Remember the Alamo! Remember the Maine (to hell with Spain)! Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember 9/11!
What might all these phrases have in common (except that they all begin with “remember”)? According to the dogma that passes for education, they all represent attacks by foreigners on peace-loving Americans that stirred America’s otherwise magnanimous and generous nature to regrettably assert its right to self-defense. At least, that’s roughly what I was taught through the public-school history curriculum to which I was subjected. Daniel Burnett of something called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (I stumbled across his column in my local paper) laments that our “youngest generation” doesn’t understand the significance of the events, specifically of Pearl Harbor (the column was written in observation of the recent anniversary), that these phrases represent:
The historical significance of Pearl Harbor, its warnings against geopolitical complacency, and its ongoing implications are not even concepts that the majority of our college students would recognize. According to a study of college seniors from elite universities around the country, a third could not identify Germany, Italy and Japan as our wartime enemies. Almost two thirds did not even know the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II.
The sacrifices of our greatest generation are being lost on our youngest generation.
This is not a matter of simply amassing facts and dates. It’s about our obligation to teach our young people about the pivotal moments in the defense of the free world – which still needs defending.
The Roman orator Cicero, who coincidentally is thought to have died on Dec. 7, 43 BCE, observed, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” Are our young people developing into adult citizens that a free society requires?
Remembering Pearl Harbor as a “pivotal moment in the defense of the free world—which still needs defending” is a premise so infused with jingoistic bias that nothing of the actual “historical significance” of the event, and its “ongoing implications” would have any chance of being understood were the premise employed in the remembrance. Understanding history requires objectivity. It demands the investigator step outside of himself and the innate compulsions tinting his perspective to view things as from afar, like God might be imagined views his earthly creation. It projects no values on events, rather only seeks to know what happened, and understand, so far as possible, the cause and effect relationships for what transpired.
There is no such thing as American history. There is only human history, of which America and the humans comprising it are a part, but only a recent and relatively insignificant part thus far. Any America-focused history that seeks to pigeon-hole America’s experiences as somehow unique in the annals of human history, and purports from there to catalogue her experiences as a linear tale of overcoming challenges, defending freedom and expanding American influence and power as the ultimate realization of the hopes for all mankind—as is the normal pedagogy in primary and secondary schools–is not a history, but is a mechanism for imparting values. It is dogma meant to stitch together the ties creating and binding American culture and society. It is the present creating for America a past that might usefully be employed to enhance its prospects in the future. The cultural impetus for creating a past to bind the present to a common vision for the future goes back at least as far in recorded history as the ancient Greeks, with their tales of conquest and heroism in the Odyssey and Iliad, and with the ancient Hebrews (it’s not clear which would rank earliest) with their escape from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. The compulsion probably started as soon as mankind clustered in clans long enough for an individual clan to develop some aggregate identity independent of the members comprising it. But it is not history. It is mythology in the service of group identity and cohesion.
So what do the phrases “Remember the Alamo!” or “Maine”, or “Pearl Harbor” or “9/11” represent, stripped of their mythological value to American culture? How are these recurring calls to remembrance historically significant? They have in common that all can be considered markers along the way of America’s relentless expansion. Each was used, in their time, as rallying cries to justify military action in the service of expanding America’s power and influence in the world. And each attack demanding remembrance was a predictable response to American provocations in the premises.
The battle for the Alamo (1836) was the more or less final Mexican victory in the Texas Revolution, and Mexico’s last gasp at containing the expansion of Texian cum American empire to its north. Texians (the name for settlers of Northern European ancestry, i.e., not Spanish, but mostly Anglo settlers, that had been pouring into Texas from the US) had already driven out Mexican forces in most of the rest of what would become the Republic of Texas, but Santa Anna had mustered some fifteen hundred or so troops to attack the Alamo, a former Spanish mission that was reconfigured into a minimally-defensible fortress, where less than a hundred Texians were garrisoned under the co-command of William B Travis and James Bowie. Travis was a hothead from Alabama, leaving his wife and children to come to Texas to make his name in the Texas Revolution. Bowie was the wiser and older man, but was mortally ill with pneumonia, incapable in his compromised state of reigning in the blood lust of Travis. The fort should have been abandoned to the Mexicans given the force differential, which Bowie tried to do, but failed. Santa Anna won the battle but lost the war, getting himself captured shortly afterwards by Texian forces under Sam Houston’s command in the Battle of San Jacinto. The ransom for Santa Anna’s life was the withdrawal of all Mexican troops from the newly-formed Republic of Texas, which had become an independent republic because the United States had refused, at the time, its admission as a state, though the Republic was settled and organized by the same Northern European stock in the process of settling the rest of the continent in America’s name. The refusal to admit Texas was intimately tied to the brewing political divide over slavery, but nonetheless, not ten years later, in 1845, the US voted to admit Texas (as a slave state–the South and the Democrats favored it, the Whigs and slavery foes were opposed), and the following year Mexico promptly, as it had promised, declared war. The war lasted two years, and resulted in the US gaining not only Texas, but also most of what is today New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.
“Remember the Alamo!” is the first of the great rallying cries to military action in defense of expansion (though technically not of the US at the time), and like the ones to follow, hardly represented the shattering of some virginal American innocence at the hands of a foreign demon. The Battle for the Alamo was a Mexican counterattack against Texian forces that had driven Mexico out of territory it had claimed as its own since independence from Spain.
“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” represents perhaps the most brazenly cynical exploitation of an event, which may or may not have been an attack, to justify military action.
By the turn of the century, the US had effectively pushed its colonial frontier to the Pacific Ocean. Its influence even reached across the ocean, as far as Japan, by dint of Commodore Matthew Perry’s voyages in 1853 and 1854 to open up the island nation to trade. But Spain was a thorn in America’s side, both within its own hemisphere (e.g., Cuba was still under de jure Spanish control in 1898) and abroad (e.g., Spanish outposts in the Philippines, etc). The USS Maine was an American pre-dreadnaught battleship that had been helpfully positioned in Havana harbor when the Cubans revolted against their Spanish overlords in 1898, purportedly to protect American interests that might have otherwise suffered impairment by the fighting. She mysteriously exploded on the evening of February 15, 1898, sinking so swiftly that she lost three-quarters of her crew. To this day, there is only speculation as to the cause of the explosion. No matter. “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” became the rallying cry for the Spanish-American War that followed the sinking by a couple of months. The war effectively replaced the waning Spanish Empire with America’s waxing one by the time its four short months were over. The United States acquired colonies or quasi-colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. As John Jay, American ambassador to the UK at the time cabled his friend, war hero and future president, Theodore Roosevelt, at the war’s conclusion, “…it had been a splendid little war.” Having effectively conquered all of the North American continent worth the bother, America rallied around the Maine to justify military operations that extended its imperial reach into the Caribbean and all the way to East Asia.
“Remember Pearl Harbor!” is a bit of literary license. The attack on Pearl Harbor is generally referred to as simply “Pearl Harbor”, not needing further explication. With its seventieth anniversary recently yielding a deluge of remembrances and commentary, the event seems to have dimmed very little, if at all, in the public consciousness. Just a decade ago a movie using the attack as the setting for a love story was released with the simple title of Pearl Harbor. Everyone knew what it meant.
But was the attack on Pearl Harbor another instance of evil foreigners shattering American innocence, forcing a reluctant, peace-loving people to war? Or was it a conspiracy orchestrated by the highest echelons of American government to force the issue of American international involvement?
The answer is neither. America’s empire had expanded to girdle the globe, particularly the Pacific Rim, by the time of the attack. The whole point behind America’s colonization of Hawaii was its strategic location as a refuel and restock point halfway from the mainland to its overseas areas of influence. Japan, which at the time of Commodore Perry’s visits was basically a feudal society–no further developed than Europe during the Middle Ages–had aggressively embraced industrialization (such as China finally has now) and the imperialistic capitalist economic system that most often accompanied it. Japan’s industrial empire was expanding throughout East Asia, where it inevitably bumped against America’s industrial empire engaged in just the same exercise. Conflict was inevitable, as over half of Americans asserted in a poll taken shortly before the attack. The exact timing and location of the attack may have come as a surprise; war with Japan did not. Pretty much anyone paying attention to goings on in East Asia at the time should have seen it coming. That it also inflamed the American spirit to engage in Europe as well is just a happy accident of history that Roosevelt surely appreciated. Though Japan’s attack precipitated America’s involvement in World War Two, the conflict with Japan itself became a sideshow once the total war effort got cranking. Roosevelt knew America’s bread was buttered mainly in Europe, not East Asia.
Victory over Japan assured American hegemony in East Asia, at least to the Russian or Chinese or North Korean borders, as the war in Europe effectively ended the age of European colonization. Today there is an old power in East Asia arisen anew, and so conflict over East Asia and the Western Pacific is bound to flare again. Only time will tell how hot will be its flames.
And finally, there is “Remember 9/11!” which is also a bit of literary license. The event is still fresh enough in the minds of all those bearing witness to the planes disappearing into a ball of flame as they were purposefully crashed into the twin towers that nothing but “9/11” is necessary. Literally millions were able to witness the event live; it must be assumed practically everyone else eventually saw the footage. For 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, there is no need to add the instruction to “remember”.
Like all the rest, 9/11 was tied to American expansionism, but less directly so. America’s empire depended on the oil being pumped from the region where the sentiments driving 9/11 arose and flowered into the mania the act represented. Needing the oil, the US routinely meddled in the region, supporting oppressive autocracies, theocracies and dictators alike, foremost concerned with ensuring the sort of stability that might keep the oil spigots open and flowing.
It was America’s support of a dictator that first got the empire directly embroiled militarily in the region. Saddam Hussein in Iraq had leveraged American support to make himself powerful enough to threaten hegemony over his neighbors, two of which, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, pumped vast amounts of the black goo that powered the American economy. When infidel American troops were stationed on Saudi soil to protect the kingdom and drive the tyrant from Kuwait, a certain segment of the region’s population, mostly from Saudi, chafed at the insult, and set about to seek revenge for the blaspheme and for the oppression they routinely suffered at the hands of the dictatorial Saudi regime, who enjoyed practically unquestioned support of the US. The attacks on 9/11 were the ultimate result.
Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 should not have been a surprise to anyone paying attention to the goings on in the Persian Gulf and Middle East in the period after the US drove Iraq out of Kuwait. The same group of terrorists behind 9/11 had bombed a US warship in the region, and two US embassies, and had even directly foreshadowed 9/11 with a bombing in the parking garage of the World Trade Centers less than a decade prior to their ultimate destruction. The exact time and place may have been a surprise; the fact of the attack should not have been.
Unlike the previous three calls to battle against definable foes whose defeat could be practically determined and the payoff from an imperial expansion reasonably ascertained, 9/11 prompted a war against not only the terrorist organization behind the attacks, but generally, against anyone harboring anti-American sensibilities, and broadly, against two regimes in the region, only one of which had involvement in the attacks, and that only indirectly. The empire spent a mountain of treasure and spilled a river of blood to assuage its emotional pain at having been so stupid to allow such an extravagant idea as 9/11 to have succeeded. Like all the others, the attacks provided the emotional inflammation necessary to take the country to war, but unlike the others, victory in the war so engaged could not be defined, which seems to have been intentional. Instead of victory involving discrete additions of colonies or client states to the empire, its amorphous nature provided for a gradual and continual creep forward along the vanguards. With 9/11, the US more or less resumed its Cold War stance of constant, if low intensity, conflict. With Afghanistan and Iraq at least nominally now client states (though powerful factions within each might seriously claim otherwise), the question remains how much further imperial expansion might proceed without the low-grade conflicts on the vanguards of empire, mainly along and around Pakistan’s and Iran’s borders, erupting into full-scale conflict. The answer surely depends heavily upon the continued ability of the US to meaningfully project force half a world away, which in turn depends on how committed the American public is to its continued advance.
One wonders, do either of Pakistan and Iran understand that the US is just waiting for an excuse? That Americans holding the empire’s power levers hope beyond hope that its virginal innocence in international relations is again shattered by a heinous attack such that American passions are again inflamed enough to support full-scale military operations in support of expansion? Had either of Mexico, Spain or Japan understood and acted accordingly, history might have turned out differently. Or, more likely, it might have gotten to the same place it was going anyway, with a bit less suffering along the way. Alas, it might be too much to expect Pakistan or Iran to understand the fool’s game in which they are engaged.
The history of America, like all empires before it, is one of relentless expansion, so far as it is able. Expansion is in the nature of empire, just as growth is in the nature of trees. The rate of American imperial expansion has varied over time; the fact of compulsion to expand never has. From the kernels of a few imperial seeds planted on the East Coast of North America roughly four hundred years ago, the American Empire expanded to reach coast to coast and abroad to East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Its expansion is neither a good thing nor bad, it just is. It doesn’t reflect some God-ordained Manifest Destiny, but instead reflects technological and social advantages it has enjoyed over populations lying in its path. Though compelled in their nature to do so, trees don’t grow to the sky. Neither will America’s heretofore relentless expansion continue forever, no matter how many attacks are remembered as motivation for the occasional military conquest required for continued expansion.
Cicero was right, if you don’t know history you remain a child. But knowing and understanding history requires separating dogma from fact. History, properly considered, has no good guys or bad guys. There can be no favoritism, not even of one’s own country. There are no values in history, just events and their causes. If the point of departure for studying history is teach[ing]our young people about the pivotal moments in the defense of the free world – which still needs defending, then it’s not history being taught, but dogma. Children who are taught history in such a manner are guaranteed to remain children forever, which seems to be the point. The last thing an empire desires, if it requires the inflamed passions of its citizens to support its continued expansion, is for its citizens to see its actions through the dispassionate lens of objectivity.