Thursday, August 30, 2007

Something to Keep in Mind

Yes, of course we know it. America has always been in decline. We can't win a war, without losing it. A few heady years after the Revolution, and then it was down hill ever after. The War of 1812 -- they burned the bloody White House, for cripes sake, and kidnapped US sailors. The Civil War -- rife with outright murder, mayhem, vigilantism, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, state-sanctioned scorched-earth brutality. Cities were razed, counties depopulated, non-combatants summarily executed. Torture and mutilations and beheadings. After the assassination, Sherman openly predicted universal anarchy.

After the Great War, the US plummeted in world opinion. Resentment over war loans fueled bitterness and contempt. In the late '30s, Japan's attack on the USS Panay (cf. here, here) and German attacks on US shipping in the Atlantic and the Red Sea were brazen affronts, committed with effective impunity. FDR's most meaningful response was to assure Hitler in 1938 that "the United States has no political involvements in Europe." Green light, Mien Herr. Der Fuehrer's conclusion? America "was a weak country, incapable, because of its racial mixture and feeble democratic government, of organizing and maintaining strong military forces."

And after WW II -- the next, inevitable Great War -- even in the full flush of utter victory, America was blamed for 'losing half of Europe.' As if the USSR had paid no price of blood. Indeed, a year after victory, no US Army division or Air Force group was rated 'ready for combat'. Our military, in General Marshall's words, was "a hollow shell." By the end of the 1940s there were only 12 battle-ready US tanks in all of Germany. In Japan, every division of the Eighth Army was short by a thousand guns, and the Fifth Air Force had no jet fighters; only 500 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Korea. And, of course, we lost China. And half of Korea.

No wonder there was a Cold War. We were so weak.

As for Vietnam, Washington engaged in 16 bombing pauses and 72 peace initiatives -- which were, in the words of President Johnson, "interpreted by friend and foe alike as evidence not of humanity, but of guilt and lack of righteous conviction." Nixon declared "Peace with Honor. " I remember the speech. It might have been a suicide note, following the ingestion of slow poison. Friend and foe alike were right. It had the effect of a death-bed confession. The fallout?

* French leader Charles de Gaulle withdrew from NATO's military structure in 1966 and afterwards pursued a separate peace with Moscow.
* Western Europe averted its gaze from the agony of its patron and protector. Not even Britain would lend a hand in Vietnam.
* When Israel called for help and the U.S. answered during the 1973 war, NATO turned its back. Only Portugal would grant overflight rights to U.S. supply planes.
* North Korea openly challenged and mocked U.S. power during the Vietnam debacle. Pyongyang seized the USS Pueblo in international waters and tortured its crew for 11 months, shot down a U.S. plane in international airspace, and, according to Leebaert, "hacked to death two U.S. officers in the 38th parallel's demilitarized zone."
* In the American sphere, Venezuela sided with OPEC and nationalized U.S. firms; left-wing forces ousted a U.S.-backed government in Nicaragua; and Argentina broke ranks and shipped grain to Moscow.

The Carter Error. Let us pass over it in silence. But during the Reagan Era -- now recognized as a great resurgence -- while the USSR was feeding the flames it was the USA that was declared to be on its deathbed:
* Even in trying to deflect the declinists, James Schlesinger conceded in 1988 that the U.S. was "no longer economically the preponderant power ... no longer militarily the dominant power ... [it] no longer can achieve more or less whatever it desires."
* "The signs of decline are evident to those who care to see them," declared Peter Passell in 1990, noting that the U.S. had lost its competitive edge and was losing its battle with the Japanese juggernaut.

* Citing America's dependence on foreign sources for energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded [in 1990] "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult -- nearly impossible -- for the United States."
Decline? US decline? Of course. We can always find signs of decline -- as we can always find evidence of renewal.

WW II cost between 30 and 40 percent of the gross domestic product. From the weakness of the late forties, the US military rose in the 1950s to include 3.4 million men on active duty (2.1% of the population), and consumed 10% of the GDP. Today there are 1.4 million Americans on active duty -- less than half a percent of the population, and costing less than 3.5% of the GDP. In 1963 there were a million troops stationed at over 200 bases overseas, compared to one third of that number of personnel currently.

Are we then overextended? The numbers don't bear it out. Projections say that the U.S. economy will be twice that of Europe by 2021; in absolute terms, the US contributes twice as much as China to global output. Are we then in decline?

Citing America's trans-decadal flights from Vietnam and Iran and Beirut and Mogadishu and Yemen, the Prophet Osama observed how "America exited dragging its tail in failure, defeat, and ruin, caring for nothing. The extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear." Well, he didn't bother to cite Vietnam. But it's not as if we haven't, more recently, provided all the evidence any enemy might wish to use against us.

Should we criticize ourselves? Yes. It's how we become better. Should we fear decline, and fight it? Certainly. We are, after all, middle aged, and if we look in the mirror and imagine that we see flab and wrinkles, so much the better, that we might exercise and eat properly. Excellence does not come from complacency. Wisdom is not the inevitable product of time. It comes with self-examination. Health is not a birthright, and vigor into old age is the result only of diligence.

Decline? We could be building pyramids and giant seaward-facing statues. Instead, within the span of a mere two years, we transformed Afghanistan and Iraq, contained North Korea, did the hard lifting of counterterrorism across Asia and Africa and South America, kept the world's sea lanes open, and undertook to assuage God's wrath upon Sumatra and New Orleans. We are the offering basket to the world. Why us, and not some other? Are we the only rich country? Is courage lacking outside our borders? Has the spirit of generosity died in the rest of the world?

Germany will be remembered for Nazism. France will be remembered for insouciance, and Great Britain for stoicism. And America? Ah, America, the beautiful. The genius of our spirit is optimism.



Anonymous said...

Your comments on TH brought me to your blog. So glad...
to read your thoughts when such drivel abounds in this world.

Jack H said...

Well thank you kindly. I'm not above driveling myself, but at least I know it when I do it.