Sunday, August 27, 2006
Vietnam Logic, Iraq Reality
Thanks, Ed. )
In behalf of the prevailing policy of massive intervention in Vietnam, defenders have from time to time announced numerous objectives by way of justification and defense.
These have been described as sacred commitments. Foremost among them was the commitment to the freedom of to the South Vietnamese, their right to determine their own destiny free from outside coercion.
But as the years passed and the Vietnamese will to freedom became less conspicuous than the American coercion of the Vietnamese, the suspicion grew that we had a deeper commitment to American pride than to Vietnamese freedom.
According to the legend of invincibility, American will must prevail in the end. That an exception should be made for a war with rag-tag guerrillas of a small and heretofore unheard-of, underdeveloped country in Southeast Asia was all the more unthinkable.
How could the most powerful country in the world at the peak of its power, with an unbroken history of supposedly victorious wars, submit to such humiliation?
What President could accept the disgrace of being the first to lead his country to defeat?
Friday, August 25, 2006
American prosperity is in large part illusory.
"The common idea that America is an immensely rich and affluent country is very much an exaggeration.
American affluence is heavily mortgaged. America carries a tremendous burden of debt to its poor people."- Gunnar Myrdal.
Political and economic revolution will have to be accomplished by a revolution in attitudes as well and a wholesale abandonment of myths--particularly those of moral complacency and innocence and those that hold equality and justice and virtue compatible with opulence.
Vietnam versus Iraq: A Fair Comparison (Part 3)
"A nation whose modern history has been an almost uninterrupted chronicle of success...should be so sure of its own power as to be capable of magnanimity."- Senator J. William Fullbright, 1967.
"There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than in the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives"- George Kennan, 1967.
The men I have quoted are thoroughly American, but to the ears of anyone attuned to the traditional rhetoric of American myth, their words will set up an immediate dissonance. One might, were it not for the derogatory connotations that cling to the word, call their pronouncements "un-American".
For anyone who seriously entertains a solution for a war other than "victory", or who admit that a grave domestic problem simply has no visible solution, is clearly marching out of tune with the chorus of the American Way. He is marching to another drum. It may be the drum of the future (and I rather suspect that it is) but not that of the past--of tradition.
In the American past, and in the predominant mind of the present as well, all wars end in victory and all problems have solutions. Both victory and solution might require some patience, but not very much.
The idea of admitting defeat and the prospect of living patiently with an unsolved social problem are...unthinkable thoughts for most Americans.
The characteristic American adjustment to the current foreign and domestic enigmas that confound our national myths has not been to abandon the myths but to reaffirm them.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Vietnam versus Iraq: A Fair Comparison (Part 2)
Allow me to take a fast second to remind you, the audience, that what follows was written in 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive.
That being said, I resume where I left off.
-C. Van Woodward, 1968.
The current administration seems to have conveniently forgotten many lessons of Vietnam. Let us hope that a wiser generation of Baby Boomers now in positions of power will reverse the course we have taken.
Tomorrow, I focus primarily on how anti-war attitudes on the Left haven't changed all that much since Vietnam. I will propose a more effective means by which we can get our point across to the American people.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Vietnam versus Iraq: A Fair Comparison (Part I)
When I was in grad school, I was introduced to the writings of a noted historian by the name of C. Vann Woodward. Woodward quickly became one of my heroes.
For brevity's sake, I'll let you read more about his credentials here.
In 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive, Woodward wrote an addendum to a essay he had originally written in 1952. Entitled "A Second Look at the Theme of Irony", the piece identifies many of the fallacies that have sadly been continued into this current conflict. Yes, I do agree that comparing Vietnam with Iraq is, by in large, an exercise akin to comparing apples with oranges. However, both apples and oranges are fruits.
Allow me to quote a few paragraphs directly from Woodward's original text:
The legend of national innocence as well as that of invincibility figured largely in the preoccupations of those who sought to justify the war and defend American policies. They disavowed the guilt associated with "imperialism".
Unlike the European powers that preceded them in this area, America had no "imperialistic" motives. We sought not territorial aggrandizement, coveted no "colony", desired no subject people.
We came to liberate, not to enslave.
Our purpose was to assure self-determination and freedom. And above and beyond that, we pledged post-war reconstruction with munificent subsides for development, industrialization, and modernization.
We called it "Welfare Imperialism" if we used the latter word at all. Granted these policies served our national interests, they served equally the interests of freedom, democracy, and peace the world over. It was for these larger ends that we were lavishly spending blood and treasure.
Once the war was over, we promised prompt and complete withdrawal of our enormous forces--within six months, we said. Thus we demonstrated our guiltlessness and proclaimed our innocence. Our real motives were benevolent and and altruistic, we protested, and we showed clean hands to a skeptical world.
Opponents of national policy had many complaints and a variety of alternatives to propose. Broadly speaking, however, they were divided between those primarily concerned with defeat and those chiefly preoccupied with guilt and innocence.
On the extreme Right were those so appalled by the suggestions of any solution short of total victory as to oppose rigidly any sort of compromise, concession, even negotiation. To them such approaches to war smacked of weakness and defeat and were unworthy of our tradition. For the same reasons they distrusted the inhibitions of limited-war policy, along with all the self-imposed restrictions on target, weapons, manpower, and areas of operation. Their philosophy held that the purpose of war is victory, and that all means to that end are justified.
The only valid limitations on the doctrine of hot pursuit should be capture and surrender. To them a "no-win war" was abhorrent. If the price of victory be the risk of precipitating war with mightier powers, then that must be accepted. If escalation in weaponry be an inevitable consequence, then it had best come while our own arsenal of "unconventional" weapons was the largest. If that meant a nuclear showdown in the end, we were better prepared for that now than we might be later on.
Comments from the Peanut Gallery
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
-e.e. cummings, 1926
After a time, all losses are the same
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Though we shall probe, time and again, our shame,
Who lack the wit to keep or to refuse,
After a time all losses are the same.
No wit, no luck can beat a losing game;
Good fortune is a reassuring ruse:
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Rage as we will for what we think to claim,
Nothing so much as this bare thought subdues:
After a time, all losses are the same.
The sense of treachery--the want, the blame--
Goes in the end, whether or not we choose,
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
So we, who would go raging, will go tame
When what we have we can no longer use:
After a time, all losses are the same;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Monday, August 21, 2006
The Lesson of History
America stands in greater need than she ever did of understanding her own history.
Our European friends, appalled by the impetuosity and naivete of some of our deeds and assumptions, have attributed our lack of historical sophistication to the lack of a history--in their sense of the word.
America's apparent immunity to the tragic and ironic aspects of man's fate--that charmed and fabled immunity that once made America the Utopia of both the common men and the philosophers of Europe--has come to be pictured as Europe's curse.
For the fear that haunts Europeans is the fear that America's lack of a common basis of experience and suffering will blind her to the true nature of their dilemmas and end by plunging them into catastrophe. But the Europeans are not entirely right.
America does have a history.
It is only that the tragic aspects of that history have been obscured by the national legend of success and victory and by the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue.
America has had cynical disparagement of her ideals from foreign, unfriendly, or hostile critics. But she desperately needs criticism from historians of her own who can penetrate the legend without destroying the ideal, who can dispel the illusion of pretended virtue without denying the genuine virtues.
Such historians must have learned that:
1. Virtue has never been defined by national or regional boundaries
(Regardless of what Karl Rove and Dick Cheney might say).
2. Morality and rectitude are not the monopolies of factions or parties. (See above)
They must reveal the fallacy of a diplomacy based on moral bigotry, as well as the fallacy of of one that relies on economic coercion through the fancied indispensability of favored products.
Their studies would show the futility of erecting intellectual barricades against unpopular ideas, of employing censorship and repression against social criticism, and of imposing the ideas of the conquerer upon defeated peoples by force of arms.
Such historians would teach that economic systems, whatever their age, their respectability, or their apparent stability, are transitory and that any nation which elects to stand or fall upon one ephemeral institution has already determined its fate.
The history they write would also constitute a warning that an overwhelming conviction in the righteousness of a cause is no guarantee of its ultimate triumph, and that the policy which takes into account the possibility of defeat is more realistic than one that assumes the inevitability of victory.
C. Vann Woodward, 1952.
What will likely occur is that an all-out war between Sunnis and Shiites will break out. The war may spread beyond the borders of Iraq into other countries, potentially into Iran. Quite possibly, a major war that pulls in multiple countries might occur. If, in fact, we have a major Sunni versus Shiite beatdown, I wonder where allegiance will lie: will it be to religious conviction or national identity?
Will it be Iraq versus Iran or Shiites versus Sunnis?
If conventional wisdom holds true: if the Arabs of the Middle East ascribe to a religious philosophy that is 1000 years behind Western society, then one can only assume that a large-scale war between religions factions has been a foregone conclusion for quite some time.
After all, did not Europe find itself plunged into HUNDREDS of YEARS of wars fought primarily between Protestant countries/factions and Catholic countries/factions?
And there is nothing WE or any other country can do to prevent it.
Although war is certainly regrettable, I wonder if Sunnis and Shiites will be too concerned with killing each other off to have the inclination or even the ability to destroy the Great Satan. Up until this point, only a common enemy (namely, the Western world) has effectively unified vastly different people with vastly different convictions.
Our thoughtless actions have not effectively put an end to the world as we know it, contrary to what some would like to believe. Instead, they have only exacerbated the inevitable conflict between the two largest factions of Islam. I believe it behooves us greatly to get our troops the hell out of the way.
Other Arabic countries have a monetary interest in seeing stability in the region. Let this be their struggle. Let this be their war. Let this be their fire to put out.
Better yet, let this be Europe's problem.
I do not favor total American isolation, but I do favor a limited American involvement in this region. It is a tricky situation, no doubt.
Terrorists are young men (and a few women) who have nothing to lose. Their ranks are comprised of the poorest of the poor, by in large. And if the Western world, particularly the USA, immediately minimized our dependence on Middle East oil, then the economies of several countries would collapse. The collapse of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and others most assuredly WOULD produce more terrorists.
Everyone's hands are tied. Anyone who tells you he or she knows for sure how things will turn out is lying through his/her teeth. How we should proceed in Iraq comes down to educated guess versus educated guess. These are uncharted territories and uncertain times.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Refuting a Few Myths
For comparison's sake, let's refer to everyone's favorite White Supremacists.
At the height of the second resurgence of the KKK, the majority of its membership was located in the state of Indiana.
Historians in recent years have obtained membership rosters of some local units and matched the names against city directory and local records to create statistical profiles of the membership. Big city newspapers were unanimously hostile and often ridiculed the Klansmen as ignorant farmers. Detailed analysis from Indiana  shows the stereotype was false:
Indiana's Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks. Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominately as fundamentalists. In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church.
The Klan was successful in recruiting throughout the country, but the membership turned over rapidly. Still, millions joined and at its peak in the 1920s the organization included about 15% of the nation's eligible population and had chapters across the United States. There were even clans founded in Canada, most notably in Saskatchewan, where there was a large clan movement against Catholic immigrants.In summary, let it be said that the roots of intolerance run deep in this country. This goes far beyond the red state/blue state divide.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Living Lives of Quiet Desperation or: Get a Life, America
A few unsubtle images to go along with an unsubtle point.
What might all these things have in common with say...
Friday, August 18, 2006
The More Things Change...
I recently have been inundating myself with the writings of the noted critic H.L. Mencken. What immediately strikes me upon reading him is that despite the progress we report to have made, we are, in many ways just the same now as we were eighty years ago. Allow me to highlight a few passages from said author's Notes on Democracy, which was originally published in 1926.
Democracy, in fact, is always inventing class distinctions, despite its theoretical abhorrence of them...Democratic man is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group or shake with fear and loneliness--and the group, of course, must have its leaders.
To some extent, this isn't surprising. We have learned that humans are social creatures and that their self-satisfaction depends largely upon acceptance among their peers. The classical liberal ideal of the Enlightened Man runs contrary to biological programming. Few of us appear capable of having the courage and fortitude to strike it out on our own and cling fast to our own convictions, in spite of the consequences.
But Democracy is based on the theoretical ideal that all men are created equal. This I do not believe in for one second. I am inclined, instead, to believe that hierarchies are an inevitable part of human existence.
People deserve equal rights, but they are certainly not equal as regards their intellectual, economic, and moral stature.
But there is a form of human striving that is understood by democratic man even better...and that is the striving for money. The plutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it.
It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honor, courage--above all, courage.
Its most puissant dignitaries of today came out of the mob only yesterday--and from the mob they bring all of their peculiar ignobilities.
But as I alluded to in yesterday's entry, the US of A, by its very nature will always be the land and home of the nouveau riche. I do not see how a literate culture can exist in a place such as ours where dynamics of all shapes and sizes are constantly shifting. Culture, as Mencken defines it, cannot exist in America. This struggle will continue so long as there is an America.
All is not lost, however. Those of us self-professed, unashamed intellectuals have a role and a purpose to call bullshit where we see fit. No one should ever apologize for being intelligent. Indeed, it is the only means by which we are liberated from our chains.
To conclude, as one of my favorite professors once said: FLATTERY will get you everywhere, but only the TRUTH will set you free.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
America the Enigma
Blue Gal of Blue Gal fame unsubtly forced me into the realm of the liberal blogosphere. In truth, I have always been a lurker and frequent commenter, but I've resisted jumping in with both feet until now.
I must admit that I am a novice to this process, though I do possess some long-neglected skills with HTML. Forgive me while I brush up on them.
I don't have a cutesy title for this blog at the moment, though I will probably develop one over time. Additionally, you will find on this site that leitmotifs such as female undergarments, will be in short supply.
And without further ado, here's today topic.
What IS America?
Recently, I purchased a DVD of Beyond the Fringe. To the uninitiated, BTF was a satirical West London comedy revue which ran from roughly 1960-1964. It was comprised of four highly educated British comedians: Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett. It is not too much of a stretch to think of this show as the precursor to Monty Python. BTF arguably ushered in the British satire boom of the 1960s and 1970s. The top two talents to emerge from the show were Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. Moore, no doubt, will be more familiar to American audiences than Cook, which is highly regrettable, as he was certainly the lesser of the two talents.
The opening skit, entitled Home Thoughts from Abroad, finds the cast struggling to define America. With typical British stoicism and logic, they come to a conclusion that America is certainly not England.
Moore: I leave for New York in two day's time.
Cook: You must understand that New York isn't America. To go to America, you must visit the South.
Bennett: (disagreeing) The South is charming, but it isn't America.
Miller: Or Washington DC. But then again, DC has a wonderful sort of Parisian atmosphere, but it certainly isn't America.
Cook: You might as well take a trip to Los Angeles, but it's no more American than San Francisco, which certainly isn't America.
Miller: Or you could visit the West, and the West is certainly fascinating, but it isn't America.
Moore: (puzzled ) Where Is America?
I think perhaps we want a sense of literate, enlightened culture that rises above the excesses and the petty superstitions of the masses. But that seems to work at cross purposes to the very idea of America.
What is America, first of all? We are little more than Transients in Acadia, constantly redefining ourselves, and always in a constant state of flux.
I think for culture to take root, there must be some sort of homogeny amongst a people. And America is the antithesis of homogeny. Even now, the dynamics of this country are shifting dramatically.
America in 2006 will likely look nothing like America in 2046.
But I daresay that we'll still be having some variation of this same argument.