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US-Prof. Marilyn Young: The United States is "a nation committed to counterrevolutionary violence". "The most agonising problem with recent American foreign policy is our persistent refusal to allow revolutionary change and self-determination in smaller countries." At the heart of this is a truly insane belief: that American power is so great that it must prevail in any situation in which it has declared an interest, and that the only obstacle to its triumph is the lack of determination to use that power. Today there is still a widespread conceit that the US can wriggle out of political problems by killing. Young rightly concluded that "twentieth-century America's belief in the language of violence has not changed." There is the inability of many Americans to imagine other countries as countries in their own right." We see this all the time, whether it is the devastating effects of US sanctions casually "slapped" on a targeted state, or the lasting effects of a coup sponsored by our government in Iran or Chile, or our government's support for mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66. The victims of these policies remain largely invisible to the American public at the time these things happen, and they are mostly forgotten later.
Learning From the History of American Militarism
How does a country remain at war without end? Understanding the answer to that is a crucial part of bringing the forever war to an end and building a foreign policy that is not defined by domination and interference in other nations’ affairs. Marilyn Young (1937-2017) was an exceptional historian of U.S. foreign policy, the author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, and, as Mary Dudziak and Mark Philip Bradley put it recently, the "preeminent historian of war’s place in modern American history." Young studied what drove the frequent American recourse to war and how the wars have changed the US over the decades. Dudziak and Bradley have done a great service for scholars, antiwar activists, and all anti-imperialists in editing a new volume of important essays by Young, some of them not previously published. The book, Making the Forever War: Marilyn B. Young on the Culture and Politics of American Militarism, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in better understanding the history of American wars and why the US has remained at war in one form or another for decades.
As Dudziak and Bradley note, Young believed that "the core driver of the forever war is the repeated failure to learn lessons of the past." One way to avoid learning lessons from the past is simply to forget it. In "Hard Sell: the Korean War," Young shows how the Korean War, often called the "forgotten war," was already being forgotten while hostilities were still going on. She observed that by late 1952, "the war became invisible to everyone except those who continued to fight it," and so there would be no learning from that experience. It was the start of an era of unconstitutional wars waged by the president, and it was forgotten except when a president needed a convenient precedent to justify another intervention. Just as there would be no serious rethinking of the assumptions behind later unnecessary wars, Young found that the "larger goals of US foreign policy and its warfighting practices remained largely unexamined" in the wake of the armistice. The US will always fail to learn when it makes no effort to do so. One of the other causes of persistent US interventionism and interference in other countries is what Young described in her essay "The Age of Global Power" as "the inability of many Americans to envision other countries as countries in their own right." Young continues, "Thus the United States is able to operate without awareness of the way in which even minor exercises of US power affect the lives of others, sometimes without even remembering that anything happened at all." We see this all time, whether it is the devastating impact of US sanctions that are casually "slapped" on a targeted state, or the lasting effects of a coup sponsored by our government in Iran or Chile, or our government’s support for mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66. The victims of these policies remain largely invisible to the American public at the time when these things are happening, and they are mostly forgotten later. It is not all that different with the foreign victims of the wars, whose names are mostly never remembered and whose deaths are rarely counted when calculating the costs of the wars. Pro-war ideologues even have the gall to describe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "relatively low-cost" because the number of American fatalities is small than it was in earlier conflicts, because they simply will not include the dead from the countries in question in their equation. As long as the US doesn’t really see the people in other countries as people, it becomes very easy for political leaders to sell the next war, which will no doubt be sold to the public as a war to "help" some of the very people that it will kill. Occasionally supporters of endless wars will slip up and admit that the US is engaged in a kind of imperial policing of the world, but for the most part there is great resistance to defining the US as an empire. In her essay "’The Same Struggle for Liberty: Korea and Vietnam," Young says this is "a persistent American dilemma: how to acquire, manage, or subcontract an empire without naming it, or better, in the name of the right of self-determination for all people." The US has acted as an empire for much of its history, and it has felt the need to deny that imperialism or to justify it for just as long. Much like the assumption that the US can’t ever really be the aggressor against other countries, the belief that the US can’t be an empire no matter how many countries it tries to dominate by force is a pernicious denial of reality. It is practically impossible for the US to learn from the failures of its imperial debacles when Americans cannot accurately talk about what has happened. Perhaps one of the biggest drivers of forever war is the belief that the US should be able to impose its will in distant parts of the world no matter what. In the essay "Bombing Civilians," Young discusses the bombing campaigns in Korea and Vietnam: "But what the wars in Korea and Vietnam demonstrate is that immediate massive bombing does not really differ from gradually escalating bombing. It only raises the level at which bombing begins. At the heart of both policies is a genuinely mad conviction: that American power is such that it must prevail in any situation in which it has declared an interest, that the only obstacle to its triumph is the lack of determination to use that power." The US takes decades to walk away from its failed wars because our leaders do not want to admit that there are things beyond the power of the United States. Today there is still a widely shared conceit that the US can kill its way out of political problems, and the "war on terror" seems likely to continue into its third decade. Young rightly concluded that "America’s twentieth-century faith in the language of violence has not changed." The US fails to learn the lessons of past wars because it ignores the reality of other countries and its own imperialism, and it remains at war forever because it cannot accept the limits of its power. Marilyn Young did an outstanding job of diagnosing what ails the United States. It is up to the rest of us to seek to correct the errors she described. Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.
Marilyn Young, Historian Who Challenged U.S. Foreign Policy, Dies at 79
Marilyn B. Young, a leftist, feminist, antiwar historian who challenged conventional interpretations of American foreign policy, died on Feb. 19 at her home in Manhattan, where she was a longtime professor at New York University. She was 79. The cause was complications of breast cancer, said her son, Michael. Professor Young’s political consciousness was rudely awakened when, as a Brooklyn teenager in 1953, she defied her father and watched from the fire escape of her family’s East Flatbush apartment as thousands of mourners gathered for the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed two days before at Sing Sing Prison for conspiracy to commit espionage. “Get back inside,” her father yelled, a friend recalled. “The F.B.I. is taking pictures.” The government’s aggressive pursuit of Soviet spies and her father’s trepidation set her on a course from which she never deviated: writing editorials for the Vassar College newspaper against red-baiting and favoring civil rights for blacks and political opportunities for women; researching a doctoral thesis that re-evaluated historic United States relations with China; and laying an anticolonial foundation for her opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Describing the United States as “a nation dedicated to counterrevolutionary violence,” she wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1971 that “the most agonizing problems of recent American foreign policy have concerned not our ability to reach accommodation with acknowledged big powers, but our persistent refusal to allow revolutionary change and self-determination in smaller ones.”
In one form or another, she explained in 2012, since her childhood the United States had been at war — “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.” She described her evolving foreign policy until then as “anti-interventionist” — a policy she forswore, however, when it came to advancing the causes she cared about. She also wrote “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990,” published in 1991, in which she called the conflict a revolution driven by anti-foreign nationalism. The Cornell historian Walter LaFeber described the book as a “deeply researched, detailed, well-written and outspoken account that should help shape how serious people view the Vietnam wars.” “I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war,” Professor Young said in her presidential address to the organization. “I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.” “Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”