No Country for Old Men? Violence, Bloodshed, and American Politics
Americans like to think that our political order is somewhat peaceful, running along fueled by elections every two years and presidential elections every four years. There are debates, sometimes nasty, and there are scandals like Watergate or Iran-Contra. Sometimes presidents resign (once), sometimes presidents step down or don’t seek re-election (once in recent years, LBJ), sometimes a president is not re-elected (twice in recent years, Carter and Bush I). But by and large, people think of the American political order as non-violent and bloodless, even if not exactly peaceful.
The facts, however, tell a different story, a very different story. In fact, violence and bloodshed are central to our political drama, driving it and impacting its character. Consider the following: JFKs presidency was cut short when he was cut down, assassinated in 1963. Certainly this violent bloodshed had a tremendous impact on our politics insofar as LBJ became president. Consider too that LBJ decided – within days of JFKs assassination – to embrace the use of US troops fighting the war in Vietnam. (JFK approved advisers but never the use of ground troops in Nam.) This led to what is called “the quagmire of Vietnam,” which of course had a tremendous impact on the US, including more violence and bloodshed even within the US as happened at Kent State and Jackson State where American soldiers fired upon and killed American citizens. And this violence and bloodshed eventually let to LBJs abdication of the presidency after one full term, along with more violence and bloodshed in Chicago during the Democratic Party’s national convention.
It also led to the election of Richard Nixon, who continued and even expanded the war in Vietnam to include almost all of Southeast Asia. Nixon engaged in massive violence and bloodshed not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos, the former leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and its “killing fields.”
Also, in the late 60s, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with alleged “radicals” like Fred Hampton in Chicago. Surely these violent and blood soaked assassinations impacted our politics in significant ways as MLK, Malcolm, and RFK espoused significant political alternatives to the prevailing consensus.
The violence and bloodshed continued with wars in the Middle East and with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and, eventually, the taking of American hostages. Even Jimmy Carter turned to violence both in Iran – to try to rescue the hostages – and in Afghanistan – where his administration supported jihadists and other Muslims seeking to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Carter started what became the largest “covert” military action ever undertaken by the CIA.
The Reagan administration also embraced violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas and in Afghanistan where it continued what Carter began, funding the likes of bin Laden, as well as the ISI in Pakistan. The violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal that almost cost Reagan his presidency. Upon his succession to Reagan, George Bush I turned to violence and bloodshed with regard to Panama and, more significantly, with regard to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The latter violence and bloodshed was billed by Bush as liberating the US from what was called “the Vietnam Syndrome,” as well as being the foundation of “a new world order.”
The Clinton administration embraced violence and bloodshed as well, preferring to label it “humanitarian,” at least in Eastern Europe. It continued the violence against Iraq via sanctions and continued the bloodshed against Iraq with continued and constant bombings. And the Clinton administration even brought violence home via his war on crime that led to the militarization of police forces and the mass incarceration of, primarily, African Americans.
And then, of course, on 9/11 the violence and bloodshed hit “the homeland,” with the attacks on NYC and the Pentagon. Needless to say, the second Bush administration turned to violence and bloodshed in response to these attacks, using 9/11 as the justification for spying on American citizens, for making war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for torturing “enemy combatants,” et. al. American society was militarized to a degree hitherto unknown, with troops appearing throughout society as well as being glamourized as the protectors of our freedoms and our prosperity. Violence and bloodshed spread throughout the world via the US military, and the phrase “endless wars” became as acceptable as our wars on crime and drugs. The Obama administration continued these wars embraced by the Bush administration, a sign of how deeply indebted our politics was to such violence and bloodshed.
And yet through all of this history, very few seemed to notice this indebtedness, to the point that the Trump presidency was often presented as a unique challenge to a politics that was, if not always peaceful, devoid of much violence and bloodshed. In fact, however, US politics cannot be understood except as recurring cycles of violence and bloodshed. Which is why perhaps the title of Cormac McCarthy”s book, No Country for Old Men, is a most apt description of the United States.