Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Far So Good, or Manifest Destiny: The Movie

So far, so good; still a couple of days to go in my second week and here I am. Maybe I can do 52 posts this year after all!

Recently I was asked to come up with some thoughts on the 19th-Century War With Mexico in the context of the questionable morality of today's conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is what I came up with; your comments are most welcome.

Even as a kid, I remember being vaguely troubled in school when I learned about America’s war with Mexico in the 19th Century. I remember that we had to memorize the date of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, because it was going to be On The Test, but we glossed over the truly important stuff and just cut to the fact that when it was all over, the United States had Texas and California and New Mexico and such, because it was, quote, “our young country’s Manifest Destiny,” end quote.

Manifest Destiny. A complete fabrication that was basically marketed to the American people in order to justify an otherwise unjustifiable conflict. I remember my teacher telling me that “manifest” meant “obvious” but she never explained just HOW it was obvious, or to whom. Please remember that this was back when Ike was a President, not a hurricane. Manifest Destiny. It reminds me of a similar phony idea -- the Domino Theory. That was another load of, uh, fabrication used to sell a war with which I DO have some experience, the War in Vietnam.
The Domino Theory was, of course, the idea that if America let Vietnam fall to the communists it would lead to country after country falling like dominoes into the shadow of communist rule. Which sounded like the shadow of Mordor. Y'know. The Bad Kind of shadow.

I never for a second bought the Domino Theory. I was active in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and found it much easier to believe in American colonialism and even imperialism as the real reason for the war, and as a reason, I found it wanting. I was one of the fortunate souls to get a high number in the last draft lottery, so I was free to remain home, to pursue my education, and to protest the war nonviolently at every opportunity. At one protest at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, the county sheriff literally released the hounds on us, and in the course of running for my life I met a man who would become one of my best friends for a brief time in college. We helped each other over a garden wall to escape the dogs. His name was Shep.
Shep was five years older than I was, and a Vietnam vet. He was one of the first members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was funny, and brilliant, and convinced that most, if not all, of his health problems were the result of his exposure to the various defoliants used indiscriminately while he was on the front lines. Shep constantly struggled to get the medical care to which we now know he was entitled as a vet. I was young and naive and had no real idea of how much pain Shep must have been in until he took his own life in 1973. He was the first casualty of that war to affect me personally and directly. He was not the last.

I continue to believe that the Vietnam war was an unjust war, that Americans should have been better than that. I remember being called unpatriotic for that belief. I imagine that the Americans who were troubled about the Mexican War (which the Mexicans, by the way, still call “The American Invasion of Mexico”) felt much the same way -- that Americans should have been better than that. And I imagine that those against that war in the 1840’s were also blasted for a lack of patriotism Now again in my lifetime I find my country involved in the prosecution of a conflict I believe to be immoral, and I feel the same shame, that my government used falsehoods and catch-phrases like “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to market the second Iraq war to the American people, when we should be better than that. And again, a minority who is against the war, as I have been from its very beginning, has to contend with being branded as unpatriotic.

There was one more thing that I didn’t learn in school about the Mexican War. I recently learned that when all was said and done, when you added up the deaths from war and wounds and disease and other consequences, the Mexican War had a casualty rate of around 40%, making it the deadliest war in our history. We may never know the exact casualty rate for the War in Vietnam. Shep is probably not counted among them. His name isn’t on the famous Wall, although I can’t visit it without thinking of him. I hope we find a way to end the wars we’re prosecuting now before the cost becomes any higher. I shudder to think of all the Sheps we are creating even now.

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