July 20, 2010

We Are Not Special, and There Is No Happy Ending: The Blood-Drenched Darkness of American Exceptionalism

You may not regard the two propositions in my title as deserving of any special attention. You may think, entirely correctly, that if we as Americans are special, it is only in the way that any human being is special: that each of us is unique and irreplaceable, that each of our lives, and the lives of all of us, demand reverence for the unrepeatable value of a person's brief passage in this world. And you may recognize, also correctly, that certain actions lead to destruction and loss in a manner and on a scale that forbid correction and amends, that on some occasions we can only accept the certainty of negative consequences that cannot be avoided. Human beings may be capable of remarkable, even wondrous achievement, but limits are inherent in existence itself. Sometimes those limits mean that wounds will never heal, that the pain will never end.

If you view these observations as unremarkable, even mundane, that is because in certain crucial respects, you are an adult. Such a healthy perspective -- "healthy" designating that which proceeds from demonstrable facts -- enables us to see the extreme nature of the delusions necessitated by an unquestioned belief in the myth of American exceptionalism. Despite the events of the last decade, the myth remains the heart of American culture, of American politics, and of the American State. Our politicians still regularly assure us that "America is the last, best hope of Earth," and that "the American moment" will extend for the entirety of "this new century." Americans remain "the Good Guys: "The emphasis is not only on 'Good,' but on 'the': we are the Good Guys in a way that no one else is, or can ever be."

When we believe that America and Americans are unique and uniquely good in all of history, we will also believe that there is no problem we cannot overcome. Our political leaders tell us this fable time and again; many Americans are eager to believe it, in the manner of a damaged child who appeals to mysterious powers to vanquish the dangers lurking in the shadows of his room. We witness this mechanism in connection with a wide range of problems, even when those problems reach the catastrophic level. Here is Obama on the continuing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico:
President Barack Obama struck an optimistic tone over the ongoing oil disaster Monday afternoon, saying that "things are going to return to normal" on the stricken Gulf Coast after much pain and frustration, and that the polluted waters will eventually be in better shape than before the leak began.
These are reassurances offered by parents to children whom they treat as doltish objects fit only to be manipulated. The parent or other authority figure -- here, Obama -- does not expect his words to be credited after a process of independent evaluation. He expects, in fact he demands, that you take his word for it, that you believe him without question or challenge. He demands that you obey. This is the way our political leaders treat their subjects both abroad and at home. (In addition to rejecting this method of forcible "persuasion," I also reject such reassurances for further, more specific and compelling reasons, as do many others. I recognize that we are provided only such information about the Gulf catastrophe as the government and BP, which are one and the same in this context, wish us to have. We have close to no idea what is actually going on, or the damage that has already been inflicted and that may manifest itself in the future. Moreover, I recognize the dangerous folly of entrusting any kind of solution to a crisis of this kind, or to the crisis of climate change however one may conceive it, to an inherently, fatally corrupted corporatist State.)

The pace of destruction on the domestic front is rapidly increasing at present. But the greatest destruction wrought by the exceptionalist American State will still be found in the realm of foreign affairs. The foundation of America's murderous prescription for large parts of the rest of the world remains as I have identified it:
In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this [exceptionalist] tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
With this belief system as the unchallengeable foundation, a vast number of Americans render themselves completely unable to recognize the devastating consequences of the American State's actions abroad. Whenever those consequences threaten to announce themselves in an unavoidable manner, most Americans will explicitly deny or avoid them through an endless variety of stratagems. When all else fails, their ultimate defense will be the cloaked restatement of the myth's message: the lives of those other people are simply not of the same value as our own. Such recognition must be disguised to a degree, for an explicit statement to that effect would shock certain sensibilities (or certain people would at least pretend to be shocked). But -- and this is the critical point -- when we consider the relevant facts, the continuing refusal to acknowledge what the American State has done and still does today can have no other meaning.

A terrifyingly awful example of this phenomenon is the disappearance of the nightmarish tragedy of Iraq from our national conversation. Remember that Iraq never posed a serious threat to the United States, and that our leaders knew that it posed no such threat. Therefore, the U.S. invasion and occupation represent an ongoing series of war crimes. This is not an arguable point in any respect. Since it cannot be argued, it is ignored altogether.

And it is not just ignored, as malignantly evil as that would be by itself. The American exceptionalist myth tells us that the United States is unique and uniquely good. It is not sufficient to ignore negative consequences of our actions: we must transform any and all negative consequences into a positive good. This process has been rigorously followed for every American intervention ever undertaken (going back to the Philippines, then with the American entrance into World War I, on into many interventions after World War II, on into Iraq and Afghanistan today), and the identical process has been well underway for several years in connection with Iraq in particular.

Chris Floyd identified the operation of this mechanism in December of last year:
[T]he situation in Iraq is now being held up as a model, a goal, for Barack Obama's massive expansion of the war and occupation in Afghanistan. Obama himself has called the "surge" in Iraq "an extraordinary achievement," and has at every turn promoted and propagated the myth that George W. Bush's escalation of a hideous war of aggression was a resounding success. This myth is based on one thing only: the fact that the peak of the ghastly death rate produced by the American occupation dropped to a somewhat less horrific level. But as countless experts and analysts have pointed out, this drop had very little to do with the addition of some 28,000 American troops.
In that article, Floyd excerpted Patrick Cockburn, who identified this terrible truth:
The guerrilla war against the US in Iraq ceased because the Sunni community was being slaughtered by Shia death squads. "Judging by the body counts at the time in the Baghdad morgues, three Sunnis died for every Shia," Dr Michael Izady, who conducted a survey of the sectarian make-up of Baghdad for Columbia University's School of International Affairs, is quoted as saying. "Baghdad, basically a Sunni city into the 1940s, by the end of 2008 had only a few hundred thousand Sunni residents left in a population of over five million." Defeated in this devastating sectarian civil war, the Sunni ended their attacks on US troops and instead sought their protection. The "surge" of 28,000 extra US troops who arrived in the summer of 2007 had a marginal impact on the outcome of the fighting.
We must always remember the scope of the horrifying effects of the U.S. invasion and occupation, including the murder of over a million innocent people, together with the all-encompassing devastation of an entire country as set forth in that same article.

Such is the limitless power of delusion on this scale: a blood-drenched tragedy of world-historical proportion becomes "an extraordinary achievement," and a criminal war of aggression is transmuted by the alchemy of cultural myth-making into a "success." This is the evil to be found at the rotted heart of the myth: whatever the United States does, it will lead to good and only to good.

And all of it -- all of it -- is a damnable, unforgivable lie. Patrick Cockburn has written a new article about Iraq: "The Ruin They'll Leave Behind." Let us leave aside the fact that the U.S. isn't leaving, an issue I just recently discussed. In light of the great value of Cockburn's reporting, this is a comparatively minor point. I urge you to read all of Cockburn's piece.

Here are several key passages:
On June 14, this year, an interpreter for the US army called Hameed al-Daraji was shot dead as he was sleeping in his house in Samarra, a city 60 miles north of Baghdad.

In some respects there was nothing strange about the killing, since 26 Iraqi civilians were murdered in different parts of the country on the same day. As well as working periodically for the Americans since 2003, Mr Daraji may have recently converted to Christianity and unwisely taken to wearing a crucifix around his neck – a gesture quite enough to make him a target in the Sunni Arab heartlands.

What made Iraqis, inured to violence though they are, pay particular attention to the murder of Mr Daraji was the identity of his killer. Arrested soon after the body was discovered, his son is reported to have confessed to his father's murder, explaining that his father's job and change of religion brought such shame on the family that there was no alternative to shooting him. A second son and Mr Daraji's nephew are also wanted for the killing and all three of the young men are alleged to have links to al-Qa'ida.

The story illustrates the degree to which Iraq remains an extraordinarily violent place. Without the rest of the world paying much attention, some 160 Iraqis have been killed, and hundreds wounded, over the past two weeks. Civilian casualties in Iraq are still higher than in Afghanistan, though these days the latter has a near-monopoly of media attention. But the killing of Mr Daraji should give pause to those who imagine that the US occupation of Iraq somehow came right in its final years...


American troops leave behind a country that is a barely floating wreck. Baghdad feels like a city under military occupation, with horrendous traffic jams caused by the 1,500 checkpoints and streets blocked off by miles of concrete blast walls that strangle communications within the city. The situation in Iraq is in many ways "better" than it was, but it could hardly be anything else, given that killings at their peak in 2006-2007 were running at about 3,000 a month. That said, Baghdad remains one of the most dangerous cities in the world, riskier to walk around than Kabul or Kandahar.


Corruption explains much in Iraq – but it is not the only reason why it has been so difficult to create a functioning government. Saddam Hussein should not be such a hard act to follow. Part of the problem here is that the US invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had revolutionary consequences because it shifted power from the Sunni Arab Baathists to the 60 per cent of Iraqis who are Shia and in alliance with the Kurds. Iraq had a new ruling class rooted in the rural Shia population and headed by former exiles with no experience of running anything. In many ways, their model of government is to recreate Saddam's system, only this time with the Shia in charge. It used to be said that Iraq was under the thumb of Sunni Arabs from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home city north of Baghdad, while these days people in Baghdad complain that a similar tight-knit gang from the Shia city of Nasiriyah surrounds the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In many ways, Iraq is becoming like Lebanon, its politics and society irredeemably divided by sect and communal loyalties. The outcome of the parliamentary election on March 7 could easily be forecast by assuming that most Iraqis would vote as Sunni, Shia or Kurds. Jobs at the top of government and throughout the bureaucracy are filled unofficially according to sectarian affiliation. In a crude way, this does give everybody a share of the cake, but the cake is too small to satisfy more than a minority of Iraqis. Government is also weakened because ministers are representatives of some party, faction or community and cannot be dismissed because they are crooked or incompetent.

Going back to Baghdad last month, after being away for some time, I was struck by how little had changed. The airport was still among the worst in the world. When I wanted to fly to Basra, Iraq's second biggest city and the centre of the oil industry, Iraqi Airways said they had only one flight during the week and they were none too certain when that would leave.

Violence may be down, but few of the 2 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria think it safe enough to go home. A further 1.5 million people are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), forced out of their homes by sectarian pogroms in 2006 and 2007 and too frightened to return. Of these, some half a million people try to survive in squatter camps which Refugees International describes as lacking "basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity, and built on precarious places – under bridges, alongside railroad tracks and amongst garbage dumps". A worrying fact about these camps is that the number of people in them should be shrinking as sectarian warfare ebbs, but in fact the IDP population is growing. These days refugees come to the camps not because of fear of the death squads but because of poverty, joblessness or because the prolonged drought is driving farmers off their land.
Cockburn has much, much more.

As deeply horrifying as these details are, perhaps it is that these facts are not hidden or completely inaccessible that is most unsettling. What the U.S. has done -- death and ongoing suffering on a monumental scale, that "Iraq remains an extraordinarily violent place" and "is a barely floating wreck" -- can easily be known, if we seek to know the truth. Yet almost none of our leaders will acknowledge the smallest part of this truth, and most Americans are unaware of almost all of it. This reveals a notable danger in what is often held up as yet another singular virtue of the United States: that we have a "free" press, and that there is no official censorship. As a result, people believe that they do know the truth. After all, no one is being actively prevented from telling even unpleasant truths.

Such simplistic appeals to what is supposedly another aspect of American virtue disregard the complex operations of cultural "truths" that are widely accepted. It is almost impossible to imagine how official censorship could more successfully and comprehensively obliterate the actual truth. And I repeat: since people delude themselves that their leaders and media are telling them the truth, they feel no need to seek further for it. Moreover, facts such as those set forth by Cockburn, facts that are accessible to anyone if he wants to find them, have no reality for those whose identity and self-worth are critically tied to the myth of American exceptionalism. It is the myth that is real; facts that conflict with and undermine the myth rarely penetrate the consciousness of most Americans. Such facts are never admitted by those who would lead the American State.

Even after the criminal catastrophe of Iraq, the myth prevails. Death and devastation become "success" -- and that "success" then becomes another justification for yet another campaign of death and devastation in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and then perhaps in Iran...

Some critics of American interventionism abroad point to signs that the same critics think indicate a willingness to more seriously question American foreign policy: the overextension of the American military, the serious, possibly irreversible weakening of the American economy generally, and the like. Again, however, such facts, indisputable though they may be, fall into the category of facts that become non-facts when set against the power of the myth. I have sometimes remarked that myths which assume importance in the manner of the exceptionalist myth constitute life itself. It is crucial to appreciate that this is how it operates in psychological terms. In a contest between a belief system which provides identity and self-worth and facts which threaten that identity and self-worth, it is frequently the facts which many people choose to discard.

Occasionally, when the destructive (and self-destructive) effects of a belief system become sufficiently overwhelming, a person will decide to question and eventually dispense with the belief system. The process can be agonizingly difficult. Many people prefer to avoid it. Most of us are familiar with the tragic story of the individual who refuses to give up the myth that he still believes provides him consolation and meaning -- even when clinging to the myth leads to his own death. Countries can behave in the identical manner; history provides numerous examples of the same tragedy on a national scale.

For the present, and for the United States, the myth commands the controlling position. What will dislodge it? I'm convinced that only widespread devastation visited on the U.S. itself, through economic collapse, natural (or unnatural) catastrophe, or a final war of unspeakably awful consequence, will finally force our leaders and many Americans to surrender the myth that has sustained them for so long. And in such a case, it won't be a choice to acknowledge the truth at long last. The devastation will be so immense that the myth will be rendered entirely irrelevant, a kind of unutterably grisly, sick, pointless joke. I would be profoundly grateful to be in error on this point; I do not think I am.

Even now, we could choose differently, but there are almost no signs that most Americans are willing to consider the possibility. Certainly, our leaders are not. And even if we do not make a different choice, we may have years and even decades before the worst consequences are felt. It is impossible to know the details in advance given the huge number of variables involved.

For the moment, we are left with a nation and a government that is as I described it close to four years ago:
If you have ever wondered how a serial murderer -- a murderer who is sane and fully aware of the acts he has committed -- can remain steadfastly convinced of his own moral superiority and show not even the slightest glimmer of remorse, you should not wonder any longer.

The United States government is such a murderer. It conducts its murders in full view of the entire world. It even boasts of them. Our government, and all our leading commentators, still maintain that the end justifies the means -- and that even the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents is of no moral consequence, provided a sufficient number of people can delude themselves into believing the final result is a "success."


We can appeal all we want to "American exceptionalism," but any "exceptionalism" that remains ours is that of a mass murderer without a soul, and without a conscience. ... It is useless to appeal to any "American" sense of morality: we have none. It does not matter how immense the pile of corpses grows: we will not surrender or even question our delusion that we are right, and that nothing we do can be profoundly, unforgivably wrong.