America’s Long History of Warfare

Americans like to view their country as a force for peace in the world when the historical reality is almost the opposite, a reality ignored by the PBS Vietnam War documentary, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

If you go to the Wikipedia page that gives a timeline of U.S. foreign military operations between 1775 and 2010, you are likely to come away in shock. It seems that ever since the founding of the country, the United States has been at war. It is as if Americans just could not (and still cannot) sit still, but had to (and still have to) force themselves on others through military action.

Photos of victims of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam galvanized public awareness about the barbarity of the war. (Photo taken by U. S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle)

Often this is aimed at controlling foreign resources, thus forcing upon others the consequences of their own capitalist avarice. At other times the violence is spurred on by an ideology that confuses U.S. interests with civilization and freedom. Only very rarely is Washington out there on the side of the angels. Regardless, the bottom line seems to be that peace has never been a deeply ingrained cultural value for the citizens of the United States. As pertains to foreign policy, America’s national culture is a war culture.

It is against this historical backdrop that the recent Ken Burns 18-hour-long documentary on the Vietnam War comes off as superficial. There is a subtle suggestion that while those American leaders who initiated and escalated the war were certainly deceptive, murderously stubborn and even self-deluded, they were so in what they considered to be a good cause. They wanted to stop the spread of Communism at a time when the Cold War defined almost all of foreign policy, and if that meant denying the Vietnamese the right of national unification, so be it. The Burns documentary is a visual demonstration of the fact that such a strategy could not work. Nonetheless, American leaders, both civilian and military, could not let go.

What the Burns documentary does not tell us – and it is this that makes the work superficial – is that none of this was new. Almost all…

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