Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Price of American Exceptionalism


Another week, another diatribe.  Even I think that it is time to leave Joe Kennedy in peace and shift gears.  A few reflections:

The debate rages as to whether we should intervene directly in Syria.  At least supply the rebels with air cover, weaponry, perhaps a no-fly zone.  It seems we continue to be afflicted with historical amnesia.  The panic after 9/11, followed by our misbegotten invasion of Iraq, compounded with the fallout after the Arab Spring, seems to have shaken us up too profoundly to think straight.  The notion that whatever happens anywhere, any crisis, any collapse of government or famine or outbreak of AIDS is somehow not merely within our power to ameliorate but our ultimate responsibility, whatever the costs--  this presumption appears to have entrenched itself among leaders of both our poitical parties.  Like the Old-Testament God, we stand above history, above accountability, above any serious concern about exhausting our resources. We are extraordinary, the spear carriers of American Exceptionalism.

George Washington, leaving office, advised us above all to abhor foreign entanglements.  We were a provincial country then, without either the corrupting pressures or the colossal commercial opportunities that present themselves every day as our international corporations infiltrate society after society.  Increasingly, not only our State Department but also our swollen military and intelligence bureaucracies have turned into sinister presences, mechanisms of enforcement, throughout much of the Second and Third World.  The Islamic suicide bomber is convinced that merely to abide the American occupiers is to doom his own culture.  Better for the individual to blow himself up if that means the tribe or clan might make it through.

We've seen this play itself out in Viet Nam, in Iraq, this winter in the aimless, depleting collapse of authority in Afghanistan.  We intend to leave soon; after perhaps a season or two of civil war -- like the mayhem portending in Iraq -- Afghanistan will revert to the underlying tribal barbarism indigenous to its culture; a generation of American contractors and arms merchants will load up their bank accounts.  Our compounding national debt will continue to threaten to bankrupt our future.

How all this hubris feels on the ground as it is playing itself out comes through on every page of Dexter Filkins' inspired sequence of vignettes in his 2008 memoir The Forever War.   I have met Filkins a few times.  Softspoken and approachable in person, this ex-reporter for The New York Times -- now on staff with The New Yorker -- conveys better than anybody I have read virtually every aspect of these feckless twin wars of ours.  From fighting through the alleys of Falluja, while around him Marine youngsters were getting their faces filleted by grenades, to a diplomatic trip to Tehran with the suave, double-dealing Ahmad Chalabi as he engineers his private accommodation with President Ahmadinejad -- so much is caught on Filkins' pages, the horror and the destroyed hopes and ultimately the cynicism of our suicidal adventures in oil politics.

We are a great nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition.  But we are finite, vulnerable, not exceptions in the long run and currently losing ground.  We are as subject any other people to our human limitations. Our founding fathers understood this.  Will we catch on in time?

For what it's worth.  Enjoy this winter weekend.

Burton Hersh


  1. Mr Hersh

    I enjoyed this post, and several others. Your insight into the CIA and the American security establishment is quite valuable. I believe you and my father served together in the Army in Germany. I would like to learn more about that time in his life. Please contact me at

    C Batio



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