The death of the American Century

April 22, 2010 - 0:0

The dream is dying. It was this: a belief that the world has a special love for Americans, for our earnest innocence and gawky immediacy, for our willingness to share the obvious truth and light of democracy with people still struggling in the darkness of history, for our random energy, syncopated music and lopsided, baseball-playing grins. Throw in a little purple mountains' majesty and amber waves of grain, and you get the idea.

It's hard to say just when the dream was born. With Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet circling the globe? With Woodrow Wilson's war to make the world safe for democracy? In 1940 Henry Luce, who told Americans who they were each week in Time and Life, proclaimed “The American Century.” World War II made it come true.
I acquired the dream from newsreels and Life magazine after World War II when I saw shots of the French and Italians throwing flowers at our troops as we freed them from the Nazis, GIs coming home with war brides, German children staring up from rubble to cheer the American planes bringing them food in the Berlin Airlift.
I was quite young -- born in 1941 -- but old enough to hold these truths to be self-evident: We didn't conquer; we liberated. We were always the good guys. We wore the white hats. Despite their grousing about uncultured big-foot Yankees, everyone else secretly wanted to live like Americans. When they threw flowers they were our friends, not collaborators like those French women whose villages shaved their heads when their German boyfriends left a step ahead of the Americans. The women stayed behind, of course -- nobody wanted to be a Nazi war bride in postwar Germany.
They lost, we won. Nothing makes friends like total victory, the kind we don't even hope for anymore. Why, in twice-nuked Japan, boys took up baseball.
America was going to run the world, not for America's good but -- for the first time in history -- for the world's own good.
What a wonderful dream! It took some hits, but it survived our stalemate in Korea, our utter failure in Vietnam, our retreat from Lebanon, our Blackhawk Down catastrophe in Somalia.
It survived us making fools of ourselves when our Iranian hostage rescue foundered in dusty desert chaos without an enemy shot being fired. We couldn't even bring back all our dead for burial.
We bombed a mental hospital in Grenada while freeing the world from some vague Communist menace. We bombed an ibuprofen factory in Africa in retaliation for an attack on our Nairobi embassy. We bombed the Chinese Embassy in our air war to liberate Kosovo. The dream even survived George W. Bush launching a war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
There were no weapons, but we kept fighting to make Iraq safe for democracy and ended up holding mass torture sessions at Abu Ghraib that produced colorful souvenir snapshots by our GI Joes and Janes. Are Iraqi kids playing baseball yet?
Barack Obama won the presidency with a campaign promising a bigger, better war next door in Afghanistan. As always, under the mandates of the dream, we would invade a country for nothing but its own good. This is the part people don't seem to get.
As in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, which American soldiers abandoned last Wednesday, five years after invading it to bring truth, justice and the American way to Afghans who responded by hating us.
We gave them money, all kinds of goodies. They hated us.
We begged them to let us build a road that would link them with the outside world. They hated the road. And when we didn't get the point, they blew away six members of the road-building crew.
They hated us so much that we had to bribe them to let us leave -- 6,000 gallons of fuel and a crane -- without killing us for the sheer joy of it.
We were foreigners. As it happens, many people hate foreigners. (That's why they call them “foreigners.”)
People like foreigners only when they come in small numbers, spend money and leave; or when they come in armies, drive out other, even-more-detested foreigners and leave. I had tea once with an Indonesian village chief's wife. She remembered when the Japanese were cheered for freeing them from the Dutch, until they hauled Indonesian men off to labor camps, and then the islanders cheered the Americans for driving out the Japanese.
There is no special love for us. We have our unique virtues, and we have come closer than any other nation to fulfilling Jesus's command to love our enemies. But we are awakening from the dream.
Still, we cling to it. John Kennedy promised that we would pay any price, bear any burden to make it come true, and Ronald Reagan called us “a city on a hill,” with the eyes of the world on us. Obama thrills audiences when he soars into his messianic world-saving rhetoric.
By now, it's as if we wouldn't be America without the dream, and a candidate couldn't win the presidency without believing in it.
Yet Capt. Mark Moretti, commander of our forces in the Korengal, put it this way: “I think leaving is the right thing to do.”
The dream is dying. No resuscitation, please.
Henry Allen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, was a Washington Post editor and reporter for 39 years.
(Source: Washington Post)