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Of American Psychology and Mythology

January 3, 2011

I chanced upon this book at a local coffeehouse that also sells used books:

Backfire: a history of how American culture led us into Vietnam and made us fight the way we did  by Loren Baritz. (William Morrow & Sons: NY, 1985).

I found it fascinating and quite engaging.  His thesis is far-ranging and many-sided but what I found most fascinating was his explication of how some of our most cherished  cultural myths and assumptions about ourselves and our nation’s role in the world  not only unite us and inspire us but also have blinded us and led us into blind alleys and frustrating quagmires again and again in foreign military  actions– wars in which we couldn’t  seem to win, couldn’t even define what winning would be, and yet somehow couldn’t get out of, fearing we’d be admitting defeat and betraying American ideals.  Appearing tough became more important than being wise. Believing we were acting on the highest, most unselfish ideals,  we  chose a self-defeating messianic vision over maturity, as Arthur Schlesinger once put it. 

Writing in 1985 his focus is naturally on Vietnam but it’s all relevant today when we are waging war in at least five different Moslem-dominated nations in the Middle East.  In addition,  a story in the June 4, 2010 edition of the Washington Post revealed that  US Special Operations forces are also  carrying on unilateral air strikes and various  other military actions in no less than 75 (yes, seventy-five) different countries around the world, from the Philippines to Colombia, to Yemen.

“Our assumptions [Baritz writes] are made up of the values and self-perceptions that are so deep, so traditional, that they are taken for granted and are rarely discussed. They live under the skin rather than in the mind….the attitudes that flow from these deep assumptions  help to organize the way we think about ourselves and about the world. These are the old American myths that form the basis of American nationalism. The central myths are those of “the city on a hill,” American idealism, and our technological invincibility.”

In 1630 the Puritan divine John Winthrop told his followers that their settlement in New England would become a ” City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”  This enduring image implies “that America is a moral example to the rest of the world, a world that will presumably keep its attention riveted on us. It means we are a Chosen People…in countless ways Americans know in the gut–the only place myths can live–that we have been Chosen to lead the world in public morality and to instruct it in political virtue. We believe that our own domestic goodness results in strength adequate to destroy our opponents, who, by definition, are enemies of virtue, freedom, and God.” [emphasis added]

It is vital to understand how half-conscious and automatic these underlying myths, beliefs, and assumptions are–and how pervasive.  Men as different as Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy and George W. Bush. LBJ and George H.W. Bush,  all believed in them and their actions abroad were largely determined by those beliefs and assumptions.. To use a computer analogy, they are like an operating system or platform running in the background, unnoticed, all the time. Even those US policy-makers who pride themselves  on being  “tough-minded”, hard-headed “realists” are–often unwittingly– guided by these underlying assumptions–and those  unchallenged, unexamined premises keep us from seeing ourselves and seeing others accurately and so lead us into blind alleys again and again. Worse, they make it very difficult for us to learn from our most frustrating experiences.

I cannot adequately summarize Baritz’s  analysis of how these beliefs led us into self-defeating situations over and over again in one or two pages. You’ll have to read the book to really understand, but parts of it are masterful and revealing.

We  went down a slippery slope until we could no longer distinguish between vital and peripheral interests, so effectively let our opponents pull our chain endlessly and define America’s vital interests. Every frustration of America’s desires abroad came to be seen as a “test of American resolve, of national will, of American character.”  Everything that went wrong in the world was seen slap in the face, a challenge we had to answer,  to avoid appearing dangerously “weak” or  exhibiting a “failure of will” on the part of America’s leaders (if not downright cowardice or treason).

As Garry Wills noted in his writings many years ago,  the combination of military occupation and “nation-building” was always a delusional fantasy.  LBJ thought he could sell a “Great Society for Southeast Asia” plan to Ho Chi Minh in exchange for his submission to US domination of Vietnam.  LBJ didn’t get it. He believed, as our subsequent leaders believed, we  could invade and occupy a foreign country, destroying the traditional culture in the process, then create in its place a new set of institutions and culture  on the American model, and like Christian missionaries, convert the  unenlightened  and backward “natives” to the gospel of The American Way.  Those “natives” would cooperate, be eager to convert into Americans,  and very grateful for the opportunity.  When they–whether  due to being duped, misguided, or ignorant– resisted, our bafflement and rage knew no bounds: “What’s wrong with those people? After all we’ve done for them! Why are they so ungrateful?”  We never seemed to remember that while all human beings have similar needs, they want to choose different paths to fulfilling those needs. Many of the peoples  of the world don’t want to be “just like us.”

Do our current opponents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen,  Iraq, and Somalia “hate us for our freedoms” ? Or do they hate us because we have invaded  five different Muslim nations in their part of the world and are raining death and destruction down on their heads? What the American people experienced on 9/11, the soldiers and civilians of those countries are experiencing on a weekly, if not a daily basis, courtesy of the US military, as we speak. Once again, we seemed to have walked into the same old trap: can’t achieve a clear-cut victory.  No  longer even sure what victory would look like. Can’t leave either without feeling humiliated and impotent.

Bartiz’s book is the best explanation I’ve read of why we keep ending up in the same  blind alley, over and over again. It’s not a mater of strategy and tactics, or of comflicts between civilian and military leadership. It goes back to our underlying ideology and assumptions, the half-conscious premises we operate under, that are rarely openly discussed, much less questioned and debated.










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