By John Stang
Stephen Walt’s critique of American exceptionalism is captivating and does bring the current global hegemon down a few notches. One angle is worth noting:
For starters, the United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America, seizing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California from Mexico in 1846. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific Northwest and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has fought numerous wars since then — starting several of them — and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint. The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the United States and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, “If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals.” The United States dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war, including tons of napalm and lethal defoliants like Agent Orange, and it is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians who died in that war.
There are a few ways to look at these numbers. Obviously, if you support the idea of American exceptionalism, you will say that these actions were justified because the U.S. was looking out for its interests at the time and, in most cases, was fighting for a good cause. If you are an American looking back on history, as with a person with an identification to a nation-state, you want to be proud of your history and see only the positive results, such as defeating the British or the Nazis. However, the means to reach that end you might gloss over slightly.
It also shows that Americans do live in a glorified military culture. The armed forces as an institution is highly revered on both sides of the aisle in American politics and critiquing its history or actions does not lead a politician down the road of popularity. Of course, who would want to attack, no pun intended, a group so revered for bravery, especially if you are unwilling to do the job yourself? The nationalist (patriotic) vantage point of the American mindset combined with its political implications make this a problematic area for anyone to bring up in an academic or political discourse.