— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 18 May 2010, was last revised on 1 June 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 1:5(5).
What Made America Unique Then? What makes us Unique Today?
The American Revolution, most agree, was an unusual phenomenon in the history of the world. It transitioned a colonial enterprise from monarchical subjugation to republican independence. That, itself, is not remarkable, but the very nature of its transition was unlike others in two crucial aspects:
1. Though not a peaceful revolution, it was not drenched in blood. Massive losses of life, in the heat of battle, took place so rarely as to be exceptional and not the rule. Many (once I could say “most” without equivocation, but the truthfulness of such an assertion appears in doubt today) Americans agree that liberty is worth whatever shedding of blood it requires, and yes, much American colonial blood was spent to achieve American independence. Yet by comparison with the bloodthirsty, chaotic, and schizophrenic revolution that took place in France on its heels, the American war against the British was amazingly focused and sane.
2. Just as important, when the conflict was done a strong and vibrant government arose that made equality of the citizenry (albeit within the then primitive framework of the notion of “citizenry” du jour, which did not include slaves) its central theme. Atop so promising a foundation, the new American government moved forward to promote life. liberty, and the pursuit of economic, religious, and philosophical happiness for all. In so doing, it faced a huge paradox many thought insurmountable. Bound by laws in a written constitution, it made legality its benevolent footstool; not, as with lesser credos, the whims of an unyielding liege.
It was, of course, merely “a more perfect union,” not a perfected one. That is a very important point. Today it is fashionable to speak of an evolving Constitution, and yes, the U.S. Constitution has undergone significant change over the years, but others argue–rather convincingly–that our culture has evolved much further.
The institution of slavery, for example, was acceptable to many at the time the revolution took place, but even those who approved of that insidious practice in those times realized that it would never survive the test of time.
The only question was, how long would that inhuman institution last? How long would it take before reasonable citizens would rise up and demand, to the point of placing their lives on the line, that slavery be abolished once and for all? Another 85 years would pass, from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 to the beginning of the American Civil War in 1661. Too long, yes. Inexcusably long, indeed. Yet that day came, and before the war was over, 620,000 Americans would die, and in the aftermath of that war the legal institution of slavery was forever abolished on this continent. No, not racial bias, or discrimination. Human nature is not so pliant as to accomplish all of that in one fell swoop. That would take much longer…
Beyond the American Revolution
The record is less charitable to America as we look at U.S. history beyond the American Revolution itself. Americans, like the rest of humanity, sometimes behave in full accord with the adage that “All’s fair in love and war.” History proves that one of the first casualties of war is that most precious of all of civilization’s rewards, namely decency.
Fighting war in a “gentlemanly” manner goes against the most primitive of human instincts. Over the vast history of warfare, maintenance of decency is a rare phenomenon. It may be true that American soldiers have tended to behave like gentlemen more often than not, because our national standard for such behavior, as expressed in our nation’s founding documents, has always been high. But important exceptions exist. Despite all our efforts to avoid it, the exigencies of war have sometimes witnessed a reversion, by some of our troops, to the basest forms of human depravity.
Not only that, but our military and government leaders sometimes look the other way when our military units step over the line. In a few notable cases, commanding officers have hidden or covered up such acts. Worse, our own government has even orchestrated and sanctioned, at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House, acts of terrorism against our own people and against others. Has this happened to the extent that such things define us as a people? Probably not, though I cannot profess to be unbiased on that question. But has it happened often enough that we cannot claim a spotless record in the field of terrorism? Yes.
Examples are easily drawn from the way our unorganized militias, as well as our mounted cavalry units, treated native American tribes during the Indian wars on the American Frontier. Too, terroristic atrocities were committed by both sides during the American Civil War. We know today of notable, but thankfully isolated, incidents of officially-countenanced terror that took place in practically every war that this nation has fought since its founding.
One of these incidents took place in Vietnam, seven months after I left that country at the end of my second assignment there during the 1960’s. In the nearly 30 months I spent in Vietnam, I traveled extensively with our military forces. Never, in all that time, did I see inhumane behavior by our troops. However, such did take place, during the period of the Vietnam conflict, of which the following was of particular note:
On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal Division), carried out the total destruction of the Vietnamese village of My Lai. The officers and men of this unit executed from 380 to 504 infants, children, women, old men, and infirm civilians, without discrimination. The exact number of victims is in dispute, but eyewitness accounts have been verified as authentic by numerous sources. Worse, those accounts were initially denied and covered up by a long chain of military officers who ultimately bore responsibility, inasmuch as these men were under their command.
This incident, and many of the others of similar character that have taken place in the annals of U.S. history, was not allowed to rest unnoticed and unheralded. Further, it was not the news media that uncovered the story, but reports from U.S. military personnel themselves, all of whom had been sickened by the carnage they witnessed, that led to what became a very public airing of everything that took place that day. At the insistence of witnesses within our military, steps were taken to factually document what took place, identify those who were responsible, and bring at least some of those individuals to at least a modicum of justice.
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