Exceptionalism: A Personal Memoir

When my professor, a retired Vice Admiral in the British Navy, asked our small class what the United States of America’s justification for the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan was to the international community, I could feel eyes were upon me. I am the only American in a class of five, the only American to ever take this particular module, and it was felt that as an American, already called upon to explain the concept of the National Guard to my British classmates, I should be able to explain why America was justified in its sudden deployment to overthrow the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan. I was ashamed to admit I didn’t know that it was argued self-defense under Article 51, not beyond the usual stammering 9/11 causality, but it wasn’t unusual that I wouldn’t. I know remarkably little of international law and UN politics or history, having spent my prior academic life engrossed in a epoch when all those concepts were far more primitive. High School gave me most of what I know, and as it was  publicly-mandated it lacked complication so I could more easily secure funding for my school. Nor was I in Model UN, an activity known in my High School for its outstanding weed connections. Even excusing these, I rarely read most international news until recently, and still characterize it as essentially “too depressing to think about”.

Despite my nearly 5 years living abroad, I rarely considered the actual implication of being an American in a world that has lived in the shadow of the Yankee superpower for a half century. In the comforting homogeneous world of the Fife countryside, listening to the drone of bagpipes and basking in the privileged first world un-diversity of my undergraduate education, maybe it didn’t matter as much. But in multicultural London, stuffed up the gills with politics and international events in one of the great nexuses of the world, I am often more brutally confronted with the implications of the American way as I sit in far diverser classrooms and study the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The long road that got us here is all too well known, but I had never thought to look beyond that history and into the structures that supposedly benchmark it. Now suddenly I am playing serious catch-up.

I realized only recently that I know very little about America’s wars of the past decade and a half; I know more about the Mexican American War than I do about the Second Gulf War, even though I lived through the latter. I had almost no conception of the war other than the initial scene of a toppled Saddam statue and then occasional and very negative blips of concerned looking Wolf Blitzer dropping the words: “insurgency”, “sectarian”, “civil war”, and “surge”. I have just finished reading Fred Kaplan’s excellent The Insurgents, and it taught me more than I had ever known about the war that occupied fully a third of my life when it concluded. Even excusing my relative youth at the time, it seems less than acceptable to have known so little about something my country had dedicated so much of my parent’s income and my future income to, to say nothing of the American lives lost. I just declared the war “bad” and then never gave a thought about the details.

Having an aversion to the news, suffering from Oh Dearism in its pronounced form, I simply avoided reading about most international events, even past I the age when I really ought to have been doing it. Being the child of the liberal school of parenting and education, which told me to innately question any sparks of overt patriotism, I often simply equated America’s dealings in this depressing world as being one of, at best, bumbling good-natured freedom-loving, or, at worst, a shadow front for the corrupt dealings of corporate America behind cowboy hats and bald eagles. During the Bush years (Ages 11-18), there was a certain liberation from participation by feeling this way, and a comfort in somehow putting a distance between myself and the country music scene style of patriotism. It allowed me to be the opposition without actually having to stand for anything. It wasn’t the blind sheep bleat that Republican invective would have you believe; I didn’t march behind the drums of church-burning anarchists, raising a banner with St Dawkins on one side and St DeGeneres on the other while chanting the holy mantra “Pri-US”. It was just that being contrary excused me from having to look at the ugliness of the world and take a stand, and it abdicated the responsibility for being implicated by my passport when American actions upset some foreign country. Some young people think they can change the world, and they dig trenches in Ghana or promote solar energy in Nepal as their allegiance pledge to that gospel, but I chose instead to revel in the humanities, date gorgeous girls, and figure that America was either wrong or doing its best with an idiot like Bush at the helm.

I’m older now of course, and I’ve become, subversively, an American Exceptionalist. I’ve swung back the other way in quite short order, and now am trying to see my way straight in the matter. Perhaps it is simply that I had not come up with a better answer to my classmate’s criticisms of the Drone program or American buildup for a Syria strike, but I began to hit back with some statements that I am not sure I wholly agree with, but feel obligated to retort with. Part of it is that I can’t hide behind the shield of the Bush puppet anymore, nor should I have in the first place. There is a man in the White House that I helped put there, and suddenly I am forced by further implication to stand by and oftentimes defend my President. As a result of doing so, I now can see the very awkward world of sitting with the gospel of humanitarianism in one hand and the a cheque for over half the world’s military spending in the other. I’m no longer such a savage critic of Bush or his administration either, at least is now less political and more academic. In the meantime, I seem to quote lines of Thucydides increasingly: The Strong do as they will, and the Weak suffer what they must.

Where I once dismissed the war-mongering neo-cons, I now dismiss neo-isolationists who want to reverse the trend of Iraq and Afghanistan so wholly that American troops exclusively perform Zero Dark Thirty raids and have bases that boast a local Burger King (and one where the measurements aren’t in grams). It’s a nice thought fiscally, but it doesn’t truly reflect the threats that remain in the world and the role America, not wholly unwillingly or willingly, has assumed in regards to addressing the threats to the stability of national and international interests. While I am aware that the two do not live harmoniously, I do increasingly view the first as my primary concern, and, with trepidation, I see the hopes of the world pinned increasingly on the virtues of the former. Market opportunity, social liberation, political freedom, civil liberty, and the rest of the canon. I don’t think that nation building will solve this issue or that every society is a mini-America trying to escape, but I do think that a mix of regional and global security, market strategy, and soft diplomacy might make the world a place where the virtues of American culture are accepted and its flaws, and it has many, increasingly purged. A more perfect Union: that I agree with wholeheartedly for my country, and hopefully for the world. Maybe its a little bit of the old Red in me, but I do believe in unity across cultures and across peoples through progress and industry, two cardinal American virtues, at least in the days before the advent of the Wii Fit.

It isn’t to say I’ve shut down the other half of the equation: I often wonder if our presence overseas might not be doing more damage than good in certain areas. I question the wisdom of using Drones over the FATA, and I believed, with much regret, that American preparations to strike Assad were incorrect, no matter how much I believed in the cause of Free Syria or desired to wound a government that would use chemical weapons on its citizens. Nor do I think profligate spending on military projects is a great use of America’s dollars in the new austerity. But I also see the benefits of having a strong military, and understand better the American component of international partnerships, coalitions, and stabilizing alliances. There is a specific role for America and Americans in international security, and its not one I think it’s wise to put aside. Integration and resilience strategies cannot be simply dispensed with so that American hard power can be made a slightly more attractive pig at the county fair, because military force and security coercion is an ugly hog no matter what shade of lipstick you put on it, and an expensive and aggressive one at that. While I’d be the first to admit it all needs to be seriously re-imagined and revised for a new generation, I am a believer in American hard power until a better alternative can be found.

I guess that makes me an exceptionalist, and possibly a bit of a nationalist. I’m not likely to don red, white, and blue boxer shorts and exclusively vacation at Mt Rushmore, but I do own a pair of cowboy boots and think Bald Eagles are just fantastic.

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One Response to Exceptionalism: A Personal Memoir

  1. Camron Conners says:

    I recommend you read Lone Survivor. It might not be anything you didn’t know… but its fantastic, and brutal, and sad, and amazing. Also, this is a great and meticulous post… and I would like more people to see it. I think you should submit it to like… BBC International or something.

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