What pops into your head when you hear the number 1,000 in a political-military context? Having studied German military history, I immediately think of Adolf Hitler’s confident boast that his Third Reich would last a thousand years. In reality, of course, a devastating world war brought that Reich down in a mere 12 years. Only recently, however, such boasts popped up again in the dark dreams of Donald Trump. If Iran dared to attack the United States, Trump tweeted and then repeated on Fox & Friends, the United States would strike back with “1,000 times greater force.”
Think about that for a moment. If such typical Trumpian red-meat rhetoric were to become reality, you would be talking about a monumental war crime in its disproportionality. If, say, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot a missile at an American base in the region and killed 10 US military personnel, Trump is saying that, in response, he’d then seek to kill 10,000 Iranians—an act that would recall Nazi reprisals in World War II when entire villages like Lidice were destroyed because one prominent Nazi official had been killed. Back then, Americans knew that such murderous behavior was evil. So why do so many of us no longer flinch at such madness?
If references to “evil” seem inappropriate to you, keep in mind that I was raised Catholic and one idea the priests and nuns firmly implanted in me then was the presence of evil in our world—and in me as a microcosm of that world. It’s a moral imperative—so they taught me—to fight evil by denying it, as much as humanly possible, a place in our lives, even turning the other cheek to avoid giving offense to our brothers and sisters. Christ, after all, didn’t teach us to whip someone 1,000 times if they struck you once.
Speaking of large numbers, I still recall Christ’s teaching on forgiveness. How many times, he asked, should we forgive those who offend us? Seven times, perhaps? No, 70 times seven. He didn’t, of course, mean 490 acts of forgiveness. Through that hyperbolic number, Christ was saying that forgiveness must be large and generous, as boundless as we imperfect humans can make it.
Trump loves hyperbolic numbers, but his are plainly in the service of boundless revenge, not forgiveness. His catechism is one of intimidation and, if that fails, retribution. It doesn’t matter if it takes the form of mass destruction and death (including, in the case of Americans, death by coronavirus). By announcing such goals so openly, of course, he turns the rest of us into his accomplices. Passively or actively, if we do nothing, we accept the possibility of mass murder in the service of Trump’s dark dreams of smiting those who would dare strike at his version of America.
It’s easy to dismiss his threats as nothing more than red meat to his base, but they are also distinctly anti-Christian. The saddest thing, however, is that they are, unfortunately, not at all un-American, as any quick survey of this country’s record of wanton destructiveness in war would show.
So, while I do reject all Trump’s murderous words and empty promises, I find them strangely unexceptional and unnervingly all-American. Indeed, my own guess is that he’s won such a boisterous following in this country precisely because he does so visibly, so thunderously, so bigly embody its darkest dreams of destruction, which have all too often become reality when visited upon recalcitrant peoples who refused to bend to our will.
Destruction as Salvation
Americans today are sold an image of war as almost antiseptic—hardly surprising given our distance and detachment from this country’s “forever wars.” But as history reminds us, real war isn’t like that. It never was, not when colonists were killing Native Americans in vast numbers; nor when we were busy killing our fellow Americans in our Civil War; nor when US troops were ruthlessly putting down the Filipino insurrection in the early 20th century; nor when our air force firebombed Dresden, Tokyo, and so many other cities in World War II and later nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nor when North Korea was flattened by bombing in the early 1950s; nor when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were bludgeoned by bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange in the 1960s and early 1970s; nor when Iraqis were killed by the tens of thousands during the first Gulf War of 1990–91.
And that, of course, is only a partial and selective accounting of the wanton carnage overseen by past presidents. In reality, Americans have never been shy about killing on a mass scale in the alleged cause of righteousness and democracy.
In that sense, Trump’s rhetoric of mass destruction is truly nothing new under the sun (except perhaps in its pure blustering bravado); Trump, that is, just salivates more openly at the prospect of inflicting pain on a mass scale on peoples he doesn’t like. And even that isn’t as new as you might imagine.
In this century, Republicans have been especially keen to share their dreams of massively bombing others. On the campaign trail in 2007, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ cover “Barbara Ann,” Senator (and former bomber pilot and Vietnam POW) John McCain smirkingly sang of bombing Iran. (“Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!”) Similarly, during the Republican presidential debates of 2016, Senator Ted Cruz boasted of wanting to “utterly destroy” the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by carpet-bombing its territory and, in doing so, making the desert sand “glow in the dark.” The implication was, of course, that as president he’d happily use nuclear weapons in the Middle East. (Talk about all options being on the table!)
Alarming? Yes! Very American? USA #1!
Consider two examples from the nuclear era, then and now. In the depth of the Cold War years, in response to a possible Soviet nuclear attack, this country’s war plans envisioned a simultaneous assault on the Soviet Union and China that military planners estimated would, in the end, kill 600 million people. That would have been the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was privy to those plans.
Whether China had joined or even known about the Soviet attack didn’t matter. As communists, they were guilty by association and so to be obliterated anyway. Ellsberg notes that only one man present at the briefing where this “plan” was presented objected to such a mindless act of mass murder, David Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner who would later similarly object to the Vietnam War.
Fast forward to today and our even more potentially planet-ending nuclear forces are still being “modernized” to the tune of $1.7 trillion over the coming decades. Any Ohio-class SSBN nuclear submarine in the Navy’s inventory, for example, could potentially kill millions of people with its 24 Trident II ballistic missiles (each carrying as many as eight nuclear warheads, each warhead with roughly six times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb). While such vessels are officially meant to “deter” nuclear war, they are, of course, ultimately built to fight one. Each is a submerged holocaust waiting to be unleashed.
Rarely, if ever, do we think about what those subs truly represent, historically speaking. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to “invest” (as the military likes to say) in ever-newer generations of nuclear-capable bombers and land-based missiles, promising a holocaust of planetary proportions if ever used. To grasp what an actual nuclear war would mean, you would have to update an old saying: One death is a tragedy; several billion is a statistic.
Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly “patriotic” education in our schools—in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness. That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.
As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.
History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page—the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that—and neither is any country’s history.
History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: We got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.
Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.
Learning without Flinching from History
The United States has been the imperial power of record on this planet since World War II. Lately, the economic and moral aspects of that power have waned, even as our military power remains supreme (though without being able to win anything whatsoever). That should tell you something about America. We’re still a “SmackDown” country, to borrow a term from professional wrestling, in a world that’s increasingly being smacked down anyway.
Harold Pinter, the British playwright, caught this country’s imperial spirit well in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005. America, he said then, has committed crimes that
have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
Anyone with a knowledge of our history knows that there was truth indeed in what Pinter said 15 years ago. He noticed how this country’s leaders wielded language “to keep thought at bay.” Like George Orwell before him, Pinter was at pains to use plain language about war, noting how the Americans and British had “brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call[ed] it bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.”
The point here was not simply to bash America. It was to get us to think about our actions in genuine historical terms. A decade and a half ago, Pinter threw down a challenge, and even if you disagreed with him, or maybe especially if you did so, you need the intellectual tools and command of the facts to grapple with that critique. It should never be enough simply to shout “USA! USA!” in an ever-louder fashion and hope it will drown out not only critics and dissenters but reality itself—and perhaps even your own secret doubts.
And we should have such doubts. We should be ready to dissent. We should recognize, as America’s current attorney general most distinctly does not, that dissenters are often the truest patriots of all, even if they are also often the loneliest ones. We should especially have doubts about a leader who threatens to bring violence against another country 1,000 times greater than anything that country could visit upon us.
I don’t need the Catholic Church, or even Christ in the New Testament, to tell me that such thinking is wrong in a Washington that now seems to be offering a carnivorous taste of what a future American autocracy could be like. I just need to recall the wise words of my Polish mother-in-law: “Have a heart, if you’ve got a heart.”
Have a heart, America. Reject American carnage in all its forms.