For many people, the attacks launched on 11 September 2001 were transformative, seen as an exceptional event in historical terms. Certainly they were seared on people’s consciousness through saturation media coverage and used as the rationale for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Afghan hospital after US airstrike
But is it possible that 9/11 was not all that special, but actually reflected a long-running pattern? Mark Cronlund Anderson answers “yes” in his new book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s. Anderson is an historian and he sees 9/11 as just one more example of a pattern in US history of self-righteous imperial aggression.
To make his argument, he draws on a number of historical events. One of them is the Mexican war of 1846–1848, in which the US military defeated Mexico and confiscated half of its territory. At the time, the US had a reputation, especially among its own population, as being anti-imperialistic. It had fought a war of independence against Great Britain, after all. But how could this image be squared with a land-grab against a weaker, disorganised neighbouring government?
Anderson explains the ideology of US aggression using several factors. A key factor was the belief in what was later called “manifest destiny,” namely that the US had a God-given expectation to fill the continent. James Polk, elected president in 1844, had run on a platform of expansionism, and he delivered.
Another factor was racism. The Mexicans were seen as inferior, as “greasers” or “half-breeds.”
Prior to the Mexican war, there were prominent voices in US politics and the media condemning imperial adventures. Another source of resistance stemmed from the likelihood that Texas, then independent, would become a slave state, unsettling the balance between free and slave states.
To launch the war, what was needed was a pretext, and there was one at hand. Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. It didn’t seem to matter that the US and Mexican governments had earlier agreed the border was the Nueces River. US leaders declared that the Mexican action was aggression and launched a war that won a huge swathe of North American territory.
US troops during the Mexican war
The Mexican war was a fairly short episode compared to a slow-burning war that lasted for centuries: the war waged by white settlers in North America on the indigenous inhabitants. Today in the US they are referred to as Native Americans, but Anderson calls them Indians, as they were referred to in the US until a few decades ago.
As is well known to scholars of colonialism, white settlement was a disaster for indigenous people, causing disease, dispossession and cultural devastation. Anderson’s interest is in the symbolic dimensions of the war against the Indians, and for this he looks at General George Custer. For Custer and many others, the Indians were savages to be subordinated and exterminated. When Custer and his troops were wiped out in 1876, this was another trigger event for US imperialists: the Indians were to be conquered. It didn’t matter, apparently, that Custer was a ruthless killer, including of women and children.
Anderson analyses several further imperialistic episodes in US history: interventions in the Mexican revolution (1916), Nicaragua (both the 1920s and 1980s) and Vietnam. Always there were pretexts for attack: the US government saw itself as the victim and hence fully justified in its aggression. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, in which North Vietnamese PT boats supposedly fired on US vessels in international waters – though this probably never happened – was the pretext for a Congressional resolution allowing massive expansion of US military involvement in the Vietnam war (called in Vietnam the American war).
Anderson, in seeking to understand the mindset of US imperialism – an imperialism that cannot name itself – probes historical episodes less through recounting events and more through expressions of ideas through media and popular culture. Newspaper stories at the time of the Mexican war and the Mexican revolution provide ample evidence of racism and belief in manifest destiny. For the Vietnam war, Anderson examines the Rambo films for the same themes.
Anderson seems to find the evidence he exhumes at times excruciating in its self-righteousness. US imperialists have believed that God is on their side, that their enemies are lesser humans and that the United States is a special nation bringing enlightenment to the world. Anderson summarises his argument:
First, there exists the never-ending pattern of war since 1776, suggesting a deep psychological need to fight. Second, the patterning — portraying battles as defensive maneuvers against the savage Other, as noted — repeats itself without reference to temporal concerns, and the gambit is always some variety of how the savage Other attacked without provocation. Myth is eternal: it seduces and elides linear time. One result is that the Alamo or Pearl Harbor or 9/11 maintains cultural currency and emotional resonance, just so long as we choose to remember. Third, I have borrowed and applied two ideas from psychohistory: nation-states have explicable psychological makeups, and trauma demands repetition. We tend to know this anecdotally, that abused children are more likely to abuse others. Or that a nation born in violence becomes imprinted with a need to relive the trauma, which, for America, has been life-affirming. (pp. 202-3)
Anderson sees 9/11 as being in a long tradition of episodes in US history in which the characteristic features of US imperialistic psychology are manifest. Taking a cue from Anderson, it is worth thinking of other ways in which 9/11 is not as special as it is often seen.
In the context of terrorism, 9/11 was dramatic but hardly unusual. Since the 1980s, thousands of people have been killed every year in non-state terrorist attacks. What is special about 9/11 is how much attention it garnered. Deaths of civilians in terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or Nigeria gain little attention by comparison. Similarly, most of the world’s deadliest wars since 1990 have received little Western media attention.
9/11 is typical in that nearly all attention is focused on attacks by non-government groups. A different brand of terrorism is called state terrorism. This is when governments use their militaries to assault populations. The US-government-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 killed far more civilians than 9/11 but are not usually called terrorism, though the terror for those targeted is just as great. State terrorism is usually invisible so far as the media and home population are concerned. Anderson does not refer to the scholarship on state terrorism, but his analysis is quite relevant.
9/11 illustrates how valuable it is for aggressors to see themselves as victims. After 9/11, there was a massive expansion in the military-security complex in the US and elsewhere. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was the enemy and the justification for militarisation. After the cold war, the peace dividend — the anticipated winding back of military establishments — did not occur. Leaders of the military-industrial complex searched for a pretext to justify their existence, and anti-terrorism has served this function well, although non-state terrorism is not a serious threat to states and in human lives is far less devastating than nuclear war.
Anderson’s book Holy War is a valuable reminder of the commonalities in history and the importance of belief systems. Rather than reacting to the latest events in lock-step with the agenda of governments, it is worthwhile stepping back and seeing continuities, and noticing how often the same patterns keep recurring.