Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Columns

Reiniers: America's long history of military excursions


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It all started in 1801 with the First Barbary War between the United States and the Berber Muslim states in North Africa, who had been seizing American merchant ships and enslaving sailors for ransom since 1784.

In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson ordered a small force to the Berber area to "seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli," and blockade the Barbary ports. This led several years later to the capture of Derma, a Berber city, by our U.S. Marines. It was the first time the U.S. flag was raised on foreign soil, which inspired the immortal words of the marine hymn - "to the shores of Tripoli."

Little is known about this other seemingly never-ending war, which was actually America's first war on Islamic terrorism, which didn't end until Stephen Decatur's decisive victory in 1815 with the capture of Tunis.

Lost in history are the words of Tripoli's ambassador who, in response to a protest by the United States, replied it is written in the Koran that, "All nations which have not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave, and that every mussulman [Muslim] who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise." (Familiar words in the 21th century.)

It is always the back story of a war that gets lost with the passage of time.

When the last World War II veteran dies, living history will die, and the true story of that conflict will be relegated to recorded history. Given this, future generations will have no way of tapping into the visceral emotion, politics and biases that motivated the United States to go to war. A lot of history is made before the first shot is fired. The history-makers no longer can be interviewed. To obscure the truth even more, there is always a back story often unknown to the great majority - including the very combatants.

There often are living connections between consecutive conflicts, so differences between the two can be examined by living participants. It is not known by many that Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower also served in World War I. Many military leaders have had experience in consecutive conflicts. This fact undoubtedly gave rise to the old adage that "generals always fight the last war" - particularly if they won it. The failed French Maginot line is a stunning and obvious example.

Then there are the war weary civilians. There were only five years between the end of WWII and the Korean War, nine years between the end the Korean War and the first major military operation in Vietnam and 26 years between the end of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq two years later in 2003.

The media always will recall military history as conflicts escalate (Iraq for one), and then politicians sensing the mood of the voters - or manipulating them - stake out interventionist or isolationist policies.

Without the media the public could not formulate an opinion. It is our eyes and ears to the outside world. What it reports is what we believe.

The Spanish American War was precipitated by the media printing stories of Spanish atrocities committed on the Cubans to influence Americans. The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine (which later was determined to be an accident), galvanized public opinion against Spain and in short order - thanks in part to newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst who was trying to gin up circulation - American troops invaded Cuba. Here's an example of the flip side of war weary: "war fever."

One only can get a true grasp of the facts if they are there at the time, and simultaneously are able to sort through all the distortions, biases and propaganda by different interests - an impossibility.

But the fact remains the United States has a storied history of military excursions on foreign soil; but, interestingly, not for conquest (such as Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait.) WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam are recent examples.

The 1846 Mexican-American War doesn't easily fit into any category. The dispute actually arose after Texas gained its independence from Mexico before it became a state. Mexico never recognized Texas as a republic and during this time disputed that the southern border of Texas was the Rio Grand River. Some years later, after the annexation of Texas, the United States sent a small contingent of troops to investigate. They stumbled upon a large force of Mexican troops and a fire-fight ensued, thus precipitating the war.

The back story is lost in history. Mexico just had gained its independence from Spain 25 years before. Just what was Mexico? It's hard to know what Spain thought to be the extent of its empire by right of conquest. Spain's focus was on Mexico proper, but it - as did other European countries - explored and had small settlements all over the Americas and the globe.

A Spanish explorer claimed California for Spain thinking it was an island. Spain also had a small settlement in Arizona that barely could fight off the native Americans. Actually all of this land technically already had been a part of the Spanish empire since Columbus declared his conquest of all of the Americas by planting a flag on a small island in the Caribbean. Of course, as history records, he thought he had reached Asia. Little did we know that China, too, technically had been a part of the Spanish empire.

A war of conquest? It ended with Mexico ceding its Spanish territories to the United States for $15 million and the forgiveness of its outstanding debt to the United States.

The history of civilization is one of countries fighting wars on foreign soils, mainly for territory. Yet Jefferson correctly observed: "If there is one principal more deeply rooted in the mind of every American it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest."

And in the new millennium, some 200-plus years later, John F. Kennedy's words are remarkably accurate as to the major powers: "The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution."

John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular contributor who lives in Spring Hill.

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