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The Ugly American Mindset

6 November 2001

We've forgotten a lesson of Vietnam: Don't ask Third World countries to put up with less democracy than we want for ourselves.

I've tried to understand the mainstream media's near complete acceptance of the premise of Washington's "war on terrorism"; I've tried to find another time in American history when we were unified around an orthodoxy that intimidated the faint of heart into silence. The first time I heard the anguished question, "Why do they hate us?" in shocked response to Sept. 11, I felt something stir in my memory; when I saw the headline, A New Cold War, a few weeks ago, I knew where to look.

For it's the U.S. crusade against communism and the mass media's portrayal of it that comes closest to paralleling the media's present emotional and political crisis. I'm just old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when we really thought the world might be destroyed.

What I don't remember directly was the suffocating ideological uniformity of the Cold War in that year -- the widespread acceptance of its basic premise, that communism by its nature was international in scope and inevitably would seek to overwhelm anything that stood in its way, especially capitalism and Christianity.

This specious dogma could have killed me -- had I been older -- in Korea or Vietnam. I suspect that the same sort of media orthodoxy about Sept. 11 and terrorism may needlessly cut short the lives of a whole new generation of young men.

Already the group-think has taken its toll on our free media; at its crudest it reveals itself in the unquestioning acceptance of the old saw, "Loose lips sink ships," which the government uses to justify the most extreme military censorship since the First World War. (Even in the war in the Persian Gulf, reporters were herded into "combat pools" and taken to the vicinity of the action, although they saw little.)

Reporters inevitably threaten military security, goes the argument, thus they can be permitted to see nothing of the war against terrorism without it first undergoing a thorough prewashing by the Pentagon public-relations apparatus. As Vietnam should have proven once and for all, reporters, when they're doing their job, threaten politicians and generals bent on wrong-headed, self-destructive war aims, not soldiers. No American or Australian journalist in Vietnam was ever charged with treason or with accidentally getting someone killed in pursuit of a story. But there is no question they saved lives by helping force the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. Is anyone sorry, here or abroad, that Paul Watson, then of the Toronto Star, was on hand to photograph the corpse of the American Army Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu? The picture shocked the American people and the Clinton administration back into their senses, and we wisely withdrew from the Somalia "peacekeeping" mission, minus the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed.

But that's just the news from the front. The more dangerous product of group-think is self-censorship about the causes of war and the solutions for halting it. The U.S. media are so busy proving how patriotic they are, how supportive of President George W. Bush, that they've forgotten how to analyze and ask questions.

American intervention in Indochina was based on the domino theory -- the faulty assumption that communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia if it wasn't stopped in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Foreign policy ideologues also insisted that communist China was North Vietnam's principal sponsor and that, without the Red Chinese, the Vietcong insurgency would collapse. They were wrong; China was Vietnam's historic enemy and when Saigon collapsed to the advancing communists in 1975, no more Asian dominos toppled. Indeed, after the Vietnamese invaded a neighboring communist country, Cambodia, to smite the Khmer Rouge, its next military conflict was to repel an invasion by . . . China.

Were we in the media not so besotted by antiterrorism rhetoric, we might question the prevailing orthodoxies of the moment. Osama bin Laden, it is true, has evidently attacked beyond the borders of Afghanistan. But Mr. bin Laden was thrown out of his homeland, Saudi Arabia, because he protested too vigorously against the presence of U.S. Troops on holy Muslim soil during the gulf war and since. The corrupt and mercenary Saudi royal family fears his influence within their country, not outside it, for he has many domestic sympathizers in the cause of expelling the American infidel.

Moreover, Mr. bin Laden is based in Afghanistan because in 1996, when the Sudanese government volunteered to turn him over, the U.S. government rejected the offer for the phony reason that we didn't have enough evidence to make a case. But when we suggested he be submitted to Saudi justice, the Clinton administration permitted the royal family to refuse, since it preferred not to incur the political risk of jailing or trying the black sheep of the bin Laden clan.

Something is rotten in Saudi Arabia. But to suggest a national solution to terrorism, such as a withdrawal of U.S. Troops from the kingdom of the Fahds, a reduction of our dependence on Persian Gulf oil and a defense of Israel based on principle, instead of on its usefulness as a proxy, is considered downright unpatriotic, not to say naive. Well, the same kind of criticism was leveled at critics of the Cold War and Vietnam.

But suppose the greater enemy is within; that the enemy grows out of the overweening self-regard of the American body politic. One of the popular culture icons of the Cold War was a potboiler novel called The Ugly American,which told the story of an American diplomat in a thinly disguised version of Vietnam. Gilbert MacWhite, arrogant to a fault when he arrives, realizes by the end of his stay in "Sarkhan" that the Cold War can only be won if we change our egotistical ways: "The little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need, not just in the interest of propaganda," he writes in a final memo before he is removed from his post.

MacWhite requests that all U.S. diplomats be required to read and speak Sarkhanese; that they live with the people in ordinary housing; and that all Americans serving in Sarkhan be required before their arrival to read the works of Mao, Lenin, Chou Enlai, Marx and Engels.

Radical stuff for 1958, but the 1963 movie version is even more pertinent to the new Cold War against international terrorism.

In it, Marlon Brando plays MacWhite as a smug reporter turned arrogant ambassador. At the end of the film, after Brando's cocksure attitude causes one disaster after another, a reporter asks him if the United States is losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union "because we're pushing these countries into the hands of the communists?"

Stewart Stern, the screenwriter, replies eloquently through Brando: "I'm not saying that. I'm saying we can't hope to win the Cold War unless we remember what we're for, as well as what we're against. I've learned . . . that I can't preach the American heritage and expect to be believed if I act out of impatience or sacrifice my principles to expediency. I've learned that the only time we're hated is when we stop trying to be what we started out to be, 200 years ago. And I'm not blaming my country. I'm blaming the indifference that some of us show to its promises."

I fear we haven't learned anything from the old Cold War that will serve us in the new.

John R. MacArthur.
Published in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
2001 Globe Interactive.

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On 7 Nov 2001, at 17:41, Peace Movement Aotearoa wrote: > please list as > The Ugly American Mindset, John R. MacArthur, 6 November 2001 >