Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Deconstruction of the American Mind

I've commented before on the issue of what it is that the “insurgents”, or “terrorists”, or “fighters”, or whoever they are, in Iraq and Afghanistan, want – as in, do they want us to stay or go? They will always say they want us to go, but everything they do seems designed to force us to stay... so do they secretly want us to stay, and keep getting picked apart and bankrupted and humiliated? Or have they been making a really big mistake all this time?

Well, here's an item that indicates that they might just be catching on. An Iraqi cleric – described, of course, as “anti-American” rather than “pro-Iraqi” -- “is urging his followers to stop attacking U.S. troops in Iraq so that their withdrawal from the country isn't slowed down...” Muqtada al-Sadr wants his people to cool it “until the withdrawal is finished at the end of the year”. Implication: Once we're gone, the pressure on our puppet government will be re-applied with vigor, with the object of turning Iraq into another “theocracy” along the lines of Iran.

OK, well and good – except for the premise that we're actually leaving, or planning to leave. No matter what labels our government applies to all the Americans whom they have no intention of ever pulling out of Iraq -- “non-combat troops”, “advisors”, “trainers”, and the like – not to mention the army of “contractors”, i.e. non-uniformed combatants who are, by and large, employees of our intelligence agencies – it is clear that we aren't actually leaving, or withdrawing, at any time in the foreseeable future. I mean... no one builds a square-mile, multi-billion-dollar embassy in a country that they plan to leave. And it's not just about “supporting” the puppet government; it's about keeping Iraq firmly in the fold, as part of the American Empire. But maybe al-Sadr knows this as well, and has plans for what happens after our alleged “withdrawal”; who knows? In any case, he at least seems to be on the right track in his thinking. At this point in our history, our foreign policy has morphed into the stage of absurdity, where the worse things get, the more persistent we become, regardless of the losses incurred.

But is this something new? A survey of our history of foreign interventions gives a mixed picture. In the good old days – starting with the Spanish-American War and the Great White Fleet (aptly named, I must say!) -- we were all about expanding American power and influence world-wide, for the sake of... what? To show off our military muscle and to define “spheres of influence”, which had come a long way since the Monroe Doctrine. You might call it the triumph of nationalism over true patriotism; now it was important that we “show the flag” in the far corners of the globe – military expansionism for its own sake. (At least we were not, at that point, claiming to be “spreading democracy”; that delusion came later on.) The main point was that as long as it worked – as long as we were consistently on the winning side – the question of our motives, and how to get rid of us (strategically), didn't come up. It was limited to the occasional demonstration with signs saying “Yankee Go Home!” -- and we all know how effective those were. The high water mark, if you will, of the successful projection of American power came with World War II, which ended with the atomic bombing of Japan and our occupation of that country and Germany, along with “bases” in most other places in East Asia and Western Europe. It would have been quibbling to claim that we had suffered a serious loss by turning Eastern Europe over to Stalin – although some people tried in vain to make that point.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. Soon after World War II ended, we “lost” China – as if we ever “had” China... and then we got tangled up in Korea, which was fought to a draw. And as countries around the world, not only in the Warsaw Pact, either opted for communism or had it forced on them, we felt our grip beginning to slip. Vietnam was, in this sense, the end of an era, in that we suffered a defeat – for whatever reasons – and had to beat an ignominious retreat. But had communism triumphed? It took another 15-odd years to find out, but eventually – to the dismay of liberals, theoreticians, and academicians everywhere – communism as a major world political system collapsed of its own weight and incompetence... not without help from us, of course, but we shouldn't take too much credit for what may have been inevitable. All the same, the communists had a pretty good run – 70+ years in Russia, and China was still going strong, although undergoing its own evolution from a hard-core communist state to a communist state disguised as a capitalist state. And of course the communist “dream” is far from dead, as witness places like Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, various African pestholes, etc.

But the point is this. How did we react to the Korean War turning out to be a draw? I guess we felt that communism had at least been held at bay – which it had, in that particular place. We didn't hold out, in other words, for total victory on the Korean peninsula. But then there was Vietnam, which had a more complex trajectory. Our response to initial defeats and setbacks was something called “escalation” -- as overseen by the proto-neocons of that era. And I suspect we would be fighting in Vietnam to this day if politics on the domestic side had not turned against the effort – and I attribute this primarily to the draft, although all of the other cultural changes of that time – our very own “cultural revolution”, if you will – certainly contributed. For a while there it almost seemed that we had given up on empire-building... but the forces of empire were still hard at work behind the scenes – under Reagan, Bush I, and even Clinton. The Cold War became less of a military matter than a matter of intelligence, intrigue, and “black operations”; it was still about anti-communism to some extent, but even more about laying the groundwork for a new American Empire. What could not be accomplished through sheer, overt force would be accomplished by other means – or so it was thought. In other words, the Vietnam experience did not turn us into a nation of pacifists, the way the World War II experience is supposed to have done to Japan.

One of the arguments – transparently fraudulent as it was – for our exertions against communism was always that we believed in spreading the blessings of “democracy” to benighted and oppressed peoples – and never mind that the communist states were almost invariably self-titled “people's republics”, or “the people's democratic republic of...” whatever. We knew that those were just cruel, mocking labels, and that we had the only genuine version of democracy, the others being shams. But in any case, even before the Soviet Union broke up, there was a certain feeling of loss of mission... a kind of winding-down that began with the immediate post-Vietnam period and the Carter administration. But then – a miracle! Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and we embarked on a new mission, hot on the heels of the Cold War, and even overlapping it slightly. And I cannot describe the relief and jubilation that ran through the American military when we finally discovered a new cause, as represented by the Persian Gulf War. Yes!! A new cause, to replace the war on communism! A new opportunity to play with all of our war toys! A brand-new line of camouflage battle wear! And thus, a new era was begun – and it would be idle to claim that it had not been part of a plan of long standing.

But even that auspicious beginning was only a preliminary bout – a “primary” if you will. There was a truce of sorts during the 1990s – a time of regrouping for much of the world – and this was, to say the least, very unsatisfying for the empire-builders. Oh sure, we had a few desultory military exercises during that period, but nothing to match the short-lived glory of Operation Desert Storm.

But then – another miracle! And an attack “on American soil” to boot. The events of 9-11 surpassed the sum total of all the previous casus belli (or whatever the plural is for that term – I should have taken Latin in high school instead of the language of all those cheese-nibblers) – better than the USS Maine, better than the Lusitania, better than Pearl Harbor, better than the Gulf of Tonkin... and so on. And once again, American hubris was out in the open and in full cry. Nationalism was back in fashion, and the ghosts of Manifest Destiny were stalking the land. We had “won” the Cold War after 45 long years of struggle... and golly gee, we had tried to keep the peace since then as best we could, but now here were all of these nasty Arabs and other Islamists attacking not only America, but “the American way of life”, and “our freedoms”, and so on. And after all, they had been asking for trouble for quite some time – the most prominent early episode being the “hostage crisis” in Iran (while the Cold War was still on – which explains our somewhat delayed response). We were willing to leave Iran alone at that point, but when Saddam invaded Kuwait, well, that just tore it! And at that time, our New World Order visionary-in-chief, Bush the First, sent out the call, and Americans responded – and with considerable relief, as I said. Our mission in world history had been renewed and re-validated, and not a minute too soon. So when 9/11 happened, we were ready. I mean, we weren't “prepared” for the attacks, but we were more than ready to go to war. And once again, the early victories – “shock and awe”, “cakewalk”, and so on, convinced us that we were in the right once again, and that the unpleasantness of Vietnam and the mediocrity of Korea had been the exceptions rather than the rule. Plus, now we had a new cause, namely “spreading democracy”, not as a foil against communism but as a foil against dark, medieval, superstitious theocracy of the Islamic kind.

And when you think about it, the hand-off from one cause to the other was amazingly clean. One minute we were witnessing the dissolution of the Soviet Union – our favorite enemy for 45 years – and the next minute we were taking up where the Crusaders had left off 700 years earlier. (Strikingly, the fall of Acre, the last Crusader city, was in May of 1291, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was made official in December of 1991. History does provide us with some intriguing symmetries now and then.)

But once again, the American mind was put to the test. Iraq was not so much a cakewalk as a long siege, which continues to this day, no matter how many words our politicians mouth about “drawdown”... and Afghanistan proves to be as intractable for us as it was for the Russians or any of their predecessors. But now – even after what should have been the chastisement of Vietnam – we have adopted a renewed mind set, one symbolized by the empty and mindless phrase “staying the course” -- preached endlessly by our most empty and mindless president to date (and not preached but certainly adhered to by his successor).

So it's no wonder there's confusion on the other side. If they expected Iraq/Afghanistan to be another Vietnam, the way Afghanistan was, allegedly, Russia's Vietnam, they have been proven wrong. And in this, they have, perhaps, underestimated the extent to which we – as I discussed in a previous post – have embraced absurdity as our theme in foreign affairs.

Of course, there are other possible psychological explanations for this. One is that thing that has become a kind of fetish to the American mind, namely “closure”. The Korean truce, as unsatisfactory as it was (and is), constituted closure of sorts – or at least stagnation. Our defeat in Vietnam was certainly humiliating enough, but it had its closure aspects – we were forced out, or withdrew, or retreated, or gave up, or whatever. In any case, the war was over. And considering the price we had all paid – resource-wise, in lives, in political and cultural turmoil – I would say that all but the most fanatical among us felt some sense of relief. It was an unpleasant episode in every respect; and besides, Vietnam was a less-than-credible location in which to plant our flag as part of the American Empire – and may never have been intended to be. But the Middle East is, for whatever reasons, another matter. We gave up on Latin America a long time ago... Africa never seemed all that attractive... China was a lost cause... so what was left? The Middle East – conveniently located right next to Israel, and holding in its sweaty, malodorous hands a good deal of the world's oil. If there was ever to be an American Empire in our time, it would have to be there. And this, it seems to me, is why the effort has persisted far beyond the point where reason and logic fail. There are, in fact, “reasons” for our being over there – albeit far-from-honorable ones. But what is keeping us there is, above all, the fact that it is our last hope for empire; if that fails, then all is lost – we then become “just another place on the map”... the worst possible fate for a nation that was founded with transcendent glory in mind. So the only way to obtain “closure” is through total victory – and yet that is proving impossible – so we continue to “double down”, and sink further into absurdity. And this is why al-Sadr and his ilk are on the right track in the short run, but on the wrong track in the long run. Yes, continued “terrorist” activity will make us stay; we are way beyond the point of ever giving up just because something is a lost cause. But a moratorium on terrorist activity won't necessarily make us leave – not really. Al-Sadr understands the American mind up to a point, but the mistake he is making is that he considers us at least semi-rational. This may prove to be his undoing – but not before it has proven to be ours.

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