Lately I’ve been constantly reminded of a remark that James Lileks made to me in an e-mail regarding the Writing of Essays and Other Deep Thoughts. He’s a perfectly ripe mango of annoyance, that fellow; if the man weren’t so funny and spot-on, I’d like and despise him far less. But no -– my admiration for him continues to grow and soon murder will be the only way for me to adequately express it.
We were talking about this process in an e-mail exchange, and he said that when we chase the rabbit down the hole, we never know where it’s going to come out again. That’s it exactly.
I’ve been chasing a particular rabbit for months now; had it cornered in the back of a cave. I’d gotten out the knife and was prepared to make short work of it, when suddenly the little bastard launched itself fifty feet through the air, landed on my neck and started tearing at my jugular. I’ve been fighting with it ever since.
I’ve been thinking about Power. Thinking about what real power entails, and more importantly, wondering if there is a way to defeat that ancient and highly reliable adage, and perhaps find a way for a nation -– mine -- to wield power, enormous power, without being corrupted -- enormously.
The use of power is straightforward, and throughout history we see salvation or ruin as a direct result of the application of power. But the moral use of power: that is a Jackalope; it’s a Snark -– easy to talk about, but damned hard to catch. But chase it we must, because the United States is a moral country, filled with decent and generous people, and we can see that the few times in our history when we did not fight for a moral cause produced stains on our honor and history, and wrote a page or two identical to the volumes of horrors inflicted by nations and empires with no such moral inhibitions and restraint.
The United States is often referred to as a childish country, an adolescent nation, young and strong and stubborn, but unsophisticated and unseasoned. Up until a short while ago, there may have been some truth to this, for there is one adolescent quality that has long marked the American psyche when involved overseas, and that is the desire to be liked by everyone. As we mature as individuals (and this is not a universal phenomenon -– yes, I’m talking to you, Sheryl Crow), we begin to realize that not only is it impossible to be liked by everyone… it is, in fact, repugnant. I do not want to be admired by murderers and rapists and liars and wife beaters. I want to be admired by good and decent, intelligent and just people, and in order to achieve this I need to do things that make me despised by their opposites.
As we began to fight back against the worldwide terror network, their corrupted ideology, and the states that harbored them, I and many of my fellow countrymen were shocked to discover all of the sympathy and affection generated by our status as victims suddenly evaporated the moment we decided to utilize our power to try to put an end to this threat. We were counseled by our moral superiors that terrorism was a fact of life in this new millennium -– best just to ignore it as much as possible, and not make things worse by poking it with a stick. And as for all those new skyscrapers and super-jumbo airliners and all those other dreams…forget it. Too much of a target. Who would ever want to inhabit the building replacing the fallen towers? The terrorists will just blow it up again. Better to build a park or something less provocative.
Well, we chose a different path, and we have now two years of data to see the results of this experiment. And we also have to ask ourselves some tough questions regarding the use of power. Does fighting back reduce or enlarge the threat to our country? What are the diplomatic costs, and do they exceed the benefits gained from unilateral action? And because we are a moral nation, most importantly: how do we know when the application of our vast power is justified, not only for our own self interest, but also in the consequences to those on the receiving end of that power?
This subject is too important to screw up, frankly. We -– 21st Century Americans -- need to understand power. We need to understand the perils and traps that have throughout history ensnared nations and empires, and turned once noble ideas into bloody disasters.
It is a painful process. It means turning a cold, unwavering eye on some of our own worst excesses. It means rooting out and examining our own failures, disgraces and shortcomings, and pointing out, in broad daylight, the stains of dishonor on our beloved flag unflinchingly and unfailingly.
We need to do this. We need to do this now, all of us. Because we are at another of those fulcrum points in history -– all of us, together -– where the decisions we make will shape a century. We hang in a moment of space and time where one thing, and one thing only, will determine whether we will advance into a century of science, freedom, tolerance and marvels, or fall back into a dark age of tribalism and terror, of religious fundamentalism armed this time with the very weapons of God.
We look out at an uncertain and unformed future. And the one thing we can all agree on is that the single unique force shaping that world in the coming decades will be American Power. Upon how that power is used, or squandered, or perverted, hangs the future of humanity. How, in this coming age of shadows, do we find our way? How do we do what is right and honorable in a sea intentionally made grey by those who would quickly lose a stand-up fight of good versus evil, black vs. white?
How in fact do we fight and defeat the enemies of freedom, of invention and science, of tolerance and compromise, without, as James Lileks wrote, “waking up to find we had become what we hated the most?”
I thought this was going to be pretty straightforward. And then I ran into a voice that knocked the wind out of me.
I was offered a chance to spend four days in the stunning mountaintop home of the scientist-millionaire -– and old friend -- that I profiled in TRINITY. I took it. One look out the window and you could feel your mental horizon expanding. There, in a view extending for at least a hundred miles, one could see, on a clear day, perhaps four or five signs of human settlement -– a few single houses. And these could be easily ignored. What lay around every switchback in the magnificent lower western corner of North Carolina was America in all her pristine glory -– almost untouched, man’s presence so light and scarce that it could be easily removed with a quick pass of the mental Photoshop.
Things were looking promising. Now all I had to do was sit down and write a few hundred thousand paragraphs on military power and the need to use it when the time arose.
Then the flash.
As I was minding my own business during the first few minutes in this magnificent house, this shrine and testament to the fruits of hard work, daring and ingenuity, I saw bookshelf upon bookshelf of interesting titles.
I walked straight toward the nearest, walked right up to it in fact -– as close as I am to these very words. And there, right in the dead center of my field of vision:
Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, a collection I had not even heard of.
Now it would help if I could explain the kind of effect Mark Twain has on the mind and soul of the American writer. There is no better way to pass a period of hard work than by dipping into small, bite-sized, individually wrapped pieces of Mark Twain. And I soon found out that this would indeed be a wonderful way to pass the hard and backbreaking work of sawing, hammering and hinge-fitting that I was about to face when constructing a gallows to hang myself -– for that is the reaction writers have when they read Mark Twain.
I crack open the book before I put my bags down. The very first line my eyes land on is this:
To my mind, Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.
I’ll just go home now.
Sorry, no escape. I’m hooked again, doomed again. I’ll just unpack my bust of Salieri and place it up here on the monitor. He’ll be a source of great comfort, no doubt, the next time I try to describe the smirk on Michael Moore’s face, the look that Twain caught on a similar creature a century ago when he wrote that he had “a smile all over his face and looks as radiantly happy as he will look some day when Satan gives him a Sunday vacation in the cold storage vault.”
I admire and respect much of the man that was Teddy Roosevelt, but in my opinion there is no doubt whatsoever that the fourth face on Mt. Rushmore should have been Mark Twain’s. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln -- and Twain: easily the four greatest Americans -– to my mind, the four greatest people -– that have ever lived.
But I very soon discovered that On the Damned Human Race was not The Innocents Abroad. It is an angry book, a ferocious indictment of humanity, and most especially America, the country that he skewered mercilessly with the sharpest wit ever granted a mortal person, and a country that through four decades of criticism and remorse never was anything other than the object of his deepest love. It is a glimpse into a world that is long gone, but one that is echoing through a century passed, for me, now. For Twain is writing about the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine rebellion: our one true effort to try our hand at actual imperialism. And what he has to say about Power is not refreshing.
“True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us, we have stamped out a just and intelligent and well-ordered republic; we have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandits’ work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world…”
(Emphasis mine – BW)
A galaxy of talent divides us, but I know I have at least one critical element in common with Mark Twain. We both love America. And people who deeply love America need to hear his words regarding the massacre of 600 Moro tribesman in a remote crater during the mop-up of the Philippine campaign, a century ago:
“We did not exterminate the Spaniards -– far from it. In each engagement we left an average of 2 per cent of the enemy killed or crippled on the field.
Contrast these things with the great statistics which have arrived from that Moro crater! There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded…
The enemy numbered six hundred -– including women and children -– and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.”
Damning words. Fatal. Fatal words. And:
“The next headline blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith:
Death List Is Now 900.
I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag until now!”
If you were looking for words to prevent the American colossus from stamping out a poor, weak, brown-skinned country -– say Iraq -– you could not do much better than to invoke Twain and his essay, To the People Sitting in Darkness.
You could bring down all of his thunder and wrath and compassion and unquestionable moral power and invoke him to bring American troops home, all across the globe.
You could do it. But you would be wrong.
Before the War in Iraq, before Afghanistan, before 9.11.01 as a matter of fact, I was surfing the web and came across a very interesting animation at the Lockheed website.
It was a demonstration of an entirely new kind of warfare. It was stunning.
The computer-graphics scene was a remote airbase in a distant valley in the dark of night. Two -– two! –- shadowy forms appear on the ridgeline, in ragged cloth Ghillie suits, and lie down to become just two more bushes on a moonless ridge several miles from the enemy base below.
High overhead, several alien, bat-like UCAVs -– Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles -– orbit the battlespace. Without a human crew, they can remain on station for days, replaced by others when they return to refuel.
It is like an attic full of bombs, hanging in the rafters, 24/7.
The two forward observers -– Special Forces guys -– are armed with a laser rangefinder. These two men now wield the firepower of a battalion.
Looking through the telescopic sights, they put the crosshairs on a bunker and pull the trigger. An invisible laser ranges the target to within an inch or two. Since GPS tells the rangefinder where it is, it calculates the angle and distance to the target and passes the coordinates of that bunker up to a military communications satellite. This then beams it down to the unseen, unheard UCAVs orbiting tens of thousands of feet above, which in turn enter the bunker’s coordinates into a GPS-guided J-DAM smart bomb.
The men on the ridge continue to mark targets. A control tower. A transport airplane. A fuel depot. A hospital is spared. And so on.
And then, after receiving authorization, the UCAVs open their bomb bay doors, the J-DAMs fall through any weather, and those targets simply disappear. When a convoy of tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers tries to make a run for it, repeated updates of the target designator take them out, too.
Then the two men pack up and disembark, on foot, for several miles, where they will uncover a camouflaged ATV and exit the area for recovery by helicopter.
I described this animation to my friend Richard Riley, who works in aerospace. He described this type of warfare as having, in effect, The God Button. It is an apt description. We see something, point at it, and it goes away.
Various companies are now flight-testing these very UCAV’s. Deployed from an aircraft carrier, with a range of, say, 1000 nautical miles and carrying advanced optical, IR and radar sensors, these vehicles will be able to loiter unseen and unheard at 40,000 feet and target individuals.
I think the most remarkable weapon deployed during the Iraq war was the GPS-guided JDAM bomb that was modified to have it’s warhead not enhanced, but removed and replaced with ordinary cement.
It did not get a lot of press coverage, this weapon. But think about this for a moment: 500 pounds of precision-guided cement falling from a height of 20,000 feet or more is a weapon that is designed to destroy a single room in an apartment building, or an individual car in a traffic jam -- without damaging anything around it.
I must say that for a racist, mass-murdering nation of Nazis bent on terrorizing poor brown people by blowing as many of them to bits as possible, this is rather an anemic effort. How many American and British lives were lost in Iraq due to our self-imposed reluctance to level, at the merest lift of a finger, the building or city block from which our troops were taking fire? How bitterly disappointed must be the barking moonbats of the lunatic left, that we who had the power to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians to limit our own losses saw fit to stay our own hand? Unilaterally, without prior UN approval. There was not a solitary Belgian in sight to instruct us in morality.
But I digress…
The United States, today, has the capability to push The God Button and make targets disappear. We are fast developing battlefield lasers that can shoot down incoming artillery shells. Such a system can aim and correct a directed energy beam on a target instantaneously. No artillery barrage, no missile attack, and least of all, no incoming aircraft will be able to penetrate a fully functioning energy-weapon defense. We are testing such systems at this very moment.
Small wonder, then, that the rest of the world is coming to realize that US power is not collapsing or slowing, but rather accelerating, and accelerating rapidly away from the rest of the planet. And so we should not be surprised to see so many efforts to constrain and derail that power.
So it is time for hard questions: how much power is enough? Who can wield such power without being corrupted? And if we voluntarily relinquish this power?
It never fails to impress me that we best gain insight on the most complex of issues not by boring in closer, but rather by stepping back -– and the further back we step, often the clearer things become.
When all is said and done, discussions of power and morality seem to hinge around a single idea -– or rather two conflicting ideas regarding the nature of power.
Those that would have us disarm, withdraw, apologize and retreat make the assumption that by removing American Power from the world, the planet will become a harmonious village of diversity and mutual respect. Remove American capitalism, and the world’s people will trade solar cars for indigenous beads, our European moral betters will hand over their cash to the third world until all are perfectly equal, and everyone will live in a sustainable ecological paradise. Remove American cultural power and Britney will be replaced with Beethoven, and an exquisite and reasonably priced Pate de Foi Gras Existentialist Meal can be had at a corner drive-in where the former McDonald’s once stood.
This is utter nonsense. It has never been true for a single page of the history of the Damned Human Race. There has never -– never –- been a day in human history when some form of power has not flooded the world, or competed to do so; and those times when the power was most one-sided reveal themselves to be the times of greatest relative peace, stability, and advancement of that quaint notion known as civilization.
This is not merely a European construct. We see this iron rule in Inca and Aztec histories in South America, in Shaka’s Zulu nation, in Chinese empires and Japanese Shogunates, Native American tribal relations, and wherever else we turn our eyes.
The idea that all would be well if only America would retreat from the world and stay at home is a pernicious and seductive one. It appeals not only to those that hunger after the freedom to do mischief in our absence as it does to our natural sense of isolationism. It has been the mantra of communists, totalitarians and elitists of every vile stripe for well over a hundred years. It is utterly and completely wrong. Political power has never been removed from the world -– it has only been replaced. And so our choice –- now pay attention you No Blood For Oil types -– is not between power and no power. It is a choice only of what kind of power will fill that vacuum. Chinese? Russian? European? We have seen all of these before. The horrors they have inflicted, with far less absolute power than the US wields, do not leave me pining for those alternatives. Someone is going to be the world power, or tear the world apart fighting for it. And no matter how hard we may wish it, the winner will not be a Blindfolded Jury of Archangels.
That is an unpleasant realization. It does not bestow glory on the human animal. Mark Twain:
“I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this Branch Office; when I retire there will be no one to take my place. I shall keep doing my duty, for when I get over to the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark.”
We have some very hard decisions to make as a nation, and as a people –- and we have to make them, now. There is no perfect power. There is only human power. History shows that the best we can hope for is that the most decent, least flawed power -– the British, for example -– will, despite their horrors and massacres, displace people who are far, far worse.
It’s really that simple.
We have to face the fact that we are imperfect creatures; that as long as there remain brutal and savage dictatorships, power is not something that can or should be put down or put away, because power dispersed among hundreds of millions of fundamentally decent people displaces and curtails the murders and genocides of those forces that would rush in to fill their place.
We must face the hard and bitter truth that good people can walk away from a fight, but when they do, bad people will have the field, and we have seen the horrors they can inflict.
For there are indeed good people and bad people. We have been, on the whole, the best-behaved, most generous and benign power in the history of the world. But we have had our Ft. Pillows and our Wounded Knees, our Moro Craters and Dresdens and My Lais. We are not immune, no matter how deeply and fervently so many of us wish we were.
We are Twain’s people: fallible, often greedy, prone to vanity and pride over our institutions and successes. We are all this and more. We have committed bloody acts and disgraced our flag and our honor, and written shameful pages in a history that cannot be erased.
We have to. We have to do it, now, openly, honestly. We have to look our weakness and our sins full in the face, and accept them, and unlike past occupiers of this position -- unlike, for example, the Japanese, who still refuse to face their responsibilities in World War II -- we must undergo, daily if necessary, the painful and humiliating airing of our worst excesses, and stare right in the face the reflection of our own flawed nature.
But unlike our hand-wringing, self-loathing, paralyzed elites, we must do this not to become immobilized with shame and doubt, but rather to have the confidence and moral clarity needed to be able to act when action is essential, to act when all others are paralyzed by the shame of unexamined atrocities, to act when only action can save this world from the relentless drag of human entropy that cannot abide creativity, freedom, tolerance and success.
Because now, at this moment, this fulcrum point in history, we need American power more desperately and urgently than at any time in memory. And we cannot allow the past errors of a fundamentally decent, generous and kind people to prevent us from acting at this critical moment where inaction and paralysis could doom the world.
There is loose in the world a cancer, a cult of death and destruction, a force that loves nothing but destruction and pain and revenge for slights real and imagined. We face people whose hatred and rage sends them into fits of ecstasy at the thought of their own children being blown to bloody shreds so long as they can kill as many innocents as possible. And the higher we build, the more fervent and hardened their desire to bring us down.
It is a sickness, it is a disease -– it is, in fact, the last animal howling of rage and impotence at a new idea of humanity that is, at a long, bloody and terrible price, fighting and winning a war against racism, sexism, religious extremism, tribalism, conformity and slavery.
It is a war for and against the liberal freedoms of the West, for and against the idea of self-determination, personal liberty and responsibility, human creativity, diversity, and freedom of expression.
It is a fight to the death for and against a culture that can build marvels like skyscrapers and airliners, acts of technological and creative daring, and fill them with individuals of every nation and religion and color, united by their desire to work hard and get along with one another, people who have traded in machetes and blood feuds for letter openers and water-cooler gossip. We are fighting a nihilistic force, a force that creates nothing and would destroy this entire world for their place in the next if given the means, a force that hijacks -– both literally and figuratively -- these miracles of industry, creativity and compromise, and brings them down in blood and fire and ruin.
It is a fight that we cannot avoid. Despite the bleats of terrified apologists and appeasers, this is not a fight against what we have done, but rather a war against who we are and what we believe and represent. That is why we must remind ourselves, daily remind ourselves, that all these miraculous things we take for granted are not the natural state of man, but new and terrifying ideas for millions of people shackled to the past, ideas that must be fought for and maintained by force if need be. Maintained by power, the vast power generated by freedom and creativity and cooperation.
And yet, we woke up on the first day after the world had changed, woke up to find the plainest evidence possible that we are at war with yet another enemy of civilization and progress. And what did we see?
We saw the rest of the Western world cowering in fear and self-hatred, awash in the disease of self-doubt and myopia that comes from decades of success and luxury -– the same disease that brought Rome from the stability and growth of the Pax Romana to the decadent horrors of Caligula. We saw a few friends -– pitifully few; painfully few -- ready to stand and fight this disease, this death cult of Terror. And of the rest?
They have traded in their power, their means of self-defense, for 35 hour work weeks and months of paid vacations and pre-paid health care, and covered it with a patina of moral superiority that masks a rotten and tottering foundation. They have become cultures unwilling to pay the price to defend themselves, cultures so pessimistic and cynical that they have -– literally and without rhetorical flourish -– lost the will to live to the degree that parents outnumber their children and birthrates plummet through replacement levels and into the basement of collapse and ruin.
And so who is willing, who indeed is even able to fight back in the defense of skyscrapers and bridges, of jetliners and miracle drugs? Who will stand and fight the forces that wish to tear down our cities, shroud our women, burn our science, execute critics, torture the different and destroy our new and alien ideas of personal freedom and responsibility, ideas that have lifted billions from the perpetual fear and horror that have been the lot of the Damned Human Race since man walked upright?
Who will fight for that? Who?
We will fight for it. America. Fallible, human, flawed America will fight. Australia -– another tough and proud nation of free men and women will fight. Great Britain, that ancient champion of decency and fair play. Poland, who knows more about war and horror than perhaps any place on earth -– she has shown she will fight. Israel. Israel, who has borne this burden alone for decades…
Who else? Who else with high-rise offices and jetliners, computers and western freedoms, sits on the fence and flatters and bribes these forces that make no distinction among us, who see us as equally infidel -– who else has bet their futures on diplomacy and compromise with an adversary that looks on compromise as weakness and diplomacy as nothing more than a means to get us to lower the drawbridge?
Up until very recently, Terror was growing because Terror worked. Now for the first time, Terror -– Terror as a political tool -- has been met with real power. Two governments have fallen, and contrary to the stated expectations of these savages, ours was not one of them. Terror, for the first time in modern memory, now has attached to it negative consequences. Consequences that have been severe. Severe, indeed -– fatal in a great many cases. And all of a sudden, Terror does not look like such a great bargain after all.
There is a word for this phenomenon. That word is deterrence.
Prior to Iraq, prior indeed to Afghanistan, we were told by the natural cowards that get paid by the catastrophe that to fight back would unleash world-wide Jihad. Suicide bombers would be a weekly -– daily -– occurrence at malls and football games. These deep, deep thinkers assured us that if we so much as lifted a finger in our defense, our society would collapse in the flames of righteous retribution. We defied these defeatists and fought back anyway. As I have said many times, this was an experiment. The results are data.
Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and all the others have the means to launch a wave of suicide bombings in the US. It is not that very difficult. They have not done so. Why?
Because if current events are any guide, such an action would mean the immediate end of Hamas and the rest of their ilk. They are cold-blooded murderers, but they are not idiots. The cost of terror -– in the US at least -– is nowadays higher than the rewards.
History is crystal clear on one point, and that is that power -– the exercise of raw military and political force -– is the only effective cure for dictators and fascists, whatever flag they fly. It is not only morally justified to confront such evil; it is immoral not to do so.
But suppose we had listened to Noam Chomsky and Cynthia McKinney and Ramsey Clark and Ted Kennedy -- that bulwark of personal integrity? What of their promises that the vast Arab Street would arrive from the ocean like Godzilla and smash our cities -- Arrgh! Arrrrgh!! -- if we so much as used harsh language during Ramadan? Who now doubts that an American retreat after 9/11 would have reinforced what these Terror masters had been led to believe -– that we were a weak and decadent people unwilling to fight to defend ourselves? And if these deep-thinking prophets of disaster were so spectacularly wrong then, why should we listen to them now?
If an American withdrawal had succeeded 9/11, what new daily horrors would we be facing in a world where any lunatic teenager could strap on an explosive belt and dictate policy to the greatest power in the history of the world? And who seriously believes that more recruits have flocked to al-Qaeda now that Osama Bin Laden is pasted on the inside wall of a Tora Bora cave than would have joined if he had ridden a white horse into Kabul after blowing up the World Trade Center, and sent The Great Satan packing in humiliation and defeat from Saudi Arabia -– as so many of our liberal elites demanded we do?
It hasn’t happened that way. What changed that equation? American power did. And don’t you forget it.
We can’t afford to forget it. Not now. Not yet. Not ever.
My friend Steve Stipp mentioned in passing a fascinating thought experiment. If you had to design some foreign power to dominate the planet, what would you want it to look like? If there is to be a hyperpower, how would you design one that was least likely to run haywire and plunge humanity into a new dark age?
Would you want its people to have untrammeled respect for authority, like Nazi Germany, with a lock-step willingness to follow its leaders blindly, or would you prefer that it had a deep and passionate anti-authoritarian bend, where the soul of the rebel and the outsider and the little guy fighting big powers was manifest in all of its art and music?
Would you want it to be racially homogenous, like Imperial Japan, advancing out into the mongrel world as the sons of heaven, or the most racially diverse blend of people ever to form a single nation?
Would you prefer that it be driven by a rigid and ironclad ideology, such as the Soviet Union, or rather a hodge-podge of wildly differing and competing ideals doing constant battle in the marketplace of ideas?
Would you want it to be a religious dictatorship with a state church, acting on what it perceived to be the revealed word of God, as is the case with Islamic fundamentalists, or a secular nation with strict and inviolate rules keeping religious fervor out of the decision-making process?
Should it be administered by a small group of hereditary elites, as with Imperial Great Britain, or rather have political power dispersed among its fractious citizenry?
And finally, should it be a product of a culture long isolated from the rest of the planet with a low tolerance of outside ideas and philosophy, such as China, or rather one composed of all the nations and histories the world has to offer?
I have my own opinion. Your mileage may vary.
It is generally agreed that throughout human history, there have been three distinct, world-changing revolutions: megatrends that encompass far more than individual national histories. These three revolutions have been the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age.
Throughout human history, exceptional military, cultural and political power has been applied to create empires. I have argued elsewhere that by no stretch of the imagination does the United States fit such a profile. We control no Parliaments, we exact no tributes, we provide no Governors and we levy no taxes. Indeed, in the nations where the United States has a significant military presence, that force is there to protect rather than suppress, and huge sums of money are paid into these countries, rather than extracted from them at gunpoint.
But consider this, when questioning US motivation and US power:
During the Agricultural Age, the reward for empire was land. Land, livestock, and the people to work it were the source of all wealth in the First Age, and Empires of the period were marked exclusively by their thirst for land, from the Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, Romans -– all the way on up to the British.
The second age, the Industrial Age, was much younger, perhaps three hundred years old. There was a century or so of overlap with its predecessor, but Industrial Age imperial ambitions were not about land –- they were about resources: iron, oil, rubber, cotton -– the raw materials that kept the factories of the time running profitably. The Japanese attacks in the Pacific in the thirties, and German aggression eastward, were motivated by imperial desires for resources.
The United States was born an agricultural nation. Its childhood and adolescence spanned the Industrial revolution, and now it is the leader in the Information Age. And here we see something completely unique in human history, something very telling and important regarding America’s attitude to power and conquest.
During the Agricultural Age, the United States was founded on the prime agricultural real estate on the planet. Therefore, we as a nation never felt any first-age pressures for empire (although it certainly did drive the desire to enlarge the homeland westward to the Pacific).
During the Industrial Revolution, America again had no need to conquer and steal resources. Our oil supplies were more than adequate for the time, and we had more than enough iron ore and other natural resources. That may be nothing more than good luck, but again, the American mindset has always been that we have at home the best of everything. It is the antithesis of envying, plotting, Imperial ambitions.
And now we find ourselves predominant in the world. True, we still require industrial resources, and some of these -– chiefly oil -– do come from overseas. But we have always been a nation of businessmen, and placing morality completely aside for a moment, Yankee common sense tells us it’s cheaper to buy this oil -- at prices set by the sellers, not ourselves -– than it is to fight for it.
Since so many of our critics refuse to countenance the idea that we have morals and restraint, take them out of the picture if you like. What resources do Americans need that we cannot simply buy? What motivation do we have for invasion and war? What temptation to power? Let us not forget that the NO BLOOD FOR OIL slogans first appeared in Gulf War I -– well over a decade ago. What oil have we stolen at gunpoint since that signal victory? Where, in fact, is there any sign whatsoever of us using our overwhelming military strength to take anything?
And consider this for the future: we are now leading the world into an economy based on information. The fuel of this new age is ideas. And where do all the great ideas seem to be coming from? The most cursory glance at the world of invention, art, science and technology show that these come, to a really staggering degree, from the United States. That makes three world-spanning epochs, and during all three, the United States is the only great power in history that did not to need to go abroad to grow powerful and prosper. Those that fear American power in the future might stop to consider that if current trends continue, we will -– again -– have no need to go forth into the world, because what good ideas that do come from outside our borders -– and they are legion -– are cooked up by individuals who almost universally want to come to America because here we admire and respect innovation, here ingenuity is rewarded -– in cash! -– rather than strangled and buried under ever-thickening, Kudzu-like mats of bureaucracy.
It’s like oil loading itself on tankers and making its way to Galveston, or entire counties of prime farmland cutting themselves into sod and stowing away in container ships, to be opened and unfurled in Long Beach harbor complete with sheep and shepherds.
I will grant that from abroad, the prospect of this much American Power is intimidating and worrisome. But how much of this angst, I wonder, has to do with the internal temptations they feel at the prospect of such power at their own command?
“There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the souls and the life of a people and make a valuable report -– the native novelist. This expert is so rare that the most populous country can never have fifteen conspicuously and confessedly competent ones in stock at any one time…The native expert’s intentional observation of manners, speech, character and ways of life can have value, for the native knows what they mean without having to cipher out the meaning. But I should be astonished to see a foreigner get at the right meaning, catch the elusive shade of these subtle things. Even the native novelist becomes a foreigner, with a foreigner’s limitations, when he steps from the State whose life is familiar to him into a State whose life he has not lived."
I am not one of those rare experts. I am certainly not Mark Twain. But I do grasp what he is saying here, and it bears repeating: those foreigners who see in American power imperial ambitions do not know the soul of this country. They see mechanisms and potentials -- they see through the eyes of their own histories and cultures.
I know Americans, because I am one. I keep my eyes open. I listen to people talk. And I have never -– I can stand naked before Angels and say this with a straight face -– I have never, ever heard a single American acquaintance of mine talk of empire, dream of conquest, or glory in the idea of invasion. And I hang out with the mean, nasty, bloodthirsty hawks! There were millions upon millions who were not willing to use force even when we were attacked. The idea of invasion and occupation of a brutal dictatorship like Iraq has caused their heads to explode, to the point where a walk down Sunset Boulevard in LA sounds like a fire at a Jiffy Pop factory.
I have had innumerable discussions about threats, actions, responses, contingencies and capabilities, but I have never, not once in 44 years, met an American who advocated invasion and permanent conquest for national gain.
I suppose many overseas readers have a hard time believing that. I’ll also bet real money that just about every American that reads this is nodding his or her head in agreement right now, because once it is pointed out, it is a startling, almost unbelievable statement. And it is true.
This is not because Americans are saintly people without vice. On the contrary. We are a proud, aggressive, clever, often violent and ambitious people. We are, on paper anyway, exactly the kind of people the world should worry about.
And yet Imperial ambitions are unknown to us. Why?
Well, I have a guess. My guess is that when fate deals you four aces and a king, you don’t need to kick over the table and draw a pistol, and you damn sure don’t need to discard and draw again.
We Americans know what we have here. We know. Even the dimmest of us know in their bones, in their genes, how good we have life in the United States. Some of it was luck; most of it -– the vast huge middle of it -- was hard work by ambitious, energetic people who did whatever it took to get here. We don’t want to go back out into the world -– our families did everything they could to get away from the world to come here. We are happy here. We want to barbeque and watch football games. We most certainly do not want to be stomping around Ethiopia or New Guinea or Belgium -– it’s a step down for us, capishe? There’s not an American alive that would trade the rest of the World for the southwestern corner of Indiana. It’d be like Hugh Grant out on a car date with Divine when he had Liz Hurley waiting at home.
There are practical restraints placed on US power. There are economic reasons why business is preferable to war. I suppose if things got ugly enough, the entire world could embargo the US commercially, and I cannot imagine a set of circumstances -– short of our national survival -– that could justify the level of US aggression to make that bargain worthwhile.
But ultimately, the best guarantor of American restraint is…American restraint.
Power is not a nocturnal gift from the power fairy. We possess unparalleled levels of political, cultural and military power because we possess unparalleled opportunities for creativity and success. Indeed, with the most energetic and ambitious people of the world constantly flocking to America, one could correctly state that we are a refinery of success.
The things that make America hum: hard work, self-criticism, openness to new ideas, ethnic and national diversity, tolerance and respect, and distrust of authority are not just what makes us powerful. They make us worthy of being powerful. They are the checks and balances that provide so many viewpoints and histories that there is not a country on the face of the earth today that an American army could invade without some of its soldiers invading their ancestral homes. It has an enormously inhibitive effect.
The fundamental decency of the American Character reverberates throughout our history. Immediately after the French and Russian Revolutions, huge numbers of people on the losing side were murdered indiscriminately. In Paris, the gutters ran red with blood and the guillotine saw so much action it must have tottered on the verge of catching fire. And the revenge taken on the kulaks in Russia was horrible almost beyond imagining. During the American Revolution, on the other hand, the winners fought a terrible and bitter war, and the losers…went back to their homes.
During our own Civil War, with a quarter of the population in open, armed rebellion, the Union captured the entire political and military leadership of the Confederacy intact. One man -– the superintendent of the appalling Andersonville prison camp -– was hanged for his command’s monstrously inhumane treatment, but that was not punishment for rebellion. The rest of them: Generals Lee, Johnston, Bragg and Beauregard, not to mention President Davis, Vice President Stephens, and all the others -- were released unharmed. Stephens immediately ran for, and won, his old seat in Congress!
Show me anywhere else in all the pages of history such national decency, forgiveness, and generosity. You can’t do it. It is, like so much of our history, unique.
This fundamental moral decency was evident all throughout the Iraqi war. Countless times, US (and British) troops were under direct attack, and did not return fire due to the presence of civilians, or even due to the fact that the attackers were firing from mosques and we did not wish to offend, let alone kill or injure, the people who we were mocked for trying to save from themselves. There was, and is, no better look at the vast American military juggernaut, than that image of a young American soldier atop a Humvee, in a still-unsecured village, giving hip-hop dance lessons to a group of obviously delighted Iraqi children. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
Earlier, I said you could invoke Twain to oppose the war in Iraq, but you’d be wrong.
You’d be wrong because although Mark Twain hated war -– hated war more than any author I have ever read -– he hated injustice and hated murder more. Reading Twain's condemnations of our actions in the Philippines, you are struck immediately and often that Twain’s scathing rebuke and criticism, unlike that of lesser minds like Chomsky’s, and far, far lesser minds like Michael Moore and the rest of the Hollywood Herd, was born of a deep love of America and a sense of shame at seeing her dishonored. Twain’s voice is not that of a man convinced that we are the source of all evil in the world, but rather one of a man who loved America, who knew she was better than her actions of the time, who still felt she was a good and great nation that should have known better.
Mark Twain’s voice rings across the intervening decades, as does Lincoln’s, and Jefferson’s, and Washington’s, and all the others. But if Lincoln is the voice of courage, Jefferson the voice of liberty and Washington that of sacrifice, then Mark Twain's is the voice of conscience. It is our own voice. It is the sound of rage and protest when we have lost our way. It is the rapier that nicks and slashes at tyranny and brutality under any flag, including and especially our own. It is the voice of justice and compassion, and it holds us to a very high standard indeed.
I have no special claim to knowing what was in the man’s heart. But I cannot imagine that had he seen the images of torture and rape and murder in that poor, desperate country of Iraq, had he heard the pleadings of families torn apart by that brutality, and had he seen the courage, decency, kindness and generosity of our troops on the ground, and the extraordinary efforts they went to in order to prevent innocent suffering, I do not see how he could have possibly opposed what we did there, and continue to do.
“It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s” he wrote at the start of the Spanish-American War, when we fought to free Cuba and stated we had no ambitions other than freedom for her people. That we ended up “playing the European game” in the Philippines broke his heart, as it breaks mine, a century later. He would have us (as we did in the beginning in Cuba) “playing the usual and regular American game, and it was winning, for there was no way to beat it. The master, contemplating Cuba, said: ‘here is an oppressed and friendless little nation which is willing to fight to be free; we go partners, and put up the strength of seventy million sympathizers and the resources of the United States: play!’ Nothing but Europe combined could call the hand, and Europe can not combine on anything."
We played the European game in the Philippines and stole a bit of empire. But we didn’t have the taste for it; more likely, didn’t have the stomach to do what was needed to keep it. We fought side by side with the Filipinos during World War II, and spent blood and lives regaining those islands. Then, on the 4th of July, 1946, we did what we should have done four decades earlier. We handed them back their country, as we have handed back every country and territory we have ever conquered with our globe-spanning power, and done it willingly, not as a parting shot after rebellion and failure. We shall soon enough do it with Iraq, once it awakens from its thirty year nightmare and gets back on its feet. It too, like the Philippines, is a nation we broke a promise to, and also one that we owe its freedom and independence by way of atonement.
We played the European game in Vietnam, too; came to the aid of an ally that has come up short on many occasions of late. There is a story that Ho Chi Minh wrote Washington with a plea for aid; his country, he said, only wished for its freedom from a colonial occupying power. Surely America could find sympathy with such a cause after our own birth under similar circumstances?
Perhaps it was a ploy. I don’t know enough about it to say. But, if true, what tragedy, what heartbreak, was made from that decision to play the European game?
I strongly support the toughness and courage the present administration has shown in taking this fight to the enemy. I am deeply convinced it is not only in our own interest, but in the world's interest. I also understand and respect that people of honor and integrity will disagree.
But do not for an instant take my support to mean that I trust this or any administration to be given a free hand to act without criticism, intense scrutiny, and dissent. I do not trust that the President -- any president -- will always do the right and honorable thing. But I do trust, I deeply and sincerely trust, the American people. I read history. We've earned it.
The day may come -– and I hope I never live to see it -– when we may again lose our way. And then, the cause against war will be so solid and so strong that we will not need giant puppets and infantile slogans to try and make a case for peace. If that day comes, those filling the streets will not be aging hippies longing for their youth or furious socialists itching for revolution. On that day, the streets will be filled with middle America, Silent America, the great sensible, decent core and soul of the nation.
And I will be there, too.
I never cease to be amazed at the United States of America. My love for this country is so deep and so wide that I am often accused of being blinded to her many faults. And, to be fair, I can see how it would appear so.
But that is not the case at all. My enormous love and respect for this nation does not come from a belief that she is perfect, unblemished and incapable of error. Precisely the opposite. I love her because she remains an example of what we can aspire to, down here among the Damned Human Race. I love her because she tries to be good; she wants to be. And I love America because I see that America learns from her many mistakes.
I love and respect my nation as if she were a great ship at sea. I admire the quality and genius of her construction. I admire the way she handles rough seas. I poke and prod into the smallest of her compartments and see built-in all manner of ingenious devices to keep her afloat and level. I stand in awe of her speed and power, and sometimes in embarrassment and regret at the damage caused by her great wake. And I have seen her sailed through shoals and narrows that have wrecked scores of nations before her, and seen her emerge scraped and damaged but never fully run aground.
And I admire her crew -– both those that sailed her when she was young, and those that man her to this very day, and those that we will turn her over to tomorrow. I never fail to notice -– in line at my bank, or outside a movie theater, say -– how different and diverse we are, how many colors and accents and histories blended together into a single line of Americans: arguing basketball and politics and all the rest as new people, remade.
It’s a marvel.
Her achievements in science and technology, her military strength, competence and decency, her cultural vivacity and passion -– all of these things mystify and amaze me, even as I contribute my small part to the effort. But nothing astounds me more than her desire to try to do the right thing.
I believe that sometimes, good people have to fight -– and good people, by definition, do not enjoy or glory in fighting. Many peoples –- such as the Germans and Japanese -– have been astonished at the dual nature of American power: in one moment ferocious and ruthless in combat, then tossing candy bars from Jeeps and treating wounds and setting broken bones caused by us the very next.
Ulysses S. Grant was a fighter; perhaps the most direct, heads-down, raw-power commanding General in US History. He had something to say about this startling American duality. He wrote "If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends."
That, to me, is the sound of American power. We do not enjoy sending our sons and daughters to die overseas. But when we have to fight, we fight to win, and win quickly. “War is cruelty; you cannot refine it,” wrote Grant’s friend and subordinate, William T. Sherman. You cannot refine it, indeed. You can only do it and get it over with as quickly as possible.
Those who mistake American isolationism and restraint for weakness would do well to understand this dual nature, and realize in no uncertain terms that while we will tolerate much as a nation, we will not tolerate everything; that certain actions will throw that switch in the American psyche, as it was thrown that September morning, or that December one. September 11th angered us, but the world has not seen America fully enraged since 1945. It is my fervent hope that we will not need to be that angry and that determined ever again. Because if we are, you may count on this: we will fight like furies until we win.
For then, and only then, can we revert to our preferred nature, which is to get on with our own lives, raise our children in the safety and freedom we will not sacrifice -– ever -– and go back to being the kind of big goofy place that a Sean Penn or a Susan Sarandon can again feel comfortable in, because, once again, other, better people have paid their debt for them.
(By happy coincidence, a brand-new web site called Front Line Voices has just today started posting actual letters from the men and women stationed on the ground in Iraq. Go and read them. They will show you the kind of people -- the kind of power -- we really are far more eloquently than anything I could write.)