The American empire is often ideologically dressed up in imagery that borrowed heavily from the Roman representations of imperial power. America, conceived by its founders as an empire in-the-making, has always dreamed of succeeding Rome. Charles Krauthammer wrote in February 2001 in Time magazine, “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.”
Interestingly, in the summer of 2002, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) published an eighty-five page monograph called “Military Advantage in History.”1 It examines four empires to draw lessons about how the US “should think about maintaining military advantage in the 21st century.” The monograph “provides a window into a mindset that envisions the US” as a successor to imperial powers. One of the empires studied is the Roman empire. The study cites the Roman experience as a precedent for America’s long-term dominance:
The Roman model suggests that it is possible for the United States to maintain its military advantage for centuries if it remains capable of transforming its forces before an opponent can develop counter-capabilities. Transformation coupled with strong strategic institutions is a powerful combination for an adversary to overcome.1
The American imperial power, like the Roman empire, is presented as not only benevolent, but also promoter and protector of peace and freedom in the world. The US claims that as God’s chosen country promotion and protection of peace and freedom in the world is its divinely mandated mission. This claim is reinforced by the corporate media with seductive symbols and slogans glorifying wars for peace and freedom and righteousness of waging them, and their soldiers as righteous warriors. The US violence and wars are promoted as liberating ones, furthering peace and freedom, and spreading the benefits of a “civilized world”. To protect its system of peace and freedom the US, just like Rome, has stationed troops all over the world. According to the Pentagon’s own 2005 official inventory, there are 737 American military bases in more than 130 countries, not including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over half a million US troops, spies, contractors, and others work in these military bases.2 However, considering the US bases in Iraq (likely over 100) and Afghanistan (80 and counting), among many other well-known and secretive bases, there are over 1000 military bases around the world.3
A. Exceptionalism and Expansionism: Hallmarks of the US
The public in the US believes in the myth of American exceptionalism, moral superiority and innate goodness, and of its divine mission to spread “light” to the world. It is clear from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies on the land of the Native Americans, and from the time that John Winthrop made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill” that there has been a strong sense among the European invaders and their descendants that they are a special people with a providential mission to the world.
The claim of American exceptionalism or the “city upon a hill” (Biblical phrase for Jerusalem) mindset has been a pillar of American expansionism since its inception as a country. It was John Winthrop, who first used this phrase in defining the new settlement in North America as the “city upon a hill”. John Cotton, a Puritan preacher, used this phrase to embody the idea of American exceptionalism. Considering themselves as the chosen people of God and as reenacting the Biblical narratives of exodus and conquest, the European colonizers occupied the “promised land” through divinely sanctioned violence against the owners of the land. The Puritans of New England applied the biblical texts of Israel conquest of Canaan to their own situation, casting the Native American tribes as the Canaanites and Amalekites. In 1689, Cotton Mather urged the colonists to go forth against “Amalek annoying this Israel in the wilderness.”4 A few years later, Herbert Gibbs gave thanks for “the mercies of God in extirpating the enemies of Israel in Canaan.”4 He was referring to the European colonists as “Israel” and the Native Americans as “the enemies of Israel”. Similar rhetoric persisted in American Puritanism through the eighteenth century. Indeed biblical analogies continue to play a part in American political rhetoric down to the present. Ownership of the “promised land” is conferred by divine grant, and violence against the Native Americans is not only divinely sanctioned and legitimate, but also mandatory!
One of the pillars of the “city upon a hill” mindset is bipolarity: good and evil, where European invaders considered themselves good as God’s chosen people, and their enemies evil. That is why, Puritans saw the Native Americans as “brutes, devils” and “devil-worshippers” in a godless, howling wilderness filled with evil spirits and “dangerous wild beasts.”5 Native Americans were targeted for removal as the European invaders moved to occupy the “promised land.” God’s invaders “cleansed” the land by exterminating most of the Native Americans (about 18 millions) through “sacred” violence in 40 wars against the Indigenous peoples during 1622-1900 C.E.
The characterization of America as the “city upon a hill” has become part of American self-understanding and a basis of American expansionistic policies. The US has a virtuous and divine mission to the world, that is, the establishment of its form of peace and freedom by exterminating evil. This divine mission to further peace and freedom by eradicating evil in the world is a basic American impulse and justification for its violence. With this mindset Americans cast themselves against Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq, entirely in terms of the binary: good versus evil. George W. Bush’s appeal to evil was dominant in his speeches to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. According to Bush, the purpose of his war was not only to bring peace and freedom, but also to end evil. It is this mission to end evil that justifies American genocidal violence. Its genocidal violence is a “sacred” violence or a “good” violence that will “cleanse” Iraq of evil and establish peace and freedom. Death and destruction are nothing but purification of the land. Bush launched his war in the name of God and considered the war as a zealous action of God’s chosen people. Just after the bombings of September 11, 2001, the US President referred briefly to his “global war on terror” as a “crusade.”6 On September 16, 2001, the BBC reported Bush had declared a “crusade” when the president remarked, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a long time.” With the ripples of outrage it created in the Muslim world, the apology duly came. However, five months later, the President repeated the word while addressing US troops in which he termed the war as “an incredibly important crusade to defend freedom.” George W Bush, who describes himself as a “born again Christian”, has been quoted by Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack describing himself as a “messenger of God” “doing the Lord’s will.”
Commenting on the eleventh and the twelfth century Crusades James Carroll says:
In the name of Jesus, and certain of God’s blessing, crusaders launched what might be called “shock and awe” attacks everywhere they went. In Jerusalem they savagely slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike — practically the whole city. Eventually, Latin crusaders would turn on Eastern Christians, and then on Christian heretics, as blood lust outran the initial “holy” impulse. That trail of violence scars the earth and human memory even to this day — especially in the places where the crusaders wreaked their havoc. And the mental map of the Crusades, with Jerusalem at the center of the earth, still defines world politics. But the main point, in relation to Bush’s instinctive response to 9/11, is that those religious invasions and wars of long ago established a cohesive Western identity precisely in opposition to Islam, an opposition that survives to this day.6
Characterization of the American “global war on terror” as a “crusade” has not only shaped and given meaning to American violence, but also granted divine legitimacy. So, the US “global war on terror” is a divinely inspired and mandated violence. It is “sacred” violence.
The American history is filled with its “sacred” missions in the world. One of them was to Philippines. William McKinley, then US President explained:
I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me: 1) That we could not give them [the Philippines] back to Spain — that would be cowardly and dishonorable; 2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany — our commercial rivals in the Orient — that would be bad business and discreditable; 3) that we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and 4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the … War Department map-maker, and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large wall map), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!7
The President described the combination of sadistic cruelty and starry-eyed self-adulation as a noble campaign to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos. “Civilizing” and “Christianizing” the Filipinos took longer than McKinley thought. This “noble” campaign brought out the brute in the soul of the US Christian crusaders. A frustrated US General ordered troops to kill every Filipino male over age ten. The righteous American Christian warriors succeeded in their campaign by overcoming local resistance forces through their overwhelming superiority in weapons and sheer ruthlessness. They slaughtered about half-a-million Filipinos within the next few years. The American media explained that it would take patience to overcome evil, and bring liberty and happiness to the Filipinos. One critical citizen satirized McKinley’s war: “G is for guns/ That McKinley has sent/ To teach Filipinos/ What Jesus Christ meant.”7
Therefore, the myth of American exceptional status before God and its divine mission to establish peace and freedom in the world has been instrumental in justification of the American violence around the world and its expansionistic policies. This myth has also made it easier to garner public support as Americans are already predisposed to “sacred” violence and receptive to more of it.
- Justin Elliott, “Don’t Know Much about History,” in Mother Jones (August 4, 2008). [↩] [↩]
- Jules Dufour, “Review Article: The Worldwide Network of US Military Bases: The Global Deployment of US Military Personnel,” in Global Research (July 1, 2007). [↩]
- David Vine, “Too Many Overseas Bases,” www.fpif.org (February 25, 2009). [↩]
- Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1960), p. 168. [↩] [↩]
- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Modern Library, 1967), p. 270-271. [↩]
- James Carroll, “The Bush Crusade,” in The Nation, 279/8 (September 20, 2004). [↩] [↩]
- Quoted in Saul Landau, “Conversations with God about Invading Other Countries,” in Canadian Dimension, 39/1 (January/February, 2005). [↩] [↩]