Back in the 1980s, a rap song decrying apartheid in South Africa asked, plainly, "why are we always on the wrong side?" It's a simple enough question, but (in light of recent foreign policy disasters) one that's worth asking again.
Is it possible that from the beginning of our history, in just about every one of America's overseas adventures (with the exception of World War Two), we've consistently been the bad guys?
Iraq is only the latest example of the utter failure - and horrible damage - of America's effort to assert its empire around the world. But the debate about Iraq never seems to get to more fundamental questions about America's broader historical purpose. The question shouldn't be what do we need to do to win this misbegotten war, or how we can leave the country in stable condition before crawling out with our tail between our legs. More helpful would be to understand why our armies are forever racing around the world making people's lives worse. To do so, it helps to look at history.
A wonderful place to start is A People's History of American Empire, Howard Zinn's new book-length cartoon history of America's foreign policy. Our "people's historian" has done it again - having first brought us the iconoclastic best seller A People's History of the United States, we now have a collaboration between Zinn, cartoonist Mike Konopacki and rebel historian Paul Buhle, who present an illustrated version of a century or two of American foreign policy. The new book provides a damning account of America's long and ugly work of empire building - from the brutal conquest of the American west to our oil-crazed adventures in the Middle East. And it does it all with cartoons, which means it will be able to bring its message to young people who might otherwise not think about what we can learn from history.
American empire has been a uniquely destructive force for centuries. Reading (in cartoon form) about our war against Spain in the 1890s, in which journalists and industrialists sold a bunch of lies to a patriotic public to acquire the resources of the people of the Philippines and Cuba, it's hard to miss the parallels with the war hysteria - and corporate profiteering - that has characterized our latest conflict. The book's illustrated re-telling of the terrors perpetrated against native people - including a powerful account of the atrocities at Wounded Knee - is a reminder that the land we walk on was made possible by brutal conquest. Zinn and his colleagues take us on a sad journey of the greed, savagery, and lies that seem to be the heart of every American war.
The pages about our ugly work in Central America - in which we've supported one monstrous regime after another in the service of corporate profits - offer an elegant summary of our shameful legacy in that part of the world. And the chapter relating our atrocious history in Iran helps to explain why they hate us there and why we're still at war in the Middle East today.
The answer often comes down to resources: bananas, minerals, cheap labor, rubber, and especially oil. We have a big army, fueled by the wealth from the land we've stolen from our own native people and others we've conquered, trained in previous wars of imperial conquest, cheered on by those who get rich from selling it materiel.
But there's another kind of resource that shows up in Zinn's story - and that's the resistance of the American people, who have long fought against greed and conquest, and for the better ideals that this country ought to embrace. Our country's misdeeds have been challenged by generations of heroic people - from Native Americans who defended their ancestral lands, to labor unionists who have fought for the rights of those who have created the wealth of the nation, to peace activists from many wars who have fought against America's imperial ambitions. People like Black Elk, Eugene V. Debs, Martin Luther King, Daniel Ellsberg, Dave Dellinger - and Howard Zinn. We meet cartoon versions of these folks and many others in Zinn's comic book, and they remind us that even when our country is on the wrong side, its people often know better.
Peter Miller's documentary Sacco and Vanzetti (www.saccoandvanzettifilm.com) is now available on DVD.