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    Friday, January 14, 2005

    Geneva Conventions and American Mindset

    In a similar vein to "A Way to Wage War," the early colonial mindset argued by John Shy still resonates today. Unfortunately Americans are caught between their ideology and morality. Winning wars easily spun for ideological purposes (Revolutionary War=inalienable rights of man, Civil War=freedom for all, WW2=stop atrocities and genocide) has since given an ideological tint to our warmaking efforts. Any leader who wants to wage war (from America) must deal with the fact that we believe victory should be total (and I think secretly accept whatever means necessary to achieve this) while balancing our belief that we must have a supreme moral purpose.

    In reality, the Geneva conventions are anti-American military theory. They bar us from achieving total victory. Precedent was set throughout war to do whatever necessary (including nuclear weapons--we are still the only country to detonate one against another country) to win unconditional surrender. Shy also argues that rules for warfare came about due to Europe's large standing armies. Those governments wanted to
    "create a hard military shell, composed of specialists, that could protect the soft center of society, composed of the great mass of people."
    America had no such luxury due to constant Indian pressure.

    While Europe continued to standardize warfare,
    "Americans themselves flagrantly broke the rules of civilized warfare--the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War, Texans at San Jacinto, and the U.S. Army during the Phillipine insurrection."
    Since most of these wars began after an atrocity commited against America, it became easy for Americans to justify their actions in the name of retribution or defense.

    Finally, today is no different. America was attacked by terrorists, who by definition operate outside the bounds of civilized warfare. Yet again we follow this pattern, and I think Americans are willing to commit "atrocities" in retribution and defense of our country. The moral issue poses a great connundrum for our leaders, and makes America pretty hypocritical, but both ideologies exist. Not only do I agree that we should not follow the Geneva Convention against enemies who have not followed it either, but history shows America does not need that excuse.

    1 comment:

    MGO said...

    I think this is accurate. I haven't read the people you quote, but it strikes me that considering the class structure of Europe was institutionalized, the upper class (nobles or otherwise) would want to protect themselves from neighboring nobles, and the benefit to the nobles of rules of war (predictability of outcome, stability) would outweigh consequences to the lower classes (higher casualties). In America, though, there were no neighboring nobles that posed quite as immediate a threat, and while class would matter in the established colonies, it was not institutionalized as in Europe. I can imagine that on the American frontier, Indian raids would require vigilance on all people regardless of class, and the community would want to work together defensively (and offensively).

    I am starting to agree that American warmaking is unique in the moral underpinnings of each war that she engages in, and I can see some seeds of this development through the Spanish and British Empires.

    Both the Spanish and the English began their empires after having conquered local territory previously occupied by people considered savages, which probably suggested to the conquerors that their society was superior. The Spanish, after driving the last of the Moors out of the Iberian peninsula, began their conquest of the new world with the idea that God had ordained their society as morally superior, and used that idea as a moral justification for conquering morally inferior non-Christian peoples. The seeds of the British Empire began when the English conquered the Irish, whom they considered to be savages, and used the lack of sophistication they saw in Irish culture as evidence of English moral superiority.

    Similarly, the US conquered the American Indians, whom they considered to be morally inferior and savages. As soon as the American Indians had been nearly completely annihilated by the Americans, the US started its imperial streak by appplying a moral justification to liberate Cuba from the Spanish (while taking other Spanish territories for herself).