Exceptional

26 09 2011

One can only rest on one’s laurels for so long. Sooner or later, you will have to remind everyone why you earned the laurels in the first place. Put up or shut up. We are long past that point, in my opinion. Despite the shrill rhetoric in this country supposedly to demonstrate the patriotism of one or another group of yammerheads, none of those doing the yammering seems capable of identifying exactly why they think America is number one. What have we done lately to earn the adoration and envy of the rest of the world we seem to crave so desperately?

A bit of history is in order. The US has been a major world player since before the First World War, based largely upon our manufacturing capacity and the military capabilities afforded by that manufacturing. We exported manufactured goods and foodstuffs all over the world, and had a first-rate Navy to keep that trade flowing. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Second World War that the so-called “American Century” began in earnest. For a brief period starting in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the US was an economic juggernaut. These are the so-called “golden years” so fondly recalled by the strident reactionaries in America’s political climate today. Contrary to popular belief, however, this was not because of some uniquely American trait, but the result of the US being the only industrialized country which still had any industry to speak of. Most of the rest of the industrialized world was still trying to dig themselves out from under the piles of rubble where their cities and factories had been.

Because total war had not raged across North America in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the US was just about the only functioning economy left on Earth. We took advantage of this to do some good things, such as helping rebuild both allies and enemies, but we also developed a wholly unwarranted sense of superiority which persists to this day. What is so special about us that we think everyone else should kiss our ring? Nukes? Bah- there are over a dozen nuclear powers in the world at the moment, both acknowledged and secret. Don’t even begin to speak about the US economy- if we’re not fully in recession, we’re still teetering on the ragged edge of it, despite the optimistic pronouncements from the government. Liberty and freedom? Sorry, Charlie. Parts of this country might as well be Banana republics for all the actual freedom enjoyed by the citizens. Health and longevity? I’m not sure the US even makes it into the top ten. Technology? Not so much, anymore. Most of our technology is developed and built by scientists and engineers from other countries, and almost all of the raw materials for that technology comes from foreign sources outside US control. Education? Not even close. American universities still enjoy a stellar reputation worldwide, but this is the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal showing by US students from pre-school through graduation from high school. A large percentage of adults in this country would be unable to correctly identify the US on a map if it weren’t properly labeled, and US schoolchildren lag significantly behind most of the world in math and sciences. Standard of living, perhaps? Hmmm. That one does have some merit.

Even poor people in the US enjoy a standard of living which would have been classified as high living in most of the world throughout much of history. America is so wealthy that modest cities such as the one where I reside make schedules so those needing food or other assistance can take advantage of all the largess available. To be poor in much of the world even today often means you are one bad day away from death by starvation. To be “poor” in the US all too often means you don’t have high-definition on your color television. The average standard of living in this country is staggeringly high by historical standards.

Okay. The US has a high standard of living. Other countries are nearly as well off, however, so we’re back to searching for something we have that no one else has.

What about our military? In this arena, the US is supreme. No one else even comes close. We can go anywhere on Earth, kick ass and take names, then drop in someplace else on the other side of the planet to do it all over again. In this, the US really is exceptional. Now, what do we do with this exceptional capability?

Sadly, what we’ve done with our military for the last couple of decades is throw our weight around. Without a serious military rival to act as a counterbalance, Washington has been swaggering across the world stage with an arrogant sneer and giving anyone who looks at us crossways the back of our hand. In the absence of an enemy, we seem to have been going out of our way to turn ourselves int the enemy for everyone else. We are acting less like the world’s policeman and more like the world’s neighborhood bully.

Granted, American military power has a lot of little-noticed benefits for the rest of the world. Our Navy keeps trade flowing freely on the world’s oceans. We have sometimes stepped in to put a stop to unspeakable atrocities- although this could easily be said to be both too much and not enough. US military units respond to disasters around the world to provide food, shelter, and medical care quickly when the devastated area is often completely unable to provide any of these services. The mere fact that US warplanes and troops can show up on a troublemaker’s doorstep with no warning has a chilling effect on a lot of would-be conquerors- military adventures are a lot less useful or profitable when they might anger the biggest kid on the block.

Despite these often-unacknowledged global benefits from US military supremacy, most countries are not enthusiastic about our peerless might. No one is comfortable when the biggest, toughest kid on the block has a drinking problem and poor impulse control, and this is a pretty good description of US policy over the last couple of decades.

If we overlook our military prowess, the US doesn’t rate too highly as a nation. Our politics are a shambles, our economy not much better, and the few things we do really well are getting cut out of the budget by penny-wise and pound-foolish government officials in the service of their respective ideologies. The one thing we are absolutely the best at (killing people and destroying things) is a skill unlikely to endear us to other nations. Assuming we want other nations to like us, perhaps we should cut back on the killing-people-and-destroying-things bit and start acting like just another country. That’s what we are, after all.

Current status: Incensed

Current music: Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger

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In The Company Of Heroes

16 02 2011

I realize the American fetish for quickly moving on to the Next Big Spectacle has largely washed the events of the last few weeks out of our collective memories, but there are some heroes of the revolution in Egypt who have gone largely unsung (in the US media, at least).

Let us cast our minds back to January 30th. The protests were still ramping up in intensity, and the Egyptian Army had already moved into Cairo and surrounded Tahrir Square. Despite the efforts of Mubarak’s goon squads, the protesters had refrained from erupting into mass violence. During those tense hours when security forces in disguise were attacking the protesters with rocks, molotov cocktails, and occasional sniper fire, Mubarak ordered the Army to open fire on the protesters.

I have mentioned before that the Egyptian Army is largely composed of conscripts, and also that the Army is widely seen as a way out of the poverty which is the normal lot of most Egyptians. Due in part to the close working relationship with the US military, Egypt’s military is considered to be a generally professional force- even by western standards. The Egyptian military is very highly regarded by most of the citizens. When the Army first arrived at the Square, the protesters welcomed them warmly with cheers and patriotic songs, and the soldiers were visibly sympathetic to the protesters.

When the order came, some of the soldiers dropped their rifles and joined the protesters. The others looked to their officers and unit leaders for guidance. The unit leaders and tank commanders- generally the sons and grandsons of former soldiers- pulled out their cell phones and called their ex-military parents and grandparents and asked, “What should I do?” Unknown to most of the world at the time, History held its breath. Would Tahrir Square become another Tiananmen?

From the earlier generations of Egyptian soldiers came the reply. You should not fire upon your fellow Egyptians. Disobey this order. As we now know, the Army listened, and chose to refuse to massacre their countrymen.

There are those who, from the comfort and safety of their homes in the US, claim that the military refused the order out of concern for their extensive commercial interests within Egypt’s economy. Egypt’s military does have wide-ranging commercial enterprises throughout the economy, and this may have been a factor in the larger decision on whether or not to open fire on their own people. This does not take away from the very real and very personal risks those men took by telling their President, “Sir! No sir!” Disobeying such an order took enormous amounts of courage, for President Mubarak would have dealt very harshly with the Army had he retained his position. The Army leadership decided that the President had issued an illegal order, and they would refuse to carry it out. Under similar conditions in China and Iran, the troops turned on their own citizens. To their everlasting credit, the Egyptian military proved that they really are a professional force and refused to emulate the butchers of Tehran and Beijing.

Despite my philosophical distrust of military rule, Egypt’s military has shown that they are the guarantors of liberty for their countrymen. Perhaps the military will come to be a stabilizing force such as the Turkish military, or they may turn into another military government such as Myanmar (Burma). What the future may bring is always in doubt, but there are some unshakable truths which offer some hope that the future may not necessarily be too terrible: The people of Egypt are better off today than they were on January 25th, and the soldiers of Egypt’s Third Army proved to be far, far better men than their recently-deposed President.

Current status: Hopeful

Current music: Such Great Heights by The Postal Service