A Tale of Two Tales
What Real World?
March 5, 2012
As I listen to American fury against uncoöperative Afghans, to Congress furiously denouncing Pakistan for anemic aid in conducting the current wars, I sometimes wonder whether the US is playing with a full deck. The anger arises I suspect becaause the US and the rest of the world work from very different premises. They believe in, as we say, distinct narratives.
The American narrative holds that the United States is a light to the world, the freest, richest, most productive country the world has ever seen, the greatest military power, the most prolific producer of technlogy and of Nobel laureates. America is a force for freedom and democacry, a champion of human rights, a land of universal opportunity with liberty and justice for all. The Unites States is what all countries could be if they accepted our values. History supports this view. In a raw ccontinent, American energy and free enterprise carved a paradise from a wilderness.
This narrative, the belief that America is special among nations, favored by God, pervades the culture. Those old enough will remember that Superman fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Underlying all of this is a profoundly moral view of America's place in the world. The United States does not fight, like the French, for glory or like the English, for empire, or like the Russians, to steal watches from the wounded. America fights against Evil, whether in the form of communism, terror, Islam, socialism, or the growing threat of enslavement by Chinese communism. These evils are real, Americans believe, immediate, and threaten us with tyranny.
The narrative of the US military springs from the national narrative. American soldiers are brave, wholesome young men selflessly sacrificing to overthrow brutal dictarors, to defeat terror, and to give the oppressed peoples the benefits of democracy. This actually happened in Japan, Germany, and Iraq, asserts the narrative. Sure, a bad apple among GIs may occasionally commit an atrocity, but these are isolated incidents and blown out of proportion by a leftist press.
Quite different is what might be called the World Narrative, held around the globe with differeing intensities and emphases. It holds the US to be an endlessly aggressive military power that is out of control, hypocritically speaking of democracy and freedom while supporting dictators and overthrowing elected governments. America is arrogant, crassly mateiralistic, crime-ridden, vulgar, racially unjust, the world's only avowed practicioner of torture, economically explotative, imperialistic and intolerant of other cultures.
The military form of the World Narrative holds that America savagely attacks weaker nations in pursuit of oil and empire, that it uses overwhelming technological superiority to butcher peasants armed with rifles, that atrocites are routine, that it employs Stalinist nocturnal raids to terrorize populations, that killing of children is common.
The World Narrative is closer to the truth. It is easy to compile a long list of dictatorships supported by the US, and anyone who has covered wars knows that atrocities are what militaries do. America supports Saudi Arabia and Israel, both with horrible records on human rights. It would also be easy to show that many countries that accuse the US of misbehavior commit or have committed similar crimes. This doesn't occur to these countries. Peoples see everybody's warts but their own.
The peculiar isolation in which Americans typically live shelters the national narrative. Americans are geographically isolated in that they can go nowhere without passports, which few have; linguistically isolated in that almost none speak a second language; and temporally isolated since few have even a rudimentary grasp of history. Add an odd lack of curiosity, apparenly based on a belief that the superiority of America is such that other places are not worthy of study. The result is a closed system.
This might be of minor interest if it did not affect American policy. But it does. The US operates in a world that doesn't quite exist. Think of a blind man who by error enters the wrong house. He bumps into furniture and can't find the bathroom because things are not where he thinks they are.
Consider the war to take over Afghanistan—which is what it is. The American Narrative, relentlessly moral, says that the US is there to fight Terror, to defeat Al Qaida, to save the Afghan people from repressive domination by the Taliban. The government in Kabul represents the Afghan people and is allied with the US in ridding the country of extremists. The Caspian hydrocarbons have nothing to do with it. The GIs fight to give Afghans a stable democracy, law and order, and equal rights fo women.
This is the sort of moral mission that the Narrative demands. In the real world, one might as well give art lessons to a boar hog.
By contrast, the Afghans predictably see the US as an invading army of brutal infidels—a word we see as faintly amusing but they don't—who bomb and kill, kick in their doors at three a.m, humiliate the men in front of their families and insult their women. A very little of this, a very few dead children, can arouse a whole lot of hatred, but the American Narrative doesn't allow of this truth.
Condequences ensue. Note that in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, as in Pakistan, as in Viet Nam, the national armies supposedly on America's side are never ready. Despite billions of dollars spent in training them, somehow they are always years away from being able to take over. They desert, coöperate with the enemy, sometimes murder GIs. By contrast, the enemy fights tenaciously.
The Americans are baffled and outraged. “We are here to help these people, to protect them against the evil (communists, Al Qaida, Iranians, or whatever). Where is their gratitude? Why don't they do their share?”
When you recruit citizens of a country to kill their own people in the name of a widely hated puppet government, their enthusiasm is likely to be exiguous. But since the American Narrative insists that the US seeks only to end the dominion of Evil, opposition to America becomes inexplicable.
In war after war, those attacked fail to act as the US expects. The Iraqis should have welcomed the American soldiers who were bringing them democracy and defeating an evil dictator. This fits the Narrative. That people don't like being invaded, having their cities devastated, their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers in the army killed—this does not fit the Narative of unalloyed American virtue. It merely determines events.