Learning to Live in the World Instead of Ruling It

South Pool of 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan.

By John Grant

So how should Americans live in this new world? That’s the crossroads we’re at, the question at hand. Some advocate a very costly re-arming of America for a 21st century conflagration that, if past is prologue, would end with an even more weakened, declining America.

The 2016 presidential election suggests that America is at a crossroads. The right wants to hold onto a glorious, imperial past rooted in images of American exceptionalism. The left, when not in a state of confusion, wants progressive domestic reform – while both sides remain tied to an out-of-control National Security State.

I’m a Vietnam veteran and a 40-year veteran of the American anti-war movement. This movement has been unable to curb the failed Drug War, the civil-liberties nightmare called the War On Terror and it certainly failed to prevent the disastrous invasion/occupation of Iraq.

We live in the aftermath of an imperial dream set in motion a century ago by men like Teddy Roosevelt and firmly established as the National Security State after World War Two and during the Cold War. We’re now in the decline phase. The forces of technology and globalisation have brought us the “rise of the rest” – ie, China, India, Brazil and other, formerly developing “third world” nations that are becoming peer capitalist competitors. Much of the terrorism we face today is arguably rooted in the legacy of European colonialism and an incomplete de-colonisation process that began after World War Two. Today’s dangers aren’t new; they’re just more frightening because the warzones are no longer “over there”; the world has become an open Pandora’s Box. The Middle East, for example, is a hotbed of untenable structures left over from European colonialism. Western fear of Islam is hardly new either.

In the US, we take our exceptionalism for granted. Teddy Roosevelt wrote an essay in 1910 called “The Management of Small States Which Are Unable to Manage Themselves.” We now take for granted that it’s our responsibility to manage the world. We don’t like to put our soldiers at risk, so when our leaders are faced with a recalcitrant element in the shifting world, they too often rely on aerial bombing. They don’t seem to know what else to do. While bombing does slow opponents down, it solves nothing; in fact, time and again, it kills indiscriminately and only exacerbates a problem to come back later with a vengeance. The rise of The Islamic State out of the fury caused by our invasion and occupation of Anbar Province is the perfect example.

We pride ourselves that we westerners aren’t like “the terrorists” who attack innocent civilians in restaurants or music venues; we’re righteous in declaring we don’t intentionally target civilians. But, then, when the carnage is added up, we usually end up killing more innocent civilians than the terrorists.

Every time I hear some American politico talk of bombing in response to a gruesome terrorist attack or to destroy some heinous regime like ISIS, I think of the 1961 film The Battle Of Algiers and the scene where a leader of the guerrilla movement is captured by the French colonial military. A reporter asks the man how he can justify the gruesome carnage from explosions in cafes and bars. The man smiles. “We’ll be glad to exchange our satchel charges for your jet bombers any time.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Susan Sontag was pilloried for saying, “By all means let’s mourn together, but let’s not be stupid together.” In the end, the US decided to be “stupid together” and succeeded in empowering Iran and infuriating Sunni Arabs in western Iraq to the point they morphed themselves into a ruthless regime called ISIS.

US leaders seldom discuss our problems as consequences of US action. No, the problem is the United States has lost its mojo as leader of the free world, and violence is the way to regain that mojo. Richard Slotkin wrote a book in 1973 called Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. His thesis is that our “founding fathers” were really not those powdered-wig enlightenment sophisticates in Philadelphia who wrote the founding documents breaking away from Britain. No, our true founding fathers were “those who… tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness.” They were rogues, adventurers, missionaries and killers. Slotkin’s thesis is “the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.” When the going got tough, somebody was gonna die. “A people unaware of its myths is likely to continue living by them.”

Mahmood Mamdani is a Columbia University political scientist of Indian descent born and raised in Uganda. He’s the author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. He concludes the 2004 book this way: “Just as America learned to distinguish between nationalism and Communism in Vietnam, so it will need to learn the difference between nationalism and terrorism in the post 9/11 world. To win the fight against terrorism requires accepting that the world has changed, that the old colonialism is no more and will not return, and that to occupy foreign places will be expensive, in lives and money. America cannot occupy the world. It has to learn to live in it.”

So how should Americans live in this new world? That’s the crossroads we’re at, the question at hand. Some advocate a very costly re-arming of America for a 21st century conflagration that, if past is prologue, would end with an even more weakened, declining America. In the future, we might imagine people writing books like they did after World War One on how tragically stuck in the past world leadership was circa 2015. The other option is, as Mamdani puts it, “learn to live in the world.”

John Gray, a political theorist at the London School of Economics, sees the future fate of US imperialism as shaky. He writes, “First, [Pax Americana] presupposes that the US has the economic strength to support the imperial role it entails. Second, it assumes that the US has the will to sustain it. Third, it requires that the rest of the world be ready to accept it. It is questionable whether any of these conditions can be met.”

The alternative is to encourage dialogue with those we demonise as the enemy. The dialogue with Iran over nukes is a good example of this. To anyone trapped inside the myth of regeneration through violence empathy and dialogue are simple-minded, naïve and silly. Still, there are many good, smart people in the world representing all sides and parties in today’s conflicts willing to listen and talk. Take the intractable case of Israel and Palestine. Would it be as intractable if over the past forty years there had been a well-supported dual track system: one track operating as a vengeance track and another operating as a forgiveness track. We have the former in spades; it’s the latter that doesn’t exist or is grotesquely marginalised. The notion of vengeance is easy to grasp. An eye for an eye. Forgiveness is more difficult, since it’s generally slandered as condoning acts of violence. What the forgiveness movement is really about is avoiding vengeance to establish workable structures for living in peace.

The point is to somehow empower some kind of peace-seeking track in our political and governmental systems. This would mean a two-track war and peace structure in which talks go on whether or not violence is ongoing. In Israel, for example, peace talks are put off until all the problems preventing those peace talks are worked out. This is absurd. In other words, no talking peace until peace is a reality. The cynical view is that this preclusion is an intentional catch 22 on the part of militarist, people we used to called warmongers.

What’s needed is a respected institution of well-funded peacemongers with teeth. Dennis Kucinish liked to envision a cabinet post called the “Department of Peace.” 

It’s popular to trash the United Nations for corruption, inefficiency and other shortcomings, as if the existing institutions of war and violence are pinnacles of virtue and efficiency. I submit the failure of the peace movement isn’t the peace movement’s fault; the failure is attributable to those who choose not to put in their toolbox an alternative to violence. Not having a peace track assures the cycle of violence will be perpetuated. Ongoing peace talks assure that when the war track reaches the wearying stage, which they often do, there will be significant peace work and structures to turn to.

What’s needed is a respected institution of well-funded peacemongers with teeth. Dennis Kucinish liked to envision a cabinet post called the “Department of Peace.” He knew that marginalising a society’s peace movement does the nation no favours. The militarised right may feel triumphant for silencing the anti-war movement, but it’s a vital check and balance that can only pay off in the future.

There’s got to be a better way than whipping up hatred and fear and escalating our current problems into a world war. None of this precludes America protecting itself and even using violence when necessary for self-defense. The point is to realise, as Mahmood Mandani suggests, the US is doomed to learn one way or another how to live in the world without ruling it.

About the Author

John GrantJohn Grant is a writer and photographer living outside of Philadelphia. He’s a Vietnam veteran. He writes for the online publication This Can’t Be Happening.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.