Page 1 of 2

Whose Century Was That?

The central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil—but there are problems with this triumphal storyline.

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 11:17 AM PDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Imagine if, on the day in early April when Jiverly Voong walked into the American Civic Association Building in Binghamton, New York, and gunned down 13 people, you read this headline in the news: "Binghamton in shock as police investigate what some critics call 'mass murder.'" If American newspapers, as well as the TV and radio news were to adopt that as a form, we would, of course, find it absurd. Until proven guilty, a man with a gun may be called "a suspect," but we know mass murder when we see it. And yet, in one of the Bush administration's lingering linguistic triumphs, even as information on torture programs pours out, the word "torture" has generally suffered a similar fate.

The agents of that administration, for instance, used what, in the Middle Ages, used to be known bluntly as "the water torture"—we call it "waterboarding"—183 times in a single month on a single prisoner and yet the other morning I woke up to this formulation on National Public Radio's Morning Edition: "...harsh interrogations that some consider torture." And here's how Gwen Ifill of the News Hour put it the other night: "A tough Senate report out today raised new questions about drastic interrogations of terror suspects in the Bush years." Or as USA Today typically had it: "Obama opened the door for possible investigation and prosecution of former Bush administration officials who authorized the 'enhanced interrogation techniques' that critics call torture." Or, for that matter, the New York Times: "...the Bush administration's use of waterboarding and other techniques that critiques say crossed the line into torture..."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Torture, as a word, except in documents or in the mouths of other people—those "critics"—has evidently lost its descriptive powers in our news world where almost any other formulation is preferred. Often these days the word of choice is "harsh," or even "brutal," both substitutes for the anodyne "enhanced" in the Bush administration's own description of the package of torture "techniques" it institutionalized and justified after the fact in those legal memos. The phrase was, of course, meant to be law-evading, since torture is a crime, not just in international law, but in this country. The fact is that, if you can't call something what it is, you're going to have a tough time facing what you've done, no less prosecuting crimes committed not quite in its name.

What we call things, the names we use, matters. How, for instance, we imagine our past affects how we see the present and future, as Andrew Bacevich makes clear below. It's little wonder that Bacevich's book, The Limits of Power, officially published in paperback today, became a bestseller. He has a way of hacking through the verbiage of our world, always heading for reality; he also has a way, as the Chinese used to put it, of "rectifying names"—that is, bringing reality and naming practices back into sync. Here, for instance, is how, at the end of Limits, he frames Washington's consensus urge to respond to two failed wars and a failing global mission by expanding the U.S. military:

"America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise."

Now, let him go to work in the same fashion on our truncated "American Century" (and catch a video of him discussing the subject as well). Tom

Farewell, the American Century

Rewriting the Past by Adding In What's Been Left Out
By Andrew J. Bacevich

In a recent column, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote, "What Henry Luce called 'the American Century' is over." Cohen is right. All that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of Luce's pernicious creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to take some doing.

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the February 7, 1941 issue of Life, his essay, "The American Century," hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors were on the march.

With the fate of democracy hanging in the balance, Americans diddled. Luce urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them to "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world... to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."

Read today, Luce's essay, with its strange mix of chauvinism, religiosity, and bombast ("We must now undertake to be the Good Samaritan to the entire world..."), does not stand up well. Yet the phrase "American Century" stuck and has enjoyed a remarkable run. It stands in relation to the contemporary era much as "Victorian Age" does to the nineteenth century. In one pithy phrase, it captures (or at least seems to capture) the essence of some defining truth: America as alpha and omega, source of salvation and sustenance, vanguard of history, guiding spirit and inspiration for all humankind.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on December 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

Thank You, Comrades

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are two-fold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores, or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story-line.

The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people—and especially the American political class—still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to include much that the American Century leaves out.

For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs to the Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich, the Soviets bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65% of all Allied deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the United States suffered 2% of those losses, for which any American whose father or grandfather served in and survived that war should be saying: Thank you, Comrade Stalin.

For the United States to claim credit for destroying the Wehrmacht is the equivalent of Toyota claiming credit for inventing the automobile. We entered the game late and then shrewdly scooped up more than our fair share of the winnings. The true "Greatest Generation" is the one that willingly expended millions of their fellow Russians while killing millions of German soldiers.

Hard on the heels of World War II came the Cold War, during which erstwhile allies became rivals. Once again, after a decades-long struggle, the United States came out on top.

Yet in determining that outcome, the brilliance of American statesmen was far less important than the ineptitude of those who presided over the Kremlin. Ham-handed Soviet leaders so mismanaged their empire that it eventually imploded, permanently discrediting Marxism-Leninism as a plausible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism. The Soviet dragon managed to slay itself. So thank you, Comrades Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev.

Page 1 of 2
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.