© 2008 Bill Kauffman
You don't have to be a punk kid to rage against war. In fact, for most of American history, waging war in foreign quarters was considered radical -- not protesting it. The student war protesters of the 1970s were johnny-come latelys compared to the steady and historic denunciation of imperial adventures from more established quarters. Bill Kauffman's Ain't My America revisits a score of personalities -- politicians, poets, proles and potentates -- reviewing their stands against expansion, and warmongering from 1812 to the present, and concludes with a few arguments of his own. All the while he argues for a return to a homelier vision of America, a vision shared by this diverse multitude. The resulting narrative is a saucy challenge to today's conservatives, a reminder of a tradition which has been forgotten...and forgotten rather quickly.
The American Republic was a new thing, an experiment, and for its first century of life its citizens well appreciated the fragility of it. They saw in every legislative novelty a peril to what had been created by the transformation of colonies into a Republic, whether that was Jefferson's extralegal acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, or Madison's war and those which followed. What unites the multitude of men here -- the speech-making politicians, the biting wits and mournful ballads of writers and poets -- is fear for the life of that Republic, imperiled by the prospect of expansion and war. Campaigns of glory and idealism, so dear to the hearts of presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, threatened to corrupt a nation committed to harmony and peaceful discourse with all nations,into yet another state fallen from grace, forever brawling with its neighbors in the Old World fashion. America enjoys a providential situation, safeguarded from foreign invasion by ocean, with a continent bounding in resources. What need have we of wandering into other people's wars? The only fights are those we go abroad and pick.. The greater danger is that the American dream will be destroyed by the demands of war itself, through the centralization of authority, the militarization of society. The American constitution was written in part to check dreams of militarism, like the precautions against the power of a standing army.
The evidence bears their fears out. What have been the fruits of participating in foreign wars? A president whose title of Commander in Chief expects to apply to all Americans, not simply those in the armed services; the wastage of million of lives, and incalculable resources; the intrusion of the central government into every aspect of American lives. Many aspects of the Empire in which we live were born during wartime: the income tax, for instance, conscription, and automatic withholding. Some wartime abuses heal over time, like the archfiend Wilson's loyalty campaigns. Imagine the hypocrisy of a man who runs for office on the slogan that he kept us out of the war, who then has war declared and imprisons people for so much as applauding an anti-war speech! War makes the nation itself a hypocrite, as it did in the late 19th century when the United States stretched its imperial wings over Cuba and the Phillipines, inciting a fight with Spain and pretending to be fighting for another people's liberation, and then waging war against those people when they declined acceptance into the "Empire of Liberty". War's ravages have been worse diplomatically: a region like the middle east, which once admired the United States as an amicable partner far different than the imperial English and Russians, now boils over with loathing for it. Every excursion, martial or secretively effected -- seems to lead to more, and the corruption of the military-industrial complex waxes worse and worse.
These are not leftist criticisms; the Democratic party is no less the Party of War than modern Republicans, and indeed presidents like Wilson, Truman, and Johnson have been responsible for as much if not more overseas mischief than their 'rivals'. These are the criticisms of prudent men who had studied history, who absorbed its lessons into their very bones, and knew the United States was not so exceptional that it could defy the rule of human nature. Most of the criticism Kauffman collects focuses on war as a corrosive force, turning a Republic into an Empire, but in an additional section Kauffman throws his own punches. The bulwark of conservatism is defense of the family, which the military state destroys -- not merely by keeping young men abroad for months and years at a time, but by constantly shuffling military families around and denying them roots. The increase of men in uniform went hand in hand with rising divorce and juvenile delinquency, especially during World War 2. Denied the opportunity to invest in a local community, the only loyalty that can be mustered up by the family is to an abstraction -- the State. Imperialism bids the flag go where the Constitution cannot follow -- and, "severed from its staff, [waves] in any vagrant breeze".
Ain't My America rebuts foreign excursion as it champions the local. Kauffman's America is a republic of front porches, a collection of intimate communities united by a common dream, but loyal firstly to their neighbors. Kauffman's America is the town, the countryside where we grew up, the places that nurture and support us -- the places that gain our affection and love through time, as do our homes. In the Republic, men and women are sustained by the connections, finding meaning in the work they do for and with their neighbors. Kauffman's America ain't the Empire. In the Empire, meaning is searched for from without -- embarking on crusades to "fight" terror or "make the world safe for democracy", each person and each community's character subsumed by the collective. It's a criticism not far from Chris Hedges' observation that "war is a force that gives us meaning".
All this history and scathing commentary is rendered in Bill Kauffman's singular style. If Wendell Berry's defense of the local is rendered in a grandfatherly fashion, in tones of warm comfort, Kauffman is more of a slightly rebellious uncle, the kind who is willing to stay up past three a.m. rattling off colorful stories. There is much color to be hand in Kauffman's vocabulary, not necessarily profanity. Kauffman is a colorful character himself, who describes himself as the lovechild of Dorothy Day and Henry David Thoreau, a wild spirit with the blood of Crazy Horse and Zora Neal Hurston in his veins. His expressions are his own, energetic and archaic, like "fossicking about in tramontane sinkholes". He threatens the reader with his own poetry, and in a section hailing Grover Cleveland as the 19th century's sole classical liberal, begins "let us now praise corpulent men". The book rebounds with an affectionate wit, often barbed. After recounting the life of a Congressional solon named Hoar, who a contemporary thought would be celebrated in statuary for standing against imperialism, Kauffman notes "Alas, the statues are all dedicated to Har's homonyms."
What a piece of work is Kauffman, and an eye-opening piece of work this is! Kauffman's style and championing of the little way give him considerable appeal both in what he says and his delivery thereof. He is funny and rebuking, a man of no party and wholly genuine. Ain't my America succeeds as a reminder of what the American experiment was -- is -- at its best, and as a scattering of birdshot fired at our aviary of warhawks on the Potomac.
- We Who Dared Say No to War, ed. Murray Polner and Tom Woods. Even more sweeping, this collects anti-war speeches, essays, and songs throughout the Republic's history. It covers more anti-war motives than Kauffman's localism.
- Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialistic Writings, Mark Twain
- Look Homeward, America: in Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front Porch Anarchists,Bill Kauffman