- Historic Sites
At a time when it can offer answers to urgent questions, we have forgotten America’s long history of “nation building.”
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
History teaches another important lesson: that occupation duty sometimes leads troops into committing what are today called human rights abuses. It’s easy to exaggerate the extent of these excesses. Brian Linn’s recent history The Philippine War, 1899–1902 suggests that the conduct of U.S. soldiers from 1899 to 1902 was not nearly as reprehensible as everyone from Mark Twain to New Left historians of the 1960s would have us believe.
But whenever a small number of occupation troops are placed in the midst of millions of potentially hostile foreigners, some unpleasant episodes are likely to occur. During the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916–24), a Marine captain named Charles F. Merkel became notorious as the Tiger of Seibo; he personally tortured one prisoner by slashing him with a knife, pouring salt and orange juice into the wounds, and then cutting off the man’s ears. Merkel killed himself in jail after, rumor had it, a visit from two Marine officers who left him a gun with a single bullet in it. When word of such abuses reached the United States, it caused a public uproar. In the 1920 election the Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding sought black votes by denouncing the “rape” of Hispaniola perpetrated by a Democratic administration. This kind of criticism is not so different from the questions raised today about U.S. treatment of Taliban prisoners.
American troops must take great care to avoid heinous conduct, not only for moral reasons but also for practical ones. If imperialists are provoked into too many grisly reprisals—as the French were in Algeria, or the Americans in Vietnam—support for their enterprise back home is likely to evaporate. And it is also much harder to win the “hearts and minds” of uncommitted civilians if you are routinely torturing or killing their relatives. Some criticism of their conduct notwithstanding, this is a danger that U.S. troops have largely avoided in Afghanistan with the discriminating use of “smart” weapons.
It is not just civilians who risk getting killed in nation building; so do U.S. troops. The most notorious recent example is the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3–4,1993, which left 18 Americans dead, 82 injured, and 1 captured. The Rangers and Delta Force commandos who took part in this all-night firefight did not feel defeated afterward; they were prepared to get on with the job of freeing Somalia’s people from the rule of warlords. But the Clinton administration decided it could not tolerate casualties and pulled out. This is the worst possible outcome because it sent a message of irresolution that emboldened America’s enemies, most notably Osama bin Laden, to step up their attacks against various U.S. targets.
It is inevitable that any nation bent on imperialism will encounter setbacks. The British army suffered major defeats with thousands of casualties in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–42) and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879). This did not appreciably dampen British determination to defend and extend their empire. If Americans cannot adopt a similarly tough-minded attitude, they have no business undertaking nation building. This is not to suggest that America should sacrifice thousands of young men for ephemeral goals but that policymakers need to recognize that all military operations run certain risks, and the United States should not flee at the first casualty. More important, Washington should not design these operations (as with the occupation of Haiti in 1994) with the primary goal of producing no casualties. That is a recipe for ineffectuality.
Given the costs, moral and material, what is the case for undertaking imperialism at all? It’s not so different today from 100 years ago. There’s the economic argument: The United States can add areas like Central Asia and the Balkans to the world free-trade system. (They might seem like economic basket cases today, but so, a few decades ago, did Taiwan and South Korea. Both have prospered under U.S. military protection.) There is also the idealistic argument: The United States has a duty to save people from starvation and ethnic cleansing. This is a direct descendant of the “white man’s burden,” except today it’s not limited to whites or to men but extends to everyone in the West. If these were the only reasons for America to undertake nation building, then it would be a hard sell, as indeed it was for large segments of the public in the 1990s. But since September 11, 2001, another argument for imperialism has come to the fore: self-interest.
We can only wonder what might have happened if after the Soviets were driven out in the early 1990s, the United States had helped build up Afghanistan into a viable state. It might not have become the home of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the World Trade Center might still be standing.