American Exceptionalism Scars Both Victim and Victimizer

Manicheanism means murder. Amidst the present pandemic, America’s irrationally dyadic global typecasting, and consequent capacity for cruelty, are on unusually flagrant display. Consider this the macabre gift of COVID-catalyzed reality exposure. From Uncle Sam’s escalation of proxy war with – and threats to bomb – Iran, to the maintenance and tightening of an epidemic exacerbating worldwide sanctions regime, and to the Wild West bounty hunter vigilantism of the current Venezuela policy, it is increasingly clear that Washington’s callousness knows few bounds.

Empires in decline behave badly, and the late-stage U.S. model has proved no exception. Such imperiums sabotage themselves, ultimately implode, and drag their people into the abyss. In the end, victimizers, too, become victims. This much, a long dead young female sage once observed; and warned.

A Simone Weil Moment

The great Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our times.” Simone Weil knew something of empire, and of suffering. She was a citizen of the former (France) and philosopher of the latter; a pacifist who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; and a socialist who nearly caused a physical fight by denouncing Stalin’s crimes at a local Communist Party meeting. Her love of humanity and lifelong distrust of patriotic platitudes undoubtedly informed one of her bolder assertions from a 1938 letter:

I suffer more from the humiliations inflicted by my country than from those inflicted upon her.

If her statement was controversial then, during the 1920s French Empire, try and imagine such sentiment from any prominent contemporary American public figure. It is almost unthinkable. In the United States today, far more muted foreign policy criticism is reflexively branded un-American, and – now perhaps an even worse sin – anti-troops. At the very least, true intellectuals are blacked out of the media and public policy space.

For a country that’s been at war on an impressively global scale for nigh on two decades, there’s scant talk of victims here in the US of A. No matter that by a most conservative estimate, at least 300,000 foreign civilians have been killed as a direct result of Washington’s conflicts of choice. The only victims that seem to matter are the folks I knew: American friends and soldiers killed in action during these sundry military adventures. Yet Weil’s wisdom was this: that in war, especially needless war, the suffering of victim and victimizer are conjoined.

This has been the fate of the disturbingly analogous French and American Empires. For all their past and present quibbling – “Freedom Fries” and the entire Iraq War come to mind – most of it amounts to fraternal squabble. Both, more than other modern imperial entities, are defined by their self-styled exceptionalism, and assumptions of culturally superior universalism. There’s no room for victims in such empires, since inside every rebellious Algerian, or Afghan, there’s obviously a Frenchman or American just waiting to be unzipped. Any resultant death, what my former tribe calls “collateral damage,” is but the necessary cost of doing business; naught but the regrettable refuse of necessary means justified by essential ends.

As I’ve previously postulated, exceptionalism lends itself to triumphalism, which eventually manifests as overseas chauvinism. Thus, messianic nations self-imbued with divine missions – see Reagan’s usage of “shining ‘City upon a Hill’” rhetoric – also tend towards menacingly Manichean world views. In practice, especially when wounded, such hegemonic entities turn to (George W.) “Bushianbinaries: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” (Or whomever else draws, for our purposes, America’s ire)

“The real sin of idolatry is always committed on behalf of something similar to the State.”
– Simone Weil,
Prelude to Politics (1943)

Exceptionalism is the Golden calf of empire. The American brand is as old as Anglo-colonialism itself. Still, the grandiose scale and pugnacious flavor has run off the proverbial rails these last decades. It can be reasonably traced to one moment (among many): the other September 11th – in 1990 – on the occasion of President George H.W. Bush’s speech before Congress soon after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, and just before the US embarked on what would become a 30+ year Mesopotamian war. “Out of these troubled times,” predicted the elder Bush, “a new world order can emerge.” That he announced such messianic pomposity eleven years to the day before the terror attacks that led his less savvy son to embark on the current crusade, was just one bit of agonizingly tragic irony.

This declaration of America’s divine, exceptionalist mission – and all the madness that’s followed – would’ve disturbed, and frightened, both Weil and Camus. For when the son set the sins of the father into action, his administration obscenely channeled long-past Athenian power nihilism and implicitly morbid self-righteousness. In the classical Greek historian Thucydides’s telling, when the then ascendant Athenian Empire sent an armada to the neutral island of Melos, the invaders gave the inhabitants a rather Bush the Younger-like, “with us or against us,” ultimatum: side with Athens in the ongoing war with Sparta, or die. Famously, in the Melian Dialogue that followed the islanders’ protests, the arrogant Athenians counseled that, “The strong do what they can and the weak accept what they must.” True enough, apparently, since in the end the Athenians slaughtered all of the island’s men and enslaved the women and children.

Far more rarely quoted, but equally edifying, was the Athenian envoy’s imperious assertion that “your [the Melians] hatred of us is evidence of our power.” If that sounds familiar, one may recall another Bush II aphorism: “they hate us for our freedoms.” That modern American dictum evinces not only poor understanding of Mideast (colonial) History, or paltry philosophy, but a recipe for bloody chauvinistic adventurism. The ends-means justifications that inevitably followed were more or less superfluous once the “terror” problem – and entire world scene – was so peremptorily framed.

Simplistic bifurcation between “friends” (which often include monsters like Saudi Arabia) and “foes” (which include the nuanced, if flawed, Cuba) isn’t so straightforward as Washington would have us believe. Furthermore, through such application, the US falls victim to the very sins – and foundational legends – that sustain even its more distasteful antagonists. In their unthinking devotion to national creation myths, Americans reveal discomforting commonalities with Iranians and Cubans. It is mainly the power, and harm-capacity, mismatch between them that makes the United States so much more dangerous, and thus culpable, today.

Those Ancient Greeks knew well, and imparted through their tragedies, the emotional poverty of facile binaries. They sensed a deeper truth, suffused with nuance. Weil’s fellow French moralist, Albert Camus, described the difference between shallow melodrama and more complex tragedy thus:

Melodrama could be thus summed up by saying: ‘Only one side is just and justifiable,’ while the perfect tragic formula would be: ‘All can be justified, no one is just.’

While hardly a literal formulation in every case – both Weil and Camus threw in with the French Resistance to Nazi occupation – it at least approaches a broader truth distinctly applicable to contemporary American divisiveness. The melodrama of Washington’s “Goodies vs. Baddies” narrative allows space for neither gradations within Iranian, Cuban, or Venezuelan societies, nor honest engagement with the humanity the peoples therein.

In the end, it is not only immediate victims – the unwilling local deceased or damaged souls of their invaders – who suffer endless war. The populace at home, in whose name (how easily we forget) such sins are perpetrated, are equally dehumanized. Their precious “democratic” institutions crumble, the very civil liberties they purport to cherish silently vanish, and collective empathy becomes an impossibility. Before the people know it, Orwell is ascendant and “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery.” Many die, and the humanity of yet another society dissipates, behind the collective mirages of hegemony and national exceptionalism.

Today’s ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which has now killed more than fifteen times as many Americans as the 9/11 attacks – though not, by a long shot, anywhere near the number of its resultant foreign victims – ought to unearth our antagonists’ common humanity. Consider it a sort of Love, In a Time of “Corona.” In the face of modern plague, the rank futility of binary belligerence should be obvious. As such, a nationwide cerebral cartographic remapping is in order. Moral and strategic prudence desperately demand that Washington contemplate the “view from Tehran,” and no less so that from Havana, Caracas, and yes, even Moscow. Otherwise, the current “patriotism” reflex will only kill countless innocents and hasten the republic’s ruination.

“Our patriotism comes straight from the Romans… It is a pagan virtue… It is this idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism.”
– Weil,
Prelude to Politics (1943)

Empire breeds empathy gaps. Its indispensable “enemies” – states and peoples – become “the Other:” easily dehumanized, effortlessly extinguished. Again, the Greeks left this very warning to posterity, some 2000 years before a colonist walked an American shore. Balancing leaders’ illusions regarding “mastery of force,” was, according to Simone Weil, “the main subject of Greek thought…the soul of the epic.” Yet, left, as they usually are, to their power fantasies, imperial overseers are wont to widely apply military “force” that is:

as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is nobody really possesses it.

And so it is today. For, while President Trump inherited rather than founded the American Empire, he, – the ruthless buffoon – his in-house Machiavelli, Secretary Mike Pompeo, and the rest of his core national security advisers, are veritably defined by fanciful make-believe. This administration seeks only to further imprison the populace within exceptionalist mythology and reduce foreign policy to platitude: America is an “indispensable” global “force for good,” to be unconditionally loved, or left!

Self-awareness, the search for understanding – these don’t factor. Americans’ presently preferred flavor of “Pageantry” Patriotism does not lend itself to dispassionate consideration of, or empathy for, opponent’s motivations. The core problem with today’s US Manicheanism – manifested in obsessive demonization of Iran and company – is that it necessarily falls prey to the same inherent defect of America’s previous nemesis (and fixation): Soviet Communism. That is, the dogmatic assurance that a particular nation, or people, can and should interpret and control History, with a big “H.”

If such a state, modern American or former Soviet, invests itself with a divine (or secular, in the latter case) mission for global salvation, its obtuse leaders prove far too amenable to comforting ends-means justification for the violence which always ensues. If God, or agnostic History, is on one’s side, well, all manner of cruelties become permissible. Apologists for Soviet gulags, and rampant political murders, were, in Weil’s time, shockingly ubiquitous.

One prominent, and demonstrative, example was the author Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a former Right-winger turned conviction-of-the-converted Communist. Illustrating the potential scale of murderous justification, he argued that only history, in its unfolding, would “give us the final word as to the legitimacy of a particular instance of violence.” Imagine not just the statement’s self-righteousness, but the amount of evil this concept permits. We have some idea. Merleau-Ponty specifically lent his defense to Stalinism, which, by a rather conservative estimate, was responsible for 6-9 million “foreseeable deaths.”

The far more recent, and characteristically succinct, American expression of this worldview, came from Vice President Dick Cheney. Interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” just five days after the 9/11 terror attacks, he gave preemptive voice – and ready justification – for the sins that followed, through his coy prediction that America would presently “have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.” Moreover, while his boss’s proceeding declaration of a “Global War on Terror” has yet to reach Stalinist levels of death and destruction, the resultant death count, which ranges from a modest 207,000 to a staggering 2.4 million, is nothing to sneeze at. Whether delivered by Cheney or Merleau-Ponty, the sentiment is the same. It holds up neither before God, reason, nor basic decency.

“War reduces humankind to the level of brute slavery… Force turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.”
– Weil, “The
Iliad, or the Poem of Force” (1939)

In a certain sense, the mere existence of the exceptionalist, divine-missioned, state is, by its nature, dehumanizing. The logical end state of national messianism is inevitably eschatological. Innocent lives are snuffed out by their uninvited occupiers, yes, but eventually entire distant societies collapse, until finally empire comes home to make victim of the once victimizer republic. This is the original sin of imperial chauvinism; and it is unforgivable. As Simone presciently postulated, in her Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943):

The needs of a human being are sacred. Their satisfaction cannot be subordinated either to reasons of state, or to any consideration of money, nationality, race, or color.

The only proper, the only ethical, response to the imperial commodification and annihilation of man, is doubt; doubt as rebellion.

In the present age of mass surveillance, mass incarceration, free press suppression, to even doubt, let alone publicly critique, the orthodoxy of American exceptionalism becomes a courageous act. Many who never get to see the inside of a courtroom or cell suffer the lonely indignity of passive social ostracization. This informal disciplinary tool usually suffices to police dissent and engender apathy. And so the door opens for the continuation and escalation of forever war absurdity – to more of the killing and dying done in the name of those silenced or coopted.

In such moments, the more insufferable amongst us often prove the most beautiful. So it was with the ever-questioning Ms. Simone Weil. Here was a woman who drove even “great” men mad. For at just 24, young Simone’s skeptical queries occasioned a loud quarrel in her own flat with none other than that dissident Communist (then) hero of the French Left, Leon Trotsky. “Why do you have doubts about everything?” asked the visibly exasperated Soviet exile.

Dogma had never been Simone’s forte. It is well that this was so, and the sentiment is more needed than ever in contemporary America. The corona-moment demands rejection of manichean national exceptionalism, the pointless suffering it spawns, and the calculated muzzling of dissent. For as Simone reminds us: “Whenever one tries to suppress doubt there is tyranny.”

And so, this piece…is for the doubters.

This originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen