A Greatness Clouded in Innocence

But I know a place where we can go
That’s still untouched by men
We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass waves in the wind
You can lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

Don Henley, The Age of Innocence

Ever since the phenomenon of Making America Great Again took root with many Americans, I’ve been trying to figure out when, exactly, America was “greater” than it is today, by what definition, and when the decline began.

For the first few years, we were a loosely affiliated collection of former colonies whose primary goal was subjugating or eliminating the indigenous people who were here long before anyone “discovered” America.

We’d fought a war for independence, assisted by the centuries old competition between France and Great Britain, then largely ignored by both. We fought another war with England in 1812-1814 that resulted in no significant territorial changes, contributed to the demise of the Napoleonic era, and yet, on a positive note, started two centuries of a strong partnership with England.

After the War of 1812, we committed on a grander scale what amounted to genocide of Native Americans and, tragically, continued our policy as a slave holding nation unlike most of the western world.

Not much greatness so far.

In 1860, the slavery issue reached a boiling point and plunged us into the most destructive war ever fought in this country. 450,000 Americans died in the war with over a million wounded. But this country was also the site of even more horrendous acts of violence. One almost never mentioned in high school history classes.

Depending on various sources—actual numbers are difficult to determine—somewhere between 10-114 million Native Americans died because of US Government action (note: most historians estimate between 6-11 million deaths during the Holocaust because of actions by the German Government, thus making the Nazi Holocaust the second largest mass murder in history. Let that sink in for a moment.)

Certainly not much greatness here, but at least there was a glimmer of hopeful things to come with the end of slavery. Although the road to freedom traveled the treacherous territory of Jim Crow Laws, the rise of the KKK, and almost universal discrimination against those of African descent. Yet it was a start.

We fought a war with Spain. “Remember the Maine” was the battle cry when the ship exploded in Havana, Cuba Harbor. But unlike the looming attack in Pearl Harbor some years later, questions arose as to the validity of the incident. While initially blamed on a mine or torpedo, and trumpeted by an outraged media deluge, subsequent investigation determined it was more likely a coal bunker fire aboard ship.

As a result of the war, Spain ceded the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the US (which many agree was the entire purpose of the zealous claim of attack even though evidence to the contrary was known to those in command.)

Geopolitics at its best, but I wonder if one can claim that as indices of greatness.

In 1941, the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor and thrust the US actively into the war, although we had been providing matériel to England since the war’s inception.

Here perhaps America took on the mantel of greatness. But the history taught to many of us, me included, gave the impression that the US won the war single-handedly. But if one examines the reality of the war and takes into consideration the number of dead resulting from it, it becomes clear that no one nation was responsible for victory.

History would show it took English Intelligence, American Steel, and Russian Blood to defeat the enemy. We certainly became the dominant power after the war, and if by greatness one uses military might as a measure, no country on earth could challenge us.

Then, with the Marshall Plan, America showed true greatness. Rather than harsh treatment of the Japanese or German people, we tried those responsible for the war and helped rebuild the infrastructure of the defeated countries.

Clearly, we showed signs of how great we could be. Yet the undercurrent of racial discrimination still pulled us down.

We stood firm in Korea against a communist invasion, albeit defending a section of a country arbitrarily divided after World War II, and fought to a stalemate that technically exists today. It would be just prior to this war that President Truman desegrated the military over the objections of many military commanders and public outcry.

It was another glimmer of hope,

In Vietnam, we attempted to recreate the Korean situation, failing to recognize the significant differences between the circumstances. In Korea, there was little local resistance supporting the communist aggression. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong, once known as the Viet Minh, with a long history of resistance to foreign invaders, offered significant military challenges throughout all of Vietnam.

The American military fought with bravery and determination but were left floundering because of the limitations of the US policy on the war (not directly invading the north) and the level of determination by the Viet Cong and their supporters.

Vietnam changed America, for many reasons. Draft deferments for those in college created a chasm between those drafted and sent to Vietnam and those who could avoid it. While significant numbers of those who could avoid service volunteered, there remained a divide within American society. And during this war, simmering racism contributed to tensions among the troops.

On the home front, riots rocked major cities as racial tensions flared.

The 1990s saw the first Iraq War. We liberated Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion and ended the war when it turned into a massacre. Some would argue we should have kept going, but the UN mandate deemed otherwise and we showed great restraint in following it (as we would expect all UN nations to do.)

With 9/11, America was again challenged and rose to the occasion. Afghanistan was both justified and necessary under any measure of international law.

But then the wheels came off with our misadventure into Iraq. Once again, the American military performed flawlessly. While incidents of prisoner mistreatment tarnished our reputation, it was not representative of the overall actions of our men and women in uniform.

Using torture to extract information, however, was more than a blemish. It contradicted everything this country represents. Despite many more rational people calling for abandoning such practice—one that anyone with any common sense will realize is the least effective way of obtaining information—the reality was we as a nation forgot the moral standards we demanded from everyone else because we could.

More has been written in the last few days about some picture on a beer can than about two people shot—one fatally and one seriously wounded—for going to the wrong address or innocently getting into the wrong car.
That is hardly an indication of a great nation.

Joe Broadmeadow

Along with the troubling international escapades came a new antagonism and abandonment of compromise in the political world. We were no longer a people of different opinions working toward a common goal. We demanded absolute loyalty to one perspective and ignored, or actively thwarted, any who disagreed.

If one looks at history just from this perspective, it is difficult to see exactly when America was great and when the decline began.

Yet it is important to remember we also put humans on the moon and made enormous strides in science and medicine. All examples of America’s greatest asset, its people.

What I think our problem has always been is that we forget the details of history, particularly the horrors and tragedy of warfare, and embrace the elements that place us in the best light. Our memory is like an old war movie, devoid of the blood-drenched horrors of lost limbs, horrendous wounds, and the screams of dying soldiers calling for their mother.

In school, much of the history I learned about colonization of the US and the western expansion ignored what amounted to a genocide on a scale that exceeded the Nazi Holocaust.

Not Making America Great

What they taught about slavery amounted to a few Lincoln speeches, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction told in a Cliff Notes manner.

The Civil War brought an end to slavery and replaced it with the shackles of discrimination.

Time and reading more developed studies of history have put things in a better perspective. The Civil Rights Act happened in my lifetime. Brown v Board of Education was only two years before I was born. Integrating Boston schools happened the year I graduated from high school. The last school desegregation case, in Mississippi, happened in 2019. 2019!

One cannot claim to be a great country when such inequality exists. What one can claim is these same examples are signs of our great potential. We have risen to the occasion in times of war. We need to do the same when we can focus on domestic issues.

Now we face another crisis. One of violence, particularly gun violence. It is not just a question of bad people with guns, or simply a mental health issue. It is infinitely more complex than that.

The United States has a murder rate eight times higher than any other of the high-income countries. The rate for murders by guns is twenty-five times higher. (https://publichealth.jhu.edu/departments/health-policy-and-management/research-and-practice/center-for-gun-violence-solutions)

Thus, even if one argues guns don’t kill people, people kill people, people are still dead in the end because of violence. Nobody is better at killing Americans than their fellow Americans, with guns or otherwise. But the comparison to other nations should still shock everyone. We are an inherently violent nation for reasons we refuse to even try to investigate.

We went to war when terrorists killed 3000+ Americans on 9/11. Yet we are willing to ignore the senseless violence within the country that takes almost eight times that number on an annual basis. We wring our hands, wrap ourselves in the Second Amendment like some security blanket, and sigh.

We may learn that placing more controls on who has weapons may not make any difference, or we might discover the opposite is true. But in either case, ignorance just allows this senseless violence to continue. If America seeks to be a great country, wouldn’t determining a solution be a sign of such a goal?

Yet our focus is on matters with little potential for harm to others.

More has been written in the last few days about some picture on a beer can than about two people shot—one fatally and one seriously wounded—for going to the wrong address or innocently getting into the wrong car.

That is hardly an indication of a great nation.

This is a public health crisis of the most significant kind and one which, until we resolve it or at least dedicate ourselves to finding solutions, will forever taint any claim to greatness, past or future. That Congress refuses to even fund research into the fundamental reasons behind the level of violence in such an advanced society is beyond me.

It casts an enormous shadow over any claim to greatness. It is almost as if we don’t want to know the answer.

What we suffer from is a longing for the innocence of our past, albeit a nostalgic past whitewashed of reality. It is time we end the innocence of our ignorance and seek a lasting legacy of greatness that is well within our grasp if we only open our eyes, dig deeper into ourselves, and listen to each other.

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