THIS IS A REPOST OF A CLASSIC ARCHIVES ARTICLE[Ironically, it was Marlon Brando, a man blessed with great cross-cultural affinity, an anomaly in American society, who often impersonated iconic Americans on the screen. This is Brando in “The Ugly American,” prefiguring the US sordid intervention in Vietnam.]
In August 2005 I wrote an article about the impression media images of lonely American soldiers at checkpoints in Iraq made on me then. Now I have re-written, updated and expanded the article, while retaining the original, even more valid title in this November of 2012.
THE LONELY AMERICAN
(Rome)Each day I watch the TV news images of American soldiers on the streets and roads of Afghanistan and I wonder if the same images I see in Europe are shown in the United States. If they are shown, I wonder why the people do not rise up in patriotic rebellion against the wars. Each day I feel a profound sympathy for the infinite ignored and inadmissible loneliness of the American soldiers caught up in the network of military bases, the lily pads, spreading over the world in ever increasing numbers.
The soldier in dust-colored camouflage uniform, helmet and bullet-proof vest (not really bullet-proof and certainly not IED or roadside bomb-proof, as I see each day on European television: each and every day at least one of them dies uselessly somewhere in the world). Brandishing his automatic weapon, standing alone at a useless check-point, an empty, zombie look on his face (though he must be terrified and wondering how he got entangled in this man-made chaos), surrounded by a world he does not understand, by people speaking languages he does not understand, in the middle of wars he does not understand; this bewildered American seems to be the loneliest man in the world.
Because I too am an American, I watch the American soldier sadly, and think that he is emblematic of America’s growing isolation in the world. And I think that something is dreadfully wrong in a country that has an oversupply of volunteers to go to the deserts and the mountains and the jungles of the world to kill brown strangers with their super weapons and from invisible planes in the stratosphere to drop firebombs on cities where families of men, women and children live—and from day to day, from hour to hour, with a ten per cent chance of being killed themselves and for the worst possible reasons. Ultimately it must occur to every thinking American that adaptation to such a sick and murderous society cannot be mentally healthy for any human being.
So beyond politics, beyond questions of war and peace, I wonder about the loneliness of Americans in general, so lonely in the universe, who are not even aware of their isolation. I wonder about a whole people predisposed to the loneliness you feel behind locked doors. A kind of vacancy. And besides, what is it, I ask myself, that other people have and we Americans do not have? Or what do Americans have that others do not? Why are Americans different? I do not believe it was always that way. But it is today. And it is a mystery.
Recently I began asking such questions of friends in Italy where I have lived much of my life. Italians say that Americans are spoiled; they have it too good; they haven’t suffered enough. Europeans I know or read about often think of Americans with their childlike air of impregnability as difficult children, whom real life has not yet touched. A pragmatic people for whom truth is little more than believability.
But there is no clear answer to my questions. Perhaps people here do not really understand my questions. Or my questions are not clear and comprehensible. For I do not encounter many Europeans who consider Americans fundamentally different from other human beings. Unlike Iraqis or Afghans, very few Europeans admit to anti-Americanism, as America’s leaders sometimes claim. Actually for most people in the world all human beings belong to the same species. We are all fundamentally just men. In that respect, as a result of the biological fact that they are human beings, all should aspire to feeling a oneness with the world. Yet, throughout history some peoples somehow become different; they become races and bear an evil stain.
“Ultimately it must occur to every thinking American that adaptation to such a sick and murderous society cannot be mentally healthy for any human being…”
Still, old friends in Europe occasionally quiz me about what I as an American think about one thing or another concerning America. They ask because they are coming to see how different things are in America. Different from how they thought it was. Once. What do I think about things that are normal, ordinary and expected in much of the world, services such as national health programs and pension plans? What about unemployment compensation and welfare, they ask, and electoral systems and democracy? How is it possible, some ask, that America’s powerful presidents are elected by a minority? Very often they ask about the death penalty, non-existent in Europe. Today, however, the most frequent questions concern war, even though Europeans too are becoming so accustomed to America’s wars as to take them in their stride. War is so much a natural part of the everyday scene that even the word war has lost much of its meaning. People are less and less astounded that war is often called humanitarian intervention.
At the same time they are not surprised that I, as a progressive American, favor a national health service for America too, guaranteed pension plans, unemployment compensation, welfare, immigrants, a multiparty political system, real forms of democracy, that I oppose capital punishment and reject war; they are not polemical and too often simply shrug.
Still, that is not my point. Despite their impartial attitudes toward America, I believe Europeans really want to know what is wrong with America? What is morally wrong? Wrong as in astray, as in “to go wrong”. But they do not know how to frame the question. Especially Europeans, of many diverse peoples and nations speaking different languages, understand that the nation of America is different from, for example, Italy or Bulgaria. But nonetheless I believe that without realizing it they also want to know why Americans as individuals are different from other peoples.
What is missing in Americans? For example, what do Mexican people have that Americans lack? For Mexicans—like Serbs or Latvians or Mongolians—have many positive qualities we Americans lack.
When I settled in Europe in the Sixties, Americans were still well received throughout the continent; America then still had a lot of credit for its help in World War II and for the Marshall Plan (however self-interested), although already then admiration was mixed with envy and resentment at American arrogance. In Great Britain it was said—during the war—that American soldiers were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. But in general Americans were well received by the majority, though not by the skeptical European Left that, as it turned out, was right in its suspicions.
The pre-Vietnam years were still good years for Americans. America was leading the “free world” alliance against the Soviet Union: Moscow’s quashing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague rebellion in 1968 covered somewhat America’s spreading dark spots in affairs like Watergate, the crushing of democracy in Latin America, and the growing involvement in Vietnam. Again, the European Left did not trust that arrogant and already imperialistic bully, America. Still, the existence of the “evil” Soviet Union and the Cold War gave America’s rulers a relatively free hand throughout the world as it did for another two decades, in a way the lesser of two evils for many.
Though as a rule most governments lie to the governed, it was precisely the great Cold War lie that injected the poison into the veins of America and Americans. For it was a lie. In the name of anti-Communism, America permitted itself every evil. America justified each and every action then in the same way as today anything and everything is permitted in the name of anti-terrorism. America was good. God was on America’s side. Few Americans doubted. My generation, for example, hardly considered the question of right or wrong, of good or evil. Everything was clear: Communism and the Soviet Union were evil. America was blessed by God.
The most virulent anti-Communist propaganda filled the eighties: star wars, nuclear warfare scares, statistics and testimony, books, the media, academia combined to show that Communism’s conquest of the world was imminent; Soviet military-economic power was a terrible thing. What a surprise then for the Soviet experts that at the end of that same decade the Berlin Wall fell and overnight the whole shebang collapsed. Soviet Communism was a paper tiger. It was a US-propaganda trick, a manufactured threat. Soviet power was real, but the evil intentions attributed to the Kremlin were not.
At the same time, however, more Europeans had begun doubting the state of American democracy. The category of skeptics broadened. Vietnam and American support of dictatorships from Chile to Nicaragua, from Iran to the Philippines, eroded doubts among many Europeans in whose minds America was now becoming the “empire of evil”. In America, dissident voices were labeled anti-American, Communist traitors—and today, terrorists.
In Europe today it is no longer a question of what reactionary Washington labels “the visceral anti-Americanism” of the European Left. The reality is that antipathy to this America has infected many if not a majority of Continental Europeans. It is largely a moral question, of right and wrong, of good and evil.
Though most Americans believe in the myth of their democracy, European polls show an America far down the list of developed democracies. The criteria often have to do with electoral systems (no one understands the American system), political representation, the distribution of real powers. For example, surprise, surprise, Germany’s democratic parliamentary system stands at the top of the list.
Some Americans reductively think anti-Americanism is a question of envy of America. But it is not true. It is my experience and the opinion of Italians, or French, or Dutch, or Germans, or Danes, that the quality of life in Europe has long been much higher than in an America perennially preoccupied with comfort and ease and its “way of life”. This is not to say that Europeans are not greedy and avaricious for creature comforts. On the contrary. They are. Yet because of social correctors created by the social state—today reeling under the attack by world Capitalism—the poor in Europe are still, apparently, less poor than in America. Can any sane person believe Europe is craving for fast food joints and endless shopping malls and national flags and advertising banners waving everywhere and God on the lips of its fundamentalist leaders? Is this the progress America wants to export and go to war for?
The truth is that thinking and informed Europeans—those capitalists and unelected European Union bureaucrats who want to imitate America’s unfettered, dog-eat-dog capitalism—see an American government that does precious little for its citizens, a land where the word social is taboo. And they understand also that God has nothing to do with it.
Nor is it true, as many Americans might like to think, that Europeans in general want to be like them. Italian emigration to the USA? No more! Italians visit America to see the skyscrapers or visit the Grand Canyon or they go to shop there—everything costs less with European currency since the dollar has been artificially devalued in order to make Europe pay for the wars. But today I personally do not know an Italian who would like to live in America. But I know Americans who would like to live in Italy. Though it is true that a minority of Europeans still hold to America and the former American dream and imitate it, they are not the best of Europeans.
In fact, perhaps never before have the differences between Americans and Continental Europeans been greater. But why? What is it? Why this gulf?
Politics and economics and peace and war apart, I believe it is a question of Americans’ uncertain place in the human race. When I write here Americans, I admit I have in mind white conservative Americans of European heritage of the great American heartland or the great West or the South. And also those who spend much time speaking of tolerance and trying to decide which politically correct label to attach to Blacks and Indians and Latinos—as if “African American” and “Indigenous American” and “Hispanic American” made things right. It is my experience that the majority of these Americans are not on the same wavelength as other people in the world.
‘Oh,’ the accused will gasp and say, ‘how naïve! How anti-American! How narrow-minded! How prejudiced!’ The fact remains that as human beings Latin Americans are on the same wavelength as other people in the world. Russians are. Arabs are. Asians are. Most black Americans and Latinos and Indians are.
So why not the white Americans? Many will be surprised—though they shouldn’t be—to hear that in Europe they are regarded in much the same way they are among the ghettos of blacks and browns in LA or Miami or New York City.
And their government is largely to blame.
Their government, their society, and their lonely culture.
American tourists today sometimes cut a pitiful figure traipsing curiously around Europe, seeing only quaintness and cuteness and condescendingly don the local dress and try to imitate. They make countless digital snapshots but never quite get the real picture. As if living a year in a Tuscan village were bridging the gap. The local people will drink wine with you. They will reach out to you. They will try to love you. They want to be able to feel the real you. To feel that you are like them.
But, I fear, they will never understand you or even grasp why you are there. For many Americans are a people of many emotions and sensations and naiveté but are still embarrassed by feelings.
Even more. Such false relationships are symbolic of the more profound differences, the chasm separating Americans from the rest of the world. How, the European wonders, can a citizen of the leading power of the civilized world support the death penalty? Just think about that one point for a moment. How can you explain legalized state murder to a person who considers it barbarous?
Or, the average European wonders, how can a majority of voters of the land of freedom support a system dedicated to crushing freedom both abroad and at home? How can citizens of the land of democracy vote for a government that sponsors dictatorships around the world and calls them democracy? How can a democratic nation exist in a political system of two-parties, which though they have different points of departure, and even programs, in power are so similar as to form a one-party system? How can a people ready to go to war to export democracy sacrifice its own democracy in the process?
The mystery is why does a majority of Americans who bother to vote sustain a government that fears and hates democracy and its own Constitution as ours does? Why are Americans as chained to their leaders as convicts are chained to their guards? Has that psychological phenomenon known as the Stockholm syndrome become pandemic? How can people tolerate a government that needs a wall around America as Chinese emperors did millennia ago?
Which leads inevitably to the inevitable degeneration of an enduring ideology based on anti-Communism, anti-Socialism, anti-terrorism, all of course with God’s special blessing and protection, straight into Fascism, which, by the way, many observers claim is already in place in God-fearing America.
One might think that Americans are retiring from the world. That they have forgotten the rest of the human species. As if they no longer even had the same weaknesses and strengths of other people. That they stand outside even themselves. Outside, and alone.
People from the former Soviet Union were once like that—when they were let out they saw the rest of the world with astonished eyes.
I have not answered my question. I still do not know if I have posed the question correctly. We Americans want brief and concise answers to clear but highly complex questions. Maybe that in itself is part of my point.
I feel ill at ease writing this. I am uncertain. I am sad. I am not objective. But life is not objective. Life is not accommodation. Life is not concise. Human life cannot be reduced to a few precise sentences. Life is not a short short story.
Yet Americans are different. In a negative sense. My gut feeling is that it is due to a lack of real connections with the rest, their conviction of their invulnerability, their immunity, their Exceptionalism. No wonder the national paranoia. No wonder America’s sense of loneliness.
Hopefully, Americans will begin to search for their lost kinship with the rest. For it will always be true as the English poet John Donne wrote that, “no man is an island, apart from the main.”
Originally published by The Greanville Post.
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as The Greanville Post and Cyrano’s Journal Today European correspondent. A retired journalist, his latest novel is The Fifth Sun (Punto Press). He’s also the author of several other books, including the Europe Trilogy, of which the first two volumes (The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll) have been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.