you have it.
Wait a second... There is something else.
The war spawned an endless, crabby debate among history professors about whether or not during the conflict Canada actually won a war against U.S. invaders. If you want to know more, ask any Canadian -- the victory is part of their national identify. As for Americans, I never met one who even heard of the incident.
A draw with the British? Beaten by Canada? It´s enough to make any self-respecting American fighting man choke on his Gatorade and bourbon. But wait -- there´s more.
3. The American Indian Wars began in 1622 with the Jamestown Massacre and ended in 1890 with the Wounded Knee Massacre. The Indians lost.
Or did they?
Indian Wars or a single 268-year war fought on different fronts? I don´t want to start a semantic squabble. Let´s just say that when you go to the barber you get a haircut -- not a hairs-cut. Indian Wars is a collective noun that is denied recognition as such. Underneath that refusal is the same old story: divide et impera.
Denied by whom? Definitely not the Indians. One of my high school buddies was a Seminole. An industrial-strength denizen of Huey´s pool hall on lower Main Street, James was a fantastic snooker player. He made a living hustling hustlers; Paul Newman would have had his head handed to him in a basket. As for us commoners, James would mumble an admonition from "The Cincinnati Kid" starring Steve McQueen: lessons cost extra.
When an out-of-towner casually and casuistically informed him that whites always had and always will beat Indians, I feared James was going to compel the unsuspecting prey to eat his pool cue plus chalk for lunch. Here´s why:
The first thing the Seminoles tell you on their official web site is they are the only tribe that never signed a peace treaty with the federal government. That means the Indian Wars, and I do mean all of them, have not been concluded.
Until a treaty with the Seminoles is signed, I hate to tell you, Washington, but you have been snookered.
P.S. Whatever you do, dear reader, do not hold your breath waiting for the Seminoles to sign a peace treaty.
O.K., all you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, throbbing at the bone American patriots: is your temperature rising? Jukebox blowing a fuse? But wait -- there´s more.
4. The Spanish-American War. Ah ha, you muse -- here is the war America won. Did not the Spanish Empire crash and burn under American military might? Did not Spain relinquish sovereignty over Cuba and have to sell Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to America for a low/lower/lowest $20 million?
The war officially began on April 25, 1898, when Congress declared it, and ended on August 12, 1898, with the signing of the Spain-United States Protocol of Peace. Go figure: three months, two weeks and four days. Now you know why Theodore Roosevelt called it the "splendid little war." I believe Clausewitz would detect an oxymoron: to the extent the Spanish-American War was a pastime for venturing and winning, what took place was not a war. We will not make that argument here,**** however; no need to.
The United States did not win the Spanish-American War. To explain why, I need to interject a bit of something West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy don´t teach: common sense.
On February 11, 1990, James "Buster" Douglas pulled off what is arguably the greatest sporting upset of all times. He defeated Mike Tyson for the undisputed heavyweight boxing crown. Nobody gave Douglas a chance; you couldn´t bet on him because no odds were offered. You can watch Douglas knock out Tyson here.
Now, let´s say that with the referee´s permission, just before Tyson hit the canvas you jumped in the ring and punched him. Question: could you rightfully claim you won the fight?
At this point, what is called in Spanish a perogrullada appears -- an answer so obvious as to be stupid. Rather, should be obvious. The reason why so many Americans don´t see it -- make that, can´t see it -- is discussed below. For them, I will commit a perogrullada and spell out the answer to our Tyson knockout question:
No, you did not win the fight. At best, you could brag to your buddies over beer and knockworst sandwiches that you helped beat Tyson.
What does Douglas v. Tyson have to do with the Spanish American War? Answer: everything.
Roosevelt´s splendid little war was actually the culmination of three wars for Cuban independence: the Ten Years´ War (1868-1878), the Little War (1879-1880) and the War of Independence (1895-1898).
Scholars often group the three wars together to form The Great 30 Year War. To belittle or marginalize it -- to see only the three-month American-Spanish combat -- is to fudge the definition of war.
30 years versus three months. Now you know why the Spanish-American War is not the war the United States won. If you have problems with that conclusion, watch the entire Douglas/Tyson fight here. The apparently effortless knockout you witnessed above came after nine rounds of incredibly grueling punishment dished out by both fighters. Any closing-second punch you might have thrown would be literally beside the point.
In 1898, did one of Tocqueville´s traits encapsulating an entire nation´s destiny emerge? A fatal flaw?
5. World War I. If every high school history teacher I ever had was right, we have arrived at the war America won.
Last week, on June 28, international commemorations took place. Exactly 100 years ago, World War I started with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. The war ended exactly five years later with the Treaty of Versailles.
The United States Congress declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917. World War I lasted 1914-1919. Our conclusion is undeniable: the war was 60% over when America entered it.
There are many ways other than time, however, to measure a nation´s contribution to a war effort. Among them is the number of troops mobilized. The United States total for World War I was 4 million-plus. That figure must be compared to those of other Allies: 12 million for Russia, 9 million for the British Empire, 8 million for France and 6 million for Italy.
Total troop casualties (killed, wounded, missing/prisoners) tell the same story. The number for the United States was 323,000, versus 9 million for Russia, 3 million for the British Empire, 6 million for France, 2 million for Italy.
Conclusion? To avoid a second perogrullada, I won´t pronounce it.
Of course every soldier and every casualty counts. That is why to claim "the United States won World War I" is pretentiousness bordering on blasphemy. It relegates the contributions and sacrifices of all other Allies to -459.67F: absolute zero.
The United States did not win World War I. The Allies won World War I. As a member of the Allies, the United States helped win World War I.
6. World War II. It is generally agreed in the West that the war began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. It ended on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri.
Did the Tocquevillian trait reappear? As in the Spanish-American War and World War I, did the United States pile on late? Deliver a 10th-round punch?
Due to an extenuating circumstance, Washington had no choice but to enter World War II. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Days later, America declared war on Japan and Germany.
I have often wondered not if but when and how the United States would have entered World War II had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor.
The question is apropos. Japanese war hero Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who carried out the Pearl Harbor attack, rigorously opposed his mission. If Emperor Hirohito had listened to Yamamoto...
Discounting our WW II entry issue and given the 1939-1945 time frame, an American pile-on did not occur.
What about military deaths? Among the Allies, the Soviet Union had 10 million, followed by China with three and a half million and Yugoslavia with 450,000. The United States held 4th place with 417,000. A point to consider: more Americans died in World War II than in World War I.
Finally, in terms of mobilized personnel, among the Allies the USSR held first place with 29 million, followed by the United States with 16 million.
At the end of the day, what you find is another group victory for the Allies, so our conclusion regarding World War I applies to World War II. The United States did not win World War II. The Allies won World War II. America was a member of the Allies; America helped win World War II.
"The United States won World War II." The reason for such throbbing juvenile hubris so often voiced in America is, I believe, cultural/ideological:
Somewhere in the 50 states this very second at least 10 somebodies are singing or playing "My Way." Americans can´t get enough of it. Musicians either; it is arguably the most covered song in history. I think the reason for its astounding success is its inner polarity, hence tension. "My Way" is great mythology, lousy reality. Nobody does it my way -- certainly not Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley who recorded it. In their careers they had plenty of help from other people. Ditto Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics for "My Way" but not the music, which is French. I can´t imagine a song without music. Talk about help.****
Is the ego inflation paraded in "My Way" another manifestation of America´s hamartia -- its frailty, moral error, ignorance -- in the form of overcompensation?
7. The Korean War, 1950-1953. I never heard anybody say the United States won that war. The visible, geographic stalemate continues to this day. Let´s move on.
Did you figure out the one and only war the United States won? No?
I will put you out of your misery.
The Mexican-American War, known in Mexico as La Intervención Estadounidense, began on May 13, 1846, when Congress declared war on Mexico. The conflict ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848.
History books will tell you the precipitating cause of the conflict was the United States annexation of Texas (1845), which Mexico considered to be part of its territory. Well...yes and no. The real cause was simply that the United States was determined to expand to the Pacific Ocean. The acquisition of Texas was part of the plan.
America´s drive westward was justified ideologically by Manifest Destiny, a grab-bag of windy pronunciamientos about God, paradise on earth, salvation -- honest consciousness incarnate. Underneath it all...
The Mexican land which the U.S. coveted was isolated from Mexico City and sparsely populated. At the time, Mexico was economically impoverished and politically in turmoil. U.S. President James Polk saw an opportunity, and seized it.
Its army defeated, its capitol and major cities occupied, Mexico had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It reduced Mexico´s territory by 50%. In the process, the United States expanded by an area the size of Europe for which it paid Mexico $15 million -- about $420 million today.
What land, exactly, did the U.S. win? Visualize all or part of 10 states: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
When all is said and done -- and it was -- the United States achieved its goal: an unabashed, unabridged land grab. We are looking at a textbook example of a political goal a la Clausewitz. Conclusion? The USA won the war.
I swear I just heard somebody in the Pentagon or CIA headquarters shout Hooray! I will not join them. Remember Clausewitz´s observation that the result of war is never an absolute...
In the Mexican-American War, the United States won the crown. However, some jewels were missing. As told by the wife of Nicholas Trist, the main U.S. negotiator for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo:
"Just as they were about to sign the treaty...one of the Mexicans, Don Bernardo Couto, remarked to him, ´this must be a proud moment for you; no less proud for you than it is humiliating for us.´ To this Mr. Trist replied ´we are making peace, let that be our only thought.´ But, said he to us in relating it, ´Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans. For though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right minded American to be ashamed of, and I was ashamed of it, most cordially and intensely ashamed of it.´"
So much for honest consciousness.
One translation of hamartia is trespass. The amazing thing Trist revealed is that, even in its one and only win, America´s tragic flaw or hamartia was present. Rather than a history treatise, an idomatic expression comes to mind: can´t win for losing.
Trespass. I believe Manifest Destiny just took on a new meaning.
I repeat: the United States won The Mexican-American War. Our conundrum is solved.
Or is it?
* * *
"Character is destiny."
-- Heraclitus***** --
Our conundrum is not: what war did the United States win?
For you optimists out there, the American war bottle is nowhere near half full. One win in 11 (see below) wars is, to say the least, unimpressive. Why, then, does the U.S. keep trying? An answer will be given shortly.
Our conundrum pertains to the rest of the bottle -- the bigger, empty part.
America helped finish many wars. It confuses -- unconsciously so -- finishing with winning. On that point, the entire country is in a state of denial, consequently, of fudging. Which is why you have never seen, and likely never will see, our viewpoint expressed anywhere else.
When something is unconsciously repressed, it resurfaces again and again in ever more puerile, violent forms. Repression explains why the Tocquevillian trait that appeared so early -- the U.S. was only 109 years old when the Spanish-American War occurred -- is starting to show up more frequently and virulently.
1. The Vietnam War, a.k.a. the Second Indochina War or, as it is known in Vietnam, the Resistance War Against America. American media will coolly inform you the war was between Vietnam and the United States, and that it lasted 1959-1975.
What that account leaves out is the rest of the story. U.S. participation historically was a continuation of the French-Vietnamese War, the First Indochina War, 1946-1954.
You think round one was no big deal? If your conclusion is yes and you voice it to a Frenchman, don´t forget to duck. In terms of casualties, 89,797 French forces were killed/missing in Vietnam. The figure was 58,286 for the United States.
2. There were two U.S. wars with Iraq: (1) The Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm, 1990-1991, and (2) the Iraq War proper that began with the United States Invasion on March 20, 2003. Tentatively, the Iraq War ended on December 15, 2011, with the pullout of American troops. Tentatively, because in the past week the U.S. has sent hundreds of soldiers back to Iraq to counter the growing Isis threat. We may be facing a close encounter of the fourth kind; stay tuned...
As with the Vietnam War, the U.S. intervention in Iraq should never be torn from its historical context. It occurred on the heels of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 -- arguably the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. The outcome was a stalemate. After a million casualties, both countries were spent, exhausted.
As in Vietnam, America´s hamartia manifested itself in the form of a serious miscalculation. Sending in American troops was supposed to be quick and easy -- a mopping-up operation of a wearied and wasted enemy.
"Mission Accomplished"? "Major combat missions in Iraq have ended"? (President George W. Bush) No comment here; no third perogrullada.
3. The War in Afghanistan, 2001 to present. The war came shortly after 9/11 when the Taliban Government refused to hand over bin Laden to the U.S.
Here, too, the Tocquevillian trait -- the closing-second Mike Tyson punch, the piling-on -- is evidenced. The American war in Afghanistan followed the Soviet War in Afghanistan that dragged on for ten years -- from the Soviet invasion on December 24, 1979, to the final troop withdrawal on February 15, 1989.
All of the above leads us here:
Draws, incompletes, unacknowledged help, one tarnished win, one indisputable loss (two if the Canadians are right)... When a purported solution -- in this case, war -- fails but is attempted over and over again anyway, the unconscious is in control. In the affairs of nations, the cause is the consequence: unwise. Missing the mark.
Our conundrum: What is in the American character that causes it to enter late -- that prevents it from winning, i.e., starting and ending, a war?
If character is destiny, a question arises: what is character? If character cannot exist independently of hamartia or fatal flaw/ignorance/miscalculation, what is America´s hamartia?
The answer consists of one word. I will be more than happy to give it when a consensus develops that the United States...has a hamartia.
Why is that consensus crucial? Alcoholics Anonymous got it right: an open admission is a necessary first step to a solution. If America will make a comparable acknowledgement, it can begin to control the unconscious and autonomous complex presently deciding its destiny, instead of being controlled by it. Now, that would constitute a true independence day.
For the time being, I will not waste my time or yours by offering a solution to a problem that is not acknowledged to be a problem.
However, I will give two clues.
The first takes the form of another question:
Why does the United States fabricate and/or assist "creeps" -- Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and now, apparently, the terrorist organization Isis led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (see our prior post) -- in order to combat them?
That clue is more than a clue. It identifies in another way America´s hamartia, the unconscious, psychological complex constellated by wars. Thus, the answer to the second question also will solve our conundrum.
Our second clue elaborates on Tocqueville´s and Heraclitus´ word destiny. The anthropologist Jules Henry observed:
“A nation that will respond only to fear cannot govern itself wisely, for it has no destiny but fear...”******
Unwise. We saw that word before. Consider it another translation of hamartia.
*Conundrum: "(i) A riddle whose answer involves a pun or unexpected twist. (ii) A logical postulation that evades resolution, an intricate or difficult problem."
**Poetics, Chapter 13.
***« Je pense que les nations, comme les hommes, indiquent presque toujours, dès leur jeune âge, les principaux traits de leur destinée. » Alexis de Tocqueville, De La Démocratie en Amérique I, in Œuvres, Volume II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p. 474. (II, X). [My translation].
****I see no reason to be equally charitable with other bellicose escapades, notably Ronald Reagan´s invasion of Grenada in 1983. The two-day excursion pitted 7,000 American soldiers against 1,500 Grenadian troops and 700 Cuban construction crew workers. Whatever a war is, Grenada wasn´t it.
*****A case study of psychic inflation in a milieu of pronounced illusions:
"Russel Crowe, winner of the Academy Award for best actor in 2000 for his role in ´Gladiator,´ dedicated his Oscar to those who, like himself, had grown up in the working-class suburb of a big city and dreamed of winning such an award. ´To anybody who’s on the downside of advantage,´ he said, ´it’s possible.´ (Ricky Lyman, ´Spreading the Wealth at the Academy Awards,´ International Herald Tribune, March 27, 2001.)
But anybody who has ever been to a movie knows that it is not possible for everyone to win an Oscar. To start with, as the movie credits show, to make a movie requires numerous professions and functions for which no Oscar is awarded.
Compare the above Academy Award incident with the presentation of Danis Tanovic, the Bosnian director, of his film ´No Man’s Land´ at Cannes in 2001:
´I had a beautiful crew, professionally and humanly. Making a movie depends on 300 people. If you have one bad actor or the wrong person in charge of continuity, it can destroy your movie. So when you see my film in Cannes, it’s not about me, it’s about the 300 people behind me.´
(Joan Dupont, ´No Man’s Land: A Tale From Bosnia’s Trenches,´ International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2001. )"
Excerpt from The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion, p. 134.
*****Fragment 119. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus.
******Jules Henry, Culture Against Man, Random House, New York, 1963, p. 113.