TRYING TO SEE: Repetitive Tragedies of Great Nations

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By Michael Randall
Fiery July 4th celebrations are now behind us. Having expressed proper gratitude for our country, perhaps we can acknowledge something a bit different. So often, we recognize our own sins only when other individuals, tribes or nations exhibit them.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24th, much of the world expressed outrage, particularly in countries politically and militarily aligned with the United States. Many NATO member nations immediately leaped to aid Ukraine with weapons and moral support.
Many idealistic Americans, Europeans and people from other regions, most of them military veterans, personally jumped into the fight on the side of Ukraine. All brutal conflicts seen from afar (especially on television) inspire hatred of the oppressor, grief for innocent victims and a desire to help. Also: a sense of gratitude that the explosions and slaughter are taking place far away.

Our many-faced media’s reporting on the conflict was both interesting and predictable. Well-coiffed, well-proportioned faces of television’s news readers expressed indignation bordering on fury. But now, because the war has entered its fifth month, news reports on the war have slipped into lesser and later news slots each day.
However, certain “David vs. Goliath” story themes continue to emerge. Tales of heroism: Azov Battalion soldiers who held out for weeks under constant Russian bombardment in the bowels of Mariupol’s steel plant. Profiles of Putin’s arrogant ruthlessness: explicitly styling himself as the modern incarnation of Russia’s Peter the Great, and sneering that “Ukraine is not a country; it is part of Russia.” Stories of the Russian military’s incompetence: thinking it could take Kyiv in days, but then veering eastward toward Ukraine’s Donbas and Luhansk regions after experiencing numerous bloody defeats at the hands of highly motivated Ukrainian defenders.
Stories of the murder of innocents by Russian soldiers: mass graves full of bodies with hands still bound, shot in the back of the head, massive sanctions against Russia; departures of major western companies from there; silencing of independent news within Russia, and the 80 percent of Russians who support their little Peter’s savage “special military operation” because they can hear no news from the other side. And they, like most of us during the last twenty years of our Middle East wars, do not pay attention anyway unless we have a spouse or offspring in the fray.
Media stories around the world are merely opinions presented as facts, and are designed for consumption by different tribes and factions. They can enlighten, amuse, or set our minds against other tribes’ tyrants and invaders, while reinforcing our belief that our tribe dwells on a higher moral plain. In “exceptional America” we are assured that our nation’s military actions are always based on the righteous defense of human freedom, the liberation of enslaved peoples, and an end to dictators.
Our young folks are especially receptive to such information when they arrive at enlistment age. They have no life experience to balance their thinking against romantically patriotic stories. Most are physically fit and malleable and trainable. They hope to test themselves while ascending rapidly to the status of admired adults, all of which make them perfect instruments of war.
(Full disclosure: when I was a 19 year-old Marine in southeast Asia, a Major interviewed me as a potential member of a nuclear weapons loading team. He asked me, “How would you feel if a nuclear bomb that you helped load was dropped on a city and killed 2,000,000 people?” I thought a few seconds and said, “I don’t know. I guess it wouldn’t be anything personal.”) My late-adolescent brain was only half formed, and my sense of tragedy was still a vacant hole waiting to be filled by subsequent life events.
In our righteous Vietnam War: 58,000 Americans died; around 2,000,000 north and south Vietnamese civilians died. We hightailed out of there after nearly twenty years of futile carnage. During the last 25 to 30 years, many American vets have traveled back there to visit old haunts. They meet old enemies and share food and stories. (Full disclosure: my younger brother JR told me, “After seven days of the Tet Offensive we were exhausted. We flew up and down the streets of Pleiku just above the roof tops. We shot at anyone and anything that moved: people, chickens, pigs, dogs, cows. We didn’t care.”) He went back in the 1980s, bicycling with other vets 1,015 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (nee’ Saigon).
In our righteous war in Afghanistan: after destroying Afghan-sponsored al-Qaeda training camps, we decided to stay and improve the country. This resulted in over 2,400 Americans being killed and 21,000 wounded by Taliban forces or their supporters. 115,000 Afghan civilians and military personnel died at our hands and those of the Taliban. Now the Taliban are back in charge again, destroying the hopes of women and men in the name of Allah.
In our righteous war in Iraq: 4,400 Americans were killed and 32,000 wounded. 184,000 to 207,000 Iraqi civilians were killed after we invaded the country in 2003. Between 3.5 to 5 million Iraqis were displaced or became refugees as a direct result of our invasion to destroy “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist. Iraq’s government has since aligned itself with our major Middle East adversary, Iran.
Prior to pulling out of those three countries, our leaders had known for years that we could not win. But they stayed the course until the bitter end out of national vanity and an inability to admit our bloody errors. Such is human nature in the age of public relations and social media.
The Russians’ have now installed phony puppet leaders in eastern Ukraine, a fig leaf trying to cover the illegitimacy of their invasion. We did the same in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and in several Central and South American countries. Since 2002, we have destabilized several Middle East nations, created mayhem and helped foster the birth of ISIS. In each of these wars, old tribal rivalries were rekindled, and Russia has gained ground by helping our adversaries. A lot of America’s “best and brightest” leaders talked themselves into making very bad decisions that created millions of corpses. And to what good purpose? China looks at Russia and the USA right now, and stands by smiling.
Each of us is an individual human being living our life, just as were each of the dead soldiers and civilians and refugees mentioned above. Some among us, the more ambitious and arrogant souls, try to ascend to dizzying heights of power. We see them daily on TV, loving the camera and hoping their political opinions, present role-playing and cunning will help them climb ever higher. Few of them seem to have any understanding of what true leadership requires, but they do hope for honors and the public’s adoration. Some of them even hear voices in the air.
Empires come and go, and our American Empire is no exception. Great powers always manipulate, bully and sometimes butcher their weaker neighbors. Russia is doing it, China is doing it, numerous lesser nations and tribes are doing it. And we are doing it, though we seem to have stopped butchering for the moment.
Machiavelli wrote, “Anyone wishing to see what is to be must consider what has been: all the things of this world have their counterparts in ancient times.” However, we have hopes for peace, hopes for positive changes in human nature, hopes for better leaders. We should always pursue these dreams, though it is in our nature to carry angry fights outward toward others, and not look inward for the source of our problems.