Lots of us use T-shirts to show our interests, advertise our allegiances, or recall past experiences. Standing in line to board one of the vessels during the Tall Ships event in Boston Harbor, I found myself not far behind a middle-aged guy who seemed really keen to identify with the U.S. Marines. I have a great deal of respect for the U.S. Marine Corps, and had I served with it I may well have been tempted to make the fact known with a car window sticker, pennant, or pin. This guy was wearing khaki shorts, a service belt, and a desert camouflage cap on his close-cropped head. He was clearly striving to identify. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. His T-shirt, though, crossed a line. Around a caricature of a grimacing bulldog wearing a military bucket hat were the words: “UNITED STATES MARINES UNLEASHED” (presumably alluding to the grotesque bulldog), and “SINKING OUR TEETH INTO THE MIDDLE EAST.”
The creator of this sentiment has every right to express it on such a garment, and the wearer has every right to express himself by putting it on his back. It seems to me, though, to exemplify much that is seriously wrong with the attitudes of at least some—too many—of my fellow Americans towards the rest of the world. In fact, the sight of it made me feel sick, angry, and ashamed. Small wonder we are hated around the world.
Offensive braggadocio has been a characteristic of self-justifying, fearful, fighting people throughout human history, but the rest of us don’t have to let it go wholly unchallenged. This sentiment seems to convey more than personal swagger. In widespread popular mythology, the USA is a reluctant combatant, invariably drawn into war against its communal instincts and wishes. We find this articulated by, among others, the prominent British military historian John Keegan who, in Warpaths: Travels of a Military Historian (1995)—published in the USA as Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, (1996)—suggests that war has always been “repugnant to the people of the United States,” and that Americans have always viewed war as a “task,” as “work,” but “not their favoured form of work,” having always engaged in it reluctantly. But do bulldogs bite more in sorrow than in anger?
Robert Kagan, in Dangerous Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006) argues the exact opposite of Keegan’s thesis. The USA was conceived in warfare, expanded by means of warfare that today would be termed genocidal, and seized huge tracts of the continent—Texas, the South-West, California, Puerto Rico—through unremitting, aggressive violence towards other colonizing polities. Now the violent reach of the USA is global—as the invasion of Iraq demonstrated— with little to hold her in check.
The overweening confidence that such power and its exercise prompts, expressed in contempt for others and for their ways of living, has compromised our moral standing and diminished our influence throughout the world. We would do well to heed the strictures of John Quincy Adams when as U.S. Secretary of State he addressed the U.S. House of Representatives on the 4th July, 1821. He warned against imposing American values elsewhere in the world rather than supporting their voluntary adoption. In such cases “the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force...” We have already taken that road, a road that leads to contempt for the rule of law, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture, to say nothing of the deaths of many thousands in the Middle East (into which we have sunk our teeth), and elsewhere. It’s time to stop biting—and wearing disgusting T-shirts.