(Originally published August 2001, Harper's Magazine)
Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. -GRAHAM GREENE
When the United States in early May lost its seat on the United Nations' Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the immediate response in New York and Washington was one of genuine astonishment. Important people looked questioningly at their cell phones and didn't know whether they'd heard a false rumor or a foolish joke. How could such things be, and where had reason fled? Surely it was well known that America had invented human rights, forever coming to the rescue of lost children and failed democracies. Never before in the fifty four years of the commission's existence had the United States been excluded from the committee rooms of conscience; never in living memory had the "world's only superpower" suffered so undeserved a mockery at the hands of its ungrateful dependents.
The offending gesture, an organizational vote within the U.N. Economic and Social Council, took place on a Thursday in Switzerland, and by nightfall on the nearer shore of the Atlantic a hastily assembled quorum of gold-plated American opinion (prominent journalists, responsible politicians, dependable historians) was hurrying into print or a television studio with the offers of an explanation. For the most part they resembled late-Victorian British admirals on loan from an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Thirty seconds into the broadcast or two paragraphs down the page the initial expressions of disbelief swelled into an uproar of heavy sarcasms, dark frowns, indignant manifestations of injured vanity, wounded virtue, baffled omnipotence. Was there no limit to the world's effrontery and gall? Were these people imbeciles or merely impertinent? Had they forgotten that they owed their freedom to sit around talking nonsense in overpriced restaurants to America's benevolence, America's money, America's air force?
The admirals were accustomed to insults from the Algerians and Fidel Castro, but what they found incomprehensible was the treachery of the European plenipotentiaries who were supposed to be our friends. The commission every year realigns its membership in such a way that the bloc of Western democracies receives three of the open seats, one of them customarily reserved to the United States if the United States comes up for reelection. But this year something went wrong with the divine right of kings, and when the secret ballot was counted the United States had received only twenty-nine of fifty-three possible votes, as opposed to fifty-two for France, forty-one for Austria, thirty-two for Sweden. Prior to the voting no fewer than forty-three countries had provided Secretary of State Colin Powell with written assurances of their support. The result reduced fourteen of the letters to worthless scraps of paper, which was preposterous, unspeakable, not to be borne. I didn't watch all the Washington talk shows or read all the newspaper commentaries, but those that I did see didn't offer much variation in tone and theme:
"TYRANTS TAKE OVER" -- Headline in the Wall Street journal over an editorial making the point that the United States had been expelled from a commission that welcomed among its members representatives from Libya, Sudan, and Syria -- i.e., countries not known to cherish a concern for human rights.
"Thugs' club ... a sewer of brutality and repression" -- Characterization of the Human Rights Commission in a New York Post editorial suggesting that the U.N. be voted off the island of Manhattan.
"Sneak diplomatic attack" -- William Safire in the New York Times explaining the U.N. vote as a plot "led by Communist China and Communist Cuba, and with the connivance of French diplomats currying favor with African and Arab dictators"; the purpose of the plot revealed as an attempt by a backstabbing "pack of hypocrites" to punish the United States for taking the side of Israel in "the war started by order of Yasir Arafat."
"New period of official anti-Americanism" -- Michael Kelly in the Washington Post attributing America's loss of its seat on the commission to the envy and resentment of the European members, "because Europe's ruling classes will never forgive us for constructing a world in which they no longer rule over anything except artisan cheeses."
Amidst the hectic waving of flags a few bystanders (some journalists, not many politicians) observed that the rebuff in Geneva wasn't entirely unwarranted. The United States over the last several years has been slow to pay its U.N. dues (the account currently $1.3 billion in arrears), and it stands opposed to a long list of policy initiatives put forward in the name of human rights, among them the Kyoto Protocol limiting emissions of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere and the treaty establishing an international criminal court. Nor has the newly enskyed Republican oligarchy in Washington shown much respect for what its drum majors in Congress and the Pentagon disparage as "weak-kneed multilateralism." President Bush prefers the more manly acts of "unabashed unilateralism," and during his first few months in office the American government bombed Baghdad, bullied the Russians, announced its intention to nullify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, guaranteed the prospect of war in Asia if China fools around with the sovereignty of Taiwan. Yes, it was possible that some countries (the poorer countries certainly, even some European countries clinging to the memories of their former grandeur) might have their reasons for objecting to the shows of American resolve, and one could almost see (if one looked very closely and imagined oneself as feckless as Italy or as obstinate as Germany) how it might be possible to misperceive America's fundamental goodness of heart.
As cautious as they were faint, the voices not raised in righteous anger didn't rate much space in the papers, and they were easily shouted down by the operatic chorus deploring the affront in early May in a tone consistent with Charles Krauthammer's trumpet solo in Time magazine in early March:
"America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to re-shape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will."
Although heartily endorsed by the Republican members of Congress, also by the kind of people who think the phrase "world's only superpower" is a Homeric epithet like "rosyfingered dawn" or "wine-dark sea," the Time Inc. theory of the American Rome doesn't travel well. The topic was often in the conversation during a week in April when 1 was in Paris to talk to a French publisher, but the feeling of resentment was less apparent than a sense of disappointment. An author of enigmatic novels cited a recent poll of French public opinion that asked for "Images that come to mind when you think of America Presented with a short list of words applicable to the United States, a majority of the respondents chose synonyms for barbarism: "violence" (67 percent), "power" (66 percent), "inequality" (49 percent), and "racism" (42 percent); only 20 percent mentioned "freedom," and 4 percent "generosity."
Not the same people who had come ashore on Omaha Beach in June of 1944, and even a columnist from Le Monde wanted to know what had become of the freedom-loving Americans of song and story-woefully uncultured, of course, also vulgar and naive, but generous to a fault and true to their faith in their fellow man? The wits at the dinner tables on both banks of the Seine didn't omit the customary hors d'oeuvres of scorn (President Bush described as "a ventriloquist's dummy," also as "the Forrest Gump of American politics"), but where was the once-upon-a-time democratic republic, and why were they inclined to think of the United States as a department store or a stomach, not as the embodiment of a courageous principle or an ennobling idea? Somewhere in the endgame of the Cold War the old citizen army apparently had gotten lost, replaced by a generation of would-be hegemons toying with the dream of empire. The rulers of artisan cheeses didn't question the American wish to strike handsome Roman poses in the togas of "the world's only superpower," but they perceived a problem in logic. How did the inheritors of a stupendous military and economic fortune mean to balance the harsh imperatives of power against the softer claims of conscience? Unlike the Americans, the ancient Romans didn't confuse the conquering of distant provinces with the distribution of global happiness, and where did the executives of Coca-Cola bottling companies propose to find the moral and intellectual sangfrold to manage civil unrest in Judaea, famine in Egypt, rebellion in Parthia and Leptis Minor?
The same questions were asked on four successive evenings, and gradually it occurred to me that the French didn't fully appreciate the doctrine of American innocence, what the first Puritans in the Massachusetts wilderness understood as their special appointment from Providence. Because God had chosen America as the construction site of the earthly Paradise, America's cause was always just and nothing was ever America's fault. Subsequent generations of American prophets and politicians have expressed the belief in different words-America, "The Last, Best Hope of Mankind"; America, "The Ark of Safety, The Anointed Civilizer" -- but none of the witnesses ever fails to understand that whereas corrupt foreigners commit crimes against humanity, Americans cleanse the world of its impurities. We do so because we have a natural aptitude for the work and because without our humanitarian interventions (over Dresden and Hiroshima as well as at ChateauThierry and Iwo Jima) the whole scheme of creation might come loose in the wind and vanish in the night.
If every now and then an American commits a monstrous crime Lee Harvey Oswald, Lt. William Calley, Timothy McVeigh-the action is declared un-American, senseless, unthinkable, so contrary to the laws of nature and the will of God that it can be intelligibly discussed only by senior churchmen and high-priced psychiatrists.
Never intrinsic to the American landscape or the American character, evil is a deadly and unlicensed import, an outlandish disease smuggled through customs in a shipment of German philosophy or Asian rice. Innocent by definition, America invariably finds itself betrayed (at Pearl Harbor, the Little Big Horn, Havana Bay), and because we have been betrayed we always can justify the use of brutal or un-Christian means to defend the Ark of Safety against the world's treachery.
Which is why America never needs to appoint truth commissions similar to those established by South Africa, Chile, Burundi, and any other country seeking to come to terms with its inevitably tragic past. The American past isn't tragic. We are the children of revelation, not history, and together with the twice-born President Bush we can assume that because we possess a natural instinct for the good, we need not concern ourselves with law. Laws are for people unlucky enough to have been born without the DNA of virtue. Maybe Dick Cheney lacks the Emperor Nero's readiness to light a garden party with torches made from the still living remnants of 2,000 Christian slaves, but American B-52s can stack dead civilians like cordwood in the rubble of Hanoi, the pilots safe in the knowledge that they are doing what is right, their bombing runs bringing the good news that salvation is near at hand.
No matter how often I explained the American rule of engagement that allowed for its blameless passage through the labyrinth of twentieth-century atrocity, I failed to persuade the French of the necessary distinction between ethnic and moral cleansing. When the other people at the table didn't scoff at the weakness of the reasoning, they charged me with cynicism or suspected an elaborate absurdity in imitation of Beckett or Céline.
A week later I returned to New York to find most of the eminent journalists in the city sprinkling incense on the news that Bob Kerrey -- former senator from Nebraska, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, voice of democratic conscience, president of The New School University in New York City conceivably deserved to be reconfigured as a war criminal. The allegation took the form of a report published in the New York Times Magazine during the same week that the United Nations expelled the United States from the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and the two events coming so close together in time coordinated the media's efforts to illuminate the doctrine of American grace.
The charge against Kerrey was backdated to the war in Vietnam. As a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant commanding a six-man team of Navy SEALs, Kerrey, in the Mekong Delta in February 1969, had led a raid on the hamlet of Thanh Phong that resulted in the killing of thirteen unarmed women and children. The afteraction report didn't identify the dead as noncombatants, and Kerrey received a Bronze Star for an exploit deemed heroic. There the matter rested for nearly thirty years, until a Newsweek reporter, Gregory Vistica, came across some old military records, talked to the other members of the SEAL team, and approached Kerrey with the request for a clarification. When the story eventually appeared in print it was told in the voice of a consoling therapist rather than that of a reproving journalist. It wasn't that Vistica failed to state the facts-no enemy soldiers in the village, the peasants shot down like rabbits-but he weighted the sentiment in favor of Kerrey's torment, Kerrey's anguish, Kerrey tempted by the thought of suicide. Both in the magazine article and in the flurry of press inter-views subsequent to its publication, the interest centered on the quality of Kerrey's remorse, the dead Vietnamese reduced to stage props backing up the soliloquies on the theme of innocence regained:
"Now I can talk about it. It feels better already." "I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me to heal." "It's the shame. You can never ... get away from it. It darkens your day."
Kerrey's serial acts of contrition evoked nods of warm and welcoming bathos almost everywhere in the media. Except for a few churlish remarks in The Nation and The New Republic (remarks to the effect that a war crime by any other name was still a war crime), the preservers of a nation's conscience were quick to recognize Kerrey as a victim of circumstance. A clean-limbed American youth sent on a terrorist errand in the dead of night and the fog of war. What else was a fellow to do? His commanding officer insisted on body counts and the collection of yellow ears. Surely Kerrey had suffered enough. Three weeks after the incident at Thanh Phong he had lost part of his right leg in the action at Cam Ranh Bay for which he received the Medal of Honor. Because a war hero cannot become a war criminal, the moral authorities on both the old left and the new right voted for acquittal, and the court of public opinion needed no more than a few days to find that the fault was in the war, not the warrior.
"That he felt remorse, that he sacrificed even more for his country ... is enough for his salvation, and a harder task than most can imagine. That's a war hero, folks, a sinner redeemed by his sacrifice for a cause greater than his self-interest. That's Bob Kerrey, my friend and hero." -- The judgment of Senator John McCain, handed down in an editorial for the Arizona Republic.
"It was dark, very dark." -- Davld Halberstam, defending Kerrey's honor before an audience of New York intellectuals in Greenwich Village.
"It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is Hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob is going through and continues to deal with." -- Statement from the Trustees of The New School University.
"For our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the worst and, regrettably, most frequent mistakes we, as a country, can make." -- Joint press release issued by Senators Max Cleland (D., Ga.), Chuck Hagel (R., Nebr.), and John Kerry (D., Mass.), all of them veterans of the Vietnam War.
"To know or not to know? That is the political question." -- Jim Hoagland, columnist in the Washington Post.
Hoagland didn't volunteer an answer, probably because his question was also a moral one, and when engaged in the ritual purification of the American soul it is always better to know as little as possible. The soft focus of blurred emotion is preferable to the unflattering clarities of thought or a distracting clutter of facts. George Bush Sr. reduced the operative principle to its simplest formulation when he was campaigning for the presidency in the summer of 1988. The U.S.S. Vincennes, an Aegis missile cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian airliner on July 3, under the mistaken impression that it was firing at a warplane. The error in judgment killed 290 civilian passengers en route to Dubai. Asked for a comment at a campaign stop in Washington, the candidate said, "I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are. "
Most of the exonerations of Kerrey also insisted on the point that he couldn't be fairly judged by anybody who hadn't done time in the free-fire zones of the Vietnamese hell. If you hadn't been there, you didn't know, and if you didn't know, you couldn't pass judgment. The syllogism offered the further advantage of reaffirming America's lack of responsibility for the whole of the Vietnam War. Some people had been there with Kerrey in the Mekong Delta; other people had been there with the generals in the Pentagon or with Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the White House; but nobody except God had been everywhere, and so, when you really got around to thinking about it, the war was God's fault. The bombing of Cambodia was a natural disaster, which was too bad for the Cambodians, but one of those things, like an African genocide or an earthquake in Honduras, that couldn't be helped.
The same cloud of incense and unknowing that descended on Kerrey's Bronze Star blots out the hope of public debate about what kind of country we think we have become. The media don't grant much of a hearing to bystanders who question the triumph of the Pax Americana, and on most days of any week it's hard to open a newspaper or read a policy journal without submitting to a siege of imperial rhetoric. Thus, in the summer issue of The National Interest, none other than Henry Kissinger, filling in the basso continuo to Krauthammer's trumpet tune: "So long as the post-Cold War generation of national leaders is embarrassed to elaborate an unapologetic concept of enlightened national interest, it will achieve progressive paralysis, not moral elevation." Or again, in the same issue of The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama, former State Department official and author of The End of History: "A country that makes human rights a significant element of its foreign policy tends toward ineffectual moralizing at best, and unconstrained violence in pursuit of moral aims at worst."
Transposed into the exchange of snappy sound bites on the Washington talk-show circuit, the theory of American empire becomes a complacent certainty. The pundits in residence compare notes with the visiting experts and find themselves in fond agreement on the great fact of America's colossal preeminence in the world-the size of its economy and the richness of its markets, the speed of its computers, the wonder of its weapons, the strength of its armies. Add to the sum of the superlatives the vast reach and sway of America's "soft power" (the T-shirts and the action movies, the cheeseburgers and the popular songs) and what we are talking about-as George just said, and as even Sam and Cokie will admit-is an empire on which-we might as well be blunt about it-the sun never sets. All present nod and chuckle, and the conversation proceeds to the good news about the blessings that America bestows on the less fortunate nations of the earth. We guarantee the freedom of the seas, send poll-watchers to apprentice democracies arranging their first elections, provide the cornucopia of goods (public and private) that sets the global standard for the label "decent standard of living." Why shouldn't we do as we please? Yes, we consume 26 percent of the world's energy supply and contribute 25 percent of the poisons to the world's atmosphere. So what? We're doing the world a favor, for crying out loud; don't make us sorry.
On mornings when news Is scarce Caesar's heirs take up the old Roman questions about administering provinces and dispensing justice-how ought we to employ our ascendancy ("unrivaled by even the greatest empires of the past") to quiet the crowd noise in the world's dingier and more dangerous streets? The program always ends before anybody comes up with a coherent idea, and as the credits roll across the pictures of the guests congratulating one another on the subtlety of their analysis, I sometimes wonder about their grasp of history and their knowledge of geography. In what time and place do they imagine themselves temporarily on leave from Virgil's Rome? How and where do they intend to recruit the troops, and what do they think would become of America's peace and prosperity if we were to replace the story of our God-given innocence with the cynical apologetics of forthright empire?
Unlike their overlords in Washington, the American people never have been infected with the virus of imperial ambition; nor have we acquired an exalted theory of the state that might allow us to govern subject peoples with a firm hand and an easy conscience. The military academy at West Point was established in 1802 as an engineering school because the army was expected to build roads and bridges rather than to fight foreign wars. The conquest of the trans-Mississippi West was accomplished not by the march of legions but by nomadic bands crossing a succession of frontiers in the loose formation of civilian settlement. The pioneers killed anything and everything that stood in the path of progress-bears and passenger pigeons as well as Indians and buffaloes -- but they seldom did so as a matter of public policy.
The imperial pretensions briefly attendant upon the Spanish American War consisted mostly of loud speeches. At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Woodrow Wilson gave nobody the impression that the United States wished to rule the world. The Allied victories in the Second World War presented the United States with the semblance of an empire in a world largely reduced to ruins. If in 1941 the American presence outside the Western Hemisphere consisted of only a few islands in the Pacific, by 1945 it circled the earth, and a hastily mustered regiment of American proconsuls inherited the British oil concessions in Persia and found themselves supplying arms to Greece and grain to India, posting garrisons on the Danube and the Rhine.
But even during the years of supreme triumph the nearest that most Americans could come to an imperial habit of mind was the tone of voice in which they asked the question-of French waiters and German whores -- "How much does that cost in real money?" An authentically civilian nation had acceded reluctantly to military power, and, as early as 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower, a general familiar with the stupidity and waste of war, was saying that the detonation of a single artillery shell took a year's bread out of the mouth of a starving child. The statement was both admirable and accurate but not one that would have occurred to Napoleon. The imperial adventure in Vietnam was conceived and directed by Washington bureaucrats as ignorant of war as Charles Krauthammer and Condoleezza Rice, readers of Rudyard Kipling and fans of Teddy Roosevelt who thought that an empire was as easily constructed as a movie set. The appalling failure of the production put an end to the chance of drumming up popular support for American reruns of the Pax Romana.
The absence of a citizen army prepared to fight for what it believes to be the glory of both its public and its private self obliges the Unites States to rely on increasingly expensive mercenaries. We prefer, in the old Roman phrase, "the shadow to the sun" -- i.e., the luxury of sitting under silk canopies on the shaded side of the Colosseum to applaud the entertainment on the bright and sometimes painted sand. We sponsor poorer but more ferocious allies to fight proxy wars in Africa and the Middle East as well as in Asia and the Balkans, and the champions of democracy, we buy at the depressed prices paid for child labor in Chinese textile mills and Mexican strawberry fields.
America hasn't fought a war in nearly thirty years, not Since our chastened helicopters lifted off the roof of the embassy in Saigon in April 1975, and I don't know why anybody would think we possess either a liking or a talent for the enterprise.
It's true that we maintain an army of our own-none better dressed or more expensively equipped-but it is an army made for show, a Potemkin village of an army meant to astonish Belgian bankers and frighten Arab terrorists. Our military forces are in the communications business; they send messages, they don't wage wars. The staff officers at the Pentagon know how to stage fireworks displays over Belgrade and Baghdad, how to simulate combat (aerial, naval, and ground) on state-of-the-art computer screens, where to parade the tanks on national holidays, how to deploy aircraft carriers as visual aids in the sales promotions for "the world's only superpower." All essential projects, of course, and undoubtedly worth the expenditure of $310 billion a year, but not to be confused with the Normandy landings or any other expression of overt hostility in which American soldiers run the risk of being killed. The government is very clear on the point. We don't send our own troops into what the Pentagon judges to be "non-permissive environments." No Sir, not in this man's army, not when a worried mother in Ohio might complain to her congressman, or when a wounded sergeant might tell a scary story to Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer.
It is the wish to remain blameless that forces up the price of the equipment. The heirs to a great military estate can afford to hire servants (some of them human, most of them electronic) to do the killing. Money in sufficient quantity washes out the stains of cruelty and greed, transports its proprietors to always higher altitudes of snow-white innocence. If the Air Force can drop bombs from 30,000 feet, preferably through a veil of fluffy white clouds, we can imagine ourselves making a war movie or playing a harmless video game. As previously noted, the work of ritual purification is best done when one knows as little as possible about who is doing what to whom. The procedure is better suited to the selling of Internet stocks and soft pornography than to the governing of empires.
 Students of America's special arrangement with Providence might find it useful to compare the punishment of Calley with that of McVeigh. Two terrorists, American born and trained, encouraged to regard the murder of civilians as a proper military objective. But Calley killed foreigners (102 Vietnamese peasants at My Lai in March 1968); he served three years of confinement to barracks at Fort Benning, Georgia. McVeigh, a veteran of the Gulf War, killed Americans (168 citizens in Oklahoma City in April 1995); he was portrayed by the news media as an incarnation of the devil, and the production costs of his trial and execution (i.e., the exorcism) amounted to $50 million.
 Strong-minded hegemons think it demeaning to make apologies. When an American submarine rammed and sank a Japanese fishing trawler near Honolulu last February, drowning nine of the passengers onboard, Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, complained about the excessive shows of sympathy on the part of the United States Navy. Reminding his readers that the accident occurred within sight of Pearl Harbor, he said, "This was Hawaii, for crying out loud.... So, one more time: we're sorry ... of course we apologize for the loss of the Ehime Maru and the apparent deaths of nine persons aboard. But we are the same guys who have provided Japan with a security shield ever since World War II, helped rebuild a country and have been its steadfast ally and best friend. Don't make us sorry."
 Fukuyama doesn't mince his words, but Kissinger's sentence presumably makes better sense in German. Read in the context of Kissinger's policies in Asia and Latin America, the phrase "embarrassed to elaborate an unapologetic concept" probably can be taken to mean "unwilling to bribe, bomb, assassinate, or betray." The phrase "moral elevation" is more difficult. It's conceivable that the author imagines himself standing on a pile of corpses in Kurdistan, but then again, maybe he's thinking of himself as an equestrian statue on the White House lawn. In any event, a Roman pose, something to bring to mind the memory of noble Cicero.
 I don't wish to belittle the Navy's successful sinking of a fishing boat and its quick-witted shooting down of an Iranian airliner, much less question the ability of a Marine Corps EA-6B to destroy 20 people on an Italian ski lift, but what was billed as the Persian Gulf War would have been more accurately described as a Pentagon trade show with live ammunition. Against a pitiably weak enemy---half-starved recruits, only too glad to give up their weapons for a cup of rainwater---victory was a foregone conclusion. The lack of opposition allowed us to slaughter an unknown number of Iraqis---maybe 30,000, maybe 100,000, who knows how many of them civilian---in return for 148 Americans dead in action, 35 of them killed by "friendly fire."
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