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America Is Exceptional—in All the Wrong Ways

I’ve seen where all those ideologies inevitably lead: to aggressive war, military occupations and, ultimately, dead children

President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio on March 20. (Photo: Evan Vucci / AP)

President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio on March 20. (Photo: Evan Vucci / AP)

I was born and raised in an America far more Orwellian than many now remember. Matters have gone so far off the rails since 9/11 that few seem to recall the madness of the 1980s. The U.S. had a celebrity actor for president, who railed about America’s ostensibly existential adversary—the Soviet “evil empire.” Back then, Ronald Reagan nearly started a nuclear war during the all-too-real Able Archer war game. He also secretly sold missiles to Iran, and then laundered the windfall to the Contras’ Central American hit squads, resulting in some 100,000 dead.

Looking back from 2019, at least as the contemporary media tell it, those were the good old days. Heck, even Barack Obama—faux liberal that he was—proudly and publicly admired Reagan. Oh, and one of Reagan’s favorite campaign slogans: “Make America Great Again.”

Today, matters seem to be coming farcically full circle, what with Elliott Abrams—convicted in the aforementioned Iran-Contra scandal—being appointed special envoy to Venezuela, and Uncle Sam again bullying a Latin American country. Welcome to America’s own grisly ’80s foreign affairs theme party! Which all got me thinking, again, about the whole notion of American exceptionalism. Only a country that truly, deeply believes in its own special mission could repeat the hideous policies of the 1980s and hardly notice.

Perhaps one expects this absurd messianism from the likes of The Donald, but the real proof is that America’s supposed progressives—like Obama—also obediently pray at the temple of exceptionalism. “Orwellian” is the only word for a nation whose leaders and commentariat were absolutely aghast when candidate Obama was seen without (gasp!) an American flag pin on his lapel. Even more disturbing was how quickly he folded and dutifully adorned his mandatory flair. This sort of nonsense is dangerous, folks: It’s hypernationalism—the very philosophy that brought us World War I.

So it was this week, while sitting on a plane reading my oh-so-bourgeois Economist, and getting infuriated about seeing Elliott Abrams’ war-criminal face, that my thoughts again turned to good old American exceptionalism. My opinions on the topic have waxed and waned over the course of a career spent waging illegal war. First, as a young cadet at West Point, I bought it hook, line and sinker; then, as an Iraq War vet and dissenter, I rejected the entire notion. Only now, observing the world as it is, have I begun to think that America really is exceptional after all—only in all the wrong ways.

Humor me, please, while I run through a brief laundry list of the ways the US of A is wildly and disconcertingly different from all the other “big-boy countries” in the developed world. Let’s start with domestic policy:

  • The U.S. has been the site of exponentially more mass shootings than any other nation. And unlike in New Zealand—where officials took immediate steps to tighten gun control in the wake of its recent tragedy—American politicians won’t do a thing about it. We also own more guns per capita than any other country in the world. In second place is Yemen.
  • The U.S. is essentially alone in the Western world in not guaranteeing health care as a basic human right. It spends much more cash, yet achieves worse health outcomes than its near-peer countries.
  • America is home to some of the starkest income inequality on the globe—right up there with Turkey and South Africa.
  • The U.S. keeps migrant kids in cages at the border, or did until recently. Even more exceptional is that Washington is largely responsible for the very unrest in Central America that generates the refugees, all while American conservatives proudly wear their “Christianity” as badge of honor—but wasn’t Jesus a refugee child? Maybe I read the wrong Bible.
  • America is alone among 41 Western nations in not guaranteeing paid family leave. How’s that for “family values?”
  • As for representative democracy, only the U.S. has an Electoral College. This fun 18th-century gimmick ensures that here in America—in 40 percent of its elections since 2000—the presidential candidate with fewer votes actually won. Furthermore, our peculiar system ensures that a rural Wyoming resident has—proportionally—several times more representative power in Washington than someone who lives in California.
  • Similarly, America counts several non-state “territories”—think Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico—that don’t even get to vote for the president that it can legally send  to war. But hey, why should we grant them statehood? It’s not as though some of them have higher military enlistment rates than any U.S. state … oh, wait.
  • The U.S. is essentially solo in defining corporations as “people,” and thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, has lifted limits on money in politics. Buying elections is officially as American as apple pie.
  • The USA locks up its own people at the highest rate in the world and is nearly alone among developed nations in maintaining the death penalty. Last year, the U.S. was the only country in the Americas to conduct executions and the only Western democracy to do so. But our friends the Saudis still execute folks, so it’s got to be OK. Dostoyevsky famously claimed that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” How are we doing there?

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Then there’s the foreign policy of the great American empire:

  • The U.S. spends exponentially more on military defense than anyone else, and more than the next seven competitors (most of which are allies) combined.
  • America’s bloated military is all by itself in dotting the globe with hundreds of foreign military bases—by some estimates more than any country or empire in world history. As for our two biggest rivals,  Russia has 21 (mostly close to home); China has maybe three.
  • Benevolent, peaceful, freedom-loving America is also the world’s top arms dealer—even selling death-dealing weapons to famous human rights abusers.
  • After Syria signed on, the U.S. became the last nation on earth not party to the Paris Climate Accord. Heck, the occupant of the Oval Office doesn’t even believe in man-made climate change.
  • Then there’s the discomfiting fact that the U.S.—along with Russia—won’t even make a “no-first-use” pledge regarding nuclear weapons. And that’s reality, not “Dr. Strangelove.”
  • The U.S. was first and, until recently, alone in flying its drone fleet through sovereign national airspace and executing “terrorists” from the sky at will. I wonder how Washington will respond when other countries cite that American precedent and do the same?
  • Only the U.S. Navy patrols all the world’s oceans in force and expects to maintain superiority everywhere. And only the U.S. boasts near total control of the goings-on in two whole continents—unflinchingly asserting that North and South America fall in its “sphere of influence.” Crimea abuts Russia and the people speak Russian—still, the U.S. denies Moscow any sphere of influence there or anywhere else. Ah, consistency.

Of course there is so, so much more, but let’s end our tour of American “exceptionalism” there in the interest of time.

What’s so staggeringly unique about the United States is ultimately this: It stands alone among historical hegemons in denying the very existence of its empire. This, truly, is something new. Kids in 19th-century Great Britain knew they had an empire—they even colored their colonies red on school maps. Not so here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. No, Washington seems to believe its own lie—and has its people convinced—that the U.S. is no empire at all, but rather a benevolent “democratic” gentle giant.

American colonies were founded from the outset as mini-empires wrested from the natives. Next, the nascent U.S. grew up enough to take what was left of the continent from the Mexicans. Since then, Washington has been trolling the world’s oceans and spreading the gospel of its own hyper-late-stage capitalism and bullying others in order to get its way. Sure, there are countries where worse human-rights abusers and worse authoritarian regimes are in power. But do we really want to be competing for last place? Especially if we’re supposedly so exceptional and indispensable?

Me, I’m sick of patriotism, of exceptionalism, of nationalism. I’ve seen where all those ideologies inevitably lead: to aggressive war, military occupations and, ultimately, dead children. So count me as over hegemony—it’s so 20th-century, anyway—and bring on the inevitable decline of U.S. pretense and power. Britain had to give up most of an empire to gain a social safety net. That was the humane thing to do.

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Danny Sjursen

Danny Sjursen

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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