Great Americans

An article I read on Alternet.org inspired this post, and I was very surprised how it didn’t seem to make any ripples in the news pond. The title was quite incendiary, yet it seemed to me that while other articles enjoyed a decent amount of playing time, listed for a significant length of time that is, this one appeared and then died an early death, sunk like a stone. To my mind, just faded quickly. I was very surprised. Was the article too much for American sensibilities? It was well written and authoritative, so I have to think that readers took exception to the content matter. I will introduce the article at the end and you can look it up and decide for yourself.

The article did get me thinking, however, just who is the worst killer in history? So I started looking around on the Internet. Who has caused the most loss of life by external factors?

Hitler? He probably comes first in most people’s minds. The holocaust. His special brand of organized murder well deserves everyone’s condemnation, but no, he is third I believe. He is generally attributed for the death of eleven million people. I suppose one can argue that because of his dreams of world domination, we can accuse him of indirectly contributing to every single death in World War II, but I will defer to what most pundits maintain and stick with 11 million. So, he gets third place for now.

Who’s number two then on this infamous list? I determine it to be Josef Stalin. He is currently attributed as causing between 20 and 60 million deaths, 8 million people alone died in his gulag system between 1932 and 1939. Most of the articles I read online seem to settle on roughly 50 million, a staggering number. Yet he is not number one.

Number one goes to Chairman Mao. Piero Scaruffi estimates that Mao was responsible for between 49 to 78 million deaths. This includes the Great Famine induced by the debacle of the Great Leap Forward and the deaths of the Cultural Revolution. Again, the numbers defy comprehension. But, we have not yet touched upon the article.

The article by Fred Branfman. The title was formed in a question and answer: World’s Most Evil and Lawless Institution? The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government.

I imagine that right away many people who saw this title were incensed and disgusted. I know that my father would be. Such an idea, that the US government is an evil and lawless institution! This is blasphemy. Sacrilege. Unpatriotic! And we all know today what a sin it is to be unpatriotic, patriotism equated with, essentially equated with, well, honestly, pro-war. There’s no getting around it. If you criticize any of the US government’s foreign policy you are branded a traitor. Or a spy (just ask Edward Snowden).

I was patriotic like that when I was young. I was inculcated by school to hate communism and socialism. God, how I use to hate those communists! But, I remember the Vietnam War, albeit vaguely, but I remember some things. The soldiers were so…forlorn. So sad. And then there were young women, probably only girls really, but they seemed colossal to my small eyes, who were dressed in garish outfits, and who were so angry, shouting and shouting, alongside angrier men with long hair and mustaches. I remember the men were all Jesus-lookalikes. The men of indeterminate age (because I, a child, found all men with facial hair to look of similar age) resembled the statues of Jesus in my Catholic Church. But they were angry Jesuses, shouting and pointing and shaking fists. Everyone carrying placards that I probably was able to read but cannot remember. It was terrifying to get caught up accidentally in protests.

I remember none of my uncles would answer my questions about Vietnam. What is Vietnam? What is Vietnam? They looked away, or shook their head. The photo of the burning child running down the road naked. Why is she crying? Why is she hurt? Then, I accidentally saw footage of the execution of a Vietnamese man; even though I wasn’t meant to, I did see it. Thank God my parents did not know I saw it. They would have taken me to a hospital. My body literally shook. It was as if I had been punched in the face: I trembled like a leaf in a storm. No one ever answered my questions about it until high school and then only one teacher pointed me in the right direction. “You won’t find any answers in our textbook. You’ll have to look elsewhere.” I did. I found many books written by soldiers, reporters, historians, forests of books that put photos, and facts, and words, so many words, that explained why it was so wrong.

Recent estimates put the civilian casualties at almost 2 million. But that’s only Vietnam. Branfman declares that the US Executive Branch leaders in the past 50 years are responsible for the death, wounding, and homelessness of at least 20 million people. That puts the US Executive in the running for the top three, displacing—you guessed it—Hitler.

His article details the deaths resulting from our past military actions as well as describing in brief some of the collateral damage inflicted by those wars and policies.

What troubled me was not just the numbers, it was the assertion that this knowledge is out there, but everyone just participates in collective selective amnesia about it. This seems extremely salient when we compare and contrast America’s wars. Vietnam experienced a great deal of resistance. Today, because of 9-11, and perhaps for a phalanx of other factors, there isn’t this massive resistance to war, not like there was against Vietnam. The number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are not at Vietnam levels and they won’t get that high, but it’s not the numbers. It’s the reasons, the rationale that I doubt, that I call into question. The evidence points out that Iraq was invaded in error. Over 130,000 Iraqis dead. In error. And Branfman doesn’t even broach CIA shenanigans, that department’s shadowy nefarious activities, nor does he mention the deaths caused by our War on Drugs. The mind begins to shut down in the face of so much darkness.

And then, what troubles me further is Branfman’s statement that the US has essentially ignored the Geneva conventions, ignored international laws that were established after WWII to prevent Hitlerian atrocities, and rationalized its belligerent actions. Everyone was frightened after 9-11. It’s safe to say that many lost their cool, almost all were filled with white-hot righteous indignation at this outrage, and some, a few, despite the foreknowledge of certain blowback, called for reason, called for patience. It was not to be. Blood had to be answered with blood (ironically the same rationale the terrorists employed).

I’m wondering if we’ve shed enough blood, if we can calm down now, take a reasonable look at the issues, and come up with a better plan than War on Terror and death by drone.

Some of my non-American friends chant a common refrain whenever we talk geopolitics: Americans don’t know how to think, or simply, Americans are stupid. We are in denial. We don’t read. We can’t read. We dumb.

I know they are trying to get my goat, but it does, I must admit, make me angry to hear such things. But, it makes me angrier because such gibes, bald and un-sugarcoated, contain kernels of truth. Why aren’t we more indignant when we hear about these atrocities that we commit? Why aren’t we up in arms when we discover that we are being spied on? Why aren’t we appalled that our government is kidnapping people and torturing them, indefinitely? How about the assassination lists? Shouldn’t we be upset? We’re supposed to be the good guys. I don’t know.

A good American today seems to mean a person who never questions the government or their war machinery. But I don’t want to be a good American; I want to be a Great American, and this is my rallying call on July 4th: let’s be Great Americans. A Great American thinks. A Great American questions. A Great American fights for justice and liberty not just for himself, but for everyone. We are not in the business of taking liberty away from people. A Great American is a moral person in word and deed. He is not a hypocrite. If we are indeed a Christian nation, then we should act according to those precepts. If you prefer not to place a religious slant to it, that’s fine, just claim to be freedom lovers and promoters of democracy, then act on those precepts. The result will be the same I believe. We are Great. Many people love us so dearly and they don’t even know us.

I was in the gym this morning when a beautiful young woman introduced herself to me. She wanted to practice her English. She loves America and hopes desperately to go there before she turns forty. Forty! I told her I think she could make it by then (she was maybe 25). ‘America is so great!’ I asked her how she knew that to be true. She said America looks so wonderful like on the TV shows like Friends. I had to confess to her that I had never seen the show. She said the show was now twenty years old, but it’s still all the rage in China.

They only know our TV shows or our films, but they see America and compare it with their own petty backwater authoritarian system and they dream of escape, of coming to America. They dream the American Dream, the real American Dream, which I believe is to live free and in peace. People love us, not because we can bomb other nations into the Stone Age, but because our way of life represents what is supposed to be most noble in man.

‘Freedom ain’t free. You have to fight for it. You have to kill for it.’

I refute that notion. That is caveman thinking. We are better than that. We need to move past the need to shed blood, to bomb into oblivion everything under the sun. Surely we are smarter. Surely we are better. We need to be better. We need to evolve past that. We need to evolve from good…to great. I believe we can, if only because for the plain fact that America created me and many like me, a simple man who believes in peace and liberty. And yes, I do believe that we can be better.

Happy Fourth of July.

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