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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

What Will We Do If Peace Breaks Out?

Intervention in Syria’s civil war has been the recent headline, so I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about the French & Indian War. Fought during the 1750s and 1760s, they called it “The Nine Years Great War” in Europe. We were part of this international conflict even before we were a nation.

At the time, we were a collection of British colonies (with Florida as a Spanish colony). When Britain and France hosted one of their periodic wars, colonists in America, of course, supported their Motherland. Native Americans logically sided with France, as Frenchmen treated them far more kindly than any other whites, including the Spanish in the south, the Dutch and Swedes in the Middle Atlantic, or the English in New England. Sensibly, Indian tribes joined with French soldiers to fight the British soldiers – and the colonist volunteers, who started the war in the West Hemisphere by violating their own law.

British governors had signed treaties with Indians assuring them of the land west of the Alleghenies and forbidding white people from settling there. That era’s version of Tea Partiers, however, thumbed their noses at government and went west -- expecting the government to rescue them when Indians predictably attacked.

It was terrorism of the worst sort, stretching hundreds of miles for almost a decade. Civilians, including women and children, were brutally killed by tomahawks and flaming arrows. Not to discount modern suffering in Syria, but dying from Sarin gas would be much less painful. Canadians have kindly forgiven us for our invasion of French Quebec, but after victory, the British government (ours) exiled thousands of French Canadians (Arcadians, later Cajuns) to the French colony of Louisiana. Imagine that refugee resettlement -- going from cold Canada to the swamps of the Mississippi River delta!

More because of victories in Europe than because of success in America, we won that war -- but when Britain wanted Americans to help pay for it in the next decade, these Tea Party types did their PR event at Boston. You know how that turned out. Ever since, most Americans, especially those who label themselves conservatives, hold the contradictory positions of being pro-war and anti-tax.

* * *

We also promote the myth that we are a peaceful nation – or at least we believe that we were until recently. Most ordinary people, especially immigrants who fled from Europe’s continual turmoil, in fact were peaceful. They wanted to farm and build businesses and families, and they took seriously the colonial distrust of a standing army.

But a permanent military was an honored part of the British tradition, and America’s powerful men were educated in that tradition. Respectable employment for the empire’s gentlemen was pretty much limited to the clergy, law, medicine, and the military: being “in trade” or commerce long was considered bourgeois. The nobility sent its sons – especially younger sons – to be military officers. Think Prince William, the future king, who is currently completing his service as a helicopter pilot.

So it was unlikely that the ideal of a nation without a standing army would succeed. We established West Point, the federal academy in New York that trains military officers, already in 1802. In 1812, we began a second war against Britain; on the other side of the ocean, this was part of the Napoleonic Wars. Our involvement in international affairs continued to be real, even as we thought of ourselves as isolationists indifferent to professional armies.

It was professionals, though, who built Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay in 1824. It was professionals who did a pitifully poor job of fighting the Second Seminole War. Ambushed as they marched from Fort Brooke to Fort King (Ocala), Major Francis Dade lost all but two of his 110 men. Dade has been celebrated as a hero – but in terms of percentages, his was the greatest loss in military history. That is until Custer’s Last Stand in South Dakota in 1876: he lost all of his men. The point is that professionally trained soldiers are not necessarily winners, either then or now.

* * *

The war against the Seminoles was a huge money drain, costing some $40 million dollars and the deaths of 1,466 professional soldiers. (As per their usual habit, military record keepers did not enumerate either Seminole or civilian deaths.) The bigger reason for declaring the war over in 1842, though, was diversion of military attention elsewhere. War with Canada over the Oregon Country was a possibility, and war with Mexico over Texas became real that same year.

The army moved out, and Floridians were urged to protect themselves under Armed Occupation Act of 1842. A precursor to the federal Homestead Act of 1862, it offered 160 acres of free land to anyone who settled in central Florida. The intent was that this would keep Seminoles in south Florida. Many whites – including women -- accepted this federal largess, along with the danger it implied.

It didn’t take long, though, for Southern congressmen to repeal the act. Big plantation owners didn’t want competition from poor whites with free land, and the federal Homestead Act would wait until the Civil War. This act, the greatest economic equalizer of American history, was adopted in 1862, while Southern states were out of the Union.

And it, too, was intended to help the professional military. Busy fighting their rebellious colleagues in the Confederacy, the government wanted civilians to continue the Indian wars. Which happened, especially with the great uprising of Minnesota Sioux that killed hundreds of civilians. Many deaths were as horrific as anything abroad today. Some of my lateral ancestors were among the women and children herded into a house that was set on fire; if they tried to escape, they were shot.

After the Civil War, the professional military policed the occupied South and returned to more Indian wars in the West. We managed to keep ourselves out of Europe’s Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, but in the 1890s, we went to war with Spain. After we had acquired its colonies from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, there was no question that the United States was an imperialist nation. For good measure, we also overthrew the native government in Hawaii, effectively turning over that nation to Dole Pineapple.

* * *

I’m going to skip the twentieth century, with its two world wars and major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, to say nothing of our minor incursions in Mexico, Taiwan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and on and on. We are not a peace-seeking nation, although we have told ourselves that for so long that most of us believe it.

We often build our self-image on truly good reasons, as most of us genuinely intend to protect innocent people from dictatorial governments. This sometimes is the reality, but sometimes it is not – and most of us don’t try to sort out the historical context to know the difference. In Latin America especially, most of our invasions have not had the effect of protecting the people, but instead have propped up the rich, ala Dole Pineapple. The overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile was a particularly egregious case of supporting fascists.

So it always is right to ask questions. It always is right to begin your query with a healthy skepticism re the Pentagon. They (and their defense contractors) make their living by making war, and the military route to promotion mandates combat experience. I remember well when we were living in Washington during the Vietnam War, and the favorite expression of military friends was “what will we do if peace breaks out?”

It is especially right to form coalitions with other democratic nations who also want to take out tyrants, and I’m glad that President Obama hit the pause button on Syria to gather allies. He’s played this brilliantly, both aboard and at home. He forced Republicans to put up or shut up, instead of allowing them their usual rhetoric that has it both ways.

They would have pummeled him if he hadn’t stood up to Assad, and they would have pummeled him if he got us into another losing war. He was absolutely right, both constitutionally and strategically, to make the Congress make a decision. I’m sure that they all breathed a big sigh of relief now that he – at least for a while – let them off the hook.

One final point: Where is the Red Cross? Or the Red Crescent, in Muslim terms? Why isn’t it in the news dealing with the refugees and the victims, as it was during World War II? Has it become merely functionary for natural disasters, not manmade ones? That isn’t its history. It began in the 1880s, because of the Franco-Prussian War of the previous decade.

Although the US stayed out of that war, Clara Barton did not. She was much more than a nurse in the Civil War of the 1860s: she was a genius of supply procurement and distribution. It was Dorothea Dix, known for her mental health work, who was Superintendent of Nurses for the Union, while Barton specialized in supply. She was an amazing organizer, adept at preventing the corruption that always goes with supplying war materiel, and after its end, she set up the world’s first organization for identifying the missing and dead.

And then she went to Europe, where she implemented the same reforms and began the International Red Cross – but the US did not initially sign that treaty. Nor did the U.S. sign the treaty that created the League of Nations after World War I. It was only because of Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in winning World War II that the U.S. signed on to the United Nations – with many conservatives opposing it both now and then.

Bill Clinton merits the heartiest congratulations in all of these international dramas. He put together a coalition that ended genocide in Bosnia without the loss of a single American life. Most Republicans can’t acknowledge that fact, and Democrats don’t do enough to publicize it – but people looking for answers about what to do in Syria should look to him and Hilary. I’m sure President Obama is doing that, and I trust that with calm thought that includes an understanding of history, democratic values will prevail.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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