How did carpet-bombing Afghan villages and conducting air strikes against Taliban prisoners represent the actions of a free people, of a great democracy? The forces of darkness required an immediate, crushing response rather than any mere effort at securing justice through diplomacy and existing international institutions.
However disturbing to some, the answer does accurately reflect important American attitudes about the War in Afghanistan. The success of the war, as measured by the fairly rapid change in that country’s government and quite apart from what will almost certainly prove a failure to end terrorism, may well usher in a dangerous and bizarre era of international relations.
Since the collapse of the Cold War, America has addressed the world with a new emphasis on democracy and human rights. We enjoy official pronouncements on these precious concepts at fairly regular intervals, although they are often used in ways that resemble chamber-of-commerce boosterism, trade-concession negotiations, or just plain advertising and leave one’s hunger for worthy principles in international affairs satisfied only by the taste of flat beer or stale bread.
Apart from the statements’ too-often self-serving nature, and apart from their considerable selectivity and inaccuracy, they generally contain an implicit assumption that democracy is always and everywhere good. But this is far from being true. Democracy is subject to the same arbitrary and unjust measures as every other form of government, requiring only the shared prejudices, hatreds, or selfishness of a bare majority to inflict pain on others.
The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution exists precisely to protect people from the tyranny of a majority. But even a Bill of Rights often does not protect against injustice, for such tyrannies have existed through much of American history. Those held in slavery for most of America’s first century were held in a revised form of servitude for a second century precisely by the tyranny of a majority of voters. And the proverbial tyrant-sheriff or judge in backwater rural America or crooked machine-politician in larger cities has inflicted injustice on countless Americans, including stealing their votes and corrupting their courts, despite the high-sounding principles of the Bill of Rights.
Rights must be interpreted by courts, and members of any court generally reflect the attitudes and will of those in the majority or at least of that portion of the population that exercises effective power (which at America’s founding was tiny). The times that courts go beyond this fairly pedestrian role are rare and are invariably followed by accusations of having exceeded their authority. And, of course, even bringing issues to court implies the means to do so.
Apartheid South Africa was a democracy for whites that held a majority population of blacks in a form of perpetual bondage. Israel follows almost the same pattern except that the group held in bondage is a minority. But America only spoke out about South Africa’s practices in the last few years of its existence when tremendous international and private-citizen pressure had already been brought to bear. And America has yet to say anything about Israel’s practices.
America’s penchant to criticize, selectively, other forms of government and social arrangements together with new efforts to apply American laws abroad (examples here include: penalties under Helms-Burton against third-party business with Cuba; the abuse of American anti-dumping laws to change previously-negotiated terms of international trade agreements; frequent efforts to extradite citizens of other countries to face American courts; programs to control what farmers in other countries grow; the opening of FBI offices abroad; and, most recently, intense pressures on other countries to change their visa and refugee laws to be more consistent with America’s fairly harsh regime) signal a fervent, new burst of enthusiasm for shaping the world to America’s liking.
The world would almost certainly welcome the sincere application to American foreign policy of liberal principles. I mean, of course, the ringing 18th century meaning of liberal, not the degraded, pejorative that America’s right-wing establishment has worked so hard for decades to make of that word. (The widespread effort to debase the meaning of this fine word by our many commentators and politicians who promote attitude rather than analysis is itself evidence of insincerity concerning principles).
But America’s interventions in the world are shaped by a witch’s brew of self-righteousness, simplistic answers, and the same kind of narrow self-interests that have characterized the interventions of all former great powers. The world’s first (at least superficially) democratic great power, despite the official pronouncements about rights and freedoms, still does not match its interventions to broad principles that most of the world’s peoples would embrace.
An important and overlooked explanation for inconsistent words and actions is the nation’s legacy of Puritanism. This legacy generates the zeal about changing the world to our own liking while ascribing the actions to the very mind of God, at least as revealed through the Holy Writ of our Founding Fathers: Americans often having some difficulty distinguishing between the two.
We are taught in elementary school that the “Pilgrim Fathers” and other extreme, fundamentalist Christian groups came to our shores seeking religious liberty. The textbooks neglect to explain what truly nasty people the various Puritan groups of the 16th and 17th centuries were.
They were despised across much of Europe not so much for their private beliefs but for their intolerance of others’ beliefs and their vicious public behavior. Truly violent pamphlets and sermons about the beliefs of others were standard Puritan fare: most of their contents would meet the most stringent modern standard of hate-speech. Some Puritan groups went well beyond ranting to their own people. They crashed into the church services of other denominations to deliver vitriolic attacks on what was being preached.
And it was Puritan groups in England who, after the Reformation, raged through the beautiful old cathedrals, hacking up statues, destroying historic tombs, and burning priceless works of art that they regarded as idols: actions no different in any detail from recent ones by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
These furious, unpleasant people, dizzy with paranoid feelings of religious persecution, streamed onto the shores of America, hoping to create their own version of society. It was not their intention to permit religious liberty or any other liberty at odds with their harsh dogmas of predestination and damnation of all those not elected by God. It took worldly, late 18th-century skeptics like Jefferson making political alliances with the many schisms that irascible Puritan personalities created to bring the beginnings of what we understand as religious liberty to America.
Patterns of thought and behavior among America’s contemporary conservatives still strongly resemble those of Puritans from three centuries ago. Perhaps the most persistent, and for our theme the most relevant, is the inability to see gradations or subtleties in controversial situations.
You are either right or wrong, saved or damned. There is no middle ground. Note in this regard President Bush’s graceful, memorable words to the world about being either with America or with the terrorists. Thirty years before, during the War in Vietnam, one heard repeatedly, “Love it or leave it,” an ugly expression that has reappeared a few times even in the far less stressful domestic atmosphere of the War in Afghanistan.
So many American minds instinctively follow this pattern of thinking, one suspects it’s in the gene pool. During the insane episode of keeping a little boy away from his father and his country on the basis of ideology, a perceptive Australian wrote in a Sydney paper that he was grateful Australia got the convicts instead of the Puritans.
Americans are convinced they are the modern version of “God’s chosen people.” This identification with the struggles and fortunes of the Old Testament Hebrews was a strong Puritan characteristic. With Americans’ good fortune in growing up on a continent whose vast resources and space and favorable climate have nurtured health and prosperity as well as attracted ambitious and talented people from all over the world, who can fully blame them? A land of milk and honey, if ever there was one.
But much as the successful 17th-century Puritan businessmen typically did, many Americans regard their success as a visible sign of God’s favor. Favor, not blessing, is an important distinction. One is humbled and grateful by blessings, but hubris (or, its rough, earthy equivalent, chutzpah) and arrogance tend to be the less attractive results of believing oneself favored.
While historical events tend more to develop than erupt — eruptions, if you will, reflecting local pressures built up from years of the glacially-paced movements of history’s tectonic plates– the first massive eruption of American Puritanism on world affairs– there were earlier, lesser ones and a history of domestic ones–came with the closing days of World War ll.
Following the titanic, destructive failure of Nazi Germany’s crusade against Bolshevism (a fundamental part of Nazi ideology), America effectively took on the same burden with the Cold War. There was more of a direct connection here than is often realized, since not only German scientists were grabbed up in large numbers for military research but many political and industrial figures, with unmistakable Nazi pasts, were eagerly recruited and assisted after the war by the CIA and its predecessor agency.
This struggle was regarded by America’s establishment as a life-and-death one, much as Hitler’s Germany regarded it. Few Americans today realize how deadly serious it was. The “blacklisting” in Hollywood, featured on film and television as the tragedy of the era, was almost a trivial aspect of the struggle.
Warning the Soviets of America’s willingness to be ruthless was one of the important considerations in the decision to use atomic bombs on civilians in Japan. During the early Fifties, our government seriously planned a pre-emptive atomic strike on the Soviet Union. The full story here remains unknown, but perhaps only the revulsion of allies who learned of this prevented its taking place. (Revulsion at American attitudes and plans may have played a role in motivating some of the many extremely-damaging Soviet spies in Britain at this time).
It is an interesting observation that while classical economists and astute students of history always understood that Soviet-style communism must eventually collapse of its own structural weakness, much like a massive, badly-engineered building on a weak foundation, this knowledge seems not to have influenced American policy during the Cold War. Delenda est Carthago became a terrible, palpable presence in American society. Communism must be defeated because it was godless and failed to recognize the elect nature of America’s way of doing things.
The high-water mark in America’s impulse to wage holy war against the benighted adherents of communism and free their people to buy Coca-Cola and receive the Good Word was undoubtedly the war in Vietnam. While defeat in Vietnam proved a disaster not quite on a scale of Germany’s G?tterd?mmerung in Russia, it was a humiliating and destructive experience.
I often ask myself what America learned from the Vietnam War. Yes, we now have professional soldiers rather than conscripts. Yes, every congressman has added “boys in harm’s way” to his or her kit-bag of Rotary-Club phrases.
But in a more fundamental sense, I don’t think America learned a great deal. Most of the horror of Vietnam was inflicted on Vietnamese ten thousand miles away, a people who suffered death on a scale only Russians or Jews could appreciate with the equivalent of about fifteen million deaths when scaled to the size of America’s population. While the Vietnamese suffered a virtual holocaust in rejecting the wishes of the favored people, many Americans still believe they are the ones who suffered a massive tragedy, surely an extraordinary example of Puritan-tinged thinking.
If you compare America’s less than 60 thousand deaths — about a year and a half’s fatalities on America’s highways spread over ten years of war –to Vietnam’s loss of 3 to 4 million, you realize that the conflict marked a turning point in methods of war and the use of military technology. Our government’s efforts to limit unpopular American casualties – this was, after all, the youth generation of the Sixties intended according to all the advertising and pop magazine articles only to enjoy itself and never think of dying – meant a new reliance on air power and technology. The carpet in the carpet-bombing was in the homes of Vietnamese peasants.
Economists call this a substitution of one factor of production (physical capital) for another (labor) in the production function (in this case, destruction abroad).
This substitution has continued down to the present at an increasing pace. Indeed, the recent, much-criticized proposals of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (I don’t know why, but I am always tempted to call him von Rumsfeld) really amount to an acceleration of the process. More technology, less soldiers mean more precision, less domestic political risk from deaths in conflicts, and, just as in any other industry, more efficiency (“bang for the buck” as the Pentagon so quaintly puts it).
Of course, taken too far, quite apart from possible specialized military implications, this substitution threatens to undermine America’s popular support for the military. “Joining up” with its advanced training opportunities, large benefits towards post-secondary education, and even tolerance for enlisted families and non-uniform life outside daily duties provides an important economic and social option for many young Americans, most of whom, naturally enough, never expect to see combat. For a couple of million people, the armed forces today offer one of the few equivalents of what a secure union job with plenty of benefits in a sound corporation was fifty years ago.
The greatest danger of the Vietnam War to America was that the nation showed genuine signs of beginning to crack apart, just as it actually had done a century before in the Civil War. Changes made in the nature of American interventions since that time reflect more an avoidance of this kind of internal divisiveness than a fundamentally different way of regarding the rest of the human race. They reflect also the unexpected collapse of Lucifer’s evil empire. We now have only the vicious scrambling of lesser demon-princes on which to focus our fury.
However, an increasingly technology-intensive armed forces comes to the rescue for hunting out these lesser varmints. Not only are our chosen enemies generally smaller and weaker, but our ability to reach out with fairly little risk to American lives is vastly improved.
While the Pentagon has not achieved the precision-capability that its spokesmen and supporters almost salivate describing, it has nevertheless come a very long way to delivering overwhelming destruction on selected targets with very little risk to its own pilots or troops, at least in the kinds of places it has been called upon to attack – that is, countries with small economies such as Iraq or Serbia and places still immured in the culture of earlier centuries, such as Afghanistan.
Over the long term, big investments in technology do pay off, as the last ten years of general American prosperity prove, and the military is no different in this regard.
But the ability to kill without being killed reflects a potentially destabilizing influence in world affairs. One of the few universally-true dictums ever uttered is Lord Acton on power.
Immense power in the hands of a people who neither know nor care about the world except as it reflects their own attitudes is inherently dangerous, but this is something Americans have already experienced in the post-war period. Even then, as in Vietnam, the results were often grim.
Given the ability to kill without being killed and with no other power great enough to offer counterbalancing influence, a new, bizarre version of Pax Americana is the prospect for decades ahead – at least until a united Europe, a developed China, and a reinvigorated Russia and Japan can offer effective alternate voices. (As for the influence of Puritanism within American society, only time plus lots of immigration seem likely to have effect).
And I believe this comes with its own built-in tendency towards instability, as people across the globe resent and resist the changes and adjustments expected by America, not only in the sphere of economics through developments in globalized free trade, but in the political and social spheres at an intensity rarely known before, except by unfortunate neighbors in the Caribbean Basin.
America’s inclination to ignore international institutions and to declare people or states as criminals whenever they seriously oppose its demands combined with its ability to punish with impunity unavoidably will increase resentments and bring relations to the boil over much of the world time and time again. New forms of terrorism, or what the dear old CIA has always euphemized as “dirty tricks” where it was doing the terrorizing to promote American interests, seem virtually certain. But wasn’t that what the war in Afghanistan was supposed to end?
Listen carefully to Mr. Bush’s words about a long, complicated war. I don’t think the words advisors have put into his mouth are just about Afghanistan or even about anything so specific as extending the action to Iraq. In effect, I think he’s talking about the kind of perpetual low-grade state of war that was part of Orwell’s vision for 1984. Only it’s not going to be Big Brother that prosecutes it, but the Puritan forces of America’s New Model Army.
John Chuckman lives in Port Dover, Ontario.