Hubris

I wanted to start this by writing why I love America, and what it is about the nation that gives me hope that we can persevere in this time of war. This turned into a more difficult exercise than I had anticipated…because, while there is much about America that I love, there is much that I admire to a far lesser extent. America is so large, so diverse, in both land form, people and culture, that it is very hard to grasp, and that is always the problem when one writes about America. One cannot generalize. America is just about anything to everyone, whatever you want it to be, and, often, not at all what you would like it to be. It depends on your perspective.  One has to be able to define and understand the basic ‘spirit’ of America before one can understand if America has lost the intestinal fortitude it takes to see this war out.

 When I say that I ‘love America,’ what I am referring to is this image of America in my mind…America’s ‘spirit,’  my idea of what represents ‘good character,’ what I admire in a people and a culture. I admire the ‘focused aggression’ America has shown in achieving its goals. From the beginning, the people of this country have grown up with a sense of ownership of the land, a sense of possession of whatever is over the next hill, that it is ‘ours,’ for the taking, and never mind who was there first. Of course, this had unfortunate consequences for those who actually WERE here before the Europeans….but that is sort of the point.

 Europeans were among the toughest, meanest, probably the cruelest, but also the most competent race this world has ever known. That character is derived, to a very large extent, from the Scandinavian heritage of the Normans who conquered much of Europe, even as far South as Italy, before spreading throughout the world. European culture has dominated the world as soon as the technology to dominate the world was invented, and that is because it was so ruthless and because what it did was so effective. No Mr. Nice Guy, here, Europeans simply have bowled over the competition and, today, it is European technology, culture and even language which are the lingua franca all over the world. Somewhere in the 19th century, this aggression seems to have funneled to the United States, from Europe, as the rise of the United States ties in almost precisely with the decline of Europe.

 There are, of course, many who would find this quality, the ability to ignore the slaughter thousands of others to attain its goals, a less than admirable characteristic for a people, and  there is some truth to that. European history is full of instances of horrific massacre, rape and torture, of millions of people, from its earlier ages, and there are few cultures that can match the Europeans in the numbers who have died for the furtherance of goals. Yet, this is the quality that I think of when I say that I ‘love America,’ this fixity of focus, and straight determination to achieve a goal, no matter what the cost. If less than admirable, in many ways, the horrors were horrors of our national youth, and not considered horrible at the time, while the glories of our national growth were glories of our adolescence. It is the quality which brought the United States through eight years of a hopeless revolutionary war against Britain, to claim our freedom, settled the middle and West of the country within a period of a hundred years, through the horrors and triumphs of WWI and WWII, and took us to the moon. Americans have a feeling we can do anything we set our minds to, and it is hard not to admire that cockiness. History loves a success, and very often ignores the means of that success.

One has to wonder, though, whether that spirit exists today, and there is where I begin to quibble about how far my love for America extends. It would be hard to imagine the people who successfully helped fight off the Germans, and who successfully fought off the Japanese, both to final victory, quibbling over whether or not we have the right to question prisoners caught on a battlefield. While there would have been some, I am sure, who might have questioned whether or not prisoners caught on the battlefield have the right to trial by jury, according to our Constitution, the vast majority of Americans would have looked at a person who suggested such as being a crazy person. The Germans and Japanese were our enemies, they were trying to kill us, and they were lucky that we were so kindhearted as to give them decent food, housing and contact with the Red Cross. It is within our national character to do so, but there are few who objected to the lack of Japanese prisoners, or the summary executions which occurred, on occasion, against Germans. It was a war to the death, and we intended the enemy to be the ones who died. We knew that stark choice. We obviously do not know it today.

The question arises, then, what has changed. I am sure a sociologist can write lengthy papers on the differences between the WWII generation and the generation today, but I do not think that is necessary. There is one salient difference between the populace of the country prior to the end of WWII, and that today; we are far better off, economically, as a people, today, than we were ever before. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, most Americans were rural, involved in agriculture. Prior to the end of WWII, most were factory workers, and much of the Middle Class was building was destroyed by the depression.

 We have not had a bad economic time since the end of WWII. The growth of personal wealth has been steady, and even factory workers earn enough money to live a very middle-class lifestyle. We are prosperous, content, and few of us feel any real danger from outside sources. It is very hard for people to knuckle down and give the kinds of sacrifices necessary to conduct and win a war, when they are living a relatively prosperous life, with no apparent danger in sight. This was bin Laden’s big mistake, with regards to 9/11, as brilliant as it was in execution. If he had continued attacking American interests, abroad, and not attacked the United States, directly, he would still have his training camps in Afghanistan. Instead, he brought Americans face to face with the type of war that needs to be fought, and Americans supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, we have not had an attack on the Continental United States for five years, and people are forgetting…and support for the war is falling.

 The American People can rise to the challenge necessary to win this war. They need, however, leadership to do so, and we are not getting it from the top. Among the many mistakes the administration has made in this war is its lack of attention to keeping the American people focused on the threats they have to face. As with the Johnson Administration, during the Vietnam War, the Bush administration seems to have felt that maintaining prosperity and not scaring the American public will maintain support for the war. Instead, the American public does not feel connected to the war, except for the growing list of body bags coming home. There is no venue available for people to get involved in helping to win this war. There are no ‘fireside chats’ with the President, explaining what is happening in the war, no recycling drives, no ‘support the troops’ programs, except for those developed ad hoc among the public…the administration has made no effort to rally the public, and get them involved in supporting the war, and it shows. Maybe we do not need the scrap metal, or the recycled goods, but the programs should have been instituted, anyway, so people feel that they are a part of the effort.

 One must look at the spirit of America the same way a mother loves her child. Like a child, Americans can be the best people in the entire world, if they are given a chance. They have the attention span of a gnat, if not reminded, continuously, of what they should be doing…and they can do real harm, if poorly led. Perhaps, that almost childlike ability to be as good as one can be, and also do bad, even for good reasons, if told what one has to do, is a reason to have hope that we shall not only survive, but triumph. To quote Winston Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing…after trying everthing else, first.”

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