Why did America wage so many wars?

historyWhy America's Wars Go Wrong So Often

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, and in the end the Northern States had triumphed. It says so in the history books. But this is only half the truth. The other half of the historical truth is this: After the surrender of Southern General Robert E. Lee, the Southern States waged a guerrilla war against the victors.

A terrorist organization was formed to undo the victory of the northern states. The name of this terrorist organization was Ku Klux Klan. In the end, the northern states found it too burdensome to wage war against the Ku Klux Klan, and the blacks in the south were forced back into conditions very much like slavery. This pattern has been repeated many times in American history: At the beginning there is a war whose goals become more and more radical as the war progresses. Then the victors get caught up in an ugly guerrilla war. Then they lose their nerve and withdraw.

In the end, those who have just surrendered win. So it was in Vietnam, so it was in Iraq, the "Islamic State" is also recruiting from former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime. What do we learn from it? That being an ally of the United States can be very fatal. Because in the end you will be reliably left in the lurch.

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On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a speech. It is almost irrelevant what he said in that speech - the only thing that matters is the photo that was taken. George W. Bush had landed in a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier called the USS Abraham Lincoln. He wore an aviator's uniform in camouflage colors, his helmet under his arm. And he positioned himself so that a banner was clearly visible behind him that read: "Mission Accomplished". In plain English: "We won." That was actually all the President said into the microphones set up in front of him: The war on terror is not over yet, but Iraq was a decisive stage victory. The bad guys run away in wild flight, our troops rush after them. Hooray! Or just: "Mission Accomplished".

Everything seemed to be working perfectly

On the surface, of course, George W. Bush was right. The United States' armed forces and their allies had succeeded in overran Iraq in an incredibly short time. On March 20, 2003, American and British soldiers crossed the border from Kuwait into southern Iraq, where they were celebrated by the cheering population. "Democracy! And Whiskey! And Sexy!" shouted one of the Iraqis when he saw the American liberators. At the same time, American special forces helped the Kurdish Peshmerga in the north of the country, who launched their own offensive against the hated soldiers of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein (r.), Iraqi dictator in a fighting pose before the Gulf War in 1990 (imago / ZUMA / Keystone)
The American ground forces and the air force worked together like parts of a clockwork. Shock and Awe's strategy worked like a textbook for living room strategists. Within three weeks the Iraqi army had dissolved into nothing. The rule of the Ba'ath Party, which ruled Iraq for 35 years, collapsed like a rotten wooden hut. It was like a bulldozer had knocked on the door with its shovel. "Mission Accomplished" indeed. But in reality the mess was just beginning. And George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were unprepared for that.

What Bush hadn't expected

First came the looting. The liberated Iraqis looted everything wherever they could - they even tore power cables from the walls. And because there were only about 5,000 American soldiers in the metropolis of Baghdad, they were simply unable to restore law and order. Then came the shots and the bombs. It quickly became apparent that the invasion of Iraq and the victory over Saddam Hussein's regime had only been the first phase of the war - the more harmless phase. The second phase of the war was a guerrilla war by the remaining supporters of the Ba'ath Party and Sunni fundamentalists against the western invaders. Their greatest success was when they managed to blow up the UN mission in Iraq on August 19, 2003. The most prominent victim was Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a humanist who was commissioned by the UN to help build a new, democratic Iraq. The Sunnis feared - and rightly so - that they would no longer rule the Shiite majority in the new Iraq. So they revolted.

The third phase was the civil war. The fundamentalist butcher Abu Musab az ‑ Zarqawi succeeded in driving the Shiites insane with bomb attacks. He acted on behalf of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda. He massacred women and children; he massacred prayers in their mosques. His greatest achievement was that his people blew up the golden dome of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra. The Shiites responded with bloody campaigns of revenge against Sunni civilians. Now it turned out that after the American invasion, it was not only the dictatorship of the Baath party that collapsed like a rotten wooden hut. No, the entire Iraqi state actually only existed on paper, only on the map.

The American soldiers holed up in their barracks and let the country go to the dogs out there. And George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense pretended everything was fine. After all, the mission had been successful. "Mission accomplished!" Bush had announced that himself.

Bush sent his best general

It was not until the very last hour of his presidency - namely in January 2007 - that he listened to his best general: David Petraeus. So he sent more soldiers to Iraq. Petraeus made his soldiers go on patrol without helmets and encouraged them to drink tea with the locals. He managed to reach an agreement with the Sunni tribes, who then rose up against al-Qaeda. Suddenly a political process became possible again. For a moment it looked like a democratic Iraq had a chance.

But by now all enthusiasm for war had died out in the American public. Thousands of soldiers died in that distant, dusty land. The Americans only wanted one thing: to bring their boys and girls home. They chose a president who promised just that; a president who had opposed David Petraeus' new strategy from the start. And Barack Obama kept his promise. He brought the American army home. Of course, everything collapsed in Iraq after that. The government in Baghdad is now dominated by Shiites, who see the Sunni Arabs as enemies rather than compatriots. And in the border area between Iraq and Syria, a barbaric state of God has established itself.

Always the same pattern

Unfortunately, what happened in Iraq is a time-honored pattern of American foreign policy. This pattern looks like this: The Americans go to war for very real political reasons. While they are at war, its goals become radicalized by themselves. You become idealistic. The Iraq war, for example, was initially about weapons of mass destruction. When these weapons were not found, the Iraq war turned into a struggle for democracy. The goal now was to establish a model democratic country in the middle of the Arab world. Then the Americans are drawn into an ugly guerrilla war. It takes them a while to understand. Then they adjust to the new reality and even fight for a victory. But now they have lost their nerve, and so they withdraw. And in the end everything falls apart. The ideals that should be at stake are badly damaged.

This pattern goes back well into American history, well into the 19th century. And actually the name of the aircraft carrier on which George W. Bush made his foolish victory speech could have been a clue: Its name - we remember - Abraham Lincoln.

Formative for American history: the Civil War from 1861

The American Civil War was the defining event in American history. At least 620,000 Americans died in this war. Some sources even speak of 750,000, some of more than 800,000 war dead. In any case, more Americans died in this war than in any other armed conflict in which America was involved - including the Second World War and including Vietnam. If we look in the history books, the American Civil War lasted from April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865: that is four years, three weeks and six days. But didn't it actually last much longer? Has America ever recovered from its civil war?

American Civil War: Timothy O'Sulivan photographed the dead and wounded battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863. It was one of the bloodiest battles on the continent. (picture alliance / dpa / Timothy O'Sullivan)

We can learn from the ancient historian Thucydides that one must distinguish between the cause and the cause of war. Applied to the American Civil War this would mean: The cause of the American Civil War was that rebels began firing shots at Fort Sumter at dawn on April 12, 1861. The cause of the American Civil War was much deeper. It was slavery. When Abraham Lincoln took office as the 16th President of the United States, the southern white people saw it as an intolerable affront. Because Abraham Lincoln and his party friends, the Republicans, were all sworn enemies of the "special institution" - that is what slavery was called in the southern states. By February 1861, seven states had already renounced the Union of the United States. After the shooting at Fort Sumter and the fall of the fort, four more states were added. Together they declared themselves to be a new state, the "Confederate States of America". The supporters of these "Confederate States" saw themselves as freedom fighters who went to the field against a sinister tyrant in Washington. But the truth of the matter was that the Confederate States had only one purpose: to maintain slavery. They fought for the right to force blacks to do unpaid work in the cotton fields; for the right to whip them to the blood if they ran away; for the right to rape black women and girls; for the right to tear black families apart and sell black children in slave markets.

But Abraham Lincoln made a firm promise to the southern states in his inauguration address that he would not touch their "special facility". He wrote:

"There seems to be a fear among the peoples of the southern states that the inauguration of a Republican government could threaten their property, peace, and personal safety. There has never been any reasonable reason for that. I have no direct or indirect reason to interfere in the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe that the law gives me no right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. "

A war before the eyes of the world public

There is only one right that the southern states do not have, Lincoln continued - the right to leave the Union. The constitution forbids them to do so. And that, in Abraham Lincoln's view, was what this civil war was about: it was about undoing the secession of the eleven breakaway states. At the same time, of course, it was about something else. It was about democracy. Abraham Lincoln understood that this war was being waged before the eyes of the world. Had the southerners succeeded in tearing the United States apart, it would have been a hit for all tsars, emperors and kings of the planet. You would have said: Look here - democracy just doesn't work! It inevitably leads to chaos!

At first Abraham Lincoln did not think of the liberation of America's black citizens. That only changed when more and more blacks fought in the Northern Army. They turned out to be extremely brave. They were excellent soldiers. And Abraham Lincoln concluded: You cannot withhold civil rights from these people who risk their lives for a good cause. So it came to the famous emancipation proclamation, the Lincoln on

Adopted September 22, 1862. This was based on a legal trick. Abraham Lincoln took the southerners at their word, who viewed black slaves as property, that is, mere things. Now a warring party has the right to temporarily confiscate property in a conflict. Ergo, the northern states confiscated every black slave they could get hold of in battle - and set him free immediately. The war aims had radicalized of their own accord.

Suddenly it was about the "special facility" of the southern states. The war against secession had turned into a war of liberation. But that's not all. Lincoln understood that slavery in the United States had to be abolished forever so that there was no longer any reason for war. The emancipation proclamation was not enough for that. So the President urged that the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution be passed, which would make slavery illegal in America in the future. For a 13th Amendment, Lincoln was even willing to postpone the peace treaty with the southern states.

On May 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in the Southern Army, rode his horse to the Appomatox Courthouse, Virginia. He dismounted, went in, and signed the deed of surrender. The scene is recorded on a historical painting. Robert E. Lee, a tall gentleman with silver hair and a white beard, shakes Northern General Ulysses S. Grant's hand very seriously. The war was over. But in truth it wasn't over at all. He was just entering a new phase. The white southerners did not even think of accepting the fact that they should no longer be the master race in the future.

On Christmas Day 1865, six veterans of the rebel army, led by a certain Nathan Bedford Forrest, founded a terrorist organization whose name everyone knows. It was called the Ku Klux Klan. The terrorists benefited from the fact that one of their like-minded people shot the president on April 14. Lincoln's successor was the Vice President, a certain Andrew Johnson, a racist from Tennessee. Andrew Johnson did everything possible to prevent conditions in the southern states from being turned upside down. But his successor was Ulysses S. Grant. And Grant sent the army to suppress the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states. This succeeded excellently. Actually, after Grant's presidency, nothing would have stood in the way of a reorganization of conditions in the southern states. But by now the Americans had lost their nerve. Most of them thought: the war is over, slavery abolished. What are our soldiers doing down there?

The civil war was far from over

Under the next president - his name was Rutherford B. Hayes - the southern states were granted that in future they could again determine their own circumstances as they saw fit. That was the beginning of the so-called Jim Crow Laws. They were named after a black fictional character from cabaret who racist whites found extremely funny. The Jim Crow laws were apartheid rules: blacks were not allowed to use the same toilets as the master race. You had to sit in the back of the bus. They were only allowed to attend the other, the worse schools. Marriages between blacks and whites were of course forbidden. Black people were put in jail on pretexts and then rented out in chains to white plantation owners. The black writer and civil rights activist William DuBois therefore bitterly stated:

"The slave was freed; stood in the sunlight for a brief moment; and returned to slavery."

The Ku Klux Klan, defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 19th century, was re-established with pomp and glory in 1921. It grew into a mass organization with many millions of members. Lynching became a normal part of life in the southern states, a popular sport. A recent study found that around 4,000 black-skinned people were tortured to death after 1865. For those Americans whose ancestors came from Africa, the civil war was far from over with the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

The Vietnam War followed a similar pattern

We can clearly see the pattern already mentioned. First the war comes for political reasons. Then the war aims become radicalized, suddenly the big picture is at stake, noble ideals. Then comes the guerrilla war. And after a brief moment in which you might think the Americans have won, they lose their nerve and pull back. Then everything collapses.This is how the Vietnam War went. In the beginning, the Americans only wanted to support South Vietnam in its struggle for independence against the north. The north was ruled by a totalitarian regime - led by a Comintern agent named Nguyen Sinh Con, who called himself Ho Chi Min. The south was corrupt, politically unstable and pluralistic. Christians, Buddhists, Han Chinese and around 800,000 refugees from the north lived here together.

Da Nang, South Vietnam (imago)

Under President Kennedy, the Americans only sent military advisers. Under President Johnson they sent more and more soldiers. Now it was no longer just about Vietnam, but about a war against communism in general. The north waged its war with regular troops and at the same time with a guerrilla army, the Viet Cong. Initially, the Viet Cong was very successful, but the Americans managed to switch their tactics to guerrilla warfare. They no longer followed the brutal punch-and-go tactic, but worked together with the civilian population. They benefited from the fact that the Viet Cong was anything but popular among the South Vietnamese. Wherever he established himself, he established a reign of terror, and he frequently committed massacres. Then came the Tet Offensive, named after the Vietnamese New Year celebrations.

On January 30, 1968, communist North Vietnam threw a quarter of a million regular soldiers into battle. At the same time, 100,000 Viet Cong guerrillas attacked the Republic of South Vietnam. On March 2, the Tet Offensive was over. And it ended in a devastating defeat for the north. The communists did not succeed in conquering a single square centimeter of land in the south. Tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers fell. Worst of all was the defeat for the Viet Cong: the guerrilla organization lost its best minds. In America, however, the news of this overwhelming victory never reached. The local journalists had been caught off guard by the Tet offensive and reacted with headless panic. Most Americans at home in front of the television screens had to believe that the communist north had succeeded by surprise. So they no longer believed that it was possible to win this war. The next president, Richard Nixon, came into office with the promise that he would end this wretched, unpopular war. And he kept his promise. After bombing North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Nixon arranged for the American soldiers to return home. On January 27, 1973, all warring parties signed an armistice agreement in Paris. The Republic of South Vietnam was left to its own devices.

Of course, she never had a chance. Only two years later, their capital, Saigon, fell. After the communist victory, around 65,000 South Vietnamese were murdered on the spot. At least a third of the population was deported to so-called re-education camps. A quarter of a million people died of disease, hunger and overwork. About a million Vietnamese tried to escape the communist regime with hastily assembled rafts at sea - the so-called boat people. Many of them drowned. That was the moment when even committed leftists like Rudi Dutschke and Jean-Paul Sartre noticed that they had been on the wrong side.

Second World War as an exception

Of course, not all American wars follow the aforementioned pattern of radicalization, guerrilla warfare, victory, losing nerve and catastrophe. The main exception is the Second World War. Both the Germans and the Japanese were too tired, too hungry and too demoralized for a guerrilla revolt after the relentless bombardment by the Allies. Incidentally, the Americans had expected such a guerrilla war in Europe. And they couldn't believe that this uprising would not happen now. After all, the Germans had just defended their beloved Hitler right down to the last front yard! One can call this a historical irony: After the Second World War, the Americans would have been prepared for the very scenario that came true in Iraq in 2003. In the Iraq war, however, the Sunni fundamentalists' uprising hit them like a punch in the dark.

A girl from a refugee group with her doll in her arms in the turmoil of the post-war period. (picture alliance / dpa US Army)

So the Second World War is the big exception - you can actually say that it was over in 1945. Nevertheless, the Americans did not achieve their war aims here either - or not entirely. The Cold War got in the way of them. Because of the Cold War, the Americans did not put SS ‑ Sturmbannführer Wernher von Braun on trial, but shipped him to America under comfortable conditions and had him build the Saturn V rocket. Because of the Cold War, the Americans got involved with Reinhard Gehlen and his organization of former SS and Gestapo people, who then spied on Eastern Europe for them. Because of the Cold War, the Americans called off the half-hearted "re-education" in the middle. The result: In the 1950s, a large majority of West Germans stated in surveys that National Socialism was basically correct, but unfortunately the Nazis did not implement it correctly.

Imagine the story differently

It is a delightful game to imagine a story that would have turned out differently. A story in which there is no threat from the Soviet Union after 1945, i.e. no Cold War either. A story in which Nazi criminals do not escape punishment. Take Hans Globke, who once wrote an important commentary on the Nuremberg Race Laws: We can imagine that after the war he is not in the Federal Chancellery but in prison. Then there is Theodor Oberländer, who once agitated as a German racist for the enslavement of the Poles - after the war he became Federal Minister for Expellees. Instead, in our alternative story, the penitentiary flourishes. In our alternative story, emigrants return after World War II because they are publicly asked to do so. All survivors and their descendants will get back the property that the Nazis had stolen from them. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial does not take place in 1964, but in 1946. In Adenauer Germany, social democrats like Willy Brandt and Fritz Bauer are not branded as traitors to the fatherland, but celebrated as heroes. Germany immediately recognizes the Oder-Neisse border. Documentaries shatter the myth that the German Wehrmacht was clean and innocent. Teachers who rant about their war experiences are immediately suspended from school work. In short, the German post-war democracy gets by without life lies and old Nazis - because the Americans do not allow that.

Unfortunately, that's just a nice dream. In reality, there are few victories that do not quickly turn into defeat, at least in part, and justice remains a distant ideal. There was no justice for the freed southern black slaves after the northern troops were victorious. They were forced into new forms of slavery. Only their descendants saw the victory of the civil rights movement - 100 years too late. There was no justice for those South Vietnamese who valiantly fought alongside the Americans against communism. They were betrayed and abandoned, and in the end, thousands died in concentration camps. There is also no happy ending in sight for Iraq in the near future.

But does it follow that every war the Americans have waged has been in vain? No. You shudder at the thought of what the world would be like today if Abraham Lincoln had let the southern states go. The "Confederate States of America" ​​would have been by no means satisfied with their status quo. No, they intended to expand towards Mexico through wars of conquest. A huge empire would have arisen based on hunched backs and lashes - a racist South Africa in the middle of the American continent. The rest of North America would be stunted and impoverished. The only thing worse is the idea that the Nazis won World War II.

Vietnam today is a conspicuously pro-American country

Where is the bright spot, the positive? The bright spot is the history of Vietnam - at least from an American point of view. After the end of the war, as reported, came madness, the collectivization of agriculture, and terror. But in 1986 the Communist Party's old guard was overthrown. Reformers came to power. The Vietnamese regime threw its communist ideology overboard. Suddenly private property and trade were permitted again. The country modernized. The standard of living of the population rose rapidly. Today nobody there is interested in the alleged exploits of the Viet Cong. Instead, it's about making a lot of money very quickly. The young people have motorbikes, cell phones, laptops and access to the Internet. Government press censorship seems wonderfully ineffective. A movement for democracy and human rights has spread underground. In addition, Vietnam is a very pleasant holiday destination. The favorite guests there are not Russians or Chinese, but Americans. Veterans of the US Army are taken to the former battlefields by tour guides; some of them have decided to settle in Vietnam and set up hospitals and schools there. Today, in 2015, Vietnam is a strikingly pro-American country: According to surveys, 78 percent of Americans have a good opinion. According to statistics, Americans think of themselves only slightly better. One could almost get the idea that they would have won the Vietnam War after all.

In other words, the dialectical see-saw tilts now and then to that side. Sometimes a victory is just a mirage behind which catastrophe is already lurking. But sometimes victory comes from a profound, comprehensive, appalling, and demoralizing defeat.