Saturday, January 02, 2016

The GOP's Delusional Invocations of "American Exceptionalism"

One thing that drives me to distraction is the Republican Party's constant bloviating about "American Exceptionalism."  Yes, Democrats, including Barack Obama, succumb at times to citing American exceptionalism, but the frequency of use pales compared to that of Republicans.  Worse yet, the GOP invocations of American exceptionalism always seem to include a re-writing of history, refusal to learn from past catastrophes - e.g., the Iraq War - and a blindness to the ugliness in America's past.  Without being honest about the past and accurate history, America is doomed to repeat past mistakes and allow injustices to fester.  A column in Salon that looks at history from the Vietnam War forward underscores the GOP's delusions on "American exceptionalism."  Here are excerpts:

The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, yet this brutal episode continues to haunt America and affect our foreign policy, our culture, and our national identity. . . . the catastrophic war left the idea of American exceptionalism in tatters as the conflict came to be seen by many citizens as unnecessary and immoral, undermining the basic American belief that the United States is the greatest force for good in the world.
In his wide-ranging book “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” (Viking), historian Christian Appy explores the complex history of the war, from the Cold War fear and idealism that led to the initial American involvement to the ruthless and seemingly endless and grotesque conflict that perplexed the military, devastated Vietnam, and fueled an antiwar movement at home. Appy also looks at the aftermath of the war, analyzing the amnesia and pumped up patriotism in its wake as well as the wariness of further military intervention. But, as Appy observes, historical memory faded and policy makers after 9/11 ignored the lessons of Vietnam, launching protracted and indecisive wars in the Middle East as an imperial presidency directed foreign affairs without the consent of the citizenry.
[T]he evidence I found indicated that roughly 80 percent of the men who served in Vietnam came from poor or working-class families. The draft system of the era was class-biased in ways that allowed men with greater economic means far more opportunity to avoid military service or to find forms of service (like the military reserves) that kept them out of Vietnam. And few men of privilege volunteered.
To put it most plainly, [American exceptionalism] it’s the belief that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, unrivaled not only it its wealth and power, but in the quality of its institutions and values, and the character of its people. That faith has been with us for centuries and has often had a religious underpinning—the idea that we are providentially destined for our unique mission in the world. When it reached its heyday during World War II and the early Cold War, American exceptionalism was the driving ideological force of our particular brand of imperialism. It was founded on the appealing idea that we are the greatest force for good in the world and therefore have the right and responsibility to assert “global leadership.”
[I]n many ways the political and cultural values and institutions that have shaped American exceptionalism (republicanism, various kinds of freedom, etc.) were constructed on the backs of dispossessed native peoples, enslaved Africans, and, over time, the domination of many foreign lands and people. Of course, the faithful have tended to view all such devastating evidence as insignificant or temporary blemishes along the road to ever greater freedom for all.
The Vietnam War, in my view, was the first experience that shattered that broad faith. . . . . in the face of war crimes like the My Lai massacre in which a company of U.S. soldiers slaughtered some 500 unarmed and unresisting civilians in 1968, many war supporters proposed that all nations do similarly horrible things in war. Well, that excuse is itself a rejection of a core ingredient of American exceptionalism—the idea that we put a higher price on life than other nations and cultures.
Perhaps it’s a tell-tale sign of a dying empire when leaders know that their exercise of military power is failing but they continue the killing nonetheless in a desperate effort to avoid defeat, to avoid humiliation, to avoid looking weak.
I have a chapter called “Paper Tigers” that is really about the significance of gender in prolonging and expanding a war that American leaders believed was failing but did not have the moral courage to stop. . . . . their primary concern was maintaining “credibility” and that really boiled down to preserving an image of national and personal toughness.
Not only is that, in my view, a kind of insanity, but it didn’t work. The longer we stayed in Vietnam the more our international credibility was shredded. It didn’t even work for LBJ in personal political terms—the war led him to drop out of the presidential campaign of 1968. As for Nixon, his illegal efforts to silence antiwar criticism (and thus preserve his credibility) were the first crimes of Watergate that ultimately forced him to resign.
Forced relocation was designed to deprive the Viet Cong of civilian support in the countryside and it ultimately displaced 5 to 10 million people. Their ancestral villages were then burned down or bulldozed and proclaimed “free fire zones” where the U.S. claimed the right to fire at anything that moved in the area.
Far from “winning hearts and minds,” policies like these simply served to drive more and more Vietnamese to an anti-government, anti-U.S. position.
Although Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations of the Greater Middle East in which we engage in seemingly endless war are all vastly different from Vietnam (and each other) there are certainly commonalities in the way the U.S. has behaved in all of those places. Once again our troops have been sent to war under false pretexts, in faraway countries in which they are widely perceived as hostile invaders or occupiers, to prop up local regimes that lack the broad support of their own people, and to wage brutal counter-insurgency against an elusive and difficult-to-identify enemy (while also being told somehow to win the hearts and minds of the people). Moreover, our presidents have prolonged these wars, as in Vietnam, long after the American public has turned against them, and once again we have failed to achieve our stated objectives.
[F]inally dispense with American exceptionalism. I don’t think the historical record justifies the faith, it alienates other people and nations (for obvious reasons), and it contributes to public acquiescence to the tiny few who make foreign policy in our name and are all to ready and willing to assure us that they can be trusted to use our “indispensable” power as a force for good in the world.
[T]hose [presidential candidate] comments strike me as delusional and reflexive invocations of American exceptionalism based on the threadbare idea that we are a force for stability and peace in the world no matter how glaringly the facts contradict the claim. They remind me of the remark Vice President George H.W. Bush made in 1988 shortly after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers. Running for president at the time, Bush said: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
Just as they don't want to face the reality that their religious beliefs are untrue, much of the GOP base refuses to face the fact that "American exceptionalism" is a myth that is dangerous.

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