Defeat – II
by Michael Brenner on 08 Oct 2023 0 Comment

3] Cultivate AMNESIA


Americans have become masters in the art of memory management. Think about the tragic shock of Vietnam. The country made a systematic effort to forget – to forget everything about Vietnam. Understandably; it was ugly – on every count. Textbooks in American history gave it little space; teachers downplayed it; television soon disregarded it as retro. We sought closure – we got it.


In a sense, the most noteworthy inheritance from the post-Vietnam experience is the honing of methods to photoshop history. Vietnam was a warm-up for dealing with the many unsavoury episodes in the post-9/11 era. That thorough, comprehensive cleansing has made palatable Presidential mendacity, sustained deceit, mind-numbing incompetence, systemic torture, censorship, the shredding of the Bill of Rights and the perverting of national public discourse – as it degenerated into a mix of propaganda and vulgar trash-talking. The “War on Terror” in all its atrocious aspects.


Cultivated amnesia is a craft enormously facilitated by two broader trends in American culture: the cult of ignorance whereby a knowledge-free mind is esteemed as the ultimate freedom; and a public ethic whereby the nation’s highest officials are given license to treat the truth as a potter treats clay so long as they say and do things that make us feel good. So, our strongest collective memory of America’s wars of choice is the desirability – and ease – of forgetting them. “The show must go on” is taken as our imperative. So it will be when we look at a ruined Ukraine in the rear-view mirror.


The cultivation of amnesia as a method for dealing with painful national experiences has serious drawbacks. First, it severely restricts the opportunity to learn the lessons it offers. In the wake of the inconclusive Korean War where the United States suffered 49,000 killed in action, the mantra in Washington was: no war on the mainland of Asia ever again. Yet, less than a decade later we were knee-deep in the rice paddies of Vietnam where we lost 59,000 people.


After the tragic fiasco in Iraq, Washington nonetheless was gung-ho about occupying Afghanistan in a 20-year enterprise to construct a similar Western-leaning democracy out of the barrel of a gun. Those frustrated projects did not dissuade us from intervening in Syria where we failed once again to turn an intractable, alien society into something to our liking – even though we went to such an extreme as a tacit partnership with the local al-Qaeda subsidiary. As Kabul showed, we didn’t even take away from the Saigon denouement the lesson in how to organize an orderly evacuation.


At the very least, one might have expected that a reasonable person would have come away with an acute awareness of how crucial is a fine-grain understanding of the culture, social organization, mores and philosophical outlook of the country we were committed to reconstituting. Still, we manifestly have not assimilated that elementary truth. Witness our abysmal ignorance of all things Russian that has led us to a fatal miscalculation of every aspect of the Ukraine affair.


Next: China


Ukraine, in turn, is not cooling the ardour for confrontation with China. An audacious, and by no means a compelling, enterprise that is ensconced as the centerpiece of our official national security strategy. Senior Washington officials openly predict the inevitability of all-out war before the end of the decade – nuclear weapons notwithstanding. Moreover, Taiwan is cast in the same role as that played by Ukraine in the American scheme of things. So, having provoked a multi-dimensional conflict with Russia which has failed on all counts, we hastily commit ourselves to the nearly exact same strategy in taking on an even more formidable foe. This could be classified as what the French call a fuite en avant – an escape forward. In other words: Bring it on! We’re geared up for it.


The march to war with China defies all conventional wisdom. After all, it poses no military threat to our security or core interests. China has no history of empire-building or conquest. China has been the source of great economic benefit via dense exchanges that serve us as well as them. Therefore, what is the justification for the widespread judgment that a crossing-of-swords is inescapable?


Sensible nations do not commit themselves to a possibly cataclysmic war because China, the designated number one enemy, builds radar warning stations on sandy atolls in the South China Sea. Because it markets electric vehicles more cheaply than we can. Because its advances in developing semi-conductors may outclass ours. Because of its treatment of an ethnic minority in western China. Because it follows our example in funding NGOs that promote a positive view of their country. Because it engages in industrial espionage just the way the United States and everybody else does. Because it wafts balloons over North America (declared benign by General Milley last week).


None of these are compelling reasons to press hard for a confrontation. The truth is far simpler – and far more disquieting. We are obsessed with China because it exists. Like K-2, that itself is a challenge for we must prove our prowess (to others, but mainly to ourselves), that we can surmount it. That is the true meaning of a perceived existential threat.


The focal shift from Russia in Europe to China in Asia is less a mechanism for coping with defeat than the pathological reaction of a country that, feeling a gnawing sense of diminishing prowess, can manage to do nothing more than try one final fling at proving to itself that it still has the right stuff – since living without that exalted sense of self is intolerable. What is deemed heterodox, and daring, in Washington these days is to argue that we should wrap up the Ukraine affair one way or another so that we might gird our loins for the truly historic contest with Beijing. The disconcerting truth that nobody of consequence in the country’s foreign policy establishment has denounced this hazardous turn toward war supports the proposition that deep emotions rather than reasoned thought are propelling us toward an avoidable, potentially catastrophic conflict.


A society represented by an entire political class that is not sobered by that prospect rightly can be judged as providing prime facie evidence of being collectively unhinged.


Second, amnesia may serve the purpose of sparing our political elites, and the American populace at large, the acute discomfort of acknowledging mistakes and defeat. However, that success is not matched by an analogous process of memory erasure in other places. We were fortunate, in the case of Vietnam, that the United States’ dominant position in the world outside of the Soviet Bloc and the PRC allowed us to maintain respect, status and influence. Things have now changed, though.


Our relative strength in all domains is weaker, there are strong centrifugal forces around the global that are producing a dispersion of power, will and outlook among other states. The BRICS phenomenon is the concrete embodiment of that reality. Hence, the prerogatives of the United States are narrowing, our ability to shape the global system in conformity with our ideas and interests are under mounting challenge, and premiums are being placed on diplomacy of an order that seems beyond our present aptitudes.


 We are confounded.



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