By Michael Kazin
US News and World Report
Are Americans exceptional when they go to war? A century ago, the nation was shocked to learn that U.S. troops had committed atrocious acts in their struggle against independence fighters in the Philippines. Soldiers tortured native prisoners by almost drowning them and hanging them up by their thumbs. In retaliation for a deadly ambush on the island of Samar, Gen. Jacob H. Smith ordered his men to kill any Filipino over the age of 10 and to leave the island "a howling wilderness."
For months, high officials in Teddy Roosevelt's administration suppressed the military report that described these deeds. When the truth finally came out in 1902, Congress held hearings, and many people called for the secretary of war to resign. Mark Twain wrote, "We have debauched America's honor and blackened her face before the world."
Ugly as they are, the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib prison reveal nothing quite so brutal as "the water cure," much less a command to slaughter children. But most Americans have reacted to the images from Baghdad the same way that Twain and most of his fellow citizens did to those outrages in the Philippines: as a sad betrayal of our national values.
Yet over the past century, the bloodiest in human history, Americans have conducted themselves in war much like the leaders and peoples of other powerful nations. At the end of World War II, the United States used firebombs and atomic bombs to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, even though their government was near surrender. In North Korea, our Air Force decimated the countryside, driving millions of people into underground caverns for the duration of the war. In Vietnam, revelations about the gruesome massacre at My Lai in 1968 did nothing to stop carpet-bombing or the widespread use of pesticides. In Haiti and the Philippines, some U.S. occupation troops molested and murdered local inhabitants.
Such acts differed only in degree, not kind, from the British bombing of Dresden during World War II, the French war against the Algerian independence movement, and the Soviet Army's rape of thousands of German women after the fall of Berlin. The only truly "exceptional" nations have been the few that went one terrible step further and tried to wipe out an entire people. Fortunately, the Turks did not succeed in annihilating the Armenians, nor did the Germans murder every Jew.
Right and duty. What does set the United States apart is that so many of its citizens believe in its moral superiority. The conviction began with the nation itself. "We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free," wrote Tom Paine during the Revolutionary War, "and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in." That an immigrant like Paine was such an eloquent exceptionalist testifies to the power of the creed itself. Americanism is a faith designed to apply to all humanity. In their innocence, millions of Americans believe it is both their right and their duty to spread that faith around the world.
Such naivete can lead to disaster, as it did in Vietnam and may again in Iraq. But it can also give the United States an advantage over other lands. Most Americans expect their soldiers and leaders to live up to their stated ideals. General Smith was court-martialed, convicted, and dismissed from the Army, although few Filipinos actually died as a result of his hideous order. My Lai led to several court-martials and a murder conviction. And this spring, a large majority of the public disagreed with conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe who made light of the torture at Abu Ghraib. In contrast, it has taken four decades after France left Algeria for the whole truth about the atrocities of that colonizer to be revealed. Cynicism can be as blind as innocence.
Yet American tradition, with its strong Christian roots, often condemns the individual sin without necessarily demanding that the evil policy be changed. By the time Congress investigated the outrages in the Philippines, the United States had defeated the rebels and was busy converting "our little brown brothers" to American ways. By the 1904 election campaign, the atrocities were no longer an issue, and Theodore Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide. We will soon learn whether, a century later, voters will deliver a more exceptional verdict.