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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Day of Infamy

When the Japanese fighters and bombers passed like shadows over the waters of Hawaii, they carried more than bombs and bullets, their fleeting shadows marked the end of over a century of security. The last time an enemy army threatened American territory was in the early nineteenth century, since then the closest thing had been the vicious clowning of Pancho Villa.

But in the nineteenth century Commodore Perry had come calling to end Japan's isolation and nearly ninety years later, the Japanese warplanes came to end America's isolation. That isolation had been crumbling throughout the twentieth century as presidents began contemplating the national role on the global stage. Pearl Harbor broke the isolation completely and when the war was done, the nation had inherited the mantle of world power and the obligation to maintain the security of Europe and parts beyond.

Perry woke a nation that should perhaps have been allowed to reside within the walls of its own culture and when the consequences of the Japanese asserting their national identity across the region were done then the United States was left to oversee the ruins of the post-colonial order.

The world after Pearl Harbor was a strange place in which a reluctant technocratic trade empire tried to navigate a world in which the divisions were no longer merely territorial, but ideological, where the straightforward xenophobic expansionism of a Hirohito or Hitler gave way to the ideological khanates of a Stalin or a Bin Laden. And if the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and its ranks of missiles carrying destruction at the touch of a button, seemed to mean that the United States could return to a pre-Pearl Harbor world, the planes that flew out of the sky and into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were yet another reminder that the age of innocence would never return.

The United States had gotten what most nations were willing to kill and die for, the chance to be a dominant world power, and yet had never really wanted it. Hegemony was thrust on it by default and it was always eager to find someone to give it up to. The United Nations was the ideal scheme for lifting the burden off Uncle Sam's shoulders. A progressive union of world governments that take on all the responsibilities of a world power, without actually being a world power. But that plan failed and the United States still found itself carrying the same burdens as before.

The problem was that while the United States never really wanted to be a world power, there was a long list of nations and ideologies that wanted the spot and were eager to bring it down. The hot potato had been passed by Europe across the ocean and America was left to juggle it as best as it could, unable to pass it around and unable to let go.

Pearl Harbor had been a flash out of the sky, a vicious announcement of how badly some nations wanted power and how little protection an ocean could be in an age of rapid transportation and communications. The broad expanses of the Atlantic and the Pacific were no longer a defense against the enemy.

In his time the Kaiser had contemplated taking the fleet and shelling New York City. There is no telling how different American history would have been had he followed through on this plan. But the outside world got a second chance with Pearl Harbor, a third chance with the Cold War and a fourth chance with September 11. Each time the burden was place anew on a nation that never wanted to rule anyone or fight global wars.

America lacked the insecurities that drive nations to obsessive dreams of glory and conquest. Manifest Destiny was the simple and natural expansionism of a vibrant people with a wondrous continent before them. Americans did not have anything to prove to anyone, least of all themselves, in the way that the modern Muslim who looked up from the timeless medievalism to see the tanks and warships of the British Empire at his door. Empire was not their ambition, it was their burden.

Nevertheless America had the insecurities of the world thrust upon it. The insecurities of the left confronting modernism. The insecurities of the Muslim world confronting modernism. The dreams of glory of Russia, Germany and Japan. And throughout all this it remained the world's first nation of the middle-class, looking for nothing more than a way to make products cheaper, sell them faster and live comfortably off the proceeds. Its farms and factories were its ambition. That naturally made it into a trade empire.

Perry had gone to Japan to open it up to trade. The Cold War was a prolonged struggle between free market trade nations and ideological planned economy oligarchies that eventually switched places out of the necessity of the struggle. And that situation which the United States found itself in which compelled it to sacrifice the things that made it what it was in order to triumph over a succession of enemies had put it on a path to a species of self-annihilation.

But technological expansion also expanded the frontiers of war. A nation no longer had to border the United States to threaten it and eventually it no longer even needed to be a nation. The revolutionary processes that had transformed American industry also brought destruction within reach. The airplane and the nuclear bomb, two American inventions, also threatened to destroy the United States for over half a century and that threat has only become more imminent as the technology to spread destruction has fallen into more hands.

The processes that discovered and exploited the territory of the United States have also made it possible for enemies to wage war against it at a lower cost to themselves. The more it has opened up the world, the more vulnerable it has become to the world. Advances in transportation and communications have brought technological booms that have changed the United States every few decades, but they have also eroded the distance that allowed Americans to settle and develop their land in peace.

The distance is all but gone now. Cheap air travel and instantaneous communications have reduced American borders to almost nothing. And technology has created the illusion of global culture, but the internet isn't a global culture, it's technocratic multiculturalism with all the inherent dysfunction of that. The same is true of the United Nations, which is a multicultural power struggle wrapped around a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The United States has tried to deal with the hegemony thrust on it by giving up its sovereignty to some illusory transnational force of history. That approach has never worked, but it has accelerated the disintegration of the country from within and from without. No matter how dysfunctional the United Nations is, we must keep trying because the alternative is playing empire. The charade of international law must keep going or we will come face to face with the fact that we are the ones making the laws for the world.

When the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor a world was shattered and it was shattered again on September 11. Both events led the country into greater international engagement, into nation building and taking responsibility for broader stretches of the world. The two attacks reminded us that we have nowhere to hide, but they also burdened us with the impossibility of maintaining order in a world filled with would be caliphates and empires,

Between isolationism and transnationalism is an impossibly thin line, and that line may be impossible to find in a world where accelerating communications and transportation make security impossible.

In our innocence we thought that we could be a great nation on our own terms, but each time the world has intruded to rob us of that certainty. The day of infamy was also the end of innocence and the beginning of our experience on the global stage. It has been a difficult experience, and though we did much that was worthwhile, as all experiences do, these experiences changed us, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. We are not the same nation that looked up to the sky in September or December.

The scars we bear have filled us with hope that we can rest when we find someone to carry the burden for us-- but there is no nation, no organization and no institution. And so we carry it onward, staggering under the cost, the money spent, the toll of the dead and the life we have left behind.


  1. cruft8/12/11

    Sic transit gloria mundi. Mene mene tekel upharsin.

  2. Anonymous8/12/11

    You write eloquently of our quixotic and janusian America---an America that "is not the same nation that looked up to the sky in September or December."

    Some of us Americans gaze into the mirror of our American mythos and see "America, the Beautiful," and some of us envision an "America, the Hegemon."

    Both of us are two-faced, I suppose; but we've reached the point where we're both so utterly wrong-headed in each others eyes that it might make more sense to call our nation "two-headed".

  3. The fly in the ointment is that America can only fuel both its way of living and its global responsibilities with oil.

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