Innocence or Ignorance

I came across an excellent editorial in the San Jose Mercury today regarding the knee-jerk reaction I feel our country continues to take in response to 9-11 last year (yes, this is a 9-11 post). I was going to do a write-up about it, but feel the journalist has done an excellent job of presenting my view point. I have included the editorial below for archival purposes and added emphasis to some of the points I feel are important.Posted on Sun, Sep. 08, 2002 in the San Jose MercuryAmerican innocence walks a perilous pathBy David M. KennedyJust one year after the event that was thought to change everything, ground zero in Lower Manhattan is cleaned up and ready for restoration. The Pentagon’s damaged wing has been largely rebuilt. Early estimates of monstrous death tolls on Sept. 11, 2001, have been mercifully revised downward — to 2,801 in New York, 189 at the Pentagon and 44 aboard the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Now it’s time to update the damage report on the national psyche as well.It was endlessly repeated a year ago that terrorism’s true toll was to be reckoned not in terms of physical destruction nor even loss of life, but in terms of the devastation done to our national soul. Terrorism’s most fearsome effect, a thousand pundits proclaimed, was to rob Americans of their innocence, inflicting a spiritual and psychological wound said to dwarf even the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the mass entombment in their wreckage.American innocence is fabled, a collective personality trait that has long been thought to define our national character. Its demise has been mistakenly announced on countless previous occasions, including Dec. 7, 1941. Indeed, declaring the end of American innocence has become a cliched staple of cultural commentary. This time, is it truly dead?Innocence denotes guiltlessness, of course, a matter to which I will return. But it also implies imperfect self-knowledge and potentially perilous ignorance about the world, especially about humankind’s penchant for malice and history’s capacity for cussedness.Innocence lost is presumably replaced by wisdom found, including a more realistic appreciation of one’s place in the scheme of things, and of the limitations that the obduracy of the world imposes on one’s actions. Those who lose their innocence are often said to have the scales struck from their eyes as they come to see themselves and their environment with new clarity.So what clarity did last September’s awful blood-price purchase? Are we a wiser people, more self-aware and better schooled in the nature of evil? Are we better suited than before to make our way in the world — not to mention assert the leadership to which we have long felt entitled?We have surely received chastening instruction about our image in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Few Americans a year ago could imagine that there were people who harbored such implacable loathing for this country that they were willing to take their own lives and thousands of others to give dramatic punctuation to their hatred. Perhaps even more surprising has been the speed with which the reflexive human sympathy of our foreign friends for last September’s victims has given way to an increasingly sour anti-Americanism, even among our ostensibly closest allies.With this unwelcome lesson has come a measure of strategic clarity. None of America’s allies — with the partial exception of Britain — has proved ready to translate its effusive September sympathies into sustained military and political support for American initiatives against terror.Whether the Bush administration’s unilateral policies squandered the political opportunity afforded by that initial outpouring of good will, or whether those early gestures of solidarity masked our nominal partners’ deeper incapacities and longstanding resentments, will be long debated. But whatever the reason, it is now clear that the United States is virtually the only country with both the means and the will to prosecute a long-term campaign against terror. The task, if we embrace it, will be a lonely one.We have somewhat less clarity about the domestic implications of the war against terror.War is always a menace to liberty, probably a greater menace than ever when it is an unconventional war against an unconventional foe. Attorney General John Ashcroft has assaulted some cherished liberties by withholding the names of detainees, by compromising the attorney-client privilege and by proposing that postal workers be enlisted to spy on their fellow citizens.But the spirit of fairness and tolerance that has pervaded American society in the post-civil-rights era has so far restrained the Bush administration from flagrantly abusing the sweeping powers that Congress rushed to grant it last fall in the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Still, civil libertarians and minorities are surely right to be vigilant about further threats to free speech and due process.With respect to politics, it is clear that the campaign against terrorism will define George Bush’s presidency. But whether history will judge Bush to be the Winston Churchill or the Lyndon Johnson of the 21st century is a question whose answer still lies in the lap of the future.Like Churchill, the lonely but prescient warrior who might well have launched a pre-emptive strike against Nazi Germany had he had the chance, thereby averting World War II, Bush may well take on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and perhaps the other “axis of evil” states and succeed in reducing the menace of terrorism.But Bush’s eventual fate may more closely resemble that of Lyndon Johnson, who sought in Vietnam unrealistic goals unobtainable at any price the American people were willing to pay, or the rest of the world to tolerate. In the process, Johnson destroyed his presidency, convulsed American society and diminished America’s international stature.And then there is moral clarity. The events of the past year have done depressingly little to foster it. Most Americans remain as baffled today as they were a year ago about why there is so much hatred for what they can only understand as their great and good country. Nor does the Bush administration have any apparent interest in exploring that question.We still believe ourselves to be the blameless victims of wanton, irrational hatreds. Our response so far has therefore been to fight fire with fire, rather than to seek the cause of the blaze. In this respect we have emphatically reverted to type: Our innocence remains as pure and unsullied as ever. This stubborn refusal to critically examine our own actions and policies may prove to be the most serious failing of this fateful historic moment — one whose long-term costs could outweigh America’s preponderant military and economic strength and render obsolete our venerable pretensions to moral leadership in the world.Nothing more vividly illustrates the persistence of American innocence than our continuing expectation that total and unqualified security is our national birthright. Clinging to that anachronistic belief may be the most costly delusion of all.The United States was long spared from the kinds of external threats that have chronically plagued virtually all other states. For much of American history, that singular exemption was the gift of geography. As Alexis de Tocqueville shrewdly observed in the 1830s: “Fortune, which has conferred so many peculiar benefits upon the inhabitants of the United States, has placed them in the midst of a wilderness, where they have, so to speak, no neighbors. . . . America has no great wars to fear. . . . It is almost as much insulated from the world as if all its frontiers were girt by the ocean.”That fortunate circumstance had consequences both material and psychological. Most obviously, it allowed the United States to safeguard its national security on the cheap. Throughout the 19th century, the United States easily defended its frontiers with an army about one-thirty-fifth the size of that in Tocqueville’s France. Even on the eve of World War II, the United States’ military and naval expenditures, on a per capita basis, were about one-third of France’s, one-fourth of Britain’s and one-eighth of Germany’s.Unprecedentedly large military expenditures beginning in World War II ended forever the “free security” of the first century and a half of American national existence. Today the U.S. military budget exceeds the combined weapons expenditures of the world’s next 10 most heavily armed states.National security no longer comes cheap. But the long epoch when the United States was the beneficiary of virtually cost-free security bred durable habits of mind that have proved far more stubbornly resistant to change than the dimensions of the defense budget. And World War II, the most transformative event in modern world history, only strengthened those convictions, marking another of the several premature announcements of the end of American innocence.Quickly throwing off the shock of Pearl Harbor, Americans achieved a glorious victory, accepted the thanks of a grateful world and have extravagantly congratulated themselves ever after on the way they waged and won “the good war.”The war left us intoxicated with the scale of our power and the unassailability of our virtue. It also robustly reinforced some mischievous American assumptions about the nature of diplomacy and warfare.The great Prussian theorist of warfare, Karl von Clausewitz, distinguished between two types of wars: those fought to acquire territory or to influence the behavior of other states; and those fought to extinguish the enemy as a coherent force. Clausewitz considered the first type to be much more common.It was in that context that he crafted his famous definition of war as “the continuation of politics by other means,” one instrument among many available to the statesman, and one that allowed for the conduct of diplomacy with an adversary before and after — and even during — a contest of arms. Against a foe one aimed to destroy altogether, on the other hand, diplomacy, with its necessary compromises, accommodations and, yes, appeasements, was of little relevance.Americans have mostly fought wars of the second type, wars with grand, non-negotiable objectives: to throw their British masters off the continent, to extinguish slavery, to make the world safe for democracy.That stubborn American commitment to what the historian Russell Weigley has called “strategies of annihilation” helps explain Franklin Roosevelt’s call for the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers in World War II. The announcement, made at the Anglo-American conference in Casablanca in January 1943, changed the very nature of the conflict, transforming it into a characteristically American war.Roosevelt’s declaration reportedly caught Churchill by surprise, not least because it precluded any and all negotiations with the Axis powers and, at a stroke, relegated the conflict to a war of Clausewitz’s second type. It became a war aimed at the utter extinction of the enemy’s fighting capacity and, not incidentally, at the restoration of total security to the United States. Many historians of the war have suggested that the unconditional-surrender formula unnecessarily prolonged the fighting, by stiffening German resistance and by denying a clearly defeated Japan any negotiated exit from the battlefield.President Bush echoed Roosevelt’s call for unconditional surrender when he stood before Congress on Sept. 20 and declared that “our war on terror begins with Al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Since then, he has also named the three states that compose what he calls the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — as legitimate targets of American power.The president has thus made the war against terror a typically American war — one that forsakes traditional diplomacy and seeks the annihilation of the enemy and a return to the lost age of unqualified national security. The Bush doctrine manifests zero interest in trying to understand the motives for the September attacks and little regard for what Thomas Jefferson called “the decent opinion of mankind.” It also threatens to commit the United States to goals that may be beyond even its prodigious means, both material and moral.Bush’s rhetoric sounds tough, and Americans like that. But our taste for toughness may reflect a still-swaggering innocence that blinds us to our shortcomings and to the finitude of our power.Innocence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The innocence in which Americans take such pride is often seen by many others as arrogance — and as a menace.In Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” an insightful novel about an American do-gooder in Vietnam in the 1950s, one of the characters proposes that the innocent should wear warning bells around their necks, like lepers. American innocence is today scarcely less resilient than it was in that heady post-World War II era. Reports of its death last September have been greatly exaggerated — which may explain why much of the rest of an anxious world wants to hang a bell around our national neck.DAVID M. KENNEDY teaches history at Stanford University. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.” He is currently writing a book about the uniqueness of the American historical experience. He wrote this article for Perspective.

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