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August 30, 2005

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The United States involvement in Latin American affairs, with all the death squads and support for out-right fascist parties...it blew my little patriotic mind.

[fools jump in where angels fear to tread.]

My dad was a depression-era kid growing up poor in Illinois and Montana; my mother lived through WWII in France as a young girl. They both believed and still believe that powerful central governments can be tremendous forces for good. Dad said a number of times growing up that FDR literally saved the country.

mom, on the other hand, saw the growth of western european communist parties as a symbol of the rejection of the parties that had lead europe into two world wars. she has always seen american obsession with communism as faintly ridiculous. not that russia and china weren't dangerous adversaries, but the notion that communism per se had to be battled everywhere was kind of silly.

the iranian revolution (which occurred while I was in high school) i saw through the experience of my father who, as the head of the banking department of the outside counsel for Chase Manhattan Bank, was one of the lead negotiators for "the greatest deal" i.e., the swap of frozen iranian assets held by US institutions for the hostages.

that experience, in retrospect, showed me the limits of american power. even without the disaster in the desert, the US voters were not going to tolerate the invasion and occupation of a middle eastern country.

the next key experience, in college and post-college, was the fall of the Soviet Union and the South African apartheid govt. That demonstrated, more than anything, the power of US soft power and the importance of home-grown democratic movements. (and the importance of a few key individuals, like Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Michael Gorbachev, to ensure the transition from totalitarian states to democratic ones.)

Being 49, clearly the Viet Nam war. Its worth emphasizing that the Viet Nam war was lost because of the political decision, from the beginning, to not take the necessary military action to defeat North Viet Nam by invading the country. And if that did not make sense, then the intervention in South Viet Nam did not make sense. Secondarily, the war was lost because of a fundamnetally flawed conception of what the war was about, and that was due largely to domestic politics. It was a civil war waged by communist/nationalists to remove a corrupt post-colonial vestige. Instead, it was cast in "Who Lost China" and Cold War thinking that prevented a proper analysis of the dynamics.

I also studied history and have always been stongly interested in diplomatic and military policy, and a knowledge of the past goes a long way in shaping one's thinking.

This remark in the post is particularly apt:

Lesson: war is always worse than you'd think. Always. No casualty figures begin to hint at either the damage or the long-term poison.

And the poison is not just the psychic damage, but the poisoning of the body politic -- war tends to breed more war, or belligerence if not more war. The current Iraq nonsense is partly the consequence of being flush about the success of the first Gulf War. It now seemed so easy and right to just jump into another war. And since warmongers took office in 2000, that's what we got post 9/11.

Sorry,...my lesson...

Never put anything on a pedestel and worship it. The Calvinst's notion of "human depravity" became very real.

Learning that the United States had done some rotten things, was like finding out my favorite Uncle used to do hits for the Mob.

I still would love him.

sorry...spelling.

"Learning that the United States had done some rotten things, was like finding out my favorite Uncle used to do hits for the Mob."

Whereas as I grew up in a left/Democratic household, where, as I've said before, my mother was a Communist in the Thirties (dropping it more or less in '39), so the fact that the U.S. has about as long a history of slavery, unjust interventions and corporate greed, suppression of unions, and so on, as it does of noble ideals and occasional good deeds and noble crusades, has never in the least been a shock to me. (The Mexican-American War is a good clue even if you ignore slavery.)

Norman Thomas and George Washington, Dorothy Day and Thomas Jefferson, Emma Goldman and Abraham Linocln, Ida Tarbell, Eugene V. Debs, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Kenneth Galbraith, and Reinhold Niebuhr, are all part of my political/intellectual heritage. I was brought up to love America by correcting its flaws as well as celebrating its goodness.

It's kinda easy to over-react if one is greatly shocked, shocked -- by anything.

I agree with just about everything dmbeaster said by the way, although I'd also note that Johnson didn't want to invade North Vietnam over the entirely reasonable concern that this might bring either China or the Soviet Union or both directly into the war, and then where would we be? Johnson wanted to win in South Vietnam, or at least not lose, but not at the price of nuclear war. I have a very low opinion of Johnson's grasp of foreign policy (and a high opinion of his domestic policy and an incredibly low opinion of him as a human being), but he wasn't insane (just very very ignorant and arrogant, and prone to assuming that everyone around the world was just like him and other Americans).

True Confessions: I Voted For Ronald Reagan. In 1984, when I was 13, my mom, seeing me become more interested in politics and world affairs, offered me her vote. She said that if I really thought long and hard, and came to a considered decision, she would go into the booth and vote for whomever I said. It was a neat experiment in civic empowerment I hope to repeat with my kids. It is to my everlasting shame that I told her to vote for Ronald Reagan.

What can I say? I had been a militaristic little kid, obsessed with World War II. I read every history of WWII that my local library had (I'm not kidding, literally scores of books). I used to check out piles of Colby's Guides to Modern Military Weaponry and pore enthusiastically over the black-and-white photographs of 50-caliber machine guns, .45 pistols, and Abrams M1 tanks. When I was 10 or so, I told my dad I wanted to join the Marines.

But my military fervor was strictly of the Sgt. Rock, bloodless-wounds-and-waving-flags variety. For example, we had a large book of WWII photographs from Life Magazine, which covered the entire war. It's a great book, I wish I still had it. Towards the back was a photograph of a U.S. Marine, sitting atop a tank (actually an LVTA) on some godforsaken atoll in the Pacific; I think it must have been Iwo Jima. In the extreme forground was a charred human head, mouth stretched open wide as the skin blackened and shrank, mounted on the front of the tank, presumably the victim of the tank's mounted flamethrower. The picture horrified and disgusted me every time I came across it (which was often; I flipped through the book a lot).

One day, I determined to tear it out, so I wouldn't have to see it again. My dad happened upon me as I was doing it. "What the hell are you doing?" he said. I stammered out some excuse. Dad was having none of it. "Oh, no you don't," he said, picking up the torn-out page and sticking it in my face. "This is war. Okay? This is what it is. It's death. Okay? War is not fun, it's not a game, it's death." My dad was a Republican, and no ex-hippie, but he had nothing but contempt for my cartoon version of America, and my consequence-free, gossamer-thin understanding of the consequences of American power. At the time, I ignored the lesson, and went on killing Japs in my mind.

So, what's the point. The point is that my little bubble really took a shake from the Carter years. Too young to remember anything about Vietnam (I was 4 when the last Americans choppered out), I grew up in an era where nobody wanted to talk about that war, so recently over, the divisions and wounds so fresh. My uncle who fought in Vietnam never talked about it (and still doesn't). So I was free to build my own version of American military dominance in the onanistic boot camp of the library. By the time my eyes were even partially open to what was happening in the world, there were 70 Americans being held captive in Iran, and the best we could come up with was a helicopter crashing into a C-130 at Desert One, our elite troops bailing out without ever reaching Tehran, and the world laughing at our incompetence. "Look at us!" I thought. "We're pussies! How did this happen?"

Enter Ronald Reagan. He was a man tailor-made to feed the childish jingoism of a ten-year-old. Everything was fine, America kicked ass, and anyone who said different was a dirty commie. Oh, and speaking of dirty commies? We're drawing a line in the sand for you fuckers, too. No more detente, rapprochement, or any other pansy-assed Frenchy crap. That shit is over. America rules! (And then they shot him! And he laughed it off! Bullet in the chest, back to work in a week! This guy was amazing!)

My perceptions changed rather quickly after that election, as the fetid cancerous sore of Iran-Contra got pried open. Once I fully grasped what they had done, how they had lied, and broken the law, and supported butchers, thugs, and midnight kidnappers, not just in Nicaragua but throughout Central America, all justified by Reagan's stupid "15 minutes from Managua by helicopter" invasion scenario, I was no longer a believer, and I hated Oliver North like poison, lying his head off to Congress and getting lionized for his perjury. By the time I read the Tower report (one of maybe five people in the country who actually read it, I think) I knew all I needed to know about Reagan and his crew of violent fanatics and fixers. To this day I will argue that Iran-Contra was and remains by far the most serious presidential scandal in American history. It wasn't about money, it wasn't even about winning elections; it was about avoiding the constitutional restrictions on executive power, restrictions that are fundamental to our existence as a free nation. Saint Reagan's boys were so lost in self-righteousness that they felt above the law.

In any case, mine was a political conversion like any other, and it stuck, hard. I have Reagan to blame for both my period of jingoism and my current leftism, to be honest. Whatever else you want to say about him, 1980 was a hinge point in US history, for good or ill. But, in answer to your question, Iran-Contra.

Oh, and Bush I was up to his neck in it, I don't care what loop he says he was out of.

Hmm. I just noticed about five instances of posting-rules-violating language in there. Sorry about that, I usually catch those before I post. In real life, I am a profane sod, and I apologize for my lack of self-censorship.

st: you and I must then be two of the five people who read the Tower report. (What do you want to bet the other three turn up on this thread?)

I desperately wanted to be on Oliver North's jury, since they were looking for people who hadn't seen his congressional testimony, and I, having watched most of the earlier hearings, had been out of the country. But I was in the wrong jurisdiction, alas.

I was completely amazed by how unseriously Iran-Contra was taken, since I agree with you that it was about fundamental Constitutional issues. I had always thought that the denouement of the Watergate scandal was a moment for us, as a nation, to be proud of: the system working, much as I wished it hadn't had to. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone would think of it as a trauma never to be repeated.

For me it's the same as for Neodude--a "beloved" all-American President could support death squads and genocidal killers and never be called to account for it, then or later. Not terribly shocking, really, as Gary points out. One should expect this and yeah, it does tie in with a Calvinistic view of human nature. But it was still viscerally disgusting to see people admiring a man like that, and when I hear pundits moralize about the Muslim world's need to be more self-critical on the flaws in their societies that lead to terrorism, I feel the urge to puke.

I'm a little older than Hilzoy and have a background a less intellectual, but our lives have many similarities. My defining moments and events are pretty much the same (exclusive of the trip to Isreal)as hers, as are the lessons, though Hilzoy articulated them much better than I ever could, of course.
My dad was a college professor and my mom was a politician. They were Unitarians and very active in what they considered good causes: boycotting grapes, buying pecans from former sharecroppers, maintaining memberships in everything from the ACLU to Zero Population Growth. One of my early memories is stuffing envelopes for LBJ because he was for the Civil Rights act and Goldwater wasn't. Or something like that--I was in elementary school. One of my lessons is that a persons's values can see seen in how they spend their money and their energy, not in what they say. This isn't foreign policy exactly, except that I think our nation's values are also demonstrated by how we spend our money and our energy, not our rhetoric. So I tend to see foreign policy in moral terms, or as a reflection on our national character, putting me kind of in that idealistic Carter/Bush camp mentioned by Sebastian.
However the Unitarian upbringing,combined with my dad's chemistry professor rationality, taught me to be skeptical of idealists. Even though I took part in anti-war activites during the VietNam years all that peace-love stuff made me cringe. The war was a mistake and it was important to say so, but any sensible messages about the war got lost in all that stuff about hair, clothes, altenative religion, pot etc. It became impossible to just oppose the war or talk about another approach to foreign policy; one had to buy the whole package, love beads and all. My lesson is, when trying to influence foreign policy, stick to definable, obtainable goals and communicate in the language of your audience. Don't try to change the whole culture or create a new culture all at once and don't go around pissing people off unnecessarily.

The mention of Watergate upthread reminded me of another lesson, one that I may have to unlearn: I believed in happy endings. I believed that the bad guys got discredited. I keep waiting for Rove to go on trial, for Bush to be impeached...

Very interesting question. I don't really have an answer, but I'll give it a shot.

Vietnam, but I can't isolate many conclusions from it, except this, because I have lived abroad, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and traveled extensively afterwards, during the late 70's Marcos years: that poverty in other countries is mind-boggling; further, that extraordinarily poor people can be the most generous and happy people ever; further, that a few extraordinarily poor people, once educated, can become extraordinarily ready to climb out of poverty one of two ways, in a hurry. The first is the Horatio Alger path, which works to various degrees for some (what did you need to do for Marcos?) and is just fine with me, when it's good. The other is to become extraordinarily pissed off and disappear into the jungle with explosives and bitterness and reappear occasionally to apply a little misguided justice here and there. Both of these cases are in the minority; most folks just grind it out in short lives, making a little wicked alcohol from whatever they can and roasting the occasional non-judgemental dog to find a little comfort.

Lesson: none; just an observation.

Something else: There were, of course, a wide spectrum of Peace Corps Volunteers; usually only half made it through the two years and beyond. But if I could divide the group into two types, here they would be:

The first: Extraordinarily competent, go-get--um Americans, ruthlessly goal-oriented, full of solutions, earnest to a fault, ready to give their precious expertise. Most, not all, of these folks left early; pissed off, convinced their clients weren't worthy of what they had to give; embittered that there were endless mysterious delays in say, getting that simple water pump installed, when by God in Ypsilanti we make things happen, now, dammit.

The next morning, their motorcycles didn't start because during the night someone had put some sugar in the gas tank.

Type 2: more or less me, though I don't typecast well. Didn't accomplish much in the swaggering American sense. But learned some or a lot of the language. Drank a lot of beer. Wanted nothing but a little time on the beach and maybe a lot of exploration of the country. Found the women under the mysteriously whispering palm trees a little too captivating. Drank a lot more beer with the men in the barrio.

On the next to last night in country, maybe somebody leans in drunk and slurs the question: Is there any way you could get us a new water pump? Well no, not me, I'm off to wherever tomorrow, but let me request a new volunteer for this barrio before I leave. Motercycle starts great the next morning.

Lesson: I don't know. Graham Greene writes about Americans abroad a little more pointedly than I, but give him a read.

Let me put it this way. Say communist insurgents come down out of the mountains and take the barrio hostage. Say there are two P.C. volunteers in the barrio, one roughly Type I and one roughly Type II. Which one, if either, stands the best chance of being hidden by the folks in the barrio and not taken into the mountains for a little malarial, dysentery-ridden re-education?

Well, probably neither. But drinking all that beer can protect a guy against whatever bug might have crawled up his butt.

So, I look askance, in a realpolitik sort of way, at my immaculately earnest countryman and their exquisite goodness in Iraq.

But, what do I know?

In retrospect? Watching the assassination of Ninoy Aquino (as close to live as possible) when I was five or six was probably one of my formative experiences, not just because of the obvious -- the good guys are mortal, the bad guys can laugh it off and all -- but because of the way that the US, which I loved dearly as a moral beacon of righteousness, seemed utterly unconcerned with standing up for the good against the bad. That's my earliest awareness of such a concept, at least, although it didn't resonate in that way at the time.

The second one ought to be Tiananmen Square but, to be honest, I don't think it made much of an impact on my political awareness. At least, I don't recall having changed my views much afterwards, except to loathe the cravenness with which we lick-spittled our way back to giving China MFN status.

John: I have always found that if one wants to help people, a good way to start is by completely disabusing oneself of any views about the form help will take, the appropriate reaction of the helpees, their likely resemblance or lack thereof to people in Ypsilanti, and so forth. Your first volunteer makes me shudder, but I also always wanted to get the pump installed.

Anarch: what ought to have been one of my formative experiences, but wasn't, was the assassination of JFK. All I remember is going to a memorial service in a church, and being puzzled that there was no singing, which I had heard people did in church, and asking my Mom, loudly why there was no singing, and when the singing was going to start, and not understanding why I wasn't supposed to talk, and us having as a result to leave.

"st: you and I must then be two of the five people who read the Tower report. (What do you want to bet the other three turn up on this thread?)"

Really, it was quite a few more; I have plenty of friends I talked about it with. Plenty of online discussion, too.

As the child of a Canadian atheistic libertarian and a Mormon sentimentalist who grew up in Berkeley, my political upbringing usually consisted of "they're being stupid, but keep your head down."

At 12 or so, I saw my friends mobilize against the 1st Gulf war. My dad, an oilman and a product of the English Commonwealth educational system, was of the opinion that since the boundaries were so arbitrary and recent, it wasn't really worth going to war over.

Strangely, the first political conflict that really affected my life was the Quebequois referendum on sovereignity in, what was it, 1995? My folks were totally against going into debt for undergraduate education, and I was trying to get out of California, so I applied to and got into McGill in Montreal. I didn't end up going there, in part because of the dire warnings about anti-anglo sentiment should the referendum succeed, in part because McGill seemed indifferent to the concerns of incoming students.

When in my freshman year at UCSD I couldn't find anyone to care that Canada remained a single entity, I was appalled.

My political upbringing has encouraged me to learn about international affairs and to be skeptical of official accounts, but my folks have always tended to keep their heads down, and I've inherited that tradition. I have attended anti-Iraq-war rallies, to their tut-tutting, but then I've tended towards anonymity in my dissent.

Formative experiences, eh?

I loved history and maps when I was a kid, and I used to entertain myself by reading historical atlases and tracking the movement of the lines on the maps. But I thought of these things as something in the past, and current events or politics didn't interest me at all.

I was 15 when the Berlin Wall fell and I suddenly awoke to the fact that history was something happening right now, and that the lines on the maps were going to change again.

The big lesson that I took away from the events of 1989 was the triumph of freedom over tyranny. (Of course, Tiananmen Square should have taught me that such triumphs are not inevitable, but I was an excessive optimist at the time).

Another formative event for me was the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the anti-Vietnam. A quick and relatively bloodless demonstration of the efficacy of American military power.

Both of these probably informed a lot of my support for the war in Iraq. Needless to say, the bungling of the occupation and the very real possibility that Iraq will fall back into tyranny of either a neo-Saddam or Islamists have cured me of any remaining excessive optimism.

actually, I was worried the other day when it occurred to me that Gary Farber, hilzoy and I might all have been at the same Vietnam march on the DC mall.

That's the start of an answer to "what F.P. experiences formed my outlook".

Formative *domestic* experiences? Watching a parade of Democrats on the Hill tank their careers by chasing after strippers, pocketing small change, and taking bribes. And watching Watergate, then Iran-Contra. (Growing up in D.C. I watched the Watergate debacle unravel in real time--used to read Jack Anderson every day, and always thought of Woodward and Bernstein as the Johnny-come-latelies to that story.)

This upbringing left me with the impression that Democratic scandals and Republican scandals run true to type, nine out of ten times: Democrats are low-class good-for-nothings who just want to line their own pockets or sleep around. Republicans are high-class types who have all the money they need. They just want to trample on the Constitution in order to assume dictatorial powers, that's all.

I still have a lot of respect for Gerald Ford, though. At a bad time in our nation's history, an organization man stuck with the system, and showed his own basic decency as well as the resilience of the system itself.

Tad: nah, went to demonstrations in the Boston area, at least as a kid. (My parents took me to see one with the cast of Hair, which I was very excited about. Then there was going to be a march, and I wanted to go, but my Dad said no, it would be violent. It was. I was awed that he knew in advance; I kept wondering: how did he do that?)

I'll be 47 in six weeks, so that puts me right in the mainstream of Viet Nam coming to a head as I became aware of it. It was never a good idea at any time I was aware of it. I was against it as a 10 year old, far ahead of either parents or older brother. We had a small cabin on a lake about 2 hours west of twon, in Texas where I grew up. For about the last half hour, the mostly vacant scrub was dotted with helicopter bases, satellites of a bigger helicopter facility down by Mineral Wells. I saw a lot of Hueys on summer days and nights, and plenty of soldiers training. They'd given the little landing areas Vietnamese names. It looked to me like a real effort was being made.

I won't say I was obsessed with WWII, but it was certainly a larger presence in my life, than anything similar is in the life of my children. We had Rat Patrol on TV, and certainly a string of WWII movies -- Tobruk, Guns of Navarone, Longest Day, Kwai, etc. etc -- on network TV nearly every month or so. I built model airplanes, like most everyone I knew. My grandfather, an Army general in my youth, had been in it, going across France with Patton, and I got pretty far with the faith in American arms from that. My mom's brother was in the AF, and did 3 tours in VN. He was fairly recently back when his son, who's a month and a day older than me, and I rummaged through our grandfather's memorabilia. I was shocked to find not only an iron cross, but the certificate that came with it. Obvious booty, and of a character that didn't reflect too favorably. But war is full of uglinesses large and small. But as a boy, the planes, Gregory Peck,

Twelve years later, I was engaged to a German, and learning the family stories from the other side. Ordinary folks in a country village, chewed up and spit out by a machine.

As a high school senior, I did a long report, and hour long presentation to the class, on the Kurds -- who'd recently been sold down the river by Kissinger. The other kids thought it pretty funny that people were called Kurds. (This was in California -- surely the most insular people in America, and I say that having moved there from Texas). But the story was tragic, and embarrassing enough, that I'd guess that some of my classmates remembered it 25 years later when the Kurds came back into American view.

One last thing: the movie QBVII really struck me.

hilzoy--
well, *that's* a relief. For some reason I thought you two had both mentioned being at the Moratorium march. (Maybe there were plural of that name? Maybe it was a franchise with outlets in major cities?)

On second thought, the most important political experience I felt growing up was my Yukon grandfather's decision to distribute his inheritance before his death in order to avoid taxes. I was about 14 when this started.

It's been a mixed blessing. I've been able to do many things without going into debt. But then everything I've done has seemed inadequate to my grandad's suggestion that we buy houses.

Instead of buying a house, I've invested Grandad's money. Oh, I've tapped into it, and every time, I feel like a traitor. For me, this money is practically sacred: my grandad snow-shoed up mountains to earn this money.

Having some money that I felt obligated to invest at fairly early age, I became interested in social and environmental filters in mutual funds. I recognized that I was one of those investors who couldn't be bothered to keep track of market events, yet I didn't want to give control of my money to just anyone.

That was then I realized how chaos could insue from simply inattentive sources.

Sgt Rock was cool.

The Haunted Tank and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes….way cool.

Tad: we observed the Moratorium in Boston too. (It was on Moratorium Day that I went to hand out leaflets in Belmont center, Belmont MA, and had the Korean vet tell me that he supported whatever his country did. And on the same day that my friend's Dad drove me home, asked how it had been, and I said it was fun and I hoped there would be another Moratorium Day, and he looked at me grimly and said: Hilary, we hope there won't have to be another Moratorium Day. And I was so ashamed.)

Hilzoy:

"... but I also always wanted to get the pump installed."

Well, sure you did. And you probably would have. :)

I'm just saying that it's harder, and easier, than most Americans think.

since there are so many folks out there who remember Vietnam--were you as flabbergasted as I was in '95, to realize that the Vietnam war was now as far back in the past, as WWII had been in '65? I mean, as a kid WWII was solidly a part of *history*. It had happened *forever* ago. Vietnam was *current events*--and still seemed current even in '95.

Now the Vietnam war is as far in the past as WWII was in '75. Impossible--how can that be?

Clearly part of the answer is: I'm getting old.

But is there perhaps some *objective* disparity between the two cases? I.e., was WWII somehow more quickly set in stone, memorialized in an agreed-upon, fixed story that allowed it to become history? Was Vietnam, by contrast, never allowed to settle--still to this day a matter of dispute, giving up varying and starkly opposite lessons?

Is it just possible that WWII really *was* more of an old story in '75, than Vietnam is now?

(Related time-capsule thought: I remember seeing recently a list of the ten most popular TV shows during some year in the middle sixties. Seven of them were Cowboy Westerns. Not even really something we think of as a *genre* any more, much less something dominating the air-waves).

You young 'uns can just ignore all this--just us old folks enjoying a nice chat about old times.

On the war booty side, though, I have to confess: several years ago, I was driving to Florida, and as a way to break up the monotony of I-95, went through Augusta. Popped in at Ft. Gordon, which has in its museum a collection of my grandfather's things, and some from his father (also a general). I picked up a Toledo-made cavalry sword my great-grandfather is said to have "liberated" as a young pfc from a Moro rider during the Philipine Pacification. I swung it over my head, somewhat recklessly, and have to say I'd have liked the chance to do so on horseback.

On the more licit side, an early formative experience is my grandmother showing me the medal her father had been given by the empress of China, for his Army service there during the Boxer rebellion. (There's a bit more to US Army involvement there than the Charlton Heston movie lets on -- Herbert Hoover's first great public policy triumph was in connection with this). The medal is large, and quite elaborate. The http://www.pcug.org.au/~phodge/Double%20Dragon.htm>Order of the Double Dragon. As I learned it young, we'd done a Good Thing, more or less, but he had done Very Well: after 65 years, the individual acheivement far outran the group acheivement, as one would expect for a soldier's daughter.

For me, as for others, Vietnam was my "politicizing" event, but from a slightly different angle than those mentioned so far. I grew up as something of an apolitical internationalist, a truly odd combination, now that I think of it. My parents were from different countries (US/Canada - not enormously different, but sufficient to undercut most "only in America" claims), and had been missionaries in China, of the sort who focussed _entirely_ on spreading God's Word (as they understood it), virtually ignoring politics. They had been married in Japanese-occupied China, and years later the Communists forced them to leave China, so they had little regard for either the Japanese or Communists, but they just weren't political; at the dinner table we talked religion, education, arts, even sports, but never foreign affairs. But I learned where many countries (especially in Asia) were, and that the _peoples_ were worthy of God's love, and therefore our respect; we didn't discuss the governments.

So I grew up in Cold War California absorbing much of the general anti-Red rhetoric without really thinking much about it. When the VN war came along, I read the State Department White Paper (1965) and it made sense to me; to my embarrassment (now), I actually defended US policy publicly, on more than one occasion. (I was in the UK at the time, which curiously shielded me from much of the debate taking place back home in the US. I mean some Brits were criticizing the war, but they weren't Americans, so their comments didn't fully register.)

Then I got drafted, and because I had thought so little about it I didn't have a strategy for avoiding service. I wasn't against the war, though I was beginning to have doubts. I just knew I didn't want to be in it (no hero, me!) and that wasn't sufficient to get me out.

So I was in the Army for two years, and by a little finagling managed not to go to Vietnam. And during these two years I became, oddly, more and more anti-war. In part this was because I was now reading much more about the war (with the desperate urgency of someone who might soon Be There), and there was more critical material to read; the government no longer dominated the public debate.

But equally important for me was just the experience of being in the military and realizing how screwed-up it was at the time. Long story short, _everyone_ I knew in the Army was _lying_ about _everything_ (my first job as a clerk was inventing the minutes for a meeting that had never taken place), because this was necessary to keep the whole structure going. And in Fort Dix this did no great harm, but I kept thinking: how in hell can we trust what the Army is telling us about Vietnam, when they're lying about New Jersey? (This is by no means to suggest all of the officers were liars, though some, like Westmoreland, clearly were. But when all the information coming up to you from below has been warped to fit what they think are your expectations, and when whatever you pass upward may be warped yet again to fit someone else's bureaucratic or political agenda, individual honesty doesn't count for much. This insight helped me greatly later in analyzing Spanish colonialism in the 19th-century Philippines: the realization that in every bureaucratic document the *primary* purpose is never to tell the truth, but to Cover Your Ass.)

I got out of the army convinced that the war was unwinnable, and therefore immoral. (I wasn't convinced then that it would have been wrong if we _could_ have won, but that was a moot point by December 1969.) There my politicization plateaued [sp?] for a couple of years while I wrote my dissertation. But when I started teaching, especially courses on the Vietnam War (which was in my bailiwick) it all came together. I could see then, as I do now, US imperialism, past and present, as being not essentially different from other imperialisms (American Exceptionalism simply made no sense, and could only be spouted by those who knew no *non*-American history), and subject to the same criticisms.

That was about 30 years ago - just as our direct role in Vietnam was ending, ironically - and although ongoing events and increasing age (and therefore wisdom!) have modified my views since, there has been no major reorientation. What I learned from Vietnam has, alas, proved all too reliable a guide to interpreting US foreign policy since, up to and including Iraq. The arguments we're hearing now that, OK, maybe we shouldn't have gone in, but now that we're there we must stay the course are almost _exactly_ what a lot of "liberal" Americans were saying in 1965-70, and what I myself believed far too long.

We have learned nothing. Makes me wonder sometime why I teach history, since its lessons always fall on stony ground. Then I remember. They pay me.


"actually, I was worried the other day when it occurred to me that Gary Farber, hilzoy and I might all have been at the same Vietnam march on the DC mall."

Well, there were about 250,000 people there -- which is certainly the way I remember it vividly -- and as I said, I was only ten years old, so it's probably okay if we don't remember stumbling past each other. :-)

How incredibly nice everyone was to one another was one of my most vivid impressions. Everyone was helping everyone out, and inquiring if you were okay, and would you like some of this water?, and so on.

I also remember a number of Civil Rights marches in Manhattan at earlier ages, and being held aloft on my father's shoulders so I could see the sea of people down the Avenue, and remember it. And so I do.

dr ngo: They don't always fall on stony ground. Another of my formative experiences (I seem to have had a lot of them, on reflection) was reading Thucydides, which was assigned, and which hit me like a revelation. Reading it was just an enormous, huge experience, and without history teachers, it would never have happened.

"How incredibly nice everyone was to one another was one of my most vivid impressions."

Of course, also the tear gas.

Not to mention, now that I think of it, the fact that when I was in 9th grade, and my poor school was trying to figure out what on earth to do with me, they hit on the idea of letting me do independent studies for about half my coursework, including history. And I spent about half a term reading the Nazi Germany section of Widener Library, and then writing a long (!) report on it, for my intellectually rigorous but also indulgent (as to topics) teacher. That was also hugely important to me: I really wanted to understand it, but the more time I spent reading things like the handbook for the HitlerJugend, let alone Mein Kampf, the less comprehensible it all became.

Tad Brennan:

Yes, we blinked and here we are.

I think often about the fact that the time elapsed since I first heard the Beatles hit the mikes with the sonic excitement of "She Loves You" was 41-42 years ago, in 1963-64.

Forty-one or forty-two years before that Al Jolson was still 5 years from saying "you ain't heard nothing yet" in "The Jazz Singer."

Forty-one or forty-two years before that, Thomas Edison was scratching his head over the phonograph.

Forty years from now, I should have my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs finally memorized on guitar.

But I won't have finished all the reading I need to do.

But, I don't want to talk about this anymore.

"(Maybe there were plural of that name? Maybe it was a franchise with outlets in major cities?)"

Click the link I gave (which includes a short BBC streaming video report from the day); the Moratorium was a national event with local events all over, by the primary one was the ~250,000 D.C. one.

Wrote a long thing that was probably bs and erased it. "Our Town" my domestic policy, "Skin of Our Teeth" my foreign policy. The ending lines of "V" the only wisdom I know.

If I am gonna bs I should be terse.

bob mcmanus--

no, no--with that attitude you could shut down the thread--many threads. Tell us the long version!

This is an interesting thread. I'm sure you won't be surprised to find that my formative foreign policy experiences come from a different era. My parents were Democrats who felt betrayed by Roe v. Wade and were horrifyed by Carter. I distinctly remember all sorts of conversations among their friends (they were the leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ at Davis and continued to be involved in the group for almost a decade after I was born) where they were horrified by Carter's inability to see and deal with evil in the world. But those were really my parent's experiences sort of picked up by me on the side. I grew up in the Reagan years, but like the Carter years, I experienced those mostly on my parent's terms.

The first foreign policy that I experienced on my own terms was Tiananmen Square. It crystalized on an emotional level the evils of communism which I already understood on an intellectual level. The helplessness of the world watching struck me as particularly sad. I unfortunately had a communist sympathizer for a social studies teacher at the time (and I mean that in a completely unexaggerated sense of the word 'sympathizer'). He made a point of explaining to us that China was a very different place than the US, and in order to avoid the evils of capitalism it had to do things which seemed harsh to outsiders. (I have had really bad luck with some of my teachers) I though his analysis was completely disgusting and I thought his defense of Communism knowing what I knew about the Soviet Union was sick. (I had to take another class from him in my senior year--IB History of the Americas, that was deeply unpleasant when taught from the Communist apologetics point of view too.) In retrospect I see that he was just an idiot, but at the time I saw this teacher as a representative of a deeply self-deluded intellectual class.

So in many ways the formation of my political identity followed that of a leftist feeling alienated by (to me) a powerful authority figure, but the direction was rightward because he was so far left.

The lesson I took away from the Square was that evil is ruthless, and that often times it cannot be stopped--so you should act while you can--before it grows to strong.

Sebastian: if you enroll at Hopkins, I will do my best to make up for your various teachers. I promise.

According to the Times-Picayune, on a link via Josh Marshall, as we speak there are a large group of looters storming a Children's Hospital. Though called by nurses, Police and National Guard will not or cannot go the rescue.

I am not feeling talkative.

I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like any of my teachers. I had an excellent literature professor (Kathryn Shevelow) who was a staunch feminist in the sense of wanting to explore equal rights but was not a man-hater or patriarchy-blamer. Her class discussions on both the male and female Shellys were amazing. Her teaching of Clarissa as an excellent example of how someone could feel trapped by society was great. Her examination of restoration plays was fun. She really showed me that feminism could be about empowerment without tearing men down.

I too was in Washington in October 1969, but as a serving member of the US Armed Forces, was under orders not to attend the Moratorium. On the other hand, we had friends from Ann Arbor who came down for the Moratorium and slept on our couch ...

We all do what we can.

Dang. I awoke at 2 in the morning to the sound of cats fighting and a nagging feeling of self-indulgence for using the p-word. Terribly adolescent--I must adjust the setting of my sense of embarrassment so it kicks in before I say something stupid, not three hours later.

Looking over this thread, many of you folks have had much more interesting lives than I have, I must say. Even Sebastian's classroom road to Damascus experience is more interesting than mine--I've never had a teacher with an overt political agenda of any sort. Time to go back to sleep, but I'll put in the time stamp manually--it's 2:41 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.

Formative political experiences: the sense of isolation entailed by supporting Walter Mondale, during that time when the country just fell in love with being Republican. And a second sense of isolation from being told, more or less by all sectors of authority throughout childhood, that integration to American society would have been assimilation, betrayal, and defeat.

That was also hugely important to me: I really wanted to understand it, but the more time I spent reading things like the handbook for the HitlerJugend, let alone Mein Kampf, the less comprehensible it all became.

That's funny; the more I read of Mein Kampf, the more sense it all made to me. Partly, I think, because it was manifestly subrational and therefore oddly freeing: to analyze the allure of Nazism with the crude tools of "logic" and "reason" was to completely and fundamentally miss the point. Sociopolitics as primal scream.

My first memories of politics were local -- for good or bad, Frank Rizzo remains a larger than life figure in Philly, 25 years after he last held office. My parents, as public school teachers, were strongly against his actions as mayor (details supplied upon request, but it is way off topic). Although I had handed out campaign leaflets in the neighborhood in 1972, it wasn't until Rizzo attempted to change the City Charter in 1977 to permit a 3rd term that I became interested in politics.

Carter's failings as president seemed to bounce off me, and it wasn't until the Iran-contra hearings (background noise during my studying for the bar exam) that foreign affairs interested me. I agree with the comments above -- it should have had a far bigger effect on our politics than it did.

to analyze the allure of Nazism with the crude tools of "logic" and "reason" was to completely and fundamentally miss the point

... and to completely and fundamentally split the infinitive. ;}

Well, not that I think my insights are terribly interesting, or that I post that much, but it seems like I'm younger than most of the people who've posted, so they're different.

Vietnam is just a word to me. I know ABOUT it, but most of it's come from politicians arguing over it, or movies like Forrest Gump and Full Metal Jacket and so on. The Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square happened when I was 9. The first time I can remember considering politics was when Bush Sr. was running against Dukakis, I was 8, and my logic there went along the lines of "Bush was vice-president, he knows what it's like to be president." Yeah, I wasn't really a political kid.

So most of I've been paying attention for was in the Bush I and Clinton years. I remember coming home and turning on the TV, and hearing that we'd invaded (re-invaded?) Kuwait. It seemed exciting at the time, and an example of the US kicking ass for a good cause. It wasn't until much later that I found out about the uprisings we supported, but not enough to send in, y'know, troops.

During the Clinton years, everything was overshadowed by the whole impeachment gobbledygook, but I was impressed most of all by the differences we could make with economic power, rather than just bombing things. I had a couple of good history teachers, and read a lot, but most of my interest was on domestic politics because that seemed more likely to affect me. Most of what I got from foreign policy then was since we have the power, we should be doing good with it, and it's important to know what you're doing and do it right. And it'd seemed like we'd stopped doing many of the worst ones (training terrorist death squads, trading drugs for guns for other terrorists, etc.

Which really means, even though I'm 25 now, that 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq now are some of my formative experiences. I don't know what I can say about 9/11, because it was so big and so politicized it's hard to think about straight. The invastion of Iraq motivated me to go to anti-war protests in DC, even being fairly sure at the time they were futile, but not trusting Bush and co to do it right, along with the lies. Seeing Afghanistan "won" and then abandoned for the buildup for Iraq, instead of finishing the job.

So I don't know that I have anything coherent, but these ARE formative foreign policy experiences for a lot of us.

"... and to completely and fundamentally split the infinitive. ;}"

And since you're not writing in Latin, that's just fine, you know.

Nate:
"...but it seems like I'm younger than most of the people who've posted. ...

Just so we're clear on this, I'm very immature for my age. I try to combine Merlin's gift of living life backwards with Peter Pan's leap of faith out the nursery window.

And, your offering is more coherent and interesting than you might believe.

"Just so we're clear on this, I'm very immature for my age."

I, myself, like to think I'm somewhat child-like, but likely I'm just childish.

My formative experience was Vietnam, seen from the point of view of a potential draftee during my middle teens. I had grown up a child of liberal Republican parents, and I naturally assumed their political outlook as a child. I supported the war in the mid-60s. At 14, I went away to a private boarding school and heard William Sloane Coffin speak against the war. What changed my mind were the photographs he brought. Black and white images of napalm victims. Children. I remembered this during the brouhaha about torture photos. Photographs were what changed my mind on Vietnam. This was in 1966.

So, with the draft coming up in a few years, I delved into the subject, both in my spare time and for a history paper. Current events did not count as history, my teacher said, but the battle of Dien Bien Phu was OK. (Got a C: I was and am more of a math guy than a word-spinner.)

But it was clear to me that we had backed the wrong side in that war, due to an obsessive focus on Communism as the only real evil in the world -- not recognizing that, say, European colonialism also had its evils. So ever since, I have been skeptical of black/white views of the world, and of any kind of rush to war. I was conflicted about Afghanistan at first, wondering how, having been so blind-sided by 9/11, we still knew almost immediately who had done it. I thought an Iraq invasion was a lunatic idea from the day I first heard of it, and have seen no reason since to change my mind. (I thought this was a joke. I still have it on my refrigerator.)

I had two formative experiences, growing up in a liberal white South African family in the 1970s. Oddly enough, the Soweto uprising passed me by completely, or almost completely, and I wouldn't call the Army a formative experience (more de-formative).

One was walking back from a very mild and decorous protest in the early 1980s at the University of Cape Town; the protest was against the police detention without trial of a member of the Students' Representative Council, one whom I knew vaguely from when I'd been very loosely involved in student politics. I suddenly saw a truckload of armed riot police in a parking-lot and realised that the riot squad could quite easily have been used against the demonstration, and that made me think about which side I was really going to be on.

About two years later, in March 1985, about 20 people were shot down by the police in a black township in the Eastern Cape, a long way away from home, but it was fairly celebrated because it had happened on the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre. I went to the local liberal political party, the Progressive Federal Party, asking them what they could do about it, and they basically said that there was nothing they could do.

It helped clear up political perspectives very much, though I admit that it took years to understand that there were bad guys on my own side, too, and also that setting fire to beer trucks was not the royal road the liberation.

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Dissertation

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