Tag Archives: might makes right

Is American Destiny Manifest?

American Progress, (1872) by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Columbia, a personification of the United States, is shown leading civilization westward with the American settlers. She is shown bringing light from the East into the West, stringing telegraph wire, holding a school textbook that will instill knowledge, and highlights different stages of economic activity and evolving forms of transportation. Wikipedia

Oddly enough, I had reached the same conclusion as Robert Kaplan in the process of writing my book on the West Fork valley. It was the West Fork of White River, tumbling northward along our long valley that carved the land where I live and thus the livelihoods and experiences of the people who live here. This is Kaplan’s thesis in his book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes American’s Role in the World.

Reading Kaplan took longer than I had expected. His prose forms dense thought clusters embroidered by quotes and references to a wide array of thinkers. But I was motivated soon after starting the book by his storyline which follows his journey from the east coast to the Pacific. And by the fact that from as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved geography.

Oh, not exactly the study of geography—although I’ve learned to appreciate that as well—but rather the experience of it. The varying shades of dirt and sand, the rise of hills and mountains, the sudden drop of arroyos and canyons carved by quick floods and persistent rivers. Rivers, desert, plains – all if it thrills me each with its own particular mood and energy. If I had been able to travel the world in my younger more flexible years, it wouldn’t have been to visit cities or museums, but rather to see the lay of the land.

But I digress. It’s not from that perspective that Kaplan examines geography’s role in the course of American history. Rather, he argues that by the unique circumstance of our nation’s particular framing by the world’s two largest oceans as well as our unique pioneer spirit, we are fated to serve as world leader. I’d have to read this book again—and his other books including The Revenge of Geography—in order to be convinced that I don’t agree with his conclusions, but as of this moment, I really don’t.

A U.S. soldier stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, Iraq, April 2003 Wikipedia

Kaplan describes the conflict between America’s urge toward isolationism and the stake (and responsibility) we have in a global community. His narrative journey from east to west parallels (intentionally) the path of the pioneers, providing him the storyline needed to talk about how the experiences of pioneers created the unique American personality. In developing this view, Kaplan cites Bernard DeVoto and his student Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in stating that “…the geography of the American West freighted the United States with a precise and unprecedented international destiny. DeVoto saw dynamic, westering America, in Schlesinger’s words, as ‘the redeemer, spreading its free institutions to less fortunate peoples.’”[1]

…The American character of today is still to some extent a frontier character born of those solitudes [the Rockies]. Our rapacious form of capitalism, as well as the natural, unspoken national consensus to deploy the navy and air force, and sometimes even the coast guard, to the four corners of the earth, are signs of it.[2]

Kaplan’s view of the American story – and the view of many others he cites – is based on the idea of Manifest Destiny:

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:

–The special virtues of the American people and their institutions

–The mission of the United States to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America

–An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty

Historian Frederick Merk says this concept was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.”[3]

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861). The title of the painting, from a 1726 poem by Bishop Berkeley, was a phrase often quoted in the era of manifest destiny, expressing a widely held belief that civilization had steadily moved westward throughout history. Wikipedia

In this view, pioneers pushed west in order to escape the exhausted moral fiber of their European ancestors and to carve a new, more honest way of life. Pioneers faced unimaginable hardships that stiffened their spines and led to a national character found today in fighter pilots and bold inventors. Kaplan superimposes this foundation on the world of the 21st century and questions the proper role of our nation in the global community.

He concludes that we as a nation are fated by our geography to be the leader in a “post-imperial world.” Delving into brief analyses of other regions in an attempt to understand the possibilities for U.S. interaction and intervention, Kaplan posits a leadership role of post imperialism for the U.S. but refuses to acknowledge any self-serving intention for such a role. Rather, by our unique position with oceans on both sides and the determined character of our people, we have pursued globally what needed to be done with the same vision as we pursued the western frontier.

Although the book has stimulated intense thought, I could not escape arguments that popped into my mind against his conclusions. With random brief nods to our rampant capitalism, never in these nearly two hundred pages did Kaplan talk about the role of corporations or profit seeking-entrepreneurs in motivating modern U.S. foreign policy or the pioneers. Free land, or the exploitation of virgin forests and wildlife, or the unearthing of precious minerals were what motivated the pioneers as much as seeking freedom to live outside the dictates of European kings and classism. That same motivation for wealth is what governs our foreign policy today, whether it’s the protection of corporate interests in developing nascent oil fields (Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America) or in more obscure resources like the rare earth deposits in Afghanistan. We might appease our consciences about trampling indigenous tribes to build oil pipelines by the idea we’re bringing them the wonders of modern civilization, but it remains to be seen whether modern civilization is superior to millennia-old sustainable traditions.

My limited scholarship on these topics can’t stand against the background of an author and scholar of the stature of Robert D. Kaplan. I’d have to read all seventeen books plus the works of other knowledgeable scholars to even begin to claim any authority. But I’m discouraged by his failure to discuss even for one paragraph the role of wealth-seeking so intrinsic to the American experience or the influence of corporations in our imperialism. His assertion that our worldwide deployment of warships and air power is basically a function of our benign responsibility and exceptionalism strikes me as outrageously self-serving.

Manifest destiny excused the genocide of Native Americans. Kaplan tries to sidestep that reality in quoting Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954):

What destroyed the Indian was not primarily political greed, land hunger, or military power, not the white man’s germs or the white man’s rum. What destroyed him was the manufactured products of a culture, iron and steel, guns, needles, woolen cloth, things that once possessed could not be done without.[4]

I call bullshit.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba, in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. A black boy is washing windows, a Native American sits separate from the class, and a Chinese boy is outside the door. The caption reads: “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!”

But Kaplan’s work also forces me to reassess what I’ve been taught throughout my lifetime about our role as a nation. I equivocate on whether to accept that our system of governance is the most enlightened in the world, but I can’t call to mind one that seems superior. I also can’t deny that we enjoy the highest standard of living and that our wealth, indisputably ill-gotten in many ways, has still been a life-saving resource to endangered, starving or sick people around the world. I can’t ignore the accomplishments of our technology in creating a global culture joined through the Internet, telephones, and television which in many ways may serve as the ultimate means of moral arbitration.

I’m bemused by Kaplan’s assertion that our national character and world role stems from our unique continental configuration in having an ocean both to our east and our west. But so does Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, Italy, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and more. Could it be that the wealth-building resources of these other nations had long since been exhausted either internally or by other empires before the modern age?  Why doesn’t Kaplan acknowledge that the American colonists stumbled onto a continent virtually untouched by human exploitation and it is from that harvest of Nature’s bounty that our wealth was captured?

Why doesn’t he talk about what might happen when our soil, rivers, and forests are as decimated as those that used to undergird the wealth of Europe or India?

No matter my arguments at various points in his work, I’m glad I read it. I will read it again. Kaplan’s previous positions as national security chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, as a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security means I need to know more about what he knows and how he thinks if I hope to consider myself informed on our nation’s foreign policy. This no doubt has been the rationale for his many readers/reviewers including James Mattis, David Petraeus, Henry Kissinger, and many other prominent Americans not to mention review boards and other authors.

~~~

[1] Kaplan, Robert. Earning the Rockies. New York: Random House. 19

[2] 24

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny

[4] Kaplan 27

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We Have Met the Enemy and he is us

What’s missing from the debate about our borders? The reason why.

People don’t just pick up and leave their ancestral homes and extended families without a good reason. In so doing, they face a dangerous and expensive journey in search of a new home. Yet despite the risks and hardship, these folks feel they have no choice.

What we hear is news about brown-skinned folks mobbing our borders, crossing rivers and sneaking into the promised land. We see them standing in lines, tear-stained kids’ faces, our media swamped with shouting heads about illegal immigration. Build a wall! Trump yells.

What does any of that do to solve the problem?

Nothing.

The problem is ours. It is we who have caused this, maybe not us individually, but us as part of a Western culture’s willingness to overrun and exploit anyone weaker than us in order to enrich ourselves.

As reported on the PBS Newshour last night,[1] most of the current surge of immigration comes from three nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These are collectively among the most violent, poverty-stricken areas of the Americas. To fully understand the terrible state of affairs in these countries, one must go back several centuries to the Spanish conquest when everything of value was stolen from the people. Since then, land ownership by rich plantation owners and all-powerful foreign corporations has removed people from their traditional way of life and left them with nothing but poorly paid jobs, if that.

The role of the United States intensified during the 20th century as socialist ideals filtered into Latin America. People embraced the idea of taking back the land from foreign interests and the wealthy power brokers in their country. The U.S. took an active albeit secretive role in destroying such efforts, as described in an article in the May 2016 issue of The Nation:[2]

…the active role Washington played in the “dirty war” in El Salvador in the 1980s, which pitted a right-wing government against Marxist guerrillas. The United States sent military advisers to help the Salvadoran military fight its dirty war, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid.

The United States went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of human-rights abuses in El Salvador. The State Department and White House often sought to cover up the brutality, to protect the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes.

In March of 1980, the much beloved and respected Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered. A voice for the poor and repressed, Romero, in his final Sunday sermon, had issued a plea to the country’s military junta that rings through the ages: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”  The next day, he was cut down by a single bullet while he was saying a private mass…

Eight months after the assassination, a military informant gave the US embassy in El Salvador evidence that it had been plotted by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a charismatic and notorious right-wing leader. D’Aubuisson had presided over a meeting in which soldiers drew lots for the right to kill the archbishop, the informant said. While any number of right-wing death squads might have wanted to kill Romero, only a few, like D’Aubuisson’s, were “fanatical and daring” enough to actually do it, the CIA concluded in a report for the White House.

Yet, D’Aubuisson continued to be welcomed at the US embassy in El Salvador, and when Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s point man on Central America during the Reagan administration, testified before Congress, he said he would not consider D’Aubuisson an extremist. “You would have to be engaged in murder,” Abrams said, before he would call him an extremist.

But D’Aubuisson was engaged in murder, and Washington knew it. (He died of throat cancer in 1992, at the age of 48. Abrams was convicted in 1991 of misleading Congress about the shipment of arms to the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, the so-called “Iran/Contra” affair. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, later served as special adviser to President George W. Bush on democracy and human rights, and is now a foreign-policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz.)

Then there was the murder of three nuns. The Nation’s article continues:

No act of barbarism is more emblematic of the deceit that marked Washington’s policy in El Salvador in the 1980s than the sexual assault and murder of four US churchwomen—three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary—in December 1980, a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president.

The American ambassador, Robert White, who had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter, knew immediately that the Salvadoran military was responsible—even if he didn’t have the names of the perpetrators—but that was not what the incoming administration wanted to hear.

One of Reagan’s top foreign-policy advisers, Jeane Kirkpatrick, when asked if she thought the government had been involved, said, “The answer is unequivocal. No, I don’t think the government was responsible.” She then sought to besmirch the women. “The nuns were not just nuns,” she told The Tampa Tribune. “The nuns were also political activists,” with a leftist political coalition (Kirkpatrick died in 2006).

This history and the criminality of U.S. behavior in El Salvador is but one of many similar circumstances across Latin America. Our violent suppression of activists like Che Guevara and other native leaders occurs time and again. We’ve been unwilling to allow local people to reclaim their lands, now largely functioning as an extended plantation for multinational agri-business.

El Salvador has always been a largely agricultural country and despite recent shifts agriculture has continued to be a mainstay of the economy. Conflicts and peasant uprisings over the land date back more than four centuries, to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Since the last 19th century, the most fertile lands have been concentrated in few hands, “An oligarchy known as las catorce (the original fourteen aristocratic families, which has later expanded in number) and used to grow coffee for export, forcing small-scale farmers onto marginal quality lands and making their subsistence increasingly precarious. In the second half of the twentieth century, an alliance of conservative civilians (dominated by las catorce) and military officers ruled the country until the late 1970s.

“A vicious circle was created whereby concentration of land by the wealthy furthered inequality, which led to land degradation and caused conflict that finally escalated into full scale civil war in 1980.” The long civil war decimated the environment, a result of the government’s “’scorched earth’ strategy designed to decimate the insurgency’s base of support in the countryside.” [3]

This destruction resulted in large-scale migration to urban areas which has placed further stress on the country’s delicate ecosystem. A long term result of the war and the ensuing shift in demography has been continuing conflicts over land and the ecological impact of its use near urban areas.

“… the real cause of the civil war in El Salvador is the issue of agrarian reform. The oligarchy tries to prevent it at all cost. The party of the landholding elite has close ties with the death squads…[4],[5]

Its topsoil depleted, its forests all but gone, its water and air polluted by chemicals, livestock, and human waste, El Salvador is a picture of where we’re headed. It’s the canary in the coal mine, a predictor of Western hemisphere futures where overpopulation, lack of environmental protections, and concentration of land ownership are allowed free rein.

Trump’s eager rallying cry against evil gangs—in particular MS-13—barely skims the surface of the real problems facing El Salvador and, by default, the rest of us.

The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles, set up in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the city’s Pico-Union neighborhood who immigrated to the United States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.

Originally, the gang’s main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans.[6]

With over 30,000 members internationally and its power concentrated in the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, MS-13 is a cautionary tale for us all. But that’s not the full picture for El Salvadorans:

The defense ministry has estimated that more than 500,000 Salvadorans are involved with gangs. (This number includes gang members’ relatives and children who have been coerced into crimes.) Turf wars between MS-13, the country’s largest gang, and its chief rivals, two factions of Barrio 18, have exacerbated what is the world’s highest homicide rate for people under the age of 19. In 2016, 540 Salvadoran minors were murdered—an average of 1.5 every day.

While a majority of El Salvador’s homicide victims are young men from poor urban areas, the gangs’ practice of explicitly targeting girls for sexual violence or coerced relationships is well known. Since 2000, the homicide rate for young women in El Salvador has also increased sharply, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. To refuse the gangs’ demands can mean death for girls and their families.[7]

This explains why increasingly the people surging north to U. S. borders in search of safety are single young people and especially young women. It also exposes the ignorance and immorality of the Trump Administration’s recent decision to no longer accept gang violence as an adequate reason to offer sanctuary to immigrants and of its plans to reduce foreign aid to El Salvador. As further evidence of the administration’s deaf ear to the very real crisis of the region, it has reduced the immigration quota for people from the Caribbean and Latin America from 5,000 to 1,500.[8]

As you sow, so shall you reap.

~~~

 

[1] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/migrants-risk-the-dangerous-trip-to-the-u-s-because-its-safer-than-staying-home

[2] https://www.thenation.com/article/time-for-a-us-apology-to-el-salvador/

[3] A. Weinberg, ICE Case Studies, Case Number: 22, Case Mnemonic: ELSALV Case Name: El Salvador Civil War. May 1997. http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/elsalv.htm

[4] M. Dufumier, “Reforme Agraire Au Salvador,” in Civilisations, Vol. 35, No. 2, Pour Une Conscience Lation-Americaine, Prealable A Des Rapports Sud-Sud: Centra d’Etude d l’Amerique Latine (Institute de Sociologie de l’Universite de Burxelles: 1985. 190. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/41229331.

[5] https://www.trustingpeace.org/blog/english-version/land-use-in-el-salvador-who-owns-the-land-and-how-do-they-use-it-a-basic-human-rights-issue#_ftn8

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS-13

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/el-salvador-women-gangs-ms-13-trump-violence/554804/

[8] Ibid