From the Imaginary Realm of Brandonia…
Hi y’all. I know I haven’t posted in what seems like forever, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. In fact, I’m 5,000 words into a post that will be a bunch of nonsensical dribble, but which I need to write in order to save my soul from the damnation of mediocrity from which I hatched. Anyway – more about that later. What follows is also a bunch of nonsensical dribble, but it’s the first complete thing I’ve written in a while, so here it is…
Comments on American History – Introduction:
I’m certified to teach history to high-school students in Washington State. Those are my credentials. I am not an historian, nor did I major in history. I minored in history during my undergraduate studies and passed a standardized test that says I’m qualified to teach history to adolescents and teens. That is the truth, and that is the whole of my historical credibility other than my propensity for relentless consumption of American History content and the critical thinking skills that come from having a Master’s degree in English literature and creative writing. I therefore do not portent to be an historian myself, but more of an amateur sociocultural anthropologist.
That means I look at stories and the way they affect cultures. I pay special attention to the stories historians tell, and to how they affect the cultural mythology of a people. I say all this to warn you that some of the stories I re-tell in this post may not always paint the good ol’ U.S.A. in the best light, but I want you to know that’s okay.
America: It’s okay to be a bit flawed, so long as we recognize it and make a commitment to get better. It’s okay to not be the best at everything, so long as we commit to being the best we can be. It’s okay to set an example of peaceful strength to the rest of the world, so long as we don’t trample on the weak and and so long as we set an example of actual justice around the globe, not just when it suits our own interests. Most importantly: IT’S OKAY TO ADMIT OUR MISTAKES AND LEARN FROM THEM.
Ca. 10,000 BCE – 1765 CE: Pre-Columbian to Colonial America.
This continent was first inhabited by Native peoples who settled it as far back as the last ice age. Europeans invaded and conquered it. Throughout both North and South America, before Spanish, English, French, Russian, and Portuguese invaders metaphorically raped the land with guns, germs, and steel, thousands upon thousands of thriving civilizations made their homes in this land. They built cities and empires. They made war and they made peace. They took and kept slaves. They held deeply complex religious views and mastered mathematics. Make what you will of the European conquest – I’ll report the facts on this one and leave the judgment to you.
Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and other tribal people throughout Central and South America – conquered by the Spanish and the Portuguese. These civilizations built complex societies and cities, but those who were not killed by Old-World plagues would be murdered by conquistadors who sailed thousands of miles for the promise of silver and gold.
The Wampanoag, Chippewa, and Mohawk tribes – Were it not for the grace and generosity of Squanto and Samoset, two ambassadors from the Wampanoag peoples, William Bradford and his band of mixed Puritans and heathens aboard the Mayflower wouldn’t have survived to see 1622. For the rest of the century, English settlers who followed Bradford and company to the Northeastern shores of what is now our fair nation would engage in brutal wars with the Chippewa, Mohawk, Powhatan, and many other tribes, among others – creating a general sense of distrust and unease between the two races of people.
The Puritans and other colonies of English and Dutch Christendom viewed the Natives as “savages,” and agents of Satan himself. In fact, fear of Satanic dominion over the Native tribes that lived in the Massachusetts wilderness was a major contributing factor in the panic that led to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Of course, England wasn’t the only kid on the block in North America at this time, though. France dominated the now-Canadian lands to the north, and Spain held fast to lands in the south and west. Amidst this colonialist ménage à trios, in 1754 the French-Indian war started, and, in my opinion, birthed what we now think of as “American” history.
Before we get into it, I just want to say, I’m entirely sympathetic to the Native American situation. It’s pretty easy for privileged Americans of any other race to say “They’re a conquered enemy; they get what pretty much every other conquered people ever got.” The reality is, though, they were “conquered” more with germs than with any European superiority. Add to that the fact that Native American tribes made literally THOUSANDS of treaties with European forces that were either not honored or straight-up ignored in the centuries following the Columbian conquest, and I have a hard time accepting this idiotic rationale for the atrocity that is the Native American genocide. If you disagree, I ask you this: Where is the honor in distributing smallpox-infected blankets to Native tribes in the name of humanitarianism? Where is the honor in pissing on treaties and relocating tribes every time some natural resource was discovered on their “reservations” for over a century? Where is the honor in ripping children from their homes and forcing them into boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian” inside them? I defy you to provide an acceptable answer.
The French and Indian War
England spent a massive amount of money in order to protect her colonies and expand her territory. For over a century, her colonies in North America had been supplying her economy with tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, timber, textiles, and, of course, African slaves. In order to protect and expand her empire, however, the British decided to push westward into the Ohio territory that was controlled by the French and inhabited by the Iroquois confederation and other tribes. This is, of course, a complete over-simplification of the war, but the important thing to note is that the French and Native tribes “lost” the war and had to concede a lot of territory to the British.
Even so, the monetary cost to the British crown was significant, and the English people across the Atlantic expected those vulgar colonists to pay for the British troops and sailors that so bravely protected their interests.
Well, you know how it goes. “Pay for the war,” always translates into taxes. And, let’s be honest, whenever you tell a bunch of land-owning, rich white people that they’re gonna have to pay more taxes, you’re gonna hear a bunch of bitching. And when you do it without letting them at least
buy elect their own representatives in parliament, well then, with this special breed of people now known as Americans, you’ve got a revolution just waiting to happen.
1765 – 1789: The American Revolution
It’s hard for me to write about this period. I could just give you facts, as I promised earlier, and I probably will, but there’s a lot of complexity that I think should be at least questioned, if not fully explored here. After all, I just want to raise questions – not tell you what to think.
So, if you look at it from the British perspective, the American Revolution could be seen as a bunch of whiny brats refusing to pay the bill for the protection they received a few decades earlier.
On the other hand, there’s the myth that most Americans have been told since birth. That myth states that our “founding fathers” were men of impeccable integrity who “could not tell a lie” and who believed in freedom, equality for all people, and government by, for, and of the people.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. King George III was an incompetent monarch at best. His actions (as outlined so eloquently by Thomas Jefferson in the United States Declaration of Independence) reek of all the flaws of monarchy and the feudal system that would enter its death throes within a century.
The hard part is there is so much good in what the American fathers of the enlightenment wrote, that it’s hard to remember that they were slave-owners and essentially the American versions of the very same people they were fighting in Britain. Still, despite the imperfection of the men who wrote them, we have the ability to study those writings and to work to realize those lofty ideals in our time. That is to say, they were written in such a fashion that they are, in fact, living documents. They are constantly being reinterpreted by the Supreme Court in order to stay relevant with our times – and the beauty of these “living” documents is that they can be changed if enough of us are willing to stand together to do it.
Let’s start with Washington and Hamilton.
At the time, the big debate in Philadelphia was whether or not we should have a strong central government (Federalists), or whether more power should be given to the individual states to govern their own destiny (Anti-Federalists). Enormously popular as the hero of the Revolution, Washington easily won two terms as our first President. Politically, Washington was a Federalist, but it is widely accepted by historians that Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, was the architect of Washington’s administration.
I’m not going to get too much into the politics here, but ratifying the Constitution was a big deal. Prior to the United States Constitution, all we had to hold the union together were the Articles of Confederation, which provided about as much coverage for the government as a string bikini.
When the Constitution was finally ratified by all thirteen colonies, it was done on the condition that a list of ten amendments be added to the document which would provide for the individual liberty of United States citizens. This list of amendments is now known as the “Bill of Rights,” and America simply would not exist without it.
The original Constitution provides a brilliant framework for our three-sided government and lays out separation of powers and an effective system of checks and balances for our newly made democratic-republic (representative democracy). However, it wasn’t enough for many colonies. Many representatives worried that there weren’t enough protections for individual liberties. Hence, the first ten amendments were drafted and ratified. That first version of the constitution was ratified in 1788. These aren’t the only amendments, but because we in America are always going on about how much we love our freedom, I’m gonna go ahead and talk about the most invoked amendments in the Bill of Rights below, just so we all know what some of our most sacred freedoms are.
- 1. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
- Note that the first guaranteed individual liberty in this amendment is NOT the freedom of speech, but more importantly, the freedom of thought in the form of religion. The separation of Church and State is the FIRST THING THE FOUNDERS WANTED IN THEIR BILL OF RIGHTS. THEN they cared about freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and petition.
- 2. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shallot be infringed.”
- So, this is a controversial one. Let’s look at the grammar – ’cause, ya know, I’m an English teacher. We start with two conditional phrases. These set up what we’d call the “spirit” of the amendment. They declare the reasons for the rest of the amendment. Therefore, one CANNOT overlook those first two first phrases. “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” I actually have a different view of this section than a lot of other “liberals” might. I think the founders were looking at the fact that the militia (and the French) won the war for them. They knew that the need may arise again for ordinary citizens to defend their homeland. Furthermore, it was a common tactic among tyrannical monarchies at the time to deprive the citizenry of weaponry. The founders wanted armed citizens who were ready to defend their country.
- THAT SAID… The “armed citizens” they had carried single-shot muskets and black-powder rifles or maybe flint-lock pistols, knives, swords, and tomahawks. I’m willing to bet if you asked Thomas Jefferson if he thought everyone in America should have an AK-47, he’d say no.
- My position on the Second Amendment and gun control, then, is this: Knock it off. All sides are bastardizing this argument and ignoring the common sense steps we can actually take to curb gun violence in the United States. Now, full-disclosure, I’ve been a gun owner for twenty years or so. I’ve trained and qualified at expert level on the M-162A in the United States Air Force. I am proficient with shotguns, rifles, and pistols of all sorts. I am NOT, however, a “gun nut.” I like shooting, but I consider guns tools. I carry a 9mm with me in the woods for protection. Other than that, you’ll not see me open-carrying it around Walmart or the convenience store to cover up my penis size. Officially, and from the bottom of my heart as someone who likes to have a gun and believes that they are useful tools in rural life and outdoor situations, [obscenity] the NRA and every other hardcore gun-nut out there. You’re doing more harm than good and you should back off.
- Also, it should be noted that before ever purchasing a firearm, I served six years in “a well-regulated militia.” (The Washington Air National Guard).
- 4. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
- So many ordinary people forget about this one. THE POLICE HAVE NO RIGHT TO SEARCH YOU, YOUR PERSON, OR YOUR BELONGINGS WITHOUT PROBABLE CAUSE TO BELIEVE YOU’VE COMMITTED A CRIME.
- If a police officer ever asks you to search your belongings and you haven’t done anything wrong, demand a warrant or proof of probable cause. Get as many witnesses as you can or record the event on your phone or with another camera. Make it explicitly clear that you are NOT granting the officer permission to search your things, and that an illegal search is taking place. If you have witnesses and/or video evidence, anything the officer confiscates may turn out to be inadmissible in court. (Note – I’m not a lawyer, so do not consider this sound legal advice. It’s just my interpretation of this amendment. In fairness, though, if I’m ever confronted with this situation, this is exactly how I will handle it).
- Beware of “Terry Stops,” which allow police officers to “detain” individuals based on “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. This law is abused by police officers all the time. For example, if you’re a young black kid wandering around Cripp territory after a drive-by shooting and you’re wearing any kind of blue, the cops can detain you without any other reason. In order to officially arrest you, though, they have to come up with probable cause, which is a higher burden of proof to meet. However, say you were carrying a pocket knife, or maybe a little something illegal… now they can arrest you. The best bet is to steer clear of cops when you’re minding your own business and you haven’t done anything wrong. Even as a super-privileged white-dude, I stay away from cops. One of my best friends is a retired cop, and I still stay away from cops if I can help it.
This is not to say I’ve never had positive experiences with police. As a victim of several property crimes, the police I dealt with were always respectful and professional.
- IN ANY EVENT – NEVER RESIST ARREST. The cops have guns, batons, tasers, tear gas, pepper spray, radios, and a whole paramilitary network backing them up, plus training that convinces them that you’re going to try and kill them. You have yourself and the knowledge that you’re right. Let the legal system handle it. Comply with orders and let them arrest you. No matter what the conflict is about, it’s not worth your life because some over-zealous or over-scared cop wants to waste a perp. Put your hands on your head, stay silent, and give them nothing except the name of your lawyer, or a request for a public defender. Don’t admit to anything, and don’t give any statements without your lawyer present. I’m not going to go into details, but I know much of this from experience.
- 5. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
- There are several important implications of this amendment. First – You can’t be held to answer for a capital crime without the indictment of a Grand Jury – that means in order to even bring you to trial, it takes more than just the word of a cop or two if the charge is serious enough. Second – you can’t be tried for the same crime twice. If the state can’t prove you’re guilty the first time around, tough shit for them (and possibly society if you’re actually a guilty bastard). Third, you can’t be compelled to answer questions in court that will incriminate you. This is used all the time in movies, but it’s actually very important. For example, if you were witness to a murder while you were attempting a robbery, you can safely testify against the murderer without admitting your culpability in the robbery. Finally, it ensures that everyone has the right to due process – unless, you know, you were a Japanese-American in World War II or an Arab-American in the early aftermath of 9/11. (See how easily these “rights” are lost or corrupted if you don’t fight for them?)
- 6. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
- This one’s pretty straightforward. You get the right to a speedy trial by a jury of your peers, and you have the right to free counsel during your trial.
- 8. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
- This means you don’t get put in the Iron Maiden for not being able to pay your taxes.
- 9. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
- Just because the Bill of Rights doesn’t mention it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a right.
- 10. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
- Any power not granted or prohibited by the Constitution are left up to the states to decide.
- This is a sticky one, because it was used by the Separatist Rebel Terrorists of the Southern Confederacy during the American Civil War to defend their treachery and treason. On the other hand, laws that make sense in Los Angeles and New York City often don’t make sense in Cheyanne Wyoming or Elko Nevada, so…
Beyond the Bill of Rights…
The rest of the constitution is just as important, as it lays out the framework for our representative democracy, and provides separation of powers and checks and balances between our three branches of government.
Here’s a brief overview:
The Executive Branch is the administrative branch of our government. Essentially, it includes the office of the President, Vice President, and all of the agencies, bureaus, and departments that make the federal government function. The President’s cabinet dictates most of the major departments run by the Executive Branch. The departments of Labor, Defense, Treasury, Education, Transportation, State, and Homeland Security are just a few examples. The executive branch’s main power stems from the President and his (hopefully “her” soon) cabinet setting a legislative vision for the nation. Sometimes, the President will issue executive orders, which have the power of law, but only to the extent that the sovereignty resides in the hands of the federal government.
For example, President Joe Biden, in one of his first acts, mandated that anyone on federal property be compelled to wear a protective mask in an effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic. While Biden’s action could be seen as mostly symbolic – as it only applied to federal land – it inspired governors throughout the country to follow similar steps.
The executive branch is held accountable by the Legislative Branch, which dictates funding for any and all executive decisions, and by the Judicial Branch, which interprets the constitutionality of any executive decisions.
For example – Trump can promise to build a stupid wall along the Mexican border, but Congress has to approve the funding for it, or it doesn’t happen. Or, if the Supreme Court had any guts right now, it could say that the order was an example of executive overreach, etc.
The Legislative Branch is made up of our bi-cameral Congress. “Bi-cameral” means “two-houses.” We have the U.S. House of Representatives (the “lower” house of Congress) and the U.S. Senate. Representation in the House of Representatives is determined by state and district population as measured by the U.S. Census (which is why it’s important to fill out census data). Each state gets at least three representatives in the House, and more are added based on the population of the state. There are over 400 representatives in the House, and they run the gamut of “bat-[obscenity] crazy.”
The Senate is a bit more serious and usually seen as less of a circus. In the Senate, each state gets two representatives, regardless of population. Therefore, in the Senate, Alaska has just as much power as New York – theoretically.
Both houses of Congress are responsible with coming up with laws that will ensure the promise of American prosperity. The House specifically holds the purse strings. Congress as a whole creates laws, and they are held in check by Presidential veto (which can be overturned with a 2/3 majority vote), and Supreme Court decisions. It’s not sexy, but the reality is, Congress is where the real governing gets done.
The U.S. Supreme Court and all lower federal courts are a part of the judicial branch. Most judges and justices are appointed by the President, but many serve lifetime appointments in order to keep their biases intact. They also must be confirmed by the Senate. During the Obama administration, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and other prominent Republican senators refused to replace Justice Antonin Scalia just a few months before an election. Then when the tables were turned, and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed on, McConnell and others jumped on the opportunity to replace her with a conservative justice as soon as possible. In theory, the Supreme Court consists of nine justices, but that number could change by Congressional action. So now that the balance of power is significantly in the conservative corner on the court because of unscrupulous and dishonorable action on the part of the Senate, I think Congress should open up two more seats and pack them with liberal justices. But again, that’s just my opinion. If you like having a completely one sided Supreme Court, then denounce my argument as unpatriotic.
1789-1865: A Nation Born in Sin
The other despicable part of the U.S. Constitution that we haven’t mentioned yet is what is commonly known as the “3/5 compromise.” Remember how I said the size of the House of Representatives was determined by population? Well, in the Southern Colonies, the African slaves actually outnumbered their English masters, and if they were counted in the census, the South would have had much more power in the House than the Northern non-slave states. At the end of the day, the white masters worked everything out. They thought, we’ll just count the slaves and “all other persons” as 3/5 of a person. Again, I’ll let your own conscious decide to do with that information.
The reality is, slavery and racism are an inherent part of our constitution, and only through two centuries of struggle have we been able to right some of those wrongs.
Unfortunately, our enslaved African brothers and sisters weren’t the only ones who suffered during this period. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson took advantage of French Emperor Napoleon’s empty pockets and lust for conquest in Europe. Even though he was a staunch Anti-Federalist, he set a precedent for the expansion of executive powers that would continue to grow for centuries to come. With one executive action – The Louisiana Purchase – he doubled the size of our burgeoning nation and set the course for what later Presidents would call our “Manifest Destiny.” The probably-unintended consequences of Jefferson’s decision to send Lewis and Clark west was the ultimate destruction of the vibrant culture of hundreds if not thousands of individual tribes. But that’s still half a century away.
It started small enough. Eastern tribes like the Mohawk, Iroquois, and the Wampanoag were forced to sign treaties, then they were relocated after European disease had ravished their once-thriving civilization. Then, in the 1830’s, President Andrew Jackson, who notoriously hated Native Americans, began a campaign of terror against them in the east and south.
The United States Army, under the direction of President Jackson, forcibly removed the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole tribes from their homelands in Florida and Georgia and marched them mercilessly to a desolate wasteland in Oklahoma. The incident is known as the Trail of Tears, and is the reason many Native people today resent using $20 bills in the United States.
Of course, we should also not forget that at this time, the entire Southern economy was built on the backs of over 100,000 brutally enslaved African people.
As the nation moved west and grew up a bit, many Christian women across the Northern US (and some in the South) took up the cause to end slavery. They wrote pamphlets, pestered their husbands, and one even wrote a celebrated novel to help the cause. By 1860, the issue of slavery overshadowed everything else in the United States, and soon, nearly half of the states in the nation would rise up in rebellion against the federal government of the United States of America over the issue – though many in that region will still tell you the U.S. Civil War was about states’ rights.
A newly elected President Abraham Lincoln was determined not to be the first President to lose half of the Union. I’m sorry, but that’s what his motivation was for the first half of the war. He’s quoted as saying if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so.
Nevertheless, as disenchanting as this view of Lincoln may be, he finally understood that freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, and in 1862, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was symbolically more important than it was in reality.
In reality, ending slavery did little to improve the day to day lives of slaves at the time. If you were a slave in the South, Lincoln said you were free, but your master didn’t listen to Lincoln, so unless you ran off and joined the Northern army, you weren’t much better off. The actual end of slavery would happen after Lincoln’s assassination with the ratification of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments.
Eventually, the dust settled and the rebels were smacked down. The problem with smacking your enemies down, though, is that they grow resentful and then come back stronger.
1865-1917: Reconstruction and Beyond…
With the death of Lincoln, there was nobody strong enough to keep the Radical Republicans in Congress in check. Andrew Johnson was one of the most ineffective Presidents in American history, and under his leadership, the South was divided into military districts and occupied by the Union Army like an enemy territory for over five years. Scores of unscrupulous businessmen and politicians from the North flocked to the South to fleece the newly defeated citizenry. This was the era when the terms “Carpetbagger” and “Scalawag” were coined.
I don’t condone nor defend it, but the Southern people were beaten mercilessly during this time. The problem with heavy retribution is that it breeds heavy resentment.
During the final years of the Civil War, General Sherman in particular practically razed the Carolinas during his army’s march northward toward General Lee. The animosity of the displaced poor white farmer in the aftermath of the Civil War is much more complex than it seems.
The reality is, most large-scale-slave-owners were the minority in the South. The image of the wealthy plantation owners with sprawling plantations that required dozens of slaves in order to operate wasn’t the norm. The average poor or middle-class farmer in the South at this time, if he even owned slaves, owned one or two. THIS IS NOT MEANT TO EXCUSE THE PRACTICE OF SLAVERY. SLAVERY IS BAD. ALWAYS. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR ANYONE TO DO IT, EVER.
What I’m trying to do here is to be fair to the socioeconomically disadvantaged white people of the South at the time. The reality is, they faced a disproportionate amount of the punishment for the institution of slavery, when the major offenders were the Southern Gentry who could afford to buy their way out of trouble or at least maintain their standard of living after the war. For the rest of the farmers, reconstruction was a breeding ground for racism and dissension.
During the 1870s through the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan and other militant white-supremacist organizations were formed and gained popularity. African Americans from St. Louis to Richmond were terrified. Burning crosses on lawns were only the mildest of it. During this period countless African Americans were falsely accused of crimes and made victims of mob justice at the end of a noose. The act is called lynching. Whether or not you want to admit it, the practice still happens today, though the methodology is slightly different. If you disagree, ask the family of Rodney King, George Floyd, or the myriad other victims of police brutality and excessive force in the 20th and 21st centuries.
1917-1941: World War, Excess, and Modernism
After the turmoil of the Civil War and during the last few decades of the 19th century, the United States was mainly concerned with its own affairs and only foreign affairs which affected the Western Hemisphere – otherwise known as the Monroe Doctrine. The basic idea – as the nation was trying to rebuild and figure itself out – was that we’d only worry about things that happened in the Western Hemisphere. We pledged to not interfere in European or Asian affairs. It was smart for the time. Unfortunately the world had other plans.
In August of 1914, a Serbian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip got an attack of opportunity and assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria. Due to an utterly ridiculous series of international treaties and defense agreements, this one act by this one fanatical individual literally drove the world into one of the worst wars in human history.
The first world war is the time period when Romanticism ends and Modernism truly begins. After all, Romantics die for noble causes with honor after showing gallantry and heroism in battle. Modernists die because a King, Czar, Kaiser, or Emperor tells you it’s important, even though half of your comrades have just been mowed down by a machine gun nest, or killed by blister agents or other mustard gas.
The nineteenth-century ideas of heroism, valor, duty, and honor were ALL called into question in the face of the terrible mechanized warfare of tanks, submarines, gas attacks, and machine guns. Roughly ten million people would die in this senseless conflict. In the end, the Germans and Austrians would suffer a humiliating defeat and be forced to accept undignified concessions at the treaty of Versailles in 1919.
The Americans entered the war in 1917 after the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. This action sanctioned attacks on U.S. merchant ships that were carrying weapons and supplies to the Allied forces prior to the U.S.’s official entry into the war.
Many say that President Woodrow Wilson privately opposed U.S. neutrality even though most of the country wanted to stay out of the war. He supported the allies with equipment and had a vision for a united world after the war was settled. This idea would be called the League of Nations and is widely considered to be a pre-curser for the United Nations.
Because of the horrific nature of the war, France and Britain wanted to punish Germany, whom they saw to be the aggressors in this war, so severely that another war of the type would be unthinkable.
Unfortunately their actions would have the opposite effect.
The Roaring Twenties and the Modernist Movement:
The importance of the first World War can’t be understated. Those Americans who returned came back with a sense of disillusionment more potent than perhaps at any other time in American history. After all, when you grow up with the nineteenth-century ideals of honor, valor, courage, gallantry, and the like – then when you see the most gallant men you’ve ever known get mown down by a German machine gun – you tend to rethink your position.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other American writers captured the changing definitions of these values. Half a generation of young men who hadn’t been killed came back from the war and had enough privilege and opportunity to make fake fortunes for themselves.
To this “Lost Generation,” all collectivist values and civic duties seemed to mean nothing anymore. The Old-World values they grew up with all seemed meaningless in the face of trench warfare, mustard gas, and machine guns. They came back to the United States with one goal – acquire as much material wealth as possible. After all, if human life was worth so little, one might as well enjoy any luxuries one could as long as the getting was good.
And the getting was good for a decade. Despite the 19th amendment, the drinks flowed, the parties raged, and the sound of jazz and the sparks of revolution dominated the air.
The Great Depression
As the venerable American poet Robert Frost so aptly put it, “Nothing gold can stay.” The excesses of the 1920s couldn’t last. A bubble began to grow, and it finally burst on or around October 29th, 1929. Otherwise known as Black Tuesday, the date of the stock market crash that is most often attributed to the beginning of the Great Depression. More importantly to me, it was the day my Grandpa was born in North Dakota.
Despite what the country-music band “Alabama” would tell you, already-poor folks definitely felt the effects of the economic collapse.
Coinciding with the economic collapse in the financial sector was a record drought that swept through the midwest. Otherwise known as “The Dust Bowl,” this period in the early 1930s saw tons and tons of fertile topsoil blown away from the Midwestern landscape during dry windstorms. Many homesteaders suffered catastrophic losses of crops and other resources. They were forced to move west to California, Oregon, and other places they might find work.
The New Deal
The economic collapse was the result of rampant unregulated capitalism. The distribution of wealth in the country was similar to what it is today. Magnates like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and others got incredibly rich on the backs of laborers and consumers with little government oversight.
During the Great Depression, these magnates began to be symbolic of all that was wrong with America at the time
As a result, many progressive reform movements were started and strengthened during this time. Some of the most powerful unions in America were formed and helped bring fairness to the mining, steel, railway, and other industries during the 1930s. At the same time, President Roosevelt was pursuing aggressive new infrastructure and employment projects that would put Americans back to work and build the country in to a modern technological powerhouse. Roosevelt spent millions of government dollars on infrastructure and employment projects, and was criticized for putting the nation in debt to do so.
1941-1945: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire – Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima.
Nobody wanted to get involved in World War II. Except maybe Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. After all, Churchill and other Western European leaders tried really hard to “appease Hitler” before they were forced to accept what was coming. The Germans, humiliated after the Treaty of Versailles and hungry (literally) for a better standard of living, began gobbling up territory around them in order to compensate for the humiliating losses they incurred after Versailles. The conditions of the treaty would prove to be a breeding ground for Nationalism and would incubate perfectly the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Nobody in America gave really cared at that point, though. Yes, the British were screaming for our help. The French had already been conquered. The Fascists were in control in Italy, and it seemed that the only enemies they had at this point were the British and the Soviets. (If you don’t know, the U.S.S.R. actually “won” World War II. They sacrificed magnitudes more than any other allied power during the war, and maybe 1/10 of Americans realize it.)
It wasn’t until the Japanese bombed Pear Harbor that the United States entered the war. And at that point we were woefully un-prepared. Just coming out of the grips of crippling economic depression, we had a grand total of four aircraft carriers, and a comparatively small military. What we did have, however, was industrial capacity and natural resources that were the envy of the world.
Unlike World War I, Americans felt personally attacked by the Japanese. So much so that they allowed President Roosevelt to lock up over 100,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast without any due process or reasoning other than genetic lineage. One needed only to have a blood quantum of 1/16th Japanese ancestry in order to be thrown into the internment camps. Most of the Americans interned in these camps were second and third generation immigrants who had never been to Japan. The majority of those interned lost their homes, businesses, and farms. Reparations were paid, but the memory of the racial distrust remains. After all, no German or Italian Americans were subjected to the same treatment.
At that time, U.S. Industry showed her backbone. Factories that had been making cars and other “luxury” items a few years before were converted into airplane, tank, munitions, and other military factories. Those men who were sent off to war were replaced in the factories by women – represented in popular culture by the iconic “Rosie the Riveter.”
The result of this renewed industrial fervor meant that by 1944, The U.S. was producing four Aircraft Carriers for every one that the Japanese were producing. Similarly, the U.S. Warplanes – such as the P-51 Mustang and the B-29 Flying Fortress were quickly becoming the dominant warplanes in the sky over both the Pacific and Europe.
Brighter Than 1,000 Suns…
Apologists will make the argument over and over again that the United States had no other choice but to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m not sure.
Look: I’ve been to the bomb museum in Hiroshima. I’ve literally seen the pieces of sidewalks with the shadows of HUMAN BEINGS burned into them. And that was the weakest nuclear bomb ever!
I do not deny that the Japanese soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were fierce and inconceivably dedicated troops. I understand that their soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice their own lives in suicide Kamikaze attacks was a force to be reckoned with.
However, I don’t quite buy the argument that the Japanese couldn’t be subdued any other way. To be fair, the Japanese civilians on the islands of Guam, Java, and others close to the Japanese main islands were fearsome and didn’t want to surrender. However, the fire-bombing of Tokyo with conventional weapons could have eventually crushed the enemy’s will. Whether or not that would have resulted in fewer casualties I can’t say.
1945-1989 The Cold War and Nuclear Age
Not long after the United States demonstrated twice that they had the ability to destroy entire metropolises with a single order, much of the “developed” world had the secret of nuclear fire, too. It was, I guess, inevitable. A secret that powerful can’t be contained for long. Soon, Russia, Great Britain, France, and a host of other nations had their own nuclear weapons. The two most powerful nations after the war, though, the United States and the U.S.S.R. were now at odds with one another, and each had its proverbial hand on the trigger.
What happens next is a result of European Colonialism during the 19th century. In fact, the term “third world,” comes from this time period, and originally wasn’t derogatory. The idea was that former colonial nations such as those in Africa could chose a “third” way. They needn’t be puppets of either the United States or the Soviet Union, as the theory went. The real life consequence, of course, was that no European or American structural support would touch those “third-world” countries.
To the United States, Communism became as big a perceived threat as Fascism was. In reality, they were two signs of the same coin. However, the Christian white folks in the U.S. and others decided that the Marxist rejection of religion and Capitalist principles were a threat to the American Capitalist stability.
A fervent and not completely-unfounded fear of Communism swept America. After all, the predominant Communists in the world were the Stalinist Soviets, and they seemed to be the very antithesis of American Democracy and Freedom.
A Word about Communism, Capitalism, and Socialism…
Americans are stupid, and, on the whole, they don’t take the time to learn what these words really mean. Communism is an extreme take on Marxist philosophy. It dictates that a single party, the Communist party, takes over the entire government. The communists would re-distribute land and wealth from the rich oligarchs to the rest of the proletariate.
The problem is, not everyone wants to be a farmer. Not everyone wants to give up the business they’ve built from the ground up for the past thirty years. Communism only really works if EVERYONE in the country does his/her part to help the collective. Unfortunately, it’s never been tried without a violent revolution and tragedy.
Capitalism – as Adam Smith envisioned it is even more stupid, if you ask me. I guess, philosophically, I consider myself more of a meritocrat, than anything else. The biggest problem with Capitalism, as I see it, is the incentivization of those with capital to undermine and oppress those without capital.
You see, prior to capitalism, most societies around the globe tended to view “capitalists” as the lowest rung of civilized people. After all, the definition of a capitalist, is someone who already has a bunch of money, and who lends it out at interest to other parties so that they may actually create things. In other words, the capitalists, don’t have anything to make them remarkable except the fact that they already have a level of wealth that allows them to “invest” in projects that are actually going to make the world better.
Now many Americans will say that Capitalists are heroes, because they provide the opportunity for the “low-born” to create upward mobility for themselves.
And to a point, they’re right. Having the capital to determine your own destiny is part and parcel of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the nature of debt runs antithetical to the entire idea of the American Dream.
The American Dream is born of the idea that anyone from another country can come here and make a better life for themselves if they show initiative and take advantage of the opportunities that America offers. What the Adam Smith and laissez-faire capitalists would have you believe is that society should be like the wild kingdom of the animals. Survival of the fittest. Those who can survive – whether through cheating, back-biting, “innovation” or other methods – should weed out the rest of the weaklings of society.
Capitalism as we have it today is not terrible, but it still has a lot of those same flaws, and it requires a lot of regulation and oversight to prevent abuse. It is preferable to Communism, for sure.
In between, we have Socialism. Again, Americans are stupid, so they often think that Socialism and Communism are the same thing. Not true. Socialism takes elements of Marxist philosophy, but does not demand a single party, nor the complete re-distribution of wealth. Instead, Socialism decrees that there are basic human rights and services that the collective should be responsible for. Medicare, for example, is a socialist program, as is Social Security. Some of the most free and happy countries in the world are socialist – Scandinavia comes to mind.
Cold Wars, Proxy Wars, and Hippies.
The Cold War really started in Korea during the 1950’s. After a few years of fierce fighting between the Communist-backed North and the Capitalist-backed South, the world stopped fighting for a bit. Then JFK was elected. He was determined to find a peaceful solution to the Cold War, but almost immediately, the Soviet Union and the hawks in his own cabinet had him on the brink of war. For thirteen days, the world watched as the United States and the Soviet Union came close to the brink of mutually assured destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a stroke of universal luck, Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to find a diplomatic back-channel solution to the incident.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was determined not to be bullied by his Joint Chiefs again, and not to appear soft on Communism to the rest of the world.
This got us into Vietnam.
After World War II, the merits of colonialism came under heavy fire, and the U.S., despite being a bastion of independence and freedom around the world, was now committed to her partners, the United Kingdom and France – both of whom were incredible colonial powers prior to World War II. In the treaties that followed the war, and in accordance to the Marshall plan, many colonial nations that had been invaded by Germany or Japan were now in a state of flux.
Among them was Vietnam. Prior to World War II, France had colonized the region known as Indochina, which is now referred to as Southeast Asia. France, though ravaged by the Nazis, insisted on keeping most of her former colonial territories, including Indochina.
Throughout the 1950’s, the French fight to keep control of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos intensified. Trying to find allies in the fight for independence, Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh sought help from any faction he could – including the Communists.
Fearing the international spread of Communism, the United States under Kennedy, began sending military advisors to Vietnam, in order to help the supposedly democratic South beat the Communist North. Unfortunately, the South Vietnamese government was incredibly corrupt. U.S. Officials knew the depth of the corruption, but did little to actually help the citizens of South Vietnam.
From 1965 – 1973, over 50,000 U.S. troops and millions of Vietnamese troops and civilians on both sides would be killed in the conflict. All in the name of “stopping the spread of Communism” throughout the world. In reality, Global Communism never as big a “threat” as we thought. It was terrible for the people who lived under its thumb, but my point here is not to discuss the virtues or problems of Communism, it’s to discuss America. And in the case of Vietnam and “Domino” theory regarding the spread of Communism, we were more scared than we needed to be.
In the United States, anti-war sentiment was growing fast. Popular culture and young opinions were shifting against the standard line that America was always on the side of truth, justice, and freedom. Photographs from the front lines in Vietnam helped propel this sentiment. Among the images are those of a naked and burning 9-year-old girl running through the streets after a napalm attack. One of the other most memorable images is that of a 78-year-old monk setting himself on fire to protest the Diem South Vietnamese government’s refusal to hear the pleas of the country’s majority Buddhist population. In light of such images, many Americans couldn’t stomach the idea of sending their sons to a jungle half-a-world away for an abstract ideal.
Specifically, among African Americans and other minorities, the sentiment began to turn noticeably more anti-war. Many protesters carried signs that carried sentiments like “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger.'” Of course, the aim was to point out the fact that poor African Americans were disproportionately being asked to die for “their country,” when in fact, throughout most of the country they couldn’t even eat at the same lunch counters as white citizens. Draft laws at the time helped wealthy white Americans to avoid compulsory service, thereby resulting in an unfair amount of African Americans and other minorities being sent to die in Vietnam for a cause that most of the country couldn’t really understand.
Of course, this manifested in the Hippie/Counterculture movement of the 1960s-1970s. Throngs of otherwise well-meaning college students during the 1970s found themselves disillusioned by the system and by the war, During most of the Vietnam war, College campuses would be their own types of battlegrounds.
Also of note was the feminism movement, which gained traction in the 1970s and still continues to day as a powerful and relevant struggle – as women still make less money for the same work, are held up for promotions, and are often bullied in the workplace and elsewhere.
In the end, America would abandon Vietnam in 1974 and not really ever look back. After all, Vietnam had no value to America that wasn’t geopolitical. They had no oil, no precious metals, no other resources the United States needed. Instead, they were “under threat” from international Communist Forces led by Le Duan.
In reality, the two most powerful Communist nations in the world, China and the U.S.S.R., were too busy trying to make their ideals a reality to be a real threat to the rest of the world. In China, Mao had ordered all civilians to build back yard smelting setups, and to start produce steel for the glorious party. Similar land reforms and political atrocities were carried out in the U.S.S.R. In Vietnam it wasn’t much different. Once the Americans left, Hannoi won the war and imposed Communist rule throughout Vietnam.
The promise of Communism, though, like so many other Communist nations, was snuffed out by the greed of the party and the misappropriation of resources.
By 1989, the U.S. economy seemed as strong as it had ever been. Reagan, it seemed, and now George H.W. Bush, were triumphant. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. I remember – as an adolescent – that “we’d” won, somehow. Then I remember seeing a tank assault a Chinese demonstrator in Beijing.
1990 – 2001: Post-Communism
This is the time when I first actually started to try to pay attention for myself. We were done with our standoff with the Eastern Block, and now there was a new threat from the desert. In 1990, Iraq decided to invade Kuwait, and our dependence on foreign oil could not abide such an act of aggression. We went in with the greatest military might the world had ever seen and drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Then we built big-ass bases all over Western Asia.
Okay. Here’s the deal. I’m not going to be sympathetic to either side here, really. First of all, [obscenity] American Christians and capitalists who just wanted to either re-take the Holy Land or take all the oil. And also [obscenity] Saudi, Afghani, Iraqi, Syrian, or Iranian Jihadists who wanted to get rid of the infidels. As a matter of fact, [obscenity] all Holy Wars.
I don’t care if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other religion. If your god tells you to kill other humans in his/her name, you can [obscenity] right off.
So, after we sacked Hussein the first time around, most Americans felt like we were still safe. We ate, drank, and prospered into the new century. Then on a Tuesday in September, everything changed.
I watched the first, then the second tower fall on TV. I went to work for the day, but we didn’t get anything done all day. Then I bought a bottle of cheap wine on the way home. After all, if the world was going to end, I was gonna get drunk while it happened.
The world didn’t end, though. And I still had enlistment papers to sign. I’d been planning on joining the Air National Guard for months before 9/11 happened. Then, after the attacks, I signed my enlistment papers on September 26th, 2001.
2002-2008: Brandon Joins the Military
Now before you go getting the idea that I am or was some kind of ultra-patriotic hero, let me dissuade you of that illusion. Yes, I love my country. I always have. On the other hand, you can see that I have no problem taking her to task for her failures. That is because I love what we CAN be more than what we are. What I valued most of all at that time was my own personal honor. I wouldn’t let myself back out, despite the threat of war, because I couldn’t live with the shame I’d face if I did.
Here is an honest summary of my military service:
I shipped to basic training in February of 2002. At that same time, my squadron (Unit) deployed to two locations in the Western Asia. I was assigned to a combat communications squadron as a wideband communications technician. While I spent eight months in first San Antonio, TX, then Augusta, GA, for my training, the rest of my unit were setting up forward operating communication bases in preparation for the invasion of Afghanistan. I graduated at the top of my class in Electronic Principles school, and second in my class in Satellite, Wideband and Telemetry training. In Texas, I attended Airman Leadership School and became a “rope” (A student leader in charge of a dormitory wing, floor, or building) for my wing. I did not continue my leadership role once I got to Georgia.
I squandered most of my time that year. I spent a lot of the time moaning to myself how terrible it was to be away from home – even though I could call home every night.
When I came back in late October of that year, the rest of my Unit was returning from their deployment. From then on, whenever my Unit came up in the deployment rotation, they only needed a few people. They always had more than enough volunteers, and I didn’t want to go, so I never had to. Most of the time I hated the fact that I was in the military, though now I’m glad I went through the experience and learned from it.
One of the most poignant things I learned was that, even though I was spoiled and hated going to drill weekends and training exercises, I loved the people I worked with. It became quickly apparent that if I ever were deployed, those men and women, not any flag or constitution, would be my motivation to fight.
I have to admit, though, that the majority of the time I was a dirt-bag Airman. I was lazy, unmotivated, and not happy to be in the Guard.
Still, I did some good work for the Air Force while I was in my initial active duty training. I learned to shoot an M-162A assault rifle at expert level. I received valuable leadership training and was awarded for it. I also helped keep my fellow troops out of trouble, though I often got them into dicey situations.
In my Combat Communications Unit, I did some good work, as well. The one notable example is an event in which I learned the ground radio job for an upcoming inspection. I should mention here that this “inspection” was actually a week-long war game in which our ability to function as a Unit was under scrutiny. We made the scenario as real as we could. One day I was having some stomach pains and went to lay down in the Commander’s office. After an hour they asked if I wanted to go home. The implication was that if I went home, another troop would have to do my job – a troop who was not up to the task. I got up from the couch and said I’d go and fight. I went back to our operating tent and did my job very well. I carried fake wounded off the battlefield and performed correct first aid once they were safe in front of inspectors. I put on my chem-gear and patrolled our base, identifying fake contaminated areas and fake IEDs. Most importantly, during all of these fake attacks, I kept the ground radios working. That won me the Air Force Achievement Medal.
I separated from the Washington Air National Guard with an honorable discharge in 2007 as a Staff Sergeant. A year later, the country nearly fell into another economic collapse.
2009 – 2016: The Obama Years
In 2008, Americans elected their first African American President. It seemed like we’d be making progress toward becoming a nation that lives up to its promise. Unfortunately, economics and rampant partisans embattled the Obama administration for most of his Presidency. There was still war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The economy was slowly recovering, but for the average American it didn’t seem like much had changed. In fact, the crowning achievement of the Obama administration was a set of heavy regulations about health insurance called Obamacare.
To be fair and clear, I loved Obama and voted for him twice. I am not, however, a fan of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a half-measure that panders to a corrupt corporate healthcare system and brags about “insuring most if not all Americans.” In other words, we’re making sure that EVERYONE in America has to buy insurance from one of these corporations. In all, though, I suppose it was sort of a step in the right direction, but I really wish it had been a bigger step and in a slightly different direction.
2016 – 2021: The Unthinkable
I never would have predicted what happened in 2016. Could we elect a clown President? Of course we could. But I never thought we would. Then, we did.
Honestly, I’m still reeling from the Trump presidency. I’m already close to 10,000 words on this piece of dribble, and I’d need another 10,000 just to start to describe the disaster that was the Donald J. Trump administration. For four years, this disgusting human being spewed out hateful rhetoric and bald-faced lies to the country. Nobody could take their attention off of him. He made sure of that. Every day was a new threat of international embarrassment or worse. Several times, tweets from the President fueled race riots at home and international incidents abroad.
The whole four years were terrible, but the end was the worst. In the midst of a global pandemic, the President was spreading lies about the virus, prolonging its run through the United States. Then, after Joe Biden beat him handily in the 2020 election, Trump refused to accept the results.
Then, on January 6th of this year – our 245th – The outgoing President of the United States incited his misguided followers to storm the U.S. Capitol in order to stop the constitutional process of validating the election.
Let that sink in. Not since 1860 has there been a domestic insurrection of this magnitude. And this one was encouraged by the President.
So… Happy Birthday, America.
I love our country, warts and all. I know this piece probably doesn’t read like it if you’re a flag-waving bible-thumping right wing voter, but if that’s you, you’re not going to understand what I’m saying anyway. Not because you’re stupid and I’m smart, either. Instead it’s because we’ve been told different stories about America.
I was told the same stories as you when I was growing up. Then I went to college and started to read more about what really happened in U.S. history. I’ve since had to do a LOT of critical thinking about this land of ours.
When you do that, you realize that in order to truly love America, you have to love her promise and look past the warts. Yes we sanctioned slavery for centuries. Yes we destroyed Native people. Yes we locked up 100,000 of our own citizens because they were at least 1/16 Japanese. Yes, we’ve systematically denied African Americans and other minorities truly equal citizenship. But we’ve also laid out a set of principles, which, if we keep moving toward them, will make us the great nation we can be.
In other words, even if progress is slow, the fight to realize the promise of America is worth it. That promise isn’t about waving a flag from the back of your pickup truck (which, by the way, is COMPLETELY disrespectful if you read the actual Flag Code). The promise is about making sure that every American has an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s an America worth celebrating, and I hope we get there soon.
Happy Birthday, my country.