How – and Why – to Start A War


Here are some of the essential components of the myth of American Innocence:


1 – Narratives of extreme violence, both real and fictional, always justified by the need for a hero who is willing to sacrifice himself (but rarely does) in order to protect the innocent community from the irrational, evil desires of the “Other.”


2 – Violence, like that of the mythical Apollo, that is perpetrated from a distance, whether from the barrel of a gun, the wings of a fighter jet, airborne tankers dropping defoliants on peasants, a B-52 carpet-bombing entire regions from five miles off the ground or the joystick of a computer that directs drone-fired missiles flying over another continent.


3 – Denial of death. This characteristic distance is one of the factors that allow Americans to de-sensitize themselves from the reality of death. A constant diet of crime and anti-terrorist TV and movies allows us to believe that violence isn’t real, or that violence only happens to the “others” of the world. Hence our disillusionment and punctured innocence when the Sandy Hooks of the world happen to us.


4 – A perpetual war economy, at least since the end of World War Two. Why does America go to war so often? Do Imperial politics fully explain the fact that America has attacked over forty countries since 1945? Ultimately, our American stories convey an even deeper level of mythic reality. At the core of all western culture – yet expressed in its purest form in America – is the myth of the Killing of the Children. As I mentioned in my blog # 40, “The Ritual of the Presidential Debates,” our greatest secret – the most sacred knowledge, so sacred that it is taboo to ever discuss it – is that the American Empire must periodically sacrifice large numbers of its own children in foreign wars in order to shear up the cracks that appear in our national sense of innocence and white privilege. They die, we are told, to protect freedom. In fact, they die because we want them to die.


5 – Unprovoked attack. Since American violence must by definition stem from the noblest of motivations, our actions are always re-actions to nefarious attacks from the Other. Hence, no movie cowboy ever strikes the first blow. Similarly, no American President ever strikes at the enemy without first having been attacked. In these narratives, the Other always strikes first, with a “sneak” attack.


6 – With four hundred years of these stories deeply woven into the American psyche, we are well-primed to ingest each new one. Among the countless examples, think of “Remember the Maine,” the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, 9-11, “weapons of mass destruction” and Iranian nukes. But think also of the thousands of movie, TV and comic book villains who without exception strike the first blow, usually from behind. Indeed, every action of the American empire requires such provocations, because otherwise, cracks would quickly appear in the myth and Americans would begin to question the essence of our identity.


This article is about one of those stories. In 2005, Admiral James Stockdale died, almost universally revered as a genuine American hero. Most Americans knew him as Ross Perot’s 1992 vice-presidential running mate. An older generation remembered him as America’s highest-ranking prisoner-of-war in Viet Nam, a man who suffered extreme beatings and torture for seven years but never revealed classified information or spoke ill of his country.


Few of us, however, know about this:


A very public person, Stockdale gave many interviews about his military service, and he was quite candid about his participation in the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964 that gave President Lyndon Johnson the excuse to begin the invasion of Vietnam. Stockdale had led the fighter squadron searching for the North Vietnamese P-T boats that had allegedly fired upon an American ship.  Stockdale admitted, “I got so low I had salt water on my windshield and there's no boats out there!” (All quotes are from Stockdale’s interview on


So Stockdale knew very well that the President was lying when, the next day, Johnson announced that the U.S. was responding in force to this unprovoked North Vietnamese “aggression.” Either Stockdale said nothing to his superiors or he was commanded not to speak about the event.


Stockdale had been raised to be a hero but had been too young to see action in Korea, and he didn’t want to miss his chance for glory.  The next day, when other pilots were about to take off to bomb Haiphong Harbor, Stockdale (as he revealed many years later) pulled rank, demanding that he be allowed to lead the raid. When asked if he wanted defensive weapons loaded on his planes in addition to the bombs, he answered, "No, there'll be no action out there against us today except the flack…I could have said, Hell, no. This is Pearl Harbor; we're going to attack a country that's not waiting for it… I didn't say any of that and it's just as well.”


The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?  “They had already signed it and Johnson had withheld it. Now I don't know what happened to it… I laughed to myself. I didn't put it on the air but I said, Here we go. I'm starting a war under false pretenses… August 5th, 1964, and I was the guy that did it. I wouldn't have missed it but – so anyway I don't argue about the Vietnam War legitimacy or anything like that.”


Here is a most remarkable admission. Of course the war would have started anyway, even if Stockdale had spoken up or refused to go on the mission.  Months later, Johnson proclaimed, “We must love each other or die” as he secretly prepared to escalate the conflict into a major war.


But just imagine: a single person, a single point in time, a single decision to drop the bombs.  Just following orders. And eleven years later, three million people were dead. Do such actions fit the definition of “war criminal?”


A year later Stockdale was shot down over North Viet Nam and his prisoner-of-war saga began. Several best-selling books, the Medal of Honor and millions of votes came his way. His behavior in the prison was exemplary; he probably saved the lives of many of his co-prisoners. Americans came to see these men, most of whom who had been shot down while bombing North Vietnamese cities, as victims of cruel communists, the “Others” who would later be the stock villains of Sylvester Stallone movies. To this day, most Americans think of those pilots as victims, and of the 58,000 American dead as the only casualties of the war.


But who really were the victims: the 1,300 POWs, the hundred thousand veterans who committed suicide after returning, 3.8 million dead Asian peasants or an American society that still refuses to grieve for that war or for the wars we have prosecuted since then, each of them idealistic crusades to rid the world of evil, yet each of them begun “under false pretenses?”








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