General Strike: Another Officer Denounces Military Aggression

It seems there is another ex-general out there who is not too fond of sending American troops off on a "war of conquest," and who feels that such "unjust" misadventures not only corrupt the nation's character and betray its founding principles, but also provoke sustained, horrific blowback against the American people. What's more, the general says that such a reaction to America's "transgression" is not only justified -- it is an act of divine retribution for the nation's sins.

Who is this five-star turncoat, so brimming with dhimmitude, defeatism and irrational hatred for America? Well, you don't hear much about him these days, but -- with the possible exception of Dwight Eisenhower -- he is the most successful military officer in the nation's history. We speak of course of Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of the Union Army, vanquisher of Lee, stalwart Republican, two-time president of the United States, and author of what many (such as Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein) consider the best-written military memoirs since Julius Caesar. You know, your typical dirty hippie.

Grant had harsh words for the first military campaign he was involved in: the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. A young, reluctant West Pointer -- having been sent to the military academy against his inclination but at his father's stern insistence -- shortly after graduating Grant found himself in tangled up in the schemes of the Polk Administration, which was trying to provoke a war with Mexico in a brazen grab for loot, land and power. Writing at the end of his life -- bankrupt, dying of cancer -- Grant retained his anger at not only at the war against Mexico, but also at the annexation of Texas that preceded it.

"For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure [the annexation], and to this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."

In fact, the very creation of Texas -- which has of course gifted us with the wise and benevolent statesman now at the helm of our ship of state -- was seen by Grant as an act of...well, evil is not too strong a word:

"Texas was originally a state belonging to the republic of Mexico.... An empire in territory, it had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution. Soon they set up an independent government of their own [and won independence after a war with Mexico]. Before long, however, these same people -- who with permission of Mexico had colonized Texas, and afterwards set up slavery there, and then seceded as soon as they felt strong enough to do so -- offered themselves and the State to the United States, and in 1845, their offer was accepted. The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union."

[One side note, a key fact about American politics throughout its history: whatever else it is about, it is never, ever not about race.]

Grant goes on to note that Washington wanted far more land than the independent state of Texas had ever claimed for itself. Hence the need to instigate a war that would give the Americans an excuse to invade Mexico and take what they wanted. Grant's unit was among those sent to the disputed border region "to provoke hostilities." The reasoning behind this dispatch of a heavily armed presence into a volatile situation is drearily familiar:

"We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful that Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, "Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc." and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated, there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it."

Grant was right. American troops pushed further and further into the disputed territory until a skirmish was provoked, then the full-scale invasion was launched. There were, however, a few public men who had the courage to denounce the aggression, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, future president Abraham Lincoln and former president John Quincy Adams.

The invasion of Mexico, unlike some later imperial expeditions, was in fact a "cakewalk" for the more powerful American military -- whose soldiers, Grant notes, "were principally foreigners who had enlisted in our large cities." In that respect, then, there was no great difference between the earlier aggression and the one raging today: it's always the most marginal who make up the bulk of the cannon fodder. Nor was there any difference in this respect:

"The Mexican war was a political war, and the Administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it."

The result was a "negotiation" with the defeated Mexicans -- at gunpoint -- in which the latter gave up half of their entire country to the Americans, for a lump sum of $15 million, which must have sweetened the bitter pill for the Mexican elite who pocketed the money.

But here is the strange thing: even though the invasion was entirely "successful" -- an unequivocal military victory, a stunning diplomatic triumph in the final treaty, which added 500,000 square miles to the United States, including the bountiful land of California -- Grant still thought the war was an unmitigated evil, one which literally brought down the wrath of God upon the nation in the form of the Civil War, with its 600,000 dead, its fathomless suffering, ruin and strife. Nor was there anything all that unusual in Grant's conviction; it would have been self-evident to many people in those days that evil breeds evil (whether divine agency is involved in the transaction or not), and that it is simply immoral, inhuman, wrong, to kill people just for their land, or their oil, or their strategic position, or their color, or their culture, or their religion, or for "party capital," or in order to advance some malevolent agenda -- slavery, empire, "manifest destiny," "full spectrum dominance," a "new American century," etc.

But this conviction has no place at all in our mainstream political discourse today, where the only allowable, "serious" criticism of the aggression in Iraq is that it has been "unsuccessful," that the Bush Administration has been "incompetent" in carrying out this war crime, that it should have been done "better." What the highest Establishment figures in the 19th century could say freely, we can no longer even speak of today. The moral realities and complexities that our forbears could discern are opaque to us, hidden behind an impenetrable gaze of bluster, happy talk and narcissism. Our degeneration is almost complete.

Today, Grant's name lives on largely in an old joke: "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" Look around you, look at the leaders we have, and leaders we are likely to have, and you will know that the joke is on us. "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" We are.