Two Ugly Americans

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It’s fascinating to re-read a book nearly forty years
later. To look back upon historical events through the eyes of someone
on the other side of the process. Today, when we think of Vietnam,
images of helicopters franticly scurrying away from the US embassy
in downtown Saigon come to mind. Boat people braving uncertain seas
and predictably vicious pirates to escape a concealed holocaust.
The killing fields of Cambodia.

American ‘baby boomers’ reflect upon the forced draft anxiety
that overheated our youthful years. Country Joe and the Fish’s Fixin’
to Die Rag was an anthem of sorts:

    And it’s one, two three, what are we fighting for
    Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
    Next stop is Vietnam
    And it’s five, six, seven, open up them pearly gates,
    Ours is not to wonder why,
    I just know I’m gonna die.

the 2004 presidential campaign revealed, resentments over what was
widely seen to be an unnecessary defeat still smolder. For the first
time, the triumphal American saga of winning every war “we” got into
crashed and burned. Pop culture of the 70’s disco era tried to bury
the shame in nihilistic silliness.

An unnecessary defeat. This is one theme of the book
Were Soldiers, Once, and Young
. Political computations relegated
a live war, with American kids bleeding and dying, to the status
of a low budget sideshow, fought to tie, not to win. In the aftermath
of Watergate, a rabidly partisan American congress cut off South
Vietnam’s air supply, violating treaty obligations in order to sever
the lifeline of materiel. The careers of an elite political class
took precedence over the lives and deaths of real human beings,
American and Asian.

An unnecessary defeat. Yet, as the 1958 book The
Ugly American
(William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick) pointed
out, the battle for hearts and minds in southeast Asia was actually
a myriad tiny battles, conversations with people one at a time.
All too often, the Americans were the amateurs, political hacks
who lived well hobnobbing with one another and wealthy locals. Foreign
aid, you recall, is when poor people in rich countries are taxed
to engorge rich people in poor countries. It’s still going on. See
the irate legate’s blog for current
illustrations of this dismal practice.

Ugly American alternates heroes and villains, helpful folks
and pompous buffoons. The “good guys” are those who actually live
with the people, learn their languages, and offer real-world solutions
to grass-roots needs. (Kennedy’s “Peace Corps” pursued this ideal.)
The black hats are the guys in pin stripes, tax-consuming elites
with no regard for the real people sacrificed on the altars of their
massive projects.

Yet, how can poverty be overcome? Can a well-intentioned
philanthropist actually make a difference? A good friend who worked
as an engineer in an Asian country for nearly two decades says “third
world” squalor can be conquered – but it’s a multi-generational
project. The most frustrated students in tropical agriculture schools,
rumor has it, are burned-out Peace Corps volunteers.

OK, so we can’t change the world in three easy steps.
Can we just turn our backs on our world, and go off to create a
new world of our own? The Southern Agrarian writers so beloved of
certain “kinist” and “communitarian” groups thought so.

novel worth considering in this context is Paul Theroux’s The
Mosquito Coast
. Mr. Fixit goes to jungle, gets mugged by
reality, self-destructs. Imagine Swiss
Family Robinson
meets Lord
of the Flies
. The inventions burning in protagonist Allie
Fox’s mind turn fire into ice. He names these emblems of secular
American transformative power “little man” and “fat boy.” As Fox
carves his rigidly secular techno utopia out of the jungle, his
children join local kids to create a secret place of their own,
complete with everything the father hates – play money, a pretend
school and church, indigenous resources. In the end, the godless
superman brings nothing but death to his brave new world.

After wading through nearly 400 pages of vivid description
and gripping psychological narrative, I recommend the
movie by that title
, starring Harrison Ford as Allie Fox. The
film is faithful to the book in plot, characterizations, and atmosphere,
and takes less time.

Once again, this is a story that resonates with people
“of a certain age.” As the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13,
Luke 24) indicates, it’s normal for people to confuse the end of
their world with the end of the world. When America’s
self-image deconstructed in the late 60s, several apocalyptic movements
emerged. Drug-dazed hippies “turned on to Jesus,” dropped out of
school and adult life, and created a plethora of Christian communes.
These bastard hybrids of family and church exploited the inconsistencies
of both, while undermining the ability of the communards to function
as church men, as family men.

On the other extreme, pagan gaeia worshippers went
“back to the land,” seeking to return to the womb of Mother Earth.
Peasantry, subsistence living, acquired an ideological cachet among
the true believers. Very few men wearing Harley Davidson tee shirts
actually own a hawg. Very few subscribers to Mother Earth News
know how much capital and sheer hard work it takes to wrest a living
from the soil. But, the agrarian ideal still holds appeal to those
daunted by the complexities of life. The Y2K craze revealed the
market for this view of life, this desire to see the world around
smashed down to size, in order to provide opportunities for those
who could not excel in the world as it is.

bottom line? History can be warped, but not finally shaped, by the
personal or corporate schemes that self-anointed elites make for
others. Speaking as a Christian, I must assert that what happens
in my house matters more than what happens in the White House. In
a normal home, men and women made in the image of God grow up to
become producers, not parasites. With an independent streak, not
conditioned to bow before Caesar’s bloody altars. Truly creative
thinkers, who will find new resources in the created order around
them, rather than docile pawns of statist “wise men.” As J.R.R.
Tolkein said during his nation’s apocalypse, “No man can estimate
what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis.
All we know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is
that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in
vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout

21, 2005

Smedley [send him mail]
is a technical writer living in the Research Triangle Park area
of North Carolina with his wife and four children. Visit
his web site.

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