U.S. democracy’s history of violence

Journalist Fumio Matsuo's account of a U.S. policy of force


DEMOCRACY WITH A GUN; America and the Policy of Force, by Fumio Matsuo, translated by David Reese. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2007, 306 pp., $26 (cloth)

As a child in wartime Japan, Fumio Matsuo, now a journalist, and his family were nearly wiped out by U.S. incendiary bombing of regional cities. He shares the general Japanese trauma over the U.S. atomic bombings. Based in and out of the United States for around 40 years as a Kyodo correspondent, he seems to have made it his life work to find out why Americans who seem so genuinely proud of their democratic origins are so addicted to force — to guns at home and bombs abroad.

In a curious mixture of history and in-depth interviews with leading U.S. players he begins with the Pilgrim Fathers and the struggles of the early British settlers to survive in what is now the United States. Gradually we see their utopian ideals replaced by “America’s underlying DNA of the use of force” as they set out to defeat the native American tribes; the British in the war of independence; French and Spanish forces in what is now U.S. territory, Mexico; Spain again (in a grab for Spanish colonies); and now anyone seen as hostile in the outside world. Matsuo finds a nation “convinced of its own rightness and righteousness, and willing to act unilaterally to secure, and impose, its lofty goals of peace and freedom.”

Looking for reasons behind America’s gun culture, he begins with a close analysis of the much-quoted Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution used constantly to legitimize gun ownership:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Matsuo shows how at the time (1787) the various fledgling states of the Union saw themselves as democracies in which the right of individuals to bear arms and to form themselves in voluntary militias for the defense of their freedoms and their state had to be guaranteed. But with national unification, a regular army came gradually to supersede the militias, which evolved into today’s state national guards. Clearly the original concept of free men needing arms for state defense has since been distorted to allow virtually anyone who wants a gun to have one, no matter how criminal their intentions.

But Matsuo also faces fairly the grim dilemma created when criminals can get hold of guns and others cannot. Gun policy becomes an all or nothing affair. Either some way is found to get the guns out of the hands of the criminals. Or else everyone should have the right to carry a concealed weapon for legitimate defense. If the U.S. now tends in the latter direction a logic is involved, even if it has been badly abused by the all-powerful National Rifle Association lobby.

Matsuo is equally meticulous in trying to find how the initially democratic and humane aspirations of the early Americans could evolve into the cruelty of today’s military interventions around the globe. He sees a link in the brutality with which the original native Americans were suppressed. This carried over into the genocidal tactics of the U.S. military against Filipino guerrilla forces trying vainly to resist the U.S. take-over of their country at the end of the 19th century. But any sense of shame that might have resulted from that one-sided “evil” victory was to be smothered by the after-glow from the “good” U.S. victory against Japan and Nazi Germany. This in turn led U.S. leaders to want to get involved in Cold War confrontations and other adventures.

Matsuo also hints at racial factors. He devotes much space to the problem of the black people in the U.S., though he appreciates some of the efforts being made in this area. He repeatedly notes the way the Western powers apologized for the carpet bombings of Dresden with 60,000 casualties but make little effort to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the bombings of other Japanese cities, with total casualties at around half million. But even this, he admits, pales in comparison with the well-known damage done by the U.S. in Vietnam and the little-known damage done by wanton bombing attacks over North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Matsuo sees the militaristic and anti-Asian General Curtis LeMay, as responsible not just for the bombings in Japan but also for U.S. “scorched earth” policies elsewhere in Asia. He also points to LeMay’s role in provoking Moscow into its Cold War hostility. But U.S. postwar military policies were not just the work of one man. A massive military-industrial complex is now in control, seeking constantly to find or create enemies around the globe and then pulverize them with its deadly weaponry regardless of rights or wrongs. That the U.S. public also goes along with the extraordinary budgets and waste needed to keep this operation going suggests that the militarist DNA Matsuo identifies will not disappear easily.

One strong clue in that direction came with the ending of the Cold War. If the U.S. genuinely believed it had faced an enemy of infinite guile and evil, as claimed at the time, then why today do we find almost no attempt to study the now open Kremlin archives and discover what was involved? Clearly the hawks knew all along that the confrontation was phony, that it was needed mainly to provide the military with their budgets and power bases. They do not need to go to the Kremlin archives to discover that fact.

The same is true for the fabrications used to justify other U.S. military moves — Tonkin Gulf, WMD, Vietnam and Korea as China’s proxy wars, and so on. A military-political complex that genuinely believed it had a legitimate role in world affairs would not stoop to these levels of deceit. Yet so far only Robert McNamara, former U.S. Defense Secretary, has shown any remorse for the grand-daddy of all the fabrications — Vietnam.

Vietnam saw the emergence of what Matsuo describes as the liberal hawks — liberals who see U.S. military interventions as serving progressive causes. He notes that many of their positions coincide with those of the so-called neoconservatives. Through extensive interviews he tries to fathom this powerful and very dangerous combination.

But Matsuo then glosses over the extraordinary bombing attack on Serbia, approved by the liberal hawks but imposed to allow an extremist ethnic Albanian group favorable to U.S. military interests gain control of Kosovo and continue its ethnic cleansing efforts against all minorities, including a large Serbian minority. To date, the main justification I can find for that act of pure bomb-happy vandalism came from then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright saying there was no point the U.S. having its large military if it did not want to use it. Equally disturbing was the U.S. ability to recruit the Western political and media complex to approve that adventure. This should be the topic of Matsuo’s next book.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University.