David Vine: Tracing America’s Brutal Imperialist History through Its Military Bases
ANGLO AMERICA, 2 Nov 2020
Robert Scheer | ScheerPost – TRANSCEND Media Service
A political anthropologist puts a much needed pin to the balloon of American exceptionalism with an invaluable guide to a country that, long before Orwell came along, said war was peace – and interventionism was the highest form of anti-colonialism.
30 Oct 2020 – The United States has the largest number of military installations in the world, with about 5,000 bases in total and at least 600 overseas, according to the Pentagon. Although the Department of Defense is not forthcoming with the exact numbers, even these estimates reveal a truth about the country’s standing in the world that many Americans often fail to recognize: the U.S. has built one of the most extensive empires in modern history. On this week’s installment of Scheer Intelligence, David Vine, the author of the books Base Nation and The United States of War, talks to host Robert Scheer about the state of endless war in which the country has been consistently engaged for longer than even Vine expected.
“[In The United States of War,] I wanted to try to get beyond some of the myths of American exceptionalism,” explains the political anthropologist. “And to understand why the United States has been fighting so constantly since 2001, but, as I delved into my work, [I found] that this pattern is a much deeper one [that] actually predates U.S. Independence.”
What Vine reveals through his detailed historical analysis in both of his most recent books is that America’s longest-running project has been a white supremacist empire that can be traced back to the colonies’ and founding fathers’ wars against indigenous Americans. Crucially, he argues, this elite-led permanent war footing has also impacted Americans’ daily lives in countless ways. To this day, as the U.S. military is engaged in several ongoing conflicts around the world and is seemingly prepared to spark others, the deadly project shows no signs of letting up. However, Vine points out, history has taught us its end is a matter of time.
“[Like all empires that came before], the U.S. empire will not be forever either,” says the author. “The question is, will it go down in a cataclysm of violence or epic economic collapse, or is there a way we can wind down the empire? It is my belief that the latter is possible, though it’s, of course, going to be extraordinarily difficult.”
Listen to the full discussion between Vine and Scheer as the two discuss in detail the conflicts that have defined America’s bloody mark on the world, both on U.S. soil and abroad, for more than 200 years.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s David Vine, a professor of political anthropology at American University who’s just published the third book in a trilogy devoted to examining the role of–well, it’s really the whole imperial march of America. The title is The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. But interestingly, as a political anthropologist, he’s chosen to focus in this trilogy on the role of forts. And first you think, OK, that’s an interesting idea; it turns out to be really clarifying. And I want to quote from Greg Grandin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing on this sort of subject. And he said, quote:
David Vine’s The United States of War puts a much needed pin to the balloon of American exceptionalism. An invaluable guide to a country that, long before Orwell came along, said war was peace–and interventionism was the highest form of anti-colonialism. The United States of War is especially important now, as we try to make sense of a presidential administration that, in the name of so-called isolationism, has left a trail of global destruction in its wake.
So let’s begin with that. What is this American exceptionalism? I know it’s a tattered idea, but it’s still there. It’s there on the little pin with the American flag that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have, and it’s there in the notion that he says he’s going to make America great again, and Hillary Clinton said it’s always been great; that was in 2016, but a similar theme. And so really, what is this pin in the balloon of American exceptionalism? And is there a fair characterization of your trilogy? And it’s something you devoted 19 years to. So talk a little bit about the purpose of the book and what you hope to accomplish with it. It’s a University of California Press book, I should add.
DV: Thank you. That’s a lot to take on, but great questions, and we’ll see how much intelligence I bring to those questions and the whole conversation. But I really appreciate your having me. American exceptionalism, of course, is an oft-discussed topic. I think in a certain sense, you know, coming from this as an anthropologist, almost every nation has a sort of exceptional belief in itself, and this is one of the problems with nationalism. But I think coupled with the power of the United States and the U.S. government, American–U.S. American exceptionalism in particular has been particularly dangerous. And in a certain sense, it really is just a sort of U.S. nationalism. It’s a belief that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth, as pretty much every presidential candidate is required to say; and if you say anything else, you’re criticized up and down in the mainstream media. It’s a belief that the United States is–generally has been a belief that the United States is a peace-loving nation, that the United States only goes to war for defensive reasons, or for good motives.
And I wanted to take a look at the U.S. pattern of war. As you said, I’ve been working on this project and the three books for 19 years; in fact, I began the month before September 11, 2001. Just to give you a little more context, the reason I began this work that month was that I got asked to do some research about the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, and the indigenous people known as the Chagossians who were forcibly removed from Diego Garcia, this very isolated island in the Indian Ocean where there’s a very large U.S. military base. I was asked by lawyers representing the exiled Chagossians to conduct research about the effects of their expulsion, which took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the effects of the expulsion on their lives. And this really opened my eyes to the network of U.S. military bases that encircle the globe. Now there are around 800 U.S. base sites; this is based on a Pentagon list that they produce more or less on an annual basis. There are around 800 U.S. bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in around 80 foreign countries and colonies.
So I had thought very little about U.S. bases overseas until I started doing research about this one base, Diego Garcia, and the expulsion of the Chagossians. And I began to think about, why are all these bases there? Why are these bases, most of which were built or occupied during World War II or the early days of the Cold War, why are they still there? Does the United States need them, are they protecting the United States in any sense, are they protecting the world? Are they providing peace and security, as officials have often claimed? And so my book about Diego Garcia and the expulsion of the Chagossians and why U.S. officials built this base and thought it appropriate to exile an entire people, that led me to my second book, which is about the whole network of U.S. bases abroad and the roles they’ve played in the world–the effects they’ve had on everyone from people living around them to U.S. military personnel to everyone in the United States, in a variety of ways.
And then after finishing that book, I really wanted to take on the much larger system of war. And I think, you know, having lived through the last 19 years of continuous war–war that began, of course, with the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration declaring a global war on terror, and then invading Afghanistan and proceeding to send combat troops, along with presidents Obama and Trump, in total sent combat troops into at least 24 countries in the past 19 years. I wanted to, of course–perhaps not “of course”; I had been deeply troubled, to say the least, about this pattern of war. Ashamed, saddened; you know, in some ways, words, I feel, are inadequate to describe the catastrophic effects of the last 19 years of war in particular, the destruction that these wars have meant, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and parts of Syria, where the U.S. forces have been involved in fighting.
And I wanted to really look at this entire system of war, a system of war that in my book, The United States of War, I describe as really shaping all our lives in profound, profound ways. I wanted to take this on, and to try to get beyond some of the myths: the myths of American exceptionalism, the myths that have been shaped by nationalist visions of the United States, that hold the United States up as, you know, the kind of city on a hill, as the great exceptional nation. And to understand why the United States has been fighting so constantly since 2001. And as I found as I delved into my work in a much deeper way, I found that this pattern was a much longer one that dates to U.S. independence, and actually even predates U.S. independence, in my telling of the history.
RS: OK, but I want to make clear to people, I really want to urge them to come to grips, people listening to this, with this book. Because this is not just a slogan–I shouldn’t, I’m not putting down Gore Vidal, but you know, he had titles like that; you know, “the United States of war” and so forth. And he also had a good grasp of history; he had, actually his grandfather had been the blind senator in the U.S. Congress, and Gore was sort of an autodidact and had learned from his grandfather, and it was obviously the worst in history. But what I found so important about your book was the detail, the sense of history. I mean you visited, what, hundreds of forts all around the world, hundreds of American bases. You actually work as an anthropologist. You actually go to the scene, you see what the context is of these forts. I mean, so this field of political anthropology is really the skillset that you were using.
And I want to say, I do these podcasts to learn myself. I mean, it’s part of my ongoing education, even at my advanced age after eight decades around. And I learned from your book, and it challenged my own prejudice, believe it or not, for all of the legitimate criticisms raised about the founders, even at this advanced age. And recognizing, yes–and I don’t want to minimize the fact that a good number of them were slaveowners and hypocrites in many ways and so forth. I have been fond of quoting George Washington as our first general-become-president, as our first president, in his farewell address where he warned us about war, and he warned us about the impostures of pretended patriotism. He urged us, the American people, to shun violence and to seek gentler means. And so I’ve always found that kind of inspirational, and you know, frankly, I had to criticize myself when I was reading your book, to be reminded that Washington and Jefferson and Madison and these people proved to be outrageous racists in their conduct of foreign policy. The gentle means of commerce and shunning foreign entanglements all had to do with white countries–with England, with Spain, with France. But it didn’t apply to the indigenous population or the Black population in the United States.
So why don’t we begin with the beginning of your book, where you clear up certain illusions about the founding fathers, and reveal in terms of our own empire-building–and they ended up creating the greatest empire in human history. That’s what these 800 bases are all about. You can argue whether it’s the most evil or the most benevolent empire, there’s no question the imprint of the U.S. on the world has never been rivaled by any other system. And why don’t you take us back to the origin of this policy, the building of the nation as an imperial project?
DV: Yeah, in the book I note that a lot of people in the United States–myself included, in many ways; certainly when I started this research, and in some ways to this day–feel uncomfortable understanding, thinking about the United States as an empire. But it’s very difficult to see the United States as anything but an empire when you look at the history, when you look at the history of this set of 13 colonies-turned-states that then expanded across the North American continent, conquering people and displacing, dispossessing, killing literally millions of Native American peoples in the process. And then expanding around the world–expanding to the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, other colonies, small and large. And throughout this history I, as you’ve noted, point to the importance of U.S. military bases and U.S. Army forts, initially. When I started my research about bases, I tended to focus on bases overseas–literally overseas. And it was only, I don’t know, a few years into my research, probably longer than it should have been, that I realized the first U.S. bases abroad, the first U.S. extraterritorial bases beyond U.S. territory, were of course bases on the lands of Native American peoples. Bases here in North America that enabled the expansion of the United States across North America.
So the book looks at the role of U.S. bases abroad in creating what I describe as a self-perpetuating system of almost permanent war, almost literally permanent war. I show in the book that the United States has been fighting in a war, or engaged in some other form of combat, during all but 11 years of its history. In 95 percent of the years in U.S. history, the U.S. military has been engaged in a war or some other combat. And I want to understand what role bases played. The argument is not that bases on their own explain why the United States has been so consistently at war, or why the United States became an empire. Bases–first U.S. Army forts, later bases of many kinds–were and are an imperial tool, as you mentioned, and a tool that enabled the expansion of the United States.
And one of the things I point to is the pattern by which you see the U.S. government–note, U.S. government, including some of those founding fathers like Washington–building U.S. Army forts initially, later U.S. bases of many kinds, that then not only enabled war but, as I found, actually made war more likely. That when you build bases abroad, when you build extraterritorial bases, even if you in the sort of Orwellian sense begin to describe them as purely defensive in nature, these bases tend not to be defensive in nature. They tend to be offensive in nature, they tend to be used to threaten other nations, and they tend to then serve as launchpads for war. So what one sees in U.S. history is a pattern by which U.S. officials–U.S. government officials, other elites–argue for and build U.S. bases abroad, which then leads to war, which tends to lead to the construction of new bases, which tends to lead to new wars, in a pattern that’s repeated over time.
So this is central. But again, bases are not the only cause, certainly not anything like it. Race, as you noted, and racism, play a critical role in this pattern of war. As you said, the founding fathers were products of their time, tremendous racists when it came to Native American peoples and African Americans. It might help to read the words of George Washington, which I quote in the book, where he sends orders to one of his generals saying, “Lay waste all the settlements around, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. You will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.” And then his general–
RS: And those settlements were indigenous people, right?
DV: Exactly, these were the Mohawk and Seneca nations. And the general responded, “The Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.” And–
RS: It wasn’t just Andrew Jackson later, it started right with the founding fathers–were grotesque, did the words of the Declaration of Independence, and of course the definition of who’s a full human being in the Constitution. And there’s just no way–I mean, your citations are so detailed, your examples are so–and one should mention about the forts, by the way. When we think of imperialism, you know, we always think, what drives it? And profit and this rapacious notion of capitalism was built into the imperial project from the very beginning. These forts were usually the advance guard for investors, for hustlers, for charlatans to come and take advantage of the indigenous population, use them and then use slavery, and then make profit. And then came, eventually, the highways and the railroads and everything else. So you have a picture here of the fort as the opening to exploitation.
DV: That’s precisely right. These are not just forts for the sake of expansion; these are not just wars for the sake of, pure sake of our expansion. These are wars and bases that have advanced capitalist profit-seeking, that have advanced the spread of capitalism in a whole variety of ways. And as you said, we can see in the history where individual bases advanced very particular capitalist interests: business interests, the interests of individual entrepreneurs, investors. You know, initially when it came to natural resources in North America–first timber, mining; increasingly, as one sees the United States expand around the world, you know, markets in places like China become important. Markets in Latin America, and the dominance of those markets with the help of bases. Which again, yeah, as you said, serve as a kind of advance guard and bodyguard for U.S. businesses; oil interests, of course, and other mining interests become increasingly important as we move into the 20th century and 21st century. Although it is important to point out that while the vast majority of U.S. wars have targeted people of color around the world, we also see this pattern where U.S. forces invade, for example, Canada on 11 occasions in the 19th century.
RS: I was just going to bring you to the War of 1812. I think your book makes, certainly made a unique contribution to my own education. Loosely described as the War of 1812, but why don’t you take us there, because this was kind of a real glimpse–because this was still the founders’ influence. It was close enough to the founding of the nation. And it was–and I think you said five attacks on Canada, or maybe more. It was a rapacious capitalism. In Florida, everywhere; Louisiana. And so just take us to that moment of truth. Because in your book you say, well, most people kind of ignore it, you know, or it was the good war, or it just got quickly over. Introduce us to that.
DV: Yeah, I had to educate myself about this war. I had some vague memory of, you know, this is the strange war; sort of like, you know, the Revolutionary War part two. I remembered that Andrew Jackson fought a war, a great victory in New Orleans, that actually took place two weeks after the peace agreement with Britain had been signed. So it was sort of a quirky, you know, moment in history, because communications technologies were so slow. But I had very little understanding of what this war was about, and beginning to study it in some detail for the first time probably since high school–because it has gotten so little attention–I found that it really was telling in a whole number of ways. It’s worth pointing out that the United States came very close to declaring war on France right before declaring war on Britain. There was this, you know, this desire for capitalist expansion on the part of U.S. business interests, specifically sea-bearing U.S. business interests. And they were upset with harassment from both the navies of Britain and France.
But as historians who have studied this in even far greater detail than I have shown, this war against Britain that was eventually launched and waged was completely unnecessary, was disastrous, took the lives of thousands and led to other destruction, and changed nothing about the relationship between the United States and Britain. It was later, it was historians in the 19th century who sort of turned it into this nationalist story of the full, you know, independence of the United States from Britain, and turned what was really a disastrous war into something that wasn’t. Remember that this is the war when Britain burned down Washington, D.C., or significant parts of it, including the White House. This is the war where the president and his wife, and then the Cabinet, had to flee Washington. It almost really brought an end to the U.S. American experiment. It almost brought an end to the United States. So it could have been an even greater disaster.
But it was–sadly, probably the worst disaster was that suffered by indigenous North Americans, by Native Americans who were also the targets of this war. It was a war that indeed targeted Britain and the Canadian colony, but there were actually five separate wars, really, waged against Native American peoples simultaneously as U.S. forces were fighting British forces. And the biggest losers of this war, sadly, were Native American nations and peoples.
RS: And also freed slaves, right? I mean, everybody forgets the English actually at that point had a more enlightened position on slavery, the evil of slavery, than the great Democrats in this new nation. You know, you should talk about that history. And you know, one of the reasons why there is some objection to this focus on the national anthem and so forth goes to that hypocrisy.
DV: Yeah, so–and this goes back to the significance and centrality of race and racism. That, you know, I talked about some of the specific business interests that were advanced by U.S. wars and by U.S. bases, both through the wars and in their own right. You know, the U.S. Army became a tool for the expansion of slavery, a tool for the expansion of territory in which slavery-based agriculture could be practiced. And there were, it’s important to note that there’s nothing inevitable about history. There’s nothing inevitable about U.S. history. And there are wars that the United States didn’t fight. But that is–I say that because there were, you know, some U.S. elites, some U.S. politicians through the 19th century who were pushing for an even greater expansion of U.S. territory. And specifically, they were doing so because they wanted to see the expansion of territory in which slavery could be practiced–both, of course, for the money to be made off enslaving other human beings, and because of the agricultural system that relied on that slave labor.
RS: Yeah. So let me ask you, because we’re going to run out of time, and this book goes right up through American history, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But I do want to go back to–you end up with 800 bases around the world, which we now think is normal somehow. This is in the interest of peace, freedom, democracy. I mean, they’re in including places like Germany and Japan, which certainly can attend to their own defenses. And you make an interesting point in the book: you say we somehow accept 800 bases and this footprint on the world as normal. Yet when some other country says, well, let’s establish a base in the United States–and I forget where that example came from, it was Honduras or Ecuador. The leader said, oh, you can’t have your base here unless I can have a base in the United States. That was seen as heresy.
DV: Exactly. Yeah, it was Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador, when there was a desire to renew the U.S., the lease on the base in Manta, Ecuador. He said, you know, sure, I’ll be happy to do that. On one condition: that you allow us to build an Ecuadorian base in Miami. And indeed, it’s I think impossible for most people in the United States to conceive of living next to a foreign military base, a Chinese military base or a Russian military base, or even a base belonging to a close ally like Britain or France. Although indeed, to connect the past and the present, a good deal of the anger that motivated the revolutionaries, the American revolutionaries who declared independence from Britain, stemmed from the presence of British troops and British bases in America, and crimes and other outrages committed by those troops against the colonists. We see similar dynamics today, as I think some people are aware, in places like Okinawa, Japan. People are often quite upset about having to live next to U.S. military bases and U.S. troops who, sadly, have committed some of those same crimes, abuses, outrages, including rape, murder, all too frequently.
So part of what the book does, and my prior book, Base Nation, did, is to encourage people to put themselves in the shoes of those who might be living next to U.S. bases. Again, in sort of the spirit of American exceptionalism, U.S. officials, U.S. elites, others frequently portray these bases as being purely defensive, purely to secure the peace and prosperity of the world. But that’s not what they are for, of course. They are, as U.S. Army forts were in the late 18th and 19th century, these are tools of empire; these are tools of advancing capitalist interests in a whole variety of ways, and ways that are even more complicated than U.S. Army forts were. Beyond the ability to launch wars and to threaten war, U.S. bases today are also important political and economic levers. They have, in the post-World War II period in particular, become important tools of a complicated political-economic military power that U.S. officials have been able to exert in the world.
And this is, you know, in my mind this is part of what needs to change about the empire the United States has become. I didn’t quite get to say this at the beginning, but you know, the reason I wrote this book is not just to understand this pattern of war, but to do something about it. I don’t want to live in a country that is perpetually fighting wars. And so the book, while seeking to diagnose the problem, also casts light and presents a series of ideas about how to de-imperialize the United States, for example, and how we can stop this pattern of war. Because if we don’t, my fear is that we are just going to stumble from one war to the next. And you have U.S. officials, military officials, others talking about a state of forever war, or infinite war. Or, you know, the phrase “endless war” has become more popular. We have to stop this system of endless war, or else it will continue. And the results, I fear, could be even more catastrophic in particular, most dangerously, in the case of the possibility of a war between the United States and China.
And there are far too many U.S. military officials, others in the sort of blob foreign policy elite that shapes so much of U.S. foreign policy, who already are thinking that a war between the United States and China is inevitable. And that should be truly frightening. The idea that people can contemplate a war between these two nuclear-armed powers, that such a war wouldn’t get completely out of control, and that it wouldn’t run the risk of taking the lives of tens of millions of people. You know, that these are our leaders is part of the problem. And this is, I think, should be more impetus for us to change this system of war as rapidly as possible.
RS: Yeah, lots of luck is what I would say. Because what your book shows is it’s baked into our whole experiment, our whole system, this thing that we have all been raised to celebrate and pledge allegiance to. And the sobering indictment of your book, if I can use that word, is this is as American as apple pie. We are less an experiment in self-governance than we are in acceptable imperialism. Getting back to Orwell, the constant use of an enemy–whether it was indigenous people whose land we were stealing, whether it was Mexican people who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the border because of our imperial ventures, or anywhere in the world–we have had a benign-appearing extension of power that the world has never seen. Never seen. And it’s presented as inherently on the side of freedom and democracy and empowerment of people. And so amazingly enough, like in Cuba, your book discusses the Guantanamo presence, fort. The idea that it was just stolen, taken, forced upon them. And now we’ve turned it into a place where we can commit torture against [people] that we allege are terrorists. But you can go all around the world and find these examples. And yes, right now, OK, Donald Trump is threatening, a really belligerent posture towards China. On the other hand, the Democrats counter it with a very provocative position on Russia, which is no longer Communist; in fact, run by Vladimir Putin, who defeated a Communist candidate despite his own origins in the system.
And so it seems, going back to Orwell–and maybe that’s the way we should sort of, I’d like to get the whole majesty of your book in here, and the big idea, because we spent a lot of time on the origin story. But the real lesson here is that maybe we need an enemy. Maybe the whole thing is built on the creation of enemies. And we have hit upon the wonderful marketing tool of every time we go to war, or we conquer, or we seize land, or we extend our markets, it’s an extension of human freedom. There’s a weird, sick tautology here that if we do it, it’s somehow–if grotesque things happen like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or dropping the nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, oh, well, those are mistakes or accidents or what have you. But generally, the enterprise that you described in a very different way in The United States of War, and the power of your book, is to say: no. The bad things are not mistakes. They’re built in, baked in to the imperial venture, which really defines America from the founding. It was never really taken seriously as an experiment only in self-governance of a republic. They didn’t learn the lessons of Rome and the other empires; they emulated those empires. Is that stretching it too far?
DV: No, I think you captured a lot of the book. I think indeed from the beginning U.S. leaders, as you said, used, I would say, the European empires in particular as models for the United States. Coupled with some belief in some very limited, at least initially, democratic ideals for white male, property-owning people. So there is a, you know, there are complicated tensions in U.S. history too. And while I agree that this is baked into the system in the sense that a system has been created–there is a structure that has been created over time–that structure, that system is not forever; empires are not forever. Some of those empires that U.S. leaders emulated, of course, are no longer empires. And I think that’s important to remember, and I think the U.S. empire will not be forever either. The question is, will it go down in, you know, some cataclysm of violence or some epic economic collapse? Or is there a way that we could wind down the empire? And it’s my belief that the latter is possible. It is, of course, going to be extraordinarily difficult, as you alluded to, given the structural forces arrayed in favor of war, and arrayed in favor of perpetuating the military-industrial complex that’s become so important in the post-World War II period to perpetuating the system of war and the system of bases.
But I would push back on one thing, and in a sense it seems small, but I think it also is–it’s large. You talked about, as many people do, that you know, we need an enemy, we–there’s a tendency when humans in the United States talk about U.S. history or U.S. foreign policy today to sort of homogenize everyone. And that, I think, we should be careful about. Because I think we need to be specific about who is acting, who is doing what. And my research, my historical research, has shown that from founding to the present it is very particular elite actors–politicians, economic actors, intellectual actors, think-tank types, journalists, others–who have played a key role in shaping decisions about going to war and not going to war. And the decisions to go to war have so often benefited those elites, while the vast majority of people in the United States, and literally tens of millions of people around the world, have suffered.
And COVID, I think, makes this all the clearer. Because, you know, the United States government and U.S. taxpayers have been plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into this war system every year, literally trillions of dollars over–well, $6.4 trillion in particular since 2001 on the war on terror. And what has this done to protect us from COVID? Nothing. The military has protected us not in the slightest. So this, I think, should give us a sense of the urgency of changing this system as rapidly as possible. That we must commit to changing the imperial system, and putting an end to this pattern of war.
RS: Yeah, but again, lots of luck. Because what I got from your book is that this misplaced notion of our virtue, of our innocence, was always the card that could be played by absolute charlatans and hustlers, and really violent and vicious people. I mean, Andrew Jackson comes to mind. That even our populism, as we see with Donald Trump, easily gets perverted to betray the populace with false ideas of patriotism, the impostures of pretended patriotism. And it seems to always win. And after all, the empires that failed, failed over a long period of time because there was resistance. In the case of Germany and Nazism, it didn’t last long; it imploded, and the people who emerged from that experience, at least so far, ended up really having an abhorrent view of totalitarianism and Nazism. But we haven’t had that. And I think what I got from your book–and again, I didn’t write the book, so I don’t want to tell you what the book’s all about. But it left me–I already had this idea, I’ll admit–it left me with a loathing notion, loathing the notion of American innocence. It just lets us off the hook for anything we do–anything. And that’s why there was really–I mean, even Bernie Sanders hardly talked about foreign policy in this election. Hillary Clinton was even more warlike in her rhetoric than Donald Trump. In fact, Donald Trump is not–you know, a lot of people are counting on the departure of Donald Trump to bring sanity, but Democrats have been responsible–
RS: –for as many wars. Yeah, take it away.
DV: I couldn’t agree more. This is a bipartisan problem, and it is a problem of our consciousness, and myself included. And in many ways, writing and researching the book was a process of reeducating myself about U.S. history, about the U.S. system of war. And there are great barriers to changing the system. And one of those barriers is this deeply ingrained way of thinking about the United States and U.S. wars, that needs to change. That we need to peel away and puncture–to go back to the beginning–the mythologies around war, and that the United States, if it goes to war, is always the good guy. You know, the catastrophe of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, the fact that these wars have taken literally millions of lives–somewhere between three and four million lives, 37 million people displaced if you count the eight most violent wars since 2001; $6.4 trillion spent on these wars, that has been robbed from us, stolen from us, and things like pandemic protection, the public health system, universal health care, education, affordable housing, on and on. We need to change how people in the United States think about what the government does, what the wars that we’ve fought have been about. It is a tremendous task, but I think if we assume that nothing can change, that’s the–you know, as I say in the book, the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, that we are sure to have nothing change. So, you know, partly the book is a call to recruit people to get involved in changing the system of war.
RS: This is a good point on which to end it. I want to say, I don’t think I’ve done the book–I think I did the book a disservice, only because we didn’t get to most of it. But there’s an answer: you can pick up the book, buy the book, read it. Because it’s really rich in detail, and I’ve stressed the early foundation period, the foundation of the nation, but the book takes a detailed, authoritative look at a phenomenon we hardly ever mention: the idea of America as the greatest imperial society–great, I mean, in its power and effect–in human history. And that empire is being challenged now by China, by other forces; by the climate, by nature, because we are still the major abuser of resources. And this book is a warning cry, and I say particularly because it’s not going to be easy to turn it around.
But that’s it for–we don’t promise easy answers on Scheer Intelligence. That’s it for this edition. I want to thank you, David Vine. And the book is The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. David Vine is a professor of political anthropology–and by the way, this is the most respect I’ve had for something I didn’t even know existed as a field, political anthropology. But I learned more from this book than I have from books written by political scientists and historians and so forth, so my hat’s off to you. And it’s published by the University of California Press.
I also want to thank Christopher Ho for being the engineer at KCRW who gets these podcasts posted, Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription, and Joshua Scheer, who is the overall producer of Scheer Intelligence. And I want to give particular thanks to the JWK Foundation, which in the memory of a great writer, Jean Stein, has supplied some funding to help this show keep going. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week.
- Host: Robert Scheer
- Producer: Joshua Scheer
- Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata and Robert Scheer
- Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
Robert Scheer is the editor-in-chief of ScheerPost.com. He has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his nearly 60 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his in-depth interviews have made headlines. Between 1964 and 1969 he was Vietnam correspondent, managing editor and editor in chief of Ramparts magazine. From 1976 to 1993 Scheer served as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, writing on diverse topics such as the Soviet Union, arms control, national politics and the military. In 1993 he launched a nationally syndicated column based at the Los Angeles Times, where he was named a contributing editor. Scheer has written eight books, including two this decade:The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street while Mugging Main Street, and his newest book is They Know Everything about You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.
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