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As war changed, few realized the muscle flexed in our name

By Kermit Johnson
University Press of America (1-800-462-6420; fax 1-800-338-4550), 344 pages, $49 cloth


For all our progress on specifics, there has not yet come our way a Bill Gates or an Einstein or an Aristotle to solve the more general problem of getting along together. So we fall out, have wars, kill people, break hearts. This yen to prevail seems by now embedded in our genes. For several good reasons, prevailing in beauty pageants or chess tournaments has traditionally been no match for military might. Most of the human race considers force the best medicine.

Great military powers, nevertheless, from ancient Greece to the recent Soviets, have not only come but gone. Despite all the analysis, their rise and fall is ultimately inexplicable. Luck or other circumstances has placed the United States at the top in our time.

Indeed, we are so solidly at the top that it’s hard to be humble. “The sole remaining superpower,” we like to call ourselves. And congratulations to everybody. This is a chance most nations never get, to express what is best about being on earth. And Americans have done that grandly -- one of the most industrious, creative and generous populations ever assembled, sending aid around the world and welcoming to our shores as many tired and poor foreigners as possible.

But wait: The United States hasn’t fought a war worthy of the name in ages (let us lay the Iraq debacle to rest at once -- Saddam merely hunkered down while we took all those potshots at him). That’s because wars seem to have changed while our backs were turned.

Kermit Johnson’s Ethics and Counterrevolution examines dramatic shifts taking place in the exercise of U.S. military might.

With only occasional exceptions, wars have given way to revolution and counterrevolution as the preferred method of settling disputes. The terminology here gets as murky as war itself. Johnson devotes his first chapter to finessing the differences between the many ways of vying with home-grown or foreign foes, from rebellion, people’s war, subversive war, popular uprising, insurrection and proxy war to guerrilla war, low intensity conflict, covert war and much more.

If we are fuzzy about these hostilities, that’s probably no accident. Our government and others, for their own good reasons, are eager to keep us in the dark about the mayhem done in our name.

Author Johnson brings to his critical task an impressive military and religious background. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he was a company commander in the Korean War. Ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church, he returned to the Army as a chaplain, served in many prestigious posts, including chief of chaplains from 1979 to 1982. He was associate director of the Center for Defense Information from 1983 to ’86. His Realism and Hope in a Nuclear Age (John Knox Press) was published in 1988.

Notorious example

The assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four American churchwomen in 1980 and the shabby reaction of the Reagan administration, were critical in changing his attitude about the way the United States helps wage other nations’ wars.

Probably the most notorious example of such hostility by proxy is low intensity conflict or LIC. For Johnson, as for many others, LIC is, for starters, an outrageous misnomer. Conflicts that appear low intensity viewed from Pentagon back rooms or quiet U.S. suburbs look remarkably different on the ground in the “host country.” One colonel who served in El Salvador calls LIC “total war at the grassroots level.”

Indeed, LIC got such a bad name, especially during the Reagan administration, that its organizers switched the terminology to “Military Operations Other Than War Involving the Use or Threat of Force” -- if this smells like an oxymoron, this just shows how hard it is to fight other people’s wars while insisting you’re not fighting any wars at all.

By whatever name, these covert operations add up to the U.S. strategy to get faraway, usually weak little nations to fight for U.S. interests, which only occasionally coincide with the battling nation’s true interests. Sometimes U.S. participation is on the side of the government, as it was in El Salvador; sometimes on the side of the terrorists, guerrillas or freedom-fighters (the terminology depends on who’s talking), as it was in Nicaragua or Afghanistan. Sometimes the side we back is democratic, sometimes it’s run by a dictator. The only constant is the U.S. estimate of what is best for the world, which, to no one’s surprise, invariably coincides with our interests abroad.

Because the government has been so successful at keeping them under wraps, few citizens realize how common these interventions are -- a book called America’s Small Wars, for example, analyzes 60 U.S. LICs. Most are probably launched with good intentions. But when the good intentions are elevated to strategy, it all sounds like extraordinary bombast. There was the Monroe Doctrine, the Truman Doctrine, even the Reagan Doctrine, just for example. In the background are the ideals out of which these doctrines grew. In his Dallas speech, had he not been killed, John F. Kennedy would have said, “We in this country, in this generation, are -- by destiny rather than choice -- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.” It’s fate, one politician after another has explained. It was predetermined that we should carry this load.

Higher ground

That puts us immediately on high moral ground. “The free can conquer but to save,” one U.S. secretary of state pronounced. When, out of the throes of the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed the Philippines, Sen. Albert Beveridge saw this as the outcome of “the most holy [war] ever waged by one nation against another -- a war for civilization, a war for a permanent peace, a war which, under God, although we knew it not, swung open to the Republic the portals of the commerce of the world.” Self-interest was just a lucky bonus, according to this innocent account.

True, there are constantly forces around the world that threaten law, order, morality and prosperity. True, too, there is scarcely any other power at this time with the muscle or the will to bring bullies into line and arbitrate old or new wrongs.

But the United States has, directly or indirectly, killed an awful lot of people and done an awful lot of depredation in carrying out this ambiguous purpose.

Author Johnson in his introduction quotes G.K. Chesterton to devastating effect: “It may be said with rough accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people. First, it is a small power and fights small powers. Then it is a great power and fights great powers. Then it is a great power and fights small powers but pretends that they are great powers in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity.”

Could this be us?

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998