I began by asking myself the question linked inevitably to the survival of the United States as a trusted nation in the 21st century: Why can’t America admit defeat?
What is it in the American psyche that seems to dictate the necessity to be proven not only right, but superior in dealings with the outside world?
I have lived the better part of 40 years in Japan, a country whose nationalistic ardor and patriotic zeal once easily matched that of the U.S. If the Japanese government has not sufficiently apologized for the utter brutality their nation inflicted in Asia and the Pacific, the people of this country did accept defeat — and occupation by the victors — with a certain degree of grace and gratitude toward their conquerors that persists to this day.
It was that acceptance of defeat that freed the Japanese people to rebuild their country as a democratic state. The same thing could be said for Germany. Only having fallen completely to the ground, prostrate and demoralized, were Japan and Germany able to stand up again and face the world on a shared moral footing. Defeat made rebirth of their nations possible.
As I was born in 1944, I missed World War II, but I didn’t miss its aftermath. And oh, what a lovely aftermath it was!
We Americans were the darlings of the day — in Europe, in Asia, in Oceania and even, for a time, in Africa and parts of Latin America. The presidency in the optimistic 1950s was in the hands of a kindly ex-soldier, Dwight Eisenhower. The Suez crisis in ’56 and the rising tide of Arab nationalism? Not our problem; Britain’s problem. Algeria and all the European colonies around the world? Let ‘em fall — right out of the grip of their colonizers and into our protective freedom-loving arms.
We had it all. Western Europe, including our former arch-enemy Germany, was unfailingly grateful to the U.S. for rebuilding it as a bastion of capitalistic democracy; ex-colonies and other countries of what came, in the ’50s, to be called the “Third World” gave us their hope and aspirations for equality and progress.
The spoiler was the USSR, a country my high-school teachers and then my professors in Russian studies at university referred to as “the nation that always says nyet.” Soviets, they said, abrogated their treaties and lied in order to further the interests of revolutionary communism. (Ironically, George W. Bush has made the U.S. into a worthy successor to the empire of nyet.)
We set ourselves the task of destroying Soviet power, primarily because we could not allow any other nation to rival our pre-eminence in Europe, Asia and Africa — won, as we saw it, on the battlefields of World War II. Every global conflict was seen in terms of the fight against communism. And that is how we entirely misunderstood the postwar national movements for liberation and justice in Iran, the Near East, Africa and Latin America and, most crucially, in Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam was the war of my generation and, by rights, it should have been the well-deserved defeat of my generation. But we were too focused on the threat of communism, and too intent on flogging our version of liberty in every corner of the globe, to admit that a “Third World” country with the GDP of a small U.S. state could send us packing in ignominious defeat. We should have felt ashamed, disgraced and humiliated — like the Japanese and the Germans did. It would have helped us recover our humanity.
Well, Americans did feel somewhat disgraced. They forced themselves to live, for a time, with the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. Define this as chronic pangs of conscience leading to introspection. But instead of admitting defeat and trying to make reparations for it both at home and in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Americans just sat down and licked their wounds, waiting for something to fire them up with the kind of rhetoric that would make them feel good about themselves again.
The feel-good “healer” came along in the person of an amiable actor named Ronald Reagan. What is Reaganism, if not “the ideology of soothe,” based on the belief that all the world’s people desire, in their hearts, to be Americans — or, at least, to be like Americans. It was this unquestioning faith in American moral superiority, based on a misreading of postwar history, that restored American pride without the diversion of repentance.
Inhumane U.S. war machine
This is what set the stage for the revival of the aggressively motivated Americanism we see today. This stage became the platform for the neocons, who, in a little more than a decade since Reagan, turned their country into an inhumane, self-serving war machine.
I have taken much time in this article to get to the reason for it: Why the U.S. finds it impossible to leave Iraq.
The country is like a child who, having blurted out a lie (in this case, that the U.S. was not defeated in Vietnam), and fearing the consequences of confessing it, makes up another lie to divert attention from the first. With children this can lead to a string of untruths each more absurd than the last (and sometimes amusing, too). But countries are given very few opportunities to lie in this way. They are exposed for what they have done by a world that is not as forgiving as a parent.
George W. Bush, you cut down the cherry tree! You cannot cover this up by proceeding to cut down more trees — in the U.S. or elsewhere. You will be exposed and seen for what you are in a place with no trees to hide behind.
The roots of American pride reach deep into the subsoil of American history, right back to the beginning. Some of this pride is justified by the flowering of democratic practices and legal safeguards of freedom that have withstood centuries of weathering and attack by the bad elements that are always in the air.
Those elements, given fresh life by Reagan and made more virulent by George W. Bush, will surely be swept away, for a time, in 2008. But for the U.S. to reclaim its sense of common decency and confidence in its system of justice, it will be necessary for Americans to find themselves, as Japanese and Germans once did, positively and recognizably defeated in Iraq.
This would be a true victory for Americans and give them the means to rediscover what their freedom means to them and others around the world.