November 18, 2007

"Regrettable Misjudgments": The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought

Dorothy Parker famously remarked about a Broadway performance very early in Katharine Hepburn's career: "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Several decades later, Hepburn acknowledged that her work in 1933's The Lake was far from her finest -- although even at that distance, Hepburn appeared to find nothing humorous about Parker's observation. In any event, that setback, along with a few others, didn't slow Hepburn down for long.

I thought of Parker's typically witty and cutting quip in connection with our national discourse. I always feel a reluctant tremor of trepidation when I am about to launch that phrase: "national discourse." It grants our national debate far too much stature. It makes it appear that our public discussion deals with facts and recognizes crucial moral principles when, in fact, this is almost never true with regard to our national conversation. As a nation, we are resolute in our refusal to identify the true nature of our actions, and in our refusal to acknowledge the consequences of what we do. This may well be true of most nations throughout history. Yet there is a direct correlation between a nation's power and influence, and its reliance on myth and other public relations ploys. As the world's sole superpower, the United States via its ruling class saturates its subjects at home and abroad with propaganda on a scale and with an intensity that have rarely been surpassed. As is true of all propaganda, permissible viewpoints are confined within suffocatingly constricted boundaries of thought; variation of any moment from the prescribed guidelines is prohibited.

Chris Floyd recently wrote about an important article by Michael Massing; your time would be very well spent considering Floyd's commentary, together with the Massing piece.

Massing's concern is our unforgivable national ignorance about the brute reality of our foreign policy. Consider how far into fantasy we have traveled, consider the scope of our determination to banish facts from our awareness. It should not be controversial or noteworthy in the least to observe that conquest of foreign peoples by force of arms necessarily involves bloodletting, dismemberment and mutilation, that subjugation shatters the mind and the body, not just of the subjugated, but of those who would rule in this manner. History tells this tale repeatedly. Indeed, when our leaders wish to condemn other nations which utilize identical practices, they will examine these evils in endless detail. Our leaders will explain to us with enthusiastic commitment that such practices are deeply immoral and can only lead to disaster. But suddenly, when the United States sets out to conquer entire regions of the world, all these evils are not only transformed into a force for good: the evils miraculously cease to exist. The United States is good -- it is "the culmination of human development" -- and all its works are good. In "respectable" conversation in "respectable" places, you may not say otherwise.

Massing points out that such self-deception is significantly more unforgivable now than in certain past eras, and maintenance of this self-willed ignorance requires fully dedicated narrowmindedness, because accurate information is available from a number of sources. But, Massing notes, Americans dependably and with complete reliability, in the manner of conscientious students at a school devoted solely to instilling ignorance and cruelty, never avail themselves of the truth -- because they do not want to know it. Floyd highlights the following passage from Massing, where Massing contrasts the horrifying reality known to Iraq veterans with the morally slothful complacency into which most Americans will themselves:
How can such a critical feature of the U.S. occupation remain so hidden from view? Because most Americans don't want to know about it. The books by Iraqi vets are filled with expressions of disbelief and rage at the lack of interest ordinary Americans show for what they've had to endure on the battlefield. In "Operation Homecoming," one returning Marine, who takes to drinking heavily in an effort to cope with the crushing guilt and revulsion he feels over how many people he's seen killed, fumes about how "you can't talk to them [ordinary Americans] about the horror of a dead child's lifeless mutilated body staring back at you from the void, knowing you took part in that end." Writing of her return home, Kayla Williams notes that the things most people seemed interested in were "beyond my comprehension. Who cared about Jennifer Lopez? How was it that I was watching CNN one morning and there was a story about freaking ducklings being fished out of a damn sewer drain -- while the story of soldiers getting killed in Iraq got relegated to this little banner across the bottom of the screen?" In "Generation Kill," by the journalist Evan Wright, a Marine corporal confides his anguish and anger over all the killings he has seen: "I think it's bullshit how these fucking civilians are dying! They're worse off than the guys that are shooting at us. They don't even have a chance. Do you think people at home are going to see this -- all these women and children we're killing? Fuck no. Back home they're glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you."
Floyd follows this with these observations of his own:
Yes. Back home they're glorifying the war, or else, at most, tut-tutting over how "incompetently" it has been managed -- or, as Hillary Clinton likes to do, berating the Iraqis for not taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity we've given them by invading their country, killing their families, destroying their society, robbing them blind and empowering violent sectarians to rule over them. This is the full range of acceptable, "serious" discourse on Iraq: it's either a noble crusade marching steadily toward victory or a noble if mismanaged crusade on behalf of a bunch of ingrates who don't deserve our benevolence.
As I have noted myself in many essays, that is indeed the "the full range of acceptable, 'serious' discourse on Iraq." This should be profoundly shocking; that it is not to most people, reveals the depth and resulting moral and intellectual corruption of our system of national self-delusion.

I also must remind you that Americans' willed ignorance on the subject of war is nothing new. This kind of ignorance was in full force during even the last "good" war, World War II, as I discussed at length in, "Let Us All Become Cowards." From that earlier essay, Paul Fussell on the critical issue (from his book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War):
What was it about the war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt? It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied.


The Great War brought forth the stark, depressing Journey's End; the Second, as John Ellis notes, the tuneful South Pacific. The real war was tragic and ironic, beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest, but in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible. As experience, thus, the suffering was wasted. The same tricks of publicity and advertising might have succeeded in sweetening the actualities of Vietnam if television and a vigorous uncensored moral journalism hadn't been brought to bear. America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality to arrive at something like public maturity.
And here is a reminder of two soldiers' recollections of the soul- and body-shattering reality of war:
But for Sledge [a U.S. Marine] the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool." Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position "a stinking compost pile":
If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like....

We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans.... It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.... To me the war was insanity.
And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum issues a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he says, "have ceased largely to think or believe at all":
Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white -- this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man's instinct to commit murder.
Following these excerpts, I wrote, as Massing writes:
Accounts of this kind are unknown to the American public. Most Americans are unaware of any and all such details; most Americans do not want to know them and will stop you, should you try to tell them. To the extent our political leaders are cognizant of such facts, they do everything in their power to prevent them from reaching the public. After all, our governing class might undertake the next campaign of slaughter any day now; if Americans knew what that slaughter actually entailed, they might not go along with the smug complacence they have exhibited on all such previous occasions. In an identical manner, if the ignorance of the American public were penetrated to any significant degree, they might demand an immediate end to the pointless murder in Iraq. But our governing class must maintain its prerogatives; as Higgs notes, it would not do to let the inmates run the asylum.

So the myths prevail. Our wars are always noble, fought for the purest of motives. Our warriors are similarly noble, engaged in a high-minded crusade. They butcher and slaughter, and are butchered and slaughtered themselves, so that "civilization" might be preserved. Never mind that many of the warriors themselves would not agree. Never mind that the front-line soldiers know that war is insanity, and only insanity. Never mind the overwhelming, senseless, futile, endless horror of what actually happens in combat, and the details that never reach the public.
This particular form of denial is inherent in America's view of itself, and it is repeated throughout our history. To understand why this denial is so fundamental to the American experience, it is necessary to remember the key elements of our national self-conception. At the beginning of one of the essays in my "Dominion Over the World" series, I wrote:
In Part VI of this series, I briefly discussed the religious beliefs that significantly informed Woodrow Wilson's calamitous and entirely unnecessary decision to drag the United States into World War I .... From the time of the earliest European settlements, America had always had a strongly religious conception of itself, and of its role in the world. With Wilson and World War I, the religious element became firmly grafted onto the ideology underlying our foreign policy, one which now intentionally cast us as the world's protector and ultimate savior. In that earlier essay, I quoted William Pfaff on this point:
During the first century and a half of the United States' history, the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless, a reassuring and inspiring untruth. During that period the country remained largely isolated from international affairs. The myth found expression in the idea of a "manifest destiny" of continental expansion— including annexation of Mexican land north of the Rio Grande—with no need to plead a divine commission. [I think Pfaff is wrong, at least to some extent, on this particular point. See the Hampton Sides' excerpts here.]

With Woodrow Wilson, this changed. The national myth became a philosophy of international action, and has remained so. In the great crisis of World War I the United States and Wilson personally had thrust upon them seemingly providential international roles; Wilson said that he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing "the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." The war's carnage and futility largely destroyed the existing European order and undermined confidence in European civilization.
I deeply respect William Pfaff and, as I have said before, I consider him to be one of the best five or six commentators and analysts writing at present. His knowledge and understanding are prodigious, and I have learned a great deal from reading his marvelous books. (Here are two in particular that I strongly recommend: Fear, Anger and Failure, and The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, which is absolutely fascinating.)

But as I have continued to reflect on these issues, I realize that I must strongly disagree with Pfaff's assessment that "the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless" during the first period of this nation's history, when our actions were largely confined to the continental U.S. For it was precisely during that period when the complex mechanisms of national self-delusion and lethal mythmaking became firmly entrenched in America's conception of itself. Consider two of the most momentous aspects of those first years for America: the continuing genocide of the Native Americans, until finally almost all of them were slaughtered -- and the monstrous evil of slavery, the importation and brutal enslavement of millions of human beings, accompanied by an endless train of horrors that almost forbid contemplation.

Consider those two facts in all their horror -- and then ask yourself what would be required culturally and psychologically to maintain a belief in a "national myth of divine election and mission" in the face of them. I have formulated that so as to underscore the problem: you cannot recognize these facts and simultaneously maintain a belief in the notion that the United States is a divinely "chosen" nation, a nation superior to all others, a nation of spotless moral glory. The myth can be maintained only by denying the greatest part of the truth -- denying the full nature of the genocide systematically committed over a long period of time, and denying the full implications of the institution of slavery, which similarly lasted for several hundred years. As the United States consolidated its grip on the North American continent, it consolidated and made impregnable its view of itself: the United States conquered territory, displaced huge populations, murdered, enslaved and slaughtered for God, for "national greatness," for "Manifest Destiny," for "freedom."

I would further submit that Woodrow Wilson was only able to expand this national vision to the entire world with the ease he did because it was so firmly implanted in American culture by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is true that Wilson utilized a deeply dishonorable and shamefully dishonest propaganda campaign to convince Americans of the need to enter World War I -- but that campaign ultimately connected to a belief system widely shared by Americans. Most Americans believed then, as they believe now, that they are "special" in a way that no other peoples are, that God favors them as He favors no one else, that our "mission" is a sacred one. One would think that a people which views itself as religious would reject a program so lacking in humility as "saving the world," but this is only one of many contradictions to be found in such a belief system. When Americans, including our political leaders, talk of "saving the world," they mean it. Given the weapons at our disposal, it is a frightening and terrifying belief to hold. As I have remarked before, for our national leaders and the foreign policy establishment: "America is God. God's Will be done."

Many of these themes and ideas will be found in a review by the wonderful Johann Hari of the not-so-wonderful Walter Russell Mead's book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. Mr. Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Mead is a man of power and influence. Mr. Mead is important, and you should pay attention to what he says.

Mr. Mead "believes every age needs a 'liberal empire' to control the world’s seas and make free trade possible." Mr. Mead offers but a handful of guiding principles:
Build an open society at home. Channel its dynamism outward, toward the global economy. Use the full force of the state to control the oceans, protect commerce and defeat illiberal adversaries abroad. Open the global system to others, even your enemies, if they agree to abide by the rules. Then the world’s waters — and markets — will be yours.
Mr. Mead is undeterred by contradiction: Our great might shall force you, and everyone, to be free! Mr. Mead glories in unoriginality. If only Alfred Thayer Mahan (and many others) hadn't gotten there first. From Barbara Tuchman (excerpted in my "Dominion" series, in "A 'Splendid People' Set Out for Empire"):
In [1890] Captain A.T. Mahan, president of the Naval War College, announced in the Atlantic Monthly, "Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward."

A quiet, tight-lipped naval officer with one of the most forceful minds of his time, Alfred Thayer Mahan had selected himself to fill the country's need of "a voice to speak constantly of our external interests." Few Americans were aware that the United States had external interests and a large number believed she ought not to have them. The immediate issue was annexation of Hawaii. A naval coaling base at Pearl Harbor had been acquired in 1887, but the main impulse for annexation of the Islands came from American property interests there which were dominated by Judge Dole and the sugar trust. With the support of the United States Marines they engineered a revolt against the native Hawaiian government in January, 1893; Judge Dole became President Dole and promptly negotiated a treaty of annexation with the American Minister which President Harrison hurriedly sent to the Senate in February. Having been defeated for re-election by former President Cleveland, who was due to be inaugurated on March 4, Harrison asked for immediate action by the Senate in the hope of obtaining ratification before the new President could take office. The procedure was too raw and the Senate balked.


The motive of the annexationists had been economic self-interest. It took Mahan to transform the issue into one of national and fateful importance. In the same March that Cleveland recalled the treaty, Mahan published an article in the Forum entitled "Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power," in which he declared that command of the seas was the chief element in the power and prosperity of nations and it was therefore "imperative to take possession, when it can righteously be done, of such maritime positions as contribute to secure command." Hawaii "fixes the attention of the strategist"; it occupies a position of "unique importance ... powerfully influencing the commercial and military control of the Pacific." In another article published by the Atlantic Monthly in the same month, Mahan argued the imperative need, for the future of American sea power, of the proposed Isthmian Canal.


Theodore Roosevelt, who as the author at twenty-four of a book on The Naval War of 1812 had been invited to speak at the Naval War College, heard and became a disciple of Mahan. When [Mahan's] The Influence of Sea Power on History was published he read it "straight through" and wrote to Mahan that he was convinced it would become "a naval classic."


Roosevelt, still on the Civil Service Commission, was not yet widely heard, but his friend and political mentor, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was the principal political voice in Washington of Mahan's views. ...

"It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people," Lodge declaimed in the Senate on March 2, 1895. He had a map of the Pacific set up with Britain's bases marked by very visible red crosses and he used a pointer as he talked to make Mahan's point about the vital position of Hawaii. The effect was dramatic and reinforced by the speaker being, as he wrote to his mother, "in desperate earnest." Hawaii must be acquired and the Canal built. "We are a great people; we control this continent; we are dominant in this hemisphere; we have too great an inheritance to be trifled with or parted with. It is ours to guard and extend."
In his review of Mead's book, Hari notes that Mead believes Britain and the U.S. to be uniquely suited to the role of empire builders because, among other factors, "Anglo-American culture became thoroughly Protestantized: we are all WASPs now." Hari then goes on to describe the myths, the lies, and the cover-ups that will be found at the heart of empire:
Mead presents these empires as essentially benevolent confections, offering a model of rule so seductive that "people choose freely to belong" to them. He says that by 1851, it looked as if "the Peaceable Kingdom had arrived; British power, progress, prosperity and liberty were ushering in the universal rule of peace." Really? Is that how it looked in, say, India? When Clive of India came to Bengal, he described it — in a way all visitors of the time did — as "extensive, populous and as rich as the city of London." It was a place of such "richness and abundance" that "neither war, pestilence nor oppression could destroy" it. But within a century of British occupation, the population of its largest city, Calcutta, fell from 150,000 to 30,000 as its industries were wrecked in the interests of the mother country. By the time the British left, Calcutta was one of the poorest places in the world. Is this really the baton the United States should pick up?

Mead does offer up a few comments on various imperial atrocities — but even here, his descriptions are strangely anodyne. He concedes that "the American Indians were not treated well," a rather sterile way to describe a genocide. Even when he does admit in passing that there were imperial "evils," he swiftly insists that anyone who calls them "coldly calculated, deliberate crimes," rather than "excesses, blunders or regrettable misjudgments by young soldiers in the heat of action," is a "WASPophobe" riven with irrational prejudice. This is strange. Most of the British imperial crimes he alludes to were not "blunders" by "young soldiers." They were deliberate crimes carefully planned and ordered from London and her proxies.

Then comes the most surprising omission. A book written today, calling for the United States to become a self-conscious empire, surely has to reckon with the hemorrhaging of American power in Iraq. Yet the reader waits — and waits. Iraq is first mentioned as a target for America’s critics. It takes Mead 362 pages before he notes that the war has brought "untold grief and pain to innocent victims." Iraq does not, it seems, have strategic implications worth discussing at any length. The United States should continue to attempt to rule the world, regardless of its inability to rule one collapsing country.
So you see the consequences of this kind of national self-delusion, and of mythmaking on this scale. "[T]he American Indians were not treated well." Mass murder, mayhem, and destruction on a monumental scale are "blunders" and "regrettable misjudgments."

Please note that this is the worst that may be said about Iraq in "respectable" circles, and by all our leading politicians. A criminal war of aggression, and the systematic slaughter of the innocent, is a "blunder." Unleashing a genocide is a "regrettable misjudgment." Our latest war of conquest was executed "incompetently."

Following Hari, we must acknowledge that the crimes of today -- just as was true of the crimes of past eras -- were "carefully planned and ordered" by those in power. That is the truth the governing class seeks to bury under endless propaganda, lies without number, and unceasing evasion and equivocation. Because most Americans are themselves committed to the national myth, they willingly ingest it all.

Given enough time, a steady diet of lies is fatal. These lies kill hundreds of thousands and even millions abroad, as they have repeatedly throughout history. In time they will kill us too, if we do not give them up. Yet even now -- even now -- our ruling class will give up none of them, and they prepare for the next war.

And who is prepared to try to stop them? Almost no one. That is also the truth -- perhaps the most terrible truth of all.