Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ignorance Abroad

Back at the end of May we talked a little about why it seemed that the United States had spent much of the preceding forty years flailing about the hustings of the globe, expending blood and treasure for reasons that appeared...specious at best and dubious at worst.

We concluded that the U.S. reputation as a rough beast was overblown, product of a unique confluence of political and social inequities. But we also decided that one real oddity was that although much or most of this foreign war was not really beneficial to the bulk of the American people (the supposed sovereign entity in their own polity) that said People seemed apathetic and even actively inimical to attempts to stop the wars or even, through questioning, enlighten the debate about their causes, conduct and goals.

Because on the face of it, a pretty large proportion of America's wars and police actions don't make a lot of sense if you're an auto salesman in Des Moines.Let's look at where we've fought since the end of our active roles in Vietnam.

1972-1983: For the decade after Vietnam we had a pretty quiet time, militarily. You can pretty much lump the Mayaguez Incident in with the fighting in SE Asia that was the "halo effect" from Vietnam (which includes the internal wars and genocides in Cambodia and Laos as well as the border wars between China and North Vietnam). The American people had pretty much had it with war for half a generation. For the first part we had His Accidency, Gerald Ford, who would have been dismembered by enraged soccer moms if he'd started a foreign war, and a Congress largely occupied with fighting inflation and the pernicious political effects of the Nation's Most Evil Presidency (Pre-Dubya Division).

Then we elected a peanut farmer who ran on the time-tested slogan "he kept us out of war" but whose entire administration was consumed in the gasoline fire of the Fuel Crisis and stagflation.By the time we remembered how we were supposed to be the Chosen People and elected a Hollywood cutout of a hero whose incipient Alzheimer's confused him about whether he actually fought in WW2, we were in no shape to fight the Maryknoll School For Girls and it took Ronnie several years to find a couple of patsies for us to bitchslap.

1983: Well, we finally found them. One, at least, in the form of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, up to that time known only for nutmeg and having the world's most endearingly whack dictator, Sir Eric Gairy, who ran his tiny country as a one-party state when he wasn't using his fifteen minutes of podium time at the UN to pass a resolution to welcome the UFO aliens. Grenada was in the middle of some unusually exciting political upheaval when Mr. Reagan sent in the gunboats; between political chaos and the typical Caribbean schlamperei the walkover took about four days longer than it should have. I should add that Grenada was my own little war, a disorganized tropical muddle only temporarily enlivened by the sudden arrival of the XVIII Airborne Corps commander, LTG "Fat Jack" MacMull to bitchslap my division commander, MG "Fast Eddie" Trobaugh, for - given two and a half brigades of airborne infantrymen to subdue a raggedy-ass band of Cuban construction troops and the elite Grenadian Army - moving like stagnant pond water on a cold day. (Not to say that Fat Jack had a point, but Eddie DID retire as a two-star, so obviously others up at the Five-Sided Fool Farm shared his opinion of Eddie's military genius.)

Nobody I've talked to or heard from really believes the Reagan line of "rescuing" the students from the cereal-box-top-quality "medical school" in Grenada, whose primary hazard was losing their bottle of Coppertone, and the military risk that Grenada, or Cuba for that matter, posed was always minuscule. The official Ronnie line was that the Point Salines airfield was a supposed "lily pad" for Soviet power projection, although where this power was to be projected to in the middle of the American lake of the Caribbean God alone knows.No, there was no profit for the American people in Grenada, as the subsequent 26 years have proved; outside of Disney Cruise Lines and myself nobody knows the place exists. In a moment of intensely private irony, the Grenadian and Cuban governments announced last autumn their intention to erect a marker to the 24 Cubans waxed back in October of '83 to match the similar geegaw honoring the 19 Yanks who bit the dust.

So far no one has proposed anything for the thirty or so Grenadians who were blown away as a cost of doing foreign policy business. Oh, well.

Mind you, the OTHER little adventure Ronnie dragged us into in '83 was Lebanon; an appallingly idiotic goatrope of a clusterfuck inside an enigma wrapped in a decorative tinsel of abject geopolitical fucktardry. What was the purpose was never clear.The Global Security website, parroting the official U.S. government line, says that "MNF forces returned to Beirut at the end of September 1982 as a symbol of support for the government." How squatting at Beirut Airport providing target practice for a pack of savage Muslim guerrillas on the roof of the Holiday Inn with a box of RPG rounds and two cartons of Camels is unclear, but what became of the moronic mission was a complete Fail for the U.S. along with the two-hundred odd Americans killed standing around while the government of Lebanon - in which we had no real geopolitical interest and no conceivable economic or social stake - went to hell.

So compared to Lebanon, Grenada seems like the Gadsen Purchase in political terms...

Everything was quiet on the western front for another six years until...

1989: Then President George Bush I sends in U.S. forces to eliminate that global threat to peace and stability...ummm...Panama.

Yeah, I know. It had The Canal. Which it was about as likely to use as a lever against the U.S. as Omar Torrijos was to rise from his dirt nap in the flossy mausoleum out on Fort Amador and do the Funky Chicken.

Manny "Pineapple Face" Noriega, while a loathsome dictator, was certainly no worse than a bunch of other Latin and South American leaders we were all kissy-huggy with in 1989, including Vicino Cerezo of Guatemala and Pinochet of Chile.

Drugs were going to go up noses in Brentwood and Grosse Point no matter who ran the show in Panama. Freighters were going to transit the canal. "Los Rabes Blancos" - the "white asses" - who owned and operated Panama were going to be the HMFIC regardless of who sat in the big chair in Panama City. The international bankers who used Panama as a piggy bank to cheat their nation's tax collectors and play Masters of the Universe were...well, given the past twelve months, who wouldn't want to see 98% of all international financiers hung up in hell being sodomized by a thousand burning devils employing their ruinously barbed erections, eh, so who gives a rat's ass about them, eh?The point is...what did the U.S. public get out of "Operation Just Cause" other than the lifetime cost of the care and feeding of Pineapple Face and the beginning of the idiotic Pentagon tradition of giving these things "code names" that wouldn't deceive a retarded gorilla? ("Operation Iraqi Freedom"; that'll fool the Iraqi intelligence services, boys - think they'll guess it's a plan for the liberation of fucking Andorra? Shrewd!)

1991: Financed by the freedom-loving sheiks of Kuwait, we trounced Saddam's sorry little army and made Kuwait free. -Ish. Democracy-like. Monarchy-lite-ian.

Whatever. The point was that finally we were fighting a war for the best reasons: economic gain and the defense of access to vital natural resources. And because of Daddy Bush's bold - though not election-winning - "line in the sand" we not only solved the Middle East's problems, chastened that Evil Saddam and protected the poor Shiites, and ensured that our gas prices would be low forever because we didn't have Saddam holding our commodities prices hostage.


Well, at least we got "Three Kings" out of it.And in the end we got more out of the Kuwaitis (the Second Gulf War pretty much paid for itself) than we got out of the Somalis (1993) and the Bosnians (1995) and the Kosovars (1999). Nice folks, good people (OK, except for the Somalis, who are like the Scots in their delight in tribal war, treachery and murder) but beneficial to Joe and Mary American Lunchpail?

Not so much.

Which brings us up to today, and the apparently endless efforts to turn Iraq into Framingham, Massachusetts, with a tidy little democratic government, clean streets and plump, well-scrubbed schoolchildren, and to remake Afghanistan into...well, whatever isn't a barely-medieval, cordilleran pesthole ridden with factionalism, warlords, ancient tribal and religious animosities and the world's richest opium poppy crop (makes you wonder what "Harvest Home" is like in the Kandahar Valley, doesn't it?)

Clausewitz famously described warfare as a way of continuing a political argument once words had become ineffective. So the implication is that a war, to be worth even the loss of a single life and the expense of a single penny, should be for some purpose that benefits the polity, that is, the People of the nation involved.

Repelling invasion is a pretty straightforward one. Or defeating an enemy that presents an existential threat. Of course, this doesn't have to be a "hot" war; the U.S. managed to outlive the Soviet Union without ever going nuclear warhead-to-nuclear warhead with them. Punitive blows against those who have hurt you and show evidence of willingness to continue unless soundly beaten.

There are more subtle, less immediate reasons for fighting. Securing a political or economic advantage, such as control of (or the prevention of a threat to) some place that can choke off your goods (canals, say, or straits, or air routes) or throttle your economy (natural resources such as petroleum, minerals or even foodstuffs). Helping a strategic ally. Containing instability, war, or similar human disaster.

But think about it.

Did the fight in Grenada involve any of these things?
Panama (and recall that to close the Canal would have impoverished Panama before it even tickled the U.S. economy)?

Kuwait? Yes, indeed, it did, as I discussed.

Afghanistan? (I mean by this the Occupied Afghanistan - the initial punitive strike on Afghanistan is defensible in the "war as political argument" sense.)
Iraq certainly has strategic petroleum resources, but I would say that the combination of the fucking mess we've made of the occupation and the fundamentally disastrous post-Ottoman mess that is Iraq makes the probability of a happy ending - which is to say a stable, democratic, Western-allied, peaceful nation - coming out of the Third Gulf War no better than an even chance.Now ALL of these wars and police actions are valuable to, and understandable as the acts of, an economic and political ruling class; the sort of logic that drove the English kings to spend 116 years spending blood and treasure to rule France.

I'll wager that the average man-at-arms from Colchester, the archer from Little Doddering, the camp follower from Devon could have given half a nanoshit who sat on the throne of the Capets. But, being subjects at best and serfs at worst, they didn't have a choice but to follow their betters to war and hope to come home alive and perhaps with a bit o' loot. But the overall effect of the Hundred Years' War, for 99.7% of the people who fought in it, or were fought over, was useless and wretched if not actually fatal.

The single biggest factor in precipitating the foundation of the United States was the colonists' anger and resentment over their belief that they were having to pay for, as well as suffering the ill-effects and none of the benefits of, the French and Indian War. To the American colonists, this "cabinet war" was forced down them in a toxic brew of royal pride and noble venality. They resolved, once down to the business of setting up their own country, to prevent this sort of private cabal.

So our Constitution is written so that ONLY the People in Congress can declare a war. That being the case, the notion that the U.S. is a monstrous armed camp, a Leviathan bristling with weapons and engaged in fighting anywhere in the world for political aims either so vague, or without any discernible sane political end at all, that no air-breathing mammal could countenance them, should have by now produced a furious storm of public anger. Such a wind of rage should blow that no political figure should be able to stand before the demand that the United States - the putative Beacon of Liberty, the City on the Hill - cease rampaging about foreign people's homes, release those foreign peoples it has snatched up without charge and without explanation, leave those foreign people to their own business, and come home to live in as much peace as can be managed in a world without law above the selfish law of nations.
We seem to be spending a great deal of time and trouble to turn central and southwest Asia in Fragmingham, Mass. only with more goat kebabs. Just looking at the benefit to the U.S. public this would seem to be quixotic at best and MOronic at worst.

So - why DO we fight?

To this I can only perceive two explanations. They aren't "reasons", in that they are hardly reasonable to any hominid possessing a living brain. They don't really make sense, in the meaning of the term of making a coherent and logical case for a course of action. But they do explain the otherwise inexplicable passivity of the American electorate in the face of this obscenely expensive and moronic debacle so valueless to the body of the American public.

The first is IGNORANCE.And, by this, I don't mean stupidity. I don't think that Americans, on the whole, are any more or less intelligent than any other residents of any country on Earth. We certainly have our share of dummies - any listen to the call-ins to a Rush Limbaugh radio show will prove that - but no more than we deserve. We send our kids to decent schools - although I do wish that they spent more time learning HOW to think rather than WHAT to think - and we have unparalleled exposure to ideas and opinions.No, I mean ignorance. Lack of experience, vision, applied knowledge of the world, the people and places in it, and ideas about it.

Americans are, by and large, ignorant of the world around them. We can afford to be; in fact, our geography dictates that we are almost bound to be, unless we take the effort to transcend our limits. Perhaps only an Australian, a Chinese or a Russian are as isolated. A European, a Middle Easterner, a South or Central American, and most Asians can't drive or ride a train more than a day without being Somewhere Else. a place where the people speak at least a different dialect, if not a completely different language. Dress a little differently. Listen to different music, like different foods, play different sports. The closeness of these differences forces people in these places to pay closer attention to those who aren't like them. They may not like them - in fact, this proximity may contribute to cherished old loathings - but they can't act as if they are something in a TV war movie. No matter how far we go, we can't escape our Americanness. IT's vast, it's all around us. I think this is a huge factor in explaining, for instance, why we're still farting around in the Afghan Kush. The people driving the bus have their own agenda. But the rest of us, the plain, simple, ordinary Americans who aren't writing to their Congresscritter asking why the hell we're fighting over the fucking Korengal Valley...we just don't GET how really, truly, genuinely, fundamentally different a Hazara tribesman is from Jay Leno. We don't. We, a lot of us, subconsciously think that the whole world is like America - after all, OUR whole world is, isn't it? - and that all those "other" people are like Americans (only a little dirtier and smellier). We want peace and a nice lawn and Viagra and Angelina Jolie in buttless chaps...he does too, right? So, like the cartoon American tourists, if we just speak English LOUD enough and SLOW enough they'll "get" it and BE like us, right?We're also ignorant, pig-ignorant, criminally ignorant, of war and the effects of war. We were ignorant enough back in the Eighties, but by now the draft era has so far receded that only a handful of us have Seen the Elephant. And none of us, not even our Greatest Generation moms and dads or grandparents, really understand war the way the Europeans who lived through or were raised by the generations that survived the First and Second World Wars.

I chuckle bitterly when I hear some war-porn addict mocking the French for their pusillanimity. You just don't get it, do you, jackhole? You're talking about the fiercest beasts of a bestial continent, the Butchers of Europe, the blood-gluttons of History, who carved a gory trail of corpses from Tours to Verdun before the horrific nightmare of the Western Front knocked the savagery right out of them. Try offering some Freedom Fries to a sunken-eyed man-at-arms of Rocroi, a loot-burdened old grognard of Smolensk, a filthy poilu of Chemin-des-Dames and see what that gets you. No; we can warble along to "Iraq and I Roll" because we don't have a Dresden or a Verdun or a Somme or a Coventry or a Stalingrad in our memories of war, just idiotic Mel Gibson films and bad country music.

The second is SLOTH.We're just lazy.Our Framers handed us down a nation they intended to be run by the rich and the well-born. Men and women worked and fought hard, from 1789 until 1968 (When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law), to roll back the privilege and entitlement of the wealthy and the well-connected. Since the 1960's we could have taken the warning we were given by the example of Mister Nixon and his cronies, whose intention it was (and is) to return the power to the hands of the powerful, and continued the fight, continued to hold the wealthy, the famous and the powerful at arm's length with the skepticism of a born republican.

Instead, we, most of us, have chosen to abandon the public fora to the malefactors of great wealth, their corporate enablers and the bathtub scum they have purchased to do their legislating for them. We have more interest in the doings of Jon and Kate (and bad cess to me for even knowing who these worthless idiots are) than in compelling our own rulers to tell us the truth. We choose to be comforted by lies rather than be shamed by the truth.We are truly well on our way to becoming subjects rather than citizens.


Are we monsters? Savages? Bloody-handed Huns rampaging throughout the weaker world around us because......we glory in slaughter and conquest, lust to crush our enemies, drive them before us, to hear the lamentations of their women?

No.We are, most of us, luxury- and trivia-loving lotos-eaters, slothful and ignorant followers along for the ride that the real rulers of our country are taking us on.

That doesn't call for much fire and brimstone, perhaps.But it doesn't say much praiseworthy about us, either.


Rick98c said...

Masterful as always, but you forgot "AFRAID". I realize that this is a rather new one for Americans. We used to have nothing to fear but fear itself...exceopt that was the thinking of arch-communist Franklin Roosevelt.

I think you might touch on the massive propaganda efforts directed
at keeping the sheeple in a perpetual state of fear. The Right has made FEAR an American value and uses it to justify the entire PWOT. The sheeple respond.

For some reason the past few weeks I have had patient after patient, otherwise reasonable white guys in their 60'-80's, who lay in their hospital beds with FOX NEWS on the TV 24/7. I have gotten to the point where I mute the audio while I am in the rooms working because I just can't concentrate on the business at hand with that insane ranting going on, but I've heard plenty and there is no way a person can be subjected to that madness over and over again without it having some effect. From the polls it seems about 30% of our people are drinking that Kool-Aid and have thus lost any ability to reason or look at issues objectively. Yes there are those on the "left" that are equally dogmatic, but they are truly a handful in comparison.

So frustrating. I really can't blame people for getting caught up in the hysteria post 9/11, but to continue to blindly follow despite everything we have since learned makes attempting to discuss anything with these types far more pointless than banging one's head into a brick wall. At least it is in the nature of bricks to be hard and unyielding and immune to reason.

Lisa said...

Wickedly funny and tragic, too, I am left speechless by this impassioned tour de force. If only students could receive the benefit of your thought in a course, "U.S. Modern Warfare: How it Really Went Down," I doubt they could breathe in the drivel of FOX news ever again.

Ignorance and sloth seem ubiquitous. Add to that, "acquisitiveness" and Rick's "fearfulness" and I think you encompass the drives of the majority or our fellows.

When I was a young 'un, I remember people everywhere reading the paper. Today, not so much, and if they do, it is often the local rag which really has gone totally tribal (local) in order to sustain readership. Because people really only care about them and theirs.

FDChief said...

Rick: I would lump "afraid" under "ignorance". We fear because we are ignorant, ignorant of what we should fear, ignorant of the things we're told to fear, because the people who are driving the bus WANT us to be ignorant and credulous. As you point out, this entire "War on Terror" has been supported by a wretchedly incompetent media eager to parrot the official line on "Why We Fight".

I suspect you're right about the 30%. I am utterly done with them and their willingness to sacrifice anything - their liberty, their law, MY liberty and law - to be "safe" from the fantasy of Islamic boogiemen that their corporate masters have created for them.

Lisa: On time, on target, as always.

I thought of including "greedy" but decided to stick with the Big Two. But your point is well taken.

Ael said...


I don't buy it. Or at least not all of it.

We Canadians are even more isolated than Americans but I think we lack much of the insularity of many Americans. Maybe it is because we carry our differences along with us (salad bowl vs melting pot). In any case, geography isn't a determining factor.

As far as laziness goes, again, it doesn't pan out. The founding fathers decided that they didn't trust the electorate to elect a president. That was in a time when back-breaking farm work was the norm for the large majority of Americans.

No I suspect that the problem is that people just want to lead their lives, and if it isn't in front of them, it doesn't exist.

FDChief said...

Ael: Geography coupled with our deliberate choice to LET geography determine our understanding. And I'd add that with the colossus of the south to rub in the "differences", a Canadian can't be as insular as an American can choose to be if he or she wishes.

And I don't understand how ignoring the urgent needs of self government - "people just want to lead their lives, and if it isn't in front of them, it doesn't exist" - can be anything other than a failure of a supposedly self-governing people. In fact, I'd opine that attributing it to laziness is a compliment. The people who fought to expand the franchise throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries had work and worry problems of their own, they had to earn a living, too. And yet they found a way to make changes. Today we have advantages connecting us to others and public life that they couldn't imagine, and yet we choose to let our "leaders" lie to us and lead us places inimical to us and make no demur. If it's NOT just sloth then it must be what Lisa suggested, a more toxic combination of lassitude, greed and stupidity. I'd rather think that my fellow citizens are just slumbering, and perhaps if stirred up enough can awaken to take responsibility for their own destinies again.

I'm not hopeful, but it could happen.

Lisa said...

Greed + fear is a toxic brew. It incites all manner of irrational thinking, like "I better take mine now before they get it." Rational to the animal mind, irrational far as growing a thriving society and world.

Perhaps greed and fear (and its flipside, hatred) belong under the rubric "ignorance". So Chief was right -- Ignorance is the meta tag for any number of poor behaviors. I have always believed that only the ignorant can be cruel and greedy, and by "ignorant" I do not necessarily mean unlettered.

Instead of warning us off the Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps God should have included an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not be ignorant.

Aviator47 said...


The late Pierre Burton wrote often about a primary difference between Canada and the US. In describing the nature of each nation's "birth" and the documented perception of the role of government, he offered a very interesting contrast.

The US was born by an act of violence (The Revolutionary War), and the founding document espouses "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" as the primary and inalienable rights that were to be preserved by the new order. In short, the individual's desires trump the collective well being.

Canada, on the other hand, was born by a peaceful act (The British North America Act) some 100 years later. The most significant description of the role of the government is in the introductory phrase of Section 91, which calls for the provision of "Peace, Order and Good Government". In short, the collective well being trumps individual desire.

You comment on insularity. I would offer that the above might give an insight. If a nation is built upon the inalienable and primary sovereignty of individuals, how much more insular can it become?

I am not talking about basic freedoms, as both countries lean toward protecting them and Canada, perhaps, more so. For example, I have detected no recent, serious creation of a religious (and religiously intolerent) political movement in your fine country as has been demonstrated in the US. Perhaps the long standing tradition of collective well being better breeds inclusiveness and mutual respect than our egocentric tradition?

Perhaps we Yanks are IGNORANT because sophistication is not conducive to egocentrism. In order to care only about one's self, we need to be oblivious to others.

In order for Americans to pursue, totally unfettered by any external responsibilities, their individual lives, liberty and happiness, it is critical to engage in selective situational ignorance. Ignorance is essential to owning and operating an excessively polluting car. Ignorance is essential to borrowing (or lending) beyond one's means. Ignorance is essential to avoiding the idea of caring for the less fortunate in our communities. Once IGNORANCE becomes essential to basic existence, its scope can only grow.

A significant portion of the American population has elevated IGNORANCE to an art form.


Lisa said...

Al -- eloquent observation.

Yanks lack the sophistication which would be demanded by becoming true world citizens. Everything in our society feeds the insularity / arrogance / ignorance.

No. 1, No. 1. USA, USA.