Once again, this Fourth of July, Americans will celebrate – to the unwitting militarist racist tune that is the “Star Spangled Banner” – more than just the nation’s Independence Day. Though most folks will, if at a reasonable social distance, focus more on the backyard beer and brats, U.S. jingoism and exceptionalism will invariably be on the menu.
That last sentiment, particularly amidst the COVID-19 and mass protest-exposing era of forever war at home and abroad, deserves a closer and critical look. For exceptionalism is truly a national disease that ravages American bodies and democratic institutions alike. This malignancy must be named and shamed in pursuit of precisely the “participatory patriotism” the holiday purports to celebrate. As the (late) man said, “Always look to the language;” so let us begin there:
A shining “City upon a Hill;” possessed with the power to “begin the world over again;” imbued with a “Manifest Destiny;” destined to “make the world safe for democracy;” representing, ultimately, a singularly “indispensable nation.” These are the self-styled musings from a country with a near-clinical collective Messiah complex. So diagnosed, the United States, predictably, would never countenance competition from any another power claiming even a fraction of similar self-righteousness. Indeed, in the past, the US has gone to war – hot or cold – with others who dared.
It is now finally fashionable to utter the relevant sobriquet for America’s historical metaphysics and its consequent behavior: exceptionalism. Taking these quoted descriptors briefly in turn, what is striking is the wide temporal span of the grandiose pronouncements, and the otherwise heterogeneity of the vocalizers.
In sequence, beginning 145 years before the U.S. republic was even founded, for the sources of these quotes we have a Puritan religious zealot (John Winthrop, 1630); followed by an outspoken atheist of decidedly radical and professional revolutionary bent (Thomas Paine, 1776); then a Democratic Party hack of a newspaper columnist (John O’Sullivan, 1839); next the first Republican president who – supposedly single-handedly – freed four million African-American slaves (Abraham Lincoln, 1862); proceeded by an ostensibly progressive internationalist president who also happened to carry the profound racism of his Virginia roots (Woodrow Wilson, 1917); and finally, the last phrase was – and is – thrown around by a range of academics, pundits, and political leaders in the years since World War II ended in 1945. The latter announcers include the nation’s first female secretary of state, Madeline Albright, a purported liberal who also defended (“worth it“) U.S.-conceived UN sanctions on Iraq even if they may have killed hundreds of thousands of children as collateral damage.
Thus, American exceptionalism – which approaches messianism – has always been a demonstrably bipartisan and diffuse enterprise. However, exceptionalist national entities typically, perhaps necessarily, exhibit behaviors characterized by universalism, triumphalism and chauvinism. A nation such as the US, conceived and founded upon assumptions of its anointed status as model and mission – as much as tangible state – slid seamlessly into assertions of the global-universalist applicability of its values and political systems.
That those same vague and oft-divisive values were always contested at home rarely gave government or populace much pause or tempered the desire to export them abroad. The results were decidedly mixed, and, in countless cases tragic for the recipients of American political, economic, and cultural largesse.
When the United States met with undeniably profound successes, due to the combination of inherent geographical and natural resource blessings, a prolific populace, and perennially divided hemispheric challengers – leading to what historian C. Vann Woodward dubbed a long “era of free security” – its response tilted towards triumphalism. America’s status as uniquely chosen – whether attributable to divine will or its secularly sacralized inerrant constitution – was thereby reinforced and vindicated.
From this remarkable place of self-righteous confidence, it was never a long way to policy chauvinism. Those intransigents less willing to bend to America’s inspired universalist mission – whether domestic dissidents or equally nationalist foreigners – were characterized as either unenlightened or downright evil, or both. Whatever the framing, these people were ripe for conversion – by the sword if necessary.
Such universalist, triumphalist, and chauvinist outgrowths of American exceptionalism were almost never formulated in these precise terms, and normally rather paternalistically couched as humanitarian and necessary for the collective-good. The language, justifications, and eventually apologia was typically of the “[white] father knows best” variety. Nonetheless, in practice, the results were all too often counted in millions of deaths at home and abroad, and the sentencing of exponentially more lives to second-class status.
No doubt, for a more privileged strata – which undeniably expanded, if haltingly, through the centuries – the development and decisions of the United States offered unprecedented freedoms and material affluence. Nor, it must be said, was America the lone nefarious actor on the world historical scene. Yet, as a consequence of its increasingly remarkable, and ultimately singular power – as well as its persistently benevolent justifications – here there was something uniquely American to speak of.
At root, my forthcoming book – and postwar life’s work – is about that dark side of American exceptionalism. It recounts four centuries worth of a collective – and distinctly human – dissonance on a typically immense American scale. Therefore, in a real sense, this is a history of a self-conscious republic that from its onset walked and talked a whole lot like something far less noble or democratic.
The sordid side of exceptionalism manifested both at home and abroad. National and international “others” were repeatedly and persistently relegated to political and cultural colonies of both internal and external varieties. This need not – though it often did – present in overt Roman or British-style classic conquests and formal annexations. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the victim – the bombed, invaded, dislocated, or segregated – this likely felt a whole lot like empire. And so it was.
Empire and imperialism – except in rare, if cyclical, periods – are terms that were generally anathema to most Americans. After all, the nation’s very origin myth postulates a people who fled to the nascent colonies to escape the ostensible imperium of England’s Anglican Church, in a quest for religious freedom. The US founding fantasy, a century and a half later, posits that these people’s progeny declared independence and formed a republic in a rebellion against the premier empire of the day. It was presumably unthinkable – then and even now – that the resultant republic could itself possess patently imperial proclivities.
Still, for all the later protestation, both famous and average Americans used the term “empire” with surprising regularity. Of course, as with Thomas Jefferson’s descriptive label – “empire of liberty” – the empire-usage was usually caveated or conceptually reframed. In practice, however, much about the American variant of imperialism was decidedly similar to the past models so vehemently and publicly rejected.
In fact, empire has always been one defining aspect of the American experiment. Only hardly anyone knows, or has even heard of, any of this. Yet it is a backstory that needs telling – and broad reading – if Americans hope to understand their present.
There are, obviously, countless comprehensive surveys of American History. Many are quite excellent. Unfortunately, some of the best are essentially unknown. Perhaps that is because academic historians increasingly write, seemingly, only for each other’s edification and rarely reach a broad public audience. Furthermore, due to the caution inherent in their professional historical craft – for understandable reasons – most are loathe to bow to the popular reader’s desire for “relevancy.” In other words, fearful of twisting the past through their own politics or the prism of the present, they often eschew the concept entirely or hedge so repeatedly that the attempt is ultimately sabotaged. Either way, readership suffers.
In the aggregate, the academic historians’ rejection of simplicity, forced connections, and cherry-picked “lessons” for the present is precisely what is attractive about the discipline. The preference for inductive rather than the far more common – especially elsewhere within academia – deductive reasoning, must be judged a net positive. Nonetheless, as poll after poll demonstrates that year after year Americans’ basic historical knowledge reaches newly obscene lows, it seems vital to get these folks reading. This takes on increasing urgency when one observes how even senior – allegedly highly educated – policymakers direct foreign and domestic affairs in the absence of even the most cursory knowledge of relevant historical context. Frankly, it is embarrassing to watch, and often tragic in its human consequences.
Still, like or not, historians will need to meet a busy and time-constrained public halfway if readership – and presumably knowledge – is to meaningfully increase.
I was first struck by the severity of this problem when I returned to teach freshman (“plebe”) American History at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Straight out of graduate school, and a tour in the Afghanistan War just before that, my assessment of the level of historical acuity of the cadets was no doubt informed by both experiences. To simplify, my sense of the decisive importance of the subject was heightened by my own hopeless efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting in wars begun and waged seemingly without the faintest sense of the region’s history. That the cadets would likely, almost inevitably, form the increasingly militarized vanguard of future US foreign policy only added urgency.
Additionally, two years immersed in both the classic and cutting-edge scholarship on US history quite certainly colored my analysis of the students. The cadets at West Point are so highly lauded, and fawningly adulated, that their presumed elite academic qualifications have often been exaggerated. (The actual grade and standardized test data backs this up.) Nevertheless, mine were generally talented students with successful academic records. Yet even within this above average subset – who tended, unsurprisingly, to attend the better high schools – few had anything close to a sophisticated understanding of their own national history.
Early on, I identified a disturbing gap between the widely accepted (though not uncontested) analyses of a half-century’s worth of academic historians, and what many high school history teachers were actuallyteaching. Though there were interesting regional, gender, and racial variances in this phenomenon, the overall trend held: most cadets entered West Point having been taught – and thus understanding – a rather flimsy brand of US history.
These otherwise gifted students’ understanding of the American past lacked substance or depth, and still pivoted on patriotic platitudes. Such young men and women hardly knew the history of the country they had volunteered to kill and die for. That, I thought to myself in 2014, is how military fiascoes are made.
This, of course, was a profound simplification of the complex processes that lead to war or any other public policy. Nevertheless, throughout my teaching tenure I set myself the task of bridging – in some modest way – the gap between what scholars know and students learn. I sought to at least adequately infuse nuanced analyses ubiquitous among academics into the impossible task of teaching the nation’s checkered, if often inspiring, past within a single semester.
That process and its challenges motivated me to write the American History For Truthdiggers series (forthcoming in book form in 2021), an enthusiastic attempt to bridge the perhaps unbridgeable gap between academic and popular history. No doubt the project will be found wanting, but there’s inherent value in the quest, in the very struggle. The skeletal beginnings of this project were the 40 lesson plans I crafted and taught at West Point to future leaders of an army perennially at war.
That the often censorious – some will say downright un-American – analyses of that series and this essay, were introduced to presumably patriotic and conservative West Point cadets may seem shocking. That many other history instructors on the faculty presented not altogether dissimilar concepts may be more surprising still. Nonetheless, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned after finally turning against the Vietnam War: one should not confuse dissent with disloyalty. Unfortunately, in today’s politically and culturally tribal times, this seems the reflexive response to dissidence.
Still, I make no apologies for having presented combat-bound cadets with undeniable dark facts and critical conclusions common among esteemed scholars. Exposure to the historical myths and flaws – in addition to the well-worn triumphs – of the country they might very well die for seemed appropriate. Anything less would have felt obscene. Currently, many of my former students serve in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other combat zones; to date, none have mutinied or deserted. If they could handle the truth, so can all Americans this Fourth of July.
Many of the causes and solutions to the brutality and turmoil of this moment actually lay in the past, in the historical development of US politics and society. Specifically, these aspects of the darkly exceptionalist present can only be understood through a better understanding of four ghastly themes underpinning American history: indigenous genocide, racialized slavery, hyper-capitalism, and militarist imperialism. None of these are strictly past; the legacy and habits of each echo through the years in acute and tangible ways.
White European settlement came at the expense of Native American dispossession, removal, and mass – near extinction-level – death. Contrary to popular conscience-soothing assertions, none of this was inevitable or simply the unavoidable consequence of a lack of indigenous disease immunity. Nor is modern racism simply a slowly dissipating outgrowth of long-passed slavery; it was largely a social construction to justify black exploitation and discipline free white laborers. In fact, long before American independence, racialized chattel slavery significantly delineated the limits of freedom for even free citizens. The habit of enslavement less ended than repeatedly morphed and adapted to the changing times and informed a still pervasive racialized social hierarchy.
Unfettered and minimally regulated private corporate power has been a core characteristic of the US since before the term “capitalism” was even widely used. Though big business, or Wall Street, never constituted a monolithic centralized conspiracy, throughout most of America’s history the profit motive held special place in the pantheon. This reality was less unique than was the widespread, often cross-class, worship of the free market as something inherently American.
Finally, as discussed, empire-building has always been the path of this vocally republican nation. Like racism and slavery, empire evolved rather than ended. The early continental model conquered and subjugated Indians and Mexicans, while later a relatively brief formal maritime foray snatched up Pacific and Caribbean Islands. Lastly, its less formal blend of “soft” (economic and cultural) and “hard” (military threat and action) power allowed for an historically dominant global hegemony by the wind-down of the Cold War – and continue to be aggressively deployed through the present.
For the past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are, help determine public policy, and even that which we imagine possible. President Donald Trump promised to “Make America great again.” That this vague slogan and sentiment so appealed to tens of millions of citizens was itself instructive, and occasions us to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of US history, and reevaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great?” And what made it so?
If definitive answers to these questions aren’t readily available this Fourth of July, at the very least Americans should perhaps ponder what makes us ask them in the first place. That we still don’t is itself exceptional, and diagnosable…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book,Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War(Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past