When I was a schoolboy, I first heard the phrase, “manifest destiny”. It had a curious ring to it and still does. I didn’t yet know what it meant but it sounded authoritative and coupled with the “Monroe Doctrine” (that one sounded like part of a partially overheard conversation between my parents and our pediatrician) and the Mexican Wars, my schoolboy self became engaged in thoughts of derring-do and brilliant flights of strategy. Fortunately, those thoughts were soon overtaken by more salutary ones but what we learn at an impressionable age never leaves us.
America’s impressionable age was informed by the writings of Calvinist divines such as Cotton Mather, Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson and the outpouring of pamphlets and newsletters that characterized the political and cultural life of the young Republic. All of this literature let its citizens know that they were special; a new canvas on which the Creator was painting a message that America was a beacon to the world, a place not dirtied by the strife of the Old World, where new music rang out and “we marched to a different drummer”. Political virtue was found on the banks of the Susquehanna from whose shores all traces of the savage had been removed.
President Wilson, himself a Calvinist, had all of this in his blood and meant to show the world that one could fight for democracy and to end tyranny. That there was a disconnect between ends and means and that those who questioned authority were no longer entitled to their democratic rights was a contradiction not to be entertained. “Nations shall walk in the paths of liberty”, opined Wilson, his eyes on the heavens and his feet going where they may. Where have we heard that echo recently?
Today, we find ourselves in the fifth year of a dirty war, rife with intractable contradictions, a war that is an outgrowth of decades of interventionist military and political policies. Strategy is driven by a stew of ideologies that create an unpalatable mess. Is the war being fought to create a Middle East beacon of democracy? Is the U. S. there to secure a flow of oil to feed the Western economies? Is the war being fought as payback to the terrorist attacks, to show “them” who is boss, to humiliate them as Kissinger has said? Is it the good guys against the bad guys, the civilized against the savage?
No wonder so many supposedly intelligent and educated people in the government seem like “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”. The U.S. these past four years has fought two wars in Iraq: the first one, Rumsfeld’s war, took out Saddam and his infrastructure without breaking too much of a sweat. The second war is going on now and the confusion of motives, the schoolboy posturing, the willful ignorance of history and ecology and the trampling of civil liberties and the social good are all part of a system in crisis.
What is, then, manifest destiny? What does the war in Iraq tell us about our system, our received political ideals and their relation to the society we have constructed and that we are holding up as an example of virtue? The question now is not how we should disengage from the Iraqi adventure but what is it in our society and its history that led to this dirty war. How shall we change things so that we don’t find ourselves in yet another intervention in five years time or, for that matter, later this year? How do we summon up the political will to cut through the cant and infantile discourse that passes for political commentary? Only we, collectively, can force our rulers to change policy. We are at war and a gun is pointing at our heads and those of our children: the time for polite discourse has passed.