America’s Arrested Development

Arrested Development Season 3On Tuesday, Michael Cohen wrote a very insightful article called, The First Step. It is about the lessons we should have learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But as the title indicates, the first step of that process is to admit that we’ve lost these wars.

This comes from the old Alcoholics Anonymous platitude that the first step in dealing with your addiction is to admit that you have a problem. I think this is more fundamental than that. In order to grow, it is necessary to admit mistakes. I’ve noticed that people who cannot admit mistakes get stuck at developmental levels and never move beyond making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Cohen is right that the same thing applies to groups of people and even nations.

I still run into people who argue that the only reason we lost the Vietnam War is that the government “wouldn’t let us win.” This is a bizarre claim. The truth is that we have enough fire power to destroy any country. If we had decided to, 20 or so well placed nuclear bombs would have killed everyone in Vietnam. There would have been no opposition. Thus: we would have won the war! But as Karl von Clausewitz wrote, “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” In other words, it is meaningless to say that the government prevented the military from winning in Vietnam because the military was not allowed to fight more aggressively.

But what’s most important in this discussion is the denial of proponents of the “they wouldn’t let us win” theory. They think that war is some kind of game where one wins by making the other side surrender. In fact, we go to war because we wish to accomplish something by doing so. We didn’t, for example, get into World War II because we hated Emperor Hirohito. Thus whether we win a war is not a question of which side gives up; it is a question of whether we succeeded at accomplishing the goals that we wished to attain by going to war in the first place.

As I discussed on Monday, as a nation we tend to regret our last war even while we eagerly anticipate our next war. I think this is because we never really accept that we lost the last war. For example, when people look back at the Iraq War, they tend to focus on the lack of WMDs. This makes no sense. If we had found WMDs, would that have made the fiasco that was the Iraq War acceptable? I don’t think so. But by focusing on this, people assume that next time that won’t be an issue.[1] And they may be right: that may not be an issue; but something else will be.

I am forever struck by how people hold up the Afghanistan War as somehow noble. I still don’t get this. To me, we started this war because we were attacked on 9/11. After that attack we felt that we had to go to war with someone. It was our Pearl Harbor. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t the Afghanistan government who had attacked us. I remember at the time that a lot of people claimed to be glad that Bush was president rather than Gore. Bush, they said, took us to war and that was the right thing to do; Gore would have dealt with it as a police matter. Now I seriously doubt that’s true; I think Gore would have taken us to war too. But was going to war the right thing to do? It strikes me as an immature reaction to a painful event. And looking at Afghanistan, I just don’t see what any of it has to do with 9/11—especially when it took us almost a decade to get Osama bin Laden, and then outside of the war effort.

America is a nation of many myths. Even with Vietnam, people tend to think that we’ve never lost a war. And we’re supposedly “Number one!” in just about every other way. All these delusions keep us from doing better. I think there is a direct connection between the claim that America has the best healthcare in the world and the fact that we have a poor system that leaves tens of millions without healthcare at all. Until we can look at our country, warts and all, we will continue to be stuck where we are—suffering from arrested development. Or, as many wish, we will move backwards.


[1] Sadly, in Iran, we seem set to repeat exactly the same error. Most people in the US think that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon. The actual intelligence indicates that while Iran was once doing that, they are not now and have not been for a number of years. If we did go to war with Iran (which many people want to do), these same people would be shocked to learn we had gone to war based on faulty intelligence. But just like in Iraq: the intelligence wouldn’t have been faulty. It was just that no one in power wanted to listen to the intelligence.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “America’s Arrested Development

  1. Well done. (Baseball stadium “clap-clap, clapclapclap.”) You have a lot going on here, and it’s put so succinctly. Allow me to respond, not nearly as succinctly, so I’ll divide it in two. But this is meaty stuff, and I’d like to comment.

    Vietnam was a case where hard-line anti-Communists in four successive administrations believed the socialist politics of the Vietnamese (which essentially amounted to free education and redistribution of French colonial land holdings) HAD to be a delusion imposed on the Vietnamese by Soviet influence. If we only rooted out (and killed) the agitators, the rest of the country would come around to realizing the error of its ways. That’s why the Pentagon Papers (commissioned, after all, by the military) were so damning; they showed that Vietnamese socialism was entirely homegrown, had to do with the country’s history, and all we could accomplish by killing more people was convincing them we were just continuing French rule. (Incidentally Eisenhower offered to sell some nukes to the French; they backed off and said “no thanks.”)

    Just as in Iraq, the officials who didn’t like these intelligence reports wanted them buried. Which makes one ask, what’s the point of spending money on intelligence services when their work will be ignored for political convenience? Might as well just replace the CIA and NSA with the YMA (or Yes Man Administration). It would serve the same purpose and cost a whole lot less. The situation is replaying itself, again, in Iran. Because if Iran had a bomb, it would nuke Israel? Sure. It would be wiped off the map 25 minutes later.

    As you point out, the American people are happy to accept official justifications for war (as provided by the government to a very willing and very lazy media.) There’s more than just acceptance of the official line at work here, however; there is our essential childishness as a nation. William Greider once wrote that America has been stranded in permanent adolescence since its founding, and it would be a shame if we went from adolescence to senility without ever passing through adulthood.

    War as a kind of macho locker-room dick-size contest has been a theme in our history, from our wipe-out-the-Inidans phase to our current (neverending) imperial phase. It has real-life goals and consequences, but its emotional appeal has always been primitive, to put it mildly. It’s that “shining city on a hill” silliness, which is about as realistic as Icelanders thinking that magical gnomes live underground and digging a pipe trench without consulting a gnome expert might anger the gnomes. It could be as harmless and as charming as Iceland’s delusion, IF we came to grips with our ugly past and treated our national myth as nothing more than a cultural heritage.

  2. Coming to grips with our myths is apparently quite difficult to do. I am re-reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” (fear not, Kuznick wrote it; Stone was in charge of the accompanying documentary series, which I haven’t seen.) It’s a monster of a book, huge and jampacked with ugly details about our imperium. On the back, there is an appreciative blurb by Bill Maher. Now, if Maher had actually read and digested the thing, you would think he might acknowledge that our ongoing “budget crisis” has nothing to do with social programs and everything to do with wasteful (criminal) military spending. No such luck. (He skimmed it, I’m guessing, or saw the Showtime series.)

    Consider how up in outrage Americans get if a local history museum, say, focuses too much on Native genocide or the horrors of slavery (focusing on the horrors of our wars is, to date, not something we even dare examine.) Why are they such nabobs of negativism? They’re trying to bring America down!

    The world demands, and rightly so, that Germans learn in school to acknowledge and be ashamed of WWII. (Which hasn’t seemed to demoralize Germans much or reduce their country to simpering weakness, perhaps unfortunately.) Our military has killed quite as many civilians as Nazi Germany ever did (granted, we spaced out the timeline further), for a goal of world domination just as immoral, and justified by rah-rah-ing nationalist nonsense just as ridiculous.

    Our empire is gone, and good riddance. (None are ever a good thing, not even for the emperors in the long run.) We can go down swinging (which is what I suspect will happen), we can become a pathetic hanger-on to the next empire (like England does today), we can even lose it completely and romanticize its past, like Denmark or the Dutch do. Or – and this would be unique in the history of nation-states – we could willingly give it up while we still have a choice, and become a different country altogether, one that turns its massive military budget into a massive force for real domestic growth. The last isn’t likely to happen, but we have always been a country without a real history (as opposed to our historical myths) and always ready to jump on the next appealing trend. Like a trend-hopping adolescent, we could become adults before we knew it happened.

    I’m betting not; I’m like the social worker that sees every red flag of a troubled teen and thinks “this isn’t going to end well.” Yet everyone who works with troubled teens will tell you they do so because, once in a blue moon, their suspicions were wrong and their hopes justified and the kid turned out just fine.

  3. @JMF – Yes, but in this case, you are right and it will not turn out well. I doubt that the American empire will end with a bang. We are already well on the slide down. Most Americans don’t even think we have an empire because our empire doesn’t look much like the empire of England 200 years ago.

    On "socialism" I think the conservatives have made a big mistake. By not admitting that yes, in America, we have a socialism, just a really stingy one, we’ve allow generations to think that something is bad just by calling it "socialism." That’s led to today when most young people think socialism is just those nice European countries where they give you healthcare and let you smoke pot. Even among the older people I talk to, socialism is a meaningless word. To them it means a system that is far more restrictive than communist Romania was. The world is a complicated place. There is no one who I always agree with–or never agree with. All countries are evil and good. Overall, I would say that America tips toward good for people inside it and evil for people outside it. America is good to have as a friend. It is very bad to have as an enemy. (On the bright side, you won’t stay an enemy of America for long–unless you have a nuke.)

    The whole thing about countries getting nukes is a mess. You are right: Iran would have to be crazy to [i]use[/i] a nuke. And one thing we know about the rulers of Iran: they are [i]not[/i] crazy. The problem with them getting one is that it could set off an arms race in the region. Of course, that’s far from certain. After all, Israel has them.

    Speaking of Israel: isn’t it interesting (by which I mean "racist") that it is okay for Israel to have a nuke but not Iran. I think for 80% of Americans, that’s the level of their thinking: of course it’s alright for Israel to have a nuke because they are mature, unlike those childish Iranians! But even my conservative father thinks it is okay for Iran to have nukes. I’ll give that to my father: he never questions America’s strength. A lot of people think America is weak without realizing it. My father is just, "We will bomb them back to the stone age!" I’m not for that, but I suspect that is how America (and probably [i]all[/i] of the other nuclear nations) would respond to Iran using a nuke.

    I am still horrified by what I saw the night Osama bin Laden’s death was announced: college students partying in the most jingoistic way with lots of flags and "we’re number one" gestures and chants. I think it is always wrong to make big displays of joy on the death of anyone, regardless of how vile. But also: what were people cheering about? We had been trying to kill him for something like 15 years–almost 10 years as "public enemy number one." And so we finally got him. Good for us. But who cares? Personally, I would have rather seen him tried. And I’m not too into conspiracies, but I wonder if there aren’t a lot of powerful people who would [i]not[/i] have wanted to see that. I’m not suggesting that he was innocent or that the US was complicit in any way. But I suspect that some things he would have brought up in his defense would have been embarrassing.

    I have no doubt that we will go from adolescence to senility directly. America just doesn’t seem capable of the "older, sadder, wiser" phase.

  4. Thanks for rant tolerance, as always.

    All I can add here is that I felt the same embarrassment and shame at the televised frat-party reaction to bin Laden’s execution. (In real life, as opposed to television, the response was much more muted — no dancing in the streets in St. Paul and I doubt any in your neck of the woods.)

    I suspect the logic (if we can call it that) behind execution instead of capture involved strategizing which figured capture to be more dangerous, and more politically risky. If US soldiers failed in an assassination attempt, that would look bad — if they failed at a capture attempt, that would have caused screams of outrage from bloodthirsty bloviators wondering why we didn’t go for the kill.

    Probably the main worry of planners about a trial was the possibility of bin Laden in the dock becoming a kind of martyr figure. As it is, I think our callous indifference to the inaccuracy and deadliness of our unmanned aircraft bombs are creating more anti-American radicals than a trial of bin Laden ever would have.

    Conspiracy theories bore me, too, as the largest conspiracy going — the war of the rich on the poor — is pretty out there in the open, it’s no secret. Also, conspiracy theories involve scenarios where hundreds or thousands of people hold potentially explosive secrets close to their chests.

    The one I’m sure you’re familiar with, the Twin Towers conspiracy theory, is presumably the best-kept secret in all recorded history. Well, if we know anything from verified conspiracies, like Watergate, it’s that you only have to threaten John Dean-types with so much as a comfy chair, and they’ll rat out everyone they can.

    The appeal of conspiracy theories goes back to something I wrote before (vis-a-vis what I like about your writing); the notion that if only people know THE TRUTH they will experience a come-to-Jesus moment and unite behind one’s chosen cause. You don’t write that way, and real political change doesn’t happen that way.

    Last note on the Twin Towers conspiracy buffs; I’ve always found them (inadvertently) racist. In their version, Bush killed 2500 Americans to justify a war killing (at least) 250,000 Iraqis. In the official version, Bush used the death of 2500 Americans as an excuse to kill 250,000 Iraqis. What’s the difference? It’s a crime against humanity either way.

    I guess it would be interesting to discover that Bush/Cheney engineered the Twin Tower bombings, simply to learn there was one thing they pulled off with a modicum of competence they never demonstrated in anything else.

  5. @JMF – That’s probably the best argument against the Twin Towers conspiracy: Bush/Cheney did something well? I don’t think so.

    It is interesting that all the TT conspiracies focus on the relatively modest building 7. The best you could say is that they demolished it using the terrorist attack to justify it. But then you have to justify why they just happened to have building 7 all ready to blow. It makes my brain hurt. What silliness.

    There’s another part to the racism: "those" people couldn’t have harmed us. It must have been rich white guys; they’re the only ones who could pull off such a thing!

    You are right about the frat boys. I suppose that they were what the media wanted to show. My perception is probably skewed. But people were really happy. I was happy too, but mostly just because I figured it was good for Obama’s re-election.

    (That reminds me of an episode of [i]30 Rock[/i] where Liz Lemon says, "If I could kill 5 anonymous people in exchange for cable for life, I’d do it.")

    I think the arguments against a trial are week. Bin Laden would be a martyr regardless. I think it is more the cowardliness of Obama. Look at the dust up over trying terrorists in US courts. The people seem to think terrorists are like those in Bruce Willis films. Most Americans really do think our country is weak, even as they claim we are the best and so forth.

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