Thursday, May 21, 2009

A House Divided

In part of her typically perceptive comment on a preceding post about the often-oxymoron that is "military intelligence", the Wanderer's Daughter asked; "Here's the thing: I love my country. I do! It's a beautiful country. There are many ways in which I love my country. But, how did we get so isolated and blindered? The horror. How do we break out of this inward-gazing cycle?"

I responded by commenting in return that she had an excellent question, and one that we should discuss.

And between then and now I came across Glenn Greenwald's most excellent discursion on the whole issue of the American way of - and, in particular, our prediliction for - war.

He sums the whole magilla up pretty succinctly here:
We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents."

That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading. It implies that "America at war" is some sort of unusual and temporary circumstance rather than what it is: our permanent state of affairs. In perfect Orwellian fashion, our allies can easily become our enemies (Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Mujahideen precursors to Al Qaeda) and our enemies can just as easily become our allies (Iraqi Sunnis, Gadaffi), but what never changes is our status as a war-fighting nation.
This hit me like a blow to the chest. In fact, most of my adult life my country has been fighting someone. Vietnam when I was a schoolboy through high school, Grenada, Panama, Serbia, the Somali clans, Afghanistan and Iraq while I was a soldier and still, now that my own son is a schoolboy.

We seem to have no limit to our willingness to spill blood and spend treasure on war, far beyond the limits even of our Great Power rivals. Why? And is there something fundamentally different about us, us as a nation and us as a people, that creates this limitless willingness to fight?

I want to talk about this - where do you think we should start?


Ael said...

Go look at the marine monument in Arlington National Cemetery. Count the battle honors inscribed there.

Meghan said...

I think an examination of whether we truly want to be an empire is a good place to start.

Despite what our leaders have said in recent years, I'm starting to think that deep down, the American government wants to be Great Britain in the 19th & 20th Centuries...


Anonymous said...

It's an arrogance that started after the War of 1812. We put together (our forefathers did) a system of government that works well and we feel it's better than any other country on the planet. We've kicked ass in every war we've been through and we're arrogant enough to say that we'll foist our will on you and we've got the military to prove it!

Look at some of the greatest countries still in existance today: Gr. Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands. They've been through it and been humbled.

We will be there some day.

mike said...

It is not just us, Chief. It is one of the baser sides of human nature. Name me just one culture in world history that has not had their predilection for war. No excuse I know. I am against war. Like murder, mayhem, and thievery, it is a sheer absurdity. But unfortunately, it is a part of human condition. Our mark of Cain perhaps.

It has just been our American turn recently in the last 200 years. This AM I spent several hours at several rural cemeteries putting flags next to veteran's graves. No OEF and OIF graves that I saw thank God. But lots of other war graves were represented going back at least to the Mexican War. Nothing earlier, this being the Northwest.

I was not surprised to see a few veterans of the Spruce Division, whose weapons were axes and crosscuts. They harvested the key structural ingredient of WW-1 biplanes. My grandmother's elder brother Arthur, a former Wobbly, volunteered for service with them when he had been turned down for service with the AEF. The timber barons had refused to cut and mill spruce as they claimed it was not economically possible, so the Army took matters into their own hands.

This afternoon I hiked. I was a tad emotional walking past an occasional old-growth spruce after the cemetery morning. Lots to say about a house divided. But maybe another time.

Lisa said...

There cannot be something "fundamentally different about us," as we are they (not to pull an "I am the Walrus, here.) I mean, we weren't "we" before we were they.

The difference seems to be they (EU countries) are more mature, and put their energies into growing their economies. As the writer of the recent NYT feature on the Netherlands said, most may not grow wealthy, but we do not lack, either.

It is perhaps our pugnacious frontier mentality which has never been extirpated, along with a healthy dose of entitlement (manifest destiny). We have built a great country, but behave like at times like an insecure bully who must come out swinging to prove our dominance.

Instead, we dissipate our energies in windmill blows.

Pluto said...

I apologize in advance. This is going to sound weird, but I think it is very true of post-Cold War America.

The British and Dutch empires were founded mostly on mercantile interests. The British didn't even WANT most of India until a few merchants more-or-less handed it to them on a silver platter.

Both countries are relatively small, with relatively few resources. They were well aware that their single biggest resource was their ability to persuade the locals to do most of the dirty work of Empire for them. They mostly left when the locals asked them to and are generally fondly remembered in their ex-colonies.

The French, on the other hand, never learned to play the game well. They never really gained access to materials and markets that couldn't be gained more easily through other means and their soldiers bore the unhappy burden of trying to cram French culture down the local throats. They left as poorly as they came, and are not generally well thought of in their former colonies.

Post-Cold War America is yet another beast altogether. The French were trying to keep up with their neighbors. Modern America is mostly oblivious to our neighbors. North America is essentially a giant island, with the outskirts (Central America and Canada) being financially and socially dominated by the US in the center.

This combined with the historical legend of the US as a melting pot has created an enormous cultural blind-spot. We fail to realize that North America is something of a mono-culture and is unique in the world outside of Australia.

So Americans go out into the world seeking resources that are no longer easily available in our rich and massive homeland (this is an important point because we've always been very inward-facing) and are completely baffled by the behavior of the cultures we encounter there.

We tend to impose our form of government wherever we go to make the locals more understandable but it doesn't usually doesn't work as expected and tends to leave us even more puzzled and frustrated.

But we really aren't interested in their government or people or even their weather. What we want is their resources with a minimum of fuss and bother.

We frequently start by trying to buy their resources, sometimes with good intent and sometimes using trickery. Sometimes this works and sometimes we have to go further and send in the troops.

When we do send in the troops, they are mostly based in camps that are local versions of the America they left behind, the soldiers only leave the bases as needed, and are rotated out as quickly as possible.

This gives them no chance to learn anything about the local culture, which, given our cultural blind-spot probably wouldn't do much good anyway. Frankly the soldiers aren't there to make peace, they are there to extract the resources and get back home to "the real world" as quickly as possible.

I think it safe to say that the message that post-Cold War America communicates to the rest of the world is, "Give the goods and leave us alone or you'll be SORRY!"

I give credit to Obama for dreaming of other, probably better approaches. But I feel that one man, no matter how powerful or persuasive, cannot change this country and he's likely to get the same treatment that we give other foreign influences in the long run. He can give us what we want and leave us alone or he'll be sorry.