15. The U.S. is Addicted to War: Truth or Mischaracterization

March 7, 2016


Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism 

by Joel Andreas

Discussion of the proposition stated in the book title above:

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep will do.

My bladder woke me up the other morning, and after attending to that matter, I crawled back into my warm bed for another hour’s sleep.  But my mind, once activated, drifted to the discussion at the previous evening’s Idea Exchange, a monthly discussion group to which I belong,  and to my friend Kevin’s proposition that America is “addicted” to war.  As always, I am respectful of his passion and his viewpoint, and I was impressed by the central theme of the book he presented as an example, that the U.S. has intervened militarily in the affairs of other nations 258 times.

But as I said that night, while the sheer number of interventions is impressive, and while I understand that our actions were often commercial or economic in nature, though often hypocritically posing as moral imperatives;  and while I don’t excuse or defend those which were wrong, I caution that when the incidents are considered individually, there may well have been strong and cogent reasons for sending marines to other nations.

The example I used last night was that when we have extended military force into Central America, it was often to counteract highly inflammatory political and military instability in small republics in which we had established major business interests, and where our companies and citizens were in danger.  Our aim, I suggested, is typically to restore stability.  In many cases and countries there was no good way to do that.  Often, the only feasible solution has been to support whichever dictator emerged from their internal struggle, because a dictatorship is the easiest form of government to create, and does at least provide superficial stability fairly quickly.   Democracy, as we have learned to our chagrin, is an incredibly difficult lesson to teach, especially to those who do not possess the prerequisite knowledge, literacy and traditions to understand it.

In any case, I think it is is misleading to merely speak in generalities condemning the nature of the American character, based upon the number of interventions alone, without looking at and judging them individually.

What popped me out of my cozy bed this morning was a sudden memory that had eluded me the other evening during the discussion.  In illustrating his point that we have sent our marines to far-flung places, with the implication that our action was based upon a proclivity for warlike imperialism rather than protecting the legitimate sovereign interests of our own land, Kevin had mentioned Mexico and Libya, the venues mentioned in the Marine Hymn:  … “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”.  As it happens, I once knew something about the example of Tripoli.

I recently wrote an essay about the Barbary Pirates, and the writing impelled me to to a little on-line research, as a result of which I remember some of the story about our first War as a nation.

Though not often nor for very long at a time, I have been a merchant seaman off and on since I was 17.  A close relative is a licensed maritime engineer, has worked on merchant ships, and in the Navy as a pilot, and for a time as a civilian pilot he worked on the ships that supplied food and munitions to a ten-nation coalition of warships that were on patrol, protecting shipping from Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.  In 2002 I was a volunteer member of a science party aboard a research vessel in the waters between the Indian Ccean and the South China Sea.  On our ship there was always a lookout for pirates, and there was a protocol in place for repelling boarders (using fire hoses as we were unarmed). Therefor piracy, as you may know from my previous postings, is for me not a Disney movie, but a real and personal thing.

As you may also know, the ships of any nation, while on the high seas have always been regarded in international law as representing the sovereign soil of the nation where they are registered and whose flag they fly.

During several centuries after the Muslim conquest of the region, the waters of the Mediterranean Sea were threatened by the Barbary Pirates, headquartered in the Barbary States, including Tripoli, Libya.  They plundered and captured or sank the merchant ships of many nations from the Med to Iceland, and held their crews for ransom.  If the ransom was not paid, the seamen joined the ranks of nearly a million slaves thus taken and sold throughout Islam.  By 1801, the Barbary Pirates were holding some 600 American seamen for ransom, and at home there was consternation and controversy about whether to pay.  Emissaries were sent from the U.S. to negotiate.  At some point in the discussions, the ambassador representing the Libyan caliphate was reported to have said:  “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Barbary_War

Which was enough for President Jefferson to decide a different resolution was necessary.  He sent what were the first few ships in our fledgling Navy, with their contingent of Marines, to Tripoli to discuss matters further with the Pasha.

My point being that, to be fair to ourselves as Americans, we need to look not at the raw figure of 258 excursions outside our sovereign borders, but also the reasons for and the results of each of those excursions.  Any judgment we reach should reflect our overall behavior considering the options available to us, and should not be based upon whatever worst cases can be found, although there may be some of those.

Moreover, I think it only fair to subtract from the total number, all cases where the U.S. was invited or requested to help by the then duly constituted government of the nation involved.

For instance, here is another story about a military action that may or may not have made it into the collection of 258:

In 1988 a coup d’etat was attempted by Tamil Tiger rebels from Sri Lanka, when they landed armed troops in the Maldives, a group of islands about 500 miles south of the tip of India in the Indian Ocean.  Previously a sultanate, the Maldives had elected a president a few years earlier, and had become a republic.  When the Tamil Tigers attacked, the Maldivian President requested the help of the Indian Navy, which was some distance away.  However, an American naval force consisting of a few warships was just then transiting eastward on the way back from the Persian Gulf towards the Straits of Malacca, passing south of the Maldives.  At the request of the Indian Navy, they dispatched a cruiser and a frigate at flank speed northward, with orders to find the rebels, land a combat team, and seek to protect the American medical students present on the island until the Indian Navy could arrive.

The American cruiser soon encountered engine trouble, but the frigate continued on, throwing a huge rooster-tail in an impressive display of speed.  During the run, the ship’s helos were stripped of their usual anti-submarine sono-buoy gear, and fitted with door guns and a bit of armor plating under the pilot’s and passenger seats, in preparation for encountering ground fire and evacuating the medical students.

The Tamil Tiger force had landed in rubber boats from an unknown “mother ship” and when the helos took off to fly ahead of the frigate and reach the embattled students at the soonest possible moment, they were instructed to keep an eye out for the “mother ship”.  Approaching the islands, one helo co-pilot spotted among a smattering of local shipping, a small freighter that just didn’t look right to his practiced eye. Upon closer inspection it seemed to him to  have been stripped of some of the king posts, booms and winches one would expect to see on a small, intercoastal cargo ship.

The helo reported the suspicious vessel, which proved to be the mother ship towards which, unknown to its pilots, the invading force was already attempting to retreat in their high-speed, rigid-hull inflatable boats.  Shortly after which, having been given its coordinates, the Indian Navy found the freighter and sank it.

Upon their arrival to the island, the helos learned that the rebels had fled, and that the American students were safe and did not need further rescuing.  They returned to their ship, which then rejoined its original convoy home.

This, as I recall, is not very dissimilar to what happened in Granada, when Regan sent troops there to protect a hundred or so American students in their “offshore” medical school.

I suspect that the contrast between the story about Tripoli as told in the “America’s War Addiction” book, and the Wikipedia account regarding the Barbary Pirates might well uncover and illustrate an anti-American bias on the part of the book’s author, but I haven’t read the book and Kevin has, so, for now,  I’ll leave that judgment to him.