The Politics of War

By McEnany, Jack | The Humanist, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

The Politics of War


McEnany, Jack, The Humanist


On the second anniversory of the Persian Gulf crisis, we consider the specter of imperialism that haunts our democracy

JACK McENANY: Professor Zinn, recurrent in your book, A People's History of the United States, are examples of working, class America fighting wars that it had no personal stake in. Was this true of the Gulf War?

HOWARD ZINN: Oh, yes, the Gulf War fits that pattern. War seldom, if ever, has a particular or personal stake in it for the people who do the fighting - the working classes. In fact, most soldiers' only stake in war is that their lives are in danger and they will be the ones who suffer the casualties. It's an old story and, unfortunately, it takes a while for the people who are the victims of war to catch on to it. Sometimes there is an immediate reaction; sometimes there's a delayed reaction.

If we go way back prior to independence - while the country was under English rule - the American colonists were expected to fight in wars that the British government was fighting with France. There were a number of these in the early and middle eighteenth century. But the colonists rebelled against conscription; they rebelled and attacked the people who were enlisting them forcibly in the wars.

When the American Revolution took place, most Americans might think, well, at last here's a war for a good purpose, a war in which the colonists could enlist thinking that this war is for them. But, in fact, there was an enormous amount of disaffection from the Revolutionary War. It was estimated by John Adams - who was a supporter of the war - that one-third of the population was against the war, one-third supported the war, and one-third was on the fence. And there were a number of instances of rebellion against the war. George Washington had to send troops down south because people in the Carolinas and Virginia were refusing to enlist and fight in the Revolutionary Army. He sent General Nathaniel Greene down there to - to put it crudely - kill a number of people in order to impress upon them that they had to fight in this war.

In New England, people protested the drafting of citizens for the Revolutionary War as some, thing that hit the working classes hardest. People with money could buy their way out. A lot of people know this about the Civil War - this business of rich people buying their way out of the draft, buying substitutes - but it happened during the Revolutionary War as well.

In the War of 1812, the government did not dare put a conscription act into effect because it knew there would be tremendous resistance to it. The War of 1812 was basically an expansionist war - to try to move into Canada, to try to move into western lands controlled by the English.

In the Mexican War (1846 to 1848), there was open desertion on the way to Mexico City. General Scott's troops rebelled; seven regiments, virtually half his entire force, simply scattered and went home. The soldiers who didn't desert returned home after the war embittered by their casualties and by the fact that they didn't know what in the world we were fighting Mexico for. The soldiers who returned to Massachusetts went to a welcome-home dinner-you might say a "yellow-ribbon dinner," but in 1848. At this dinner, the surviving Massachusetts volunteers - half of them had been killed - booed their commanding officer at their own welcome-home party to express how they felt about the war.

In the Civil War, the poor people of New York did not see it as a war against slavery. They saw only that they were being conscripted to fight and die in a very gruesome war. They saw that the rich - the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Astors - could buy their way out for $300. And, as so often working-class whites will do, they took out their resentment on black people. The draft riots of 1863 in New York were some of the most violent internal uprisings we've had in this country, and they-were directed against black people - the innocent victims of a violent outrage against a civil war that the white working class of New York saw as just dooming them for no reason.

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