Thursday, October 28, 2010

American Exceptionalism -- The More It Changes ...

I'm reading Bruce Cumings's The Korean War: A History (The Modern Library, 2010), and will probably have some more to say about it as I go along. (If I don't get even further behind in my writing than I am already, that is.)

For now, though, I'm struck by the enduring inability of many educated Americans -- not what my RWA1 calls the "yahoos," but, y'know, real people! -- to recognize that people in other countries have interests of their own, just like we do. Cumings quotes several appalling bits from "the respected military editor of The New York Times, Hanson Baldwin," writing during the war.
Somewhat uncomfortable with North Korean indignation about "women and children slain by American bombs," Baldwin went on to say that Koreans must understand that "we do not come merely to bring devastation." Americans must convince "these simple, primitive, and barbaric peoples ... that we -- not the Communists -- are their friends." Now hear the chief counsel for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials, Telford Taylor:
The traditions and practices of warfare in the Orient are not identical with those that have developed in the Occident ... individual lives are not valued so highly in Eastern mores. And it is totally unrealistic of us to expect the individual Korean soldier ... to follow our most elevated precepts of warfare [26].
Bear in mind, first, that when Taylor wrote of "the individual Korean soldier", he meant the individual South Korean soldier more than the individual North soldier. I doubt he meant to exculpate the brutal Commies of their atrocities on the grounds that it was unrealistic to expect them to "follow our most elevated precepts of warfare."

Second, it was not the Koreans but the Americans who leveled the North at Douglas MacArthur's orders. "Soon George Barrett of The New York Times found 'a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war' in a village north of Anyang" [30], in a scene that echoes Pompeii, maybe intentionally:
The inhabitants through throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they held when the napalm struck -- a man about to get on his bicycle, fifty boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue crayoned at Mail Order No. 3,811,294 for a $2.98 "betwitching bed jacket -- coral."
"Secretary of State Dean Acheson wanted censorship authorities notified about this kind of 'sensationalist reporting,' so it could be stopped."

But you know, Americans consider life cheap, as long as it's not American life. Individual lives are not valued so highly in American mores. As a result we can hardly expect the individual American soldier to follow our most elevated precepts of warfare ... You could transpose so much of these stories into contemporary Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and they'd fit all too well.