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The Dominion of War

By November 16, 2005 No Comments

Americans are not comfortable with their nation being associated with the term “empire.” Despite its substantial numbers of troops and governing power in Afghanistan and Iraq today, the only persons calling the current American military and political exploits imperialistic are misty-eyed British commentators like Niall Ferguson, who urge Americans to accept their destiny to rule the world. In domestic discourse, the issue of empire has been ignored despite the fact that some 380,000 American troops are deployed today around the globe. Indeed, upon them as upon their British predecessors of old, the sun never sets.

Yet when we examine the course of North American history from the earliest voyages of discovery, the connection between the liberty that Americans have self-consciously pursued and the empire they have assiduously denied is apparent. That, at least, is the central contention of Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton’s new work, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000. Dominion of War Well-known historians at the University of Colorado and Miami University of Ohio, respectively, Anderson and Cayton argue that the history of North America has been, in the starkest terms, a history of warfare: at first a struggle for imperial domination between various powers, and then an inexorable expansion by an independent United States. While the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, and World War II fit the cherished popular belief that the nation goes to war to uphold such values as liberty and equality, the authors point to the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and other less memorable conflicts as the means by which the United States first won domination over the North American continent and then paramount status on the international scene. To understand the history of the United States, then, one must understand its driving imperial ambition.

This interpretation challenges the standard American historical narrative which pivots on the three classic wars that tested and proved a nobler national purpose. The first crucible was the American Revolution, in which the old colonial system was dismantled and a new nation established upon an Enlightenment basis of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Left-over questions from the Revolutionary epoch–such as slavery, sectionalism, and states’ rights–were resolved, secondly, with the Civil War, as citizenship and equality were extended to African-Americans and as the nation was consolidated on a unitary plan. Finally, already thus launched on the path to becoming a great power, the United States achieved global supremacy through triumphant struggles in World War II and its Cold War aftermath, providing economic liberty and democracy to the rest of the world.

Rejecting this account, The Dominion of War argues that warfare of all types has driven and defined American history. To tell this story Cayton and Anderson divide North American history into four epochs: the Age of Contact (1492-1600), the Age of Colonization and Conflict (1600-1750), the Age of Empires and Revolution (1750-1900), and the Age of Intervention (1900 to the present). The book’s ten chapters trace this sequence by each focusing on a particular military figure, from Samuel de Champlain to Colin Powell, who embodies the trends and type of warfare his age represented.

The result is a readable book that expands our knowledge of the persons examined as well as proposing a new national story-line. The most interesting figure might be George Washington, who emerges as the “father of his country” only after desperately wanting to become part of Britain’s North American elite, rebelling when his ambitions did not fit within the context of Britain’s global empire. The least known of the subjects is Antonio Santa Anna, who was among the founding fathers of Mexico in 1821 but also was responsible for losing nearly half of his young republic’s territory twenty-five years later. The authors deftly profile each of their subjects while connecting them with the conflicts that raged in or about their country at the time. There is much new ground covered from this perspective, and the authors uphold their thesis well.

Yet The Dominion of War is also notable in what it lacks. The narrative is heavily skewed toward early American history. Of the ten characters, only two, Douglas Mac- Arthur and Colin Powell, appear after the Civil War, and only the latter after World War II. The book ignores figures like John Pershing and Curtis LeMay, who defined American military strategy over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Likewise, Anderson and Cayton deal exclusively with land-based operations, ignoring the enormous role that sea power has played in furthering American expansion. Finally, imperialism is not limited simply to military expressions, as we in the twenty-first century certainly know. It is the United States’ “soft power” of economic, religious, and cultural influence that allows it to have the dominance it has today. This very substantial topic is probably best left to other volumes, but occasional cross-references would have been a good reminder here.

That said, The Dominion of War is an excellent work in its own right and ought to launch an important, and certainly voluminous, series of further studies. Already it allows for a better understanding of the current militarization of American society, which pays lip service to the culture of life and glories in the adventures of death.

Peter Bratt holds a master’s degree in American history from Ohio State University and works for the law firm of Wong and Fleming in Princeton, New Jersey.