Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Feeling my American-ness

By Gerard J. DeGroot / December 4, 2001



ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND

I've never felt more American than I have since Sept. 11. Scotland has been my adopted home since 1980. When I missed America before, it was the trivial things: baseball, sunlight, good Mexican food, phones that work. Now, my yearning is more elemental: I miss being around people who feel the way I do. In war, the familiar provides comfort and shared anguish loses its sting.

Skip to next paragraph

Some of this may come as a surprise to readers in the United States, for whom Britain means tireless Tony Blair generously offering help. But that's not the whole picture. True, Blair is a popular prime minister - 60 to 70 percent of the British people approve of his handling of the current crisis. But his support is, ironically, greatest among those not naturally inclined to back his party. He's now much more popular on the right than on the left. For a solid core of liberal Britons, the war is evil; America, the Great Satan; and Blair, the devil's disciple.

This makes life hard for a lifelong liberal like me. Reading my morning paper - The (London) Guardian - has become an exercise in ritualized flagellation.

The opinion pages are crowded with writers keen to castigate my countrymen. On Sept. 11, the paper carried a piece expressing satisfaction that the Americans were now feeling the same pain they had long inflicted on the poor people of Baghdad. A few days later, the American ambassador, a guest on the BBC's "Question Time," was reduced to tears at the tirade of abuse the audience hurled at the US.

What amazes me is the self-righteous certainty of critics on the left. I never realized there were so many experts on Afghanistan, so many clear-sighted prophets of doom. The crisis, we are told, is the result of America's long-standing oppression of Islam, its myopic isolationism, and its greedy mega-capitalism. The latter is particularly rich, since that criticism is usually spouted by those whose lifestyle is essentially American, but for a minor matter of geography. Praise Islam and pass the cappuccino.

America's culpability excuses any crime by Osama bin Laden. I've not seen that kind of moral relativism since the Vietnam War, when thoroughly nasty Ho Chi Minh became a folk hero simply because he opposed the United States.

On the left, there is no such thing as evil, merely those who suffer and those who oppress. The former is allowed any atrocity while the latter can do no right.

It's not entirely clear whether the left's criticism is inspired by hatred of America or by simple fear of war. Some correspondents have cleverly tried to cloak their cowardice in synthetic pacifism. Thanks in part to the legacy of Vietnam, the left sees war as always futile, the military a gang of fools, and heroism a sham. But that's the problem. In the past, people accepted that wars are sometimes necessary and sometimes even "good." If we reject war unequivocally, we risk handing the world over to a very nasty set of outlaws only too eager to take advantage of our squeamishness and scruples. Pacifism - genuine or manufactured - is a form of fundamentalism as dangerous as the Islamic variety.

The criticism quieted somewhat when Kabul fell, since it was difficult to disapprove when faced with the evidence of women shedding burqas and children suddenly flying kites. But the siege of Kunduz and Kandahar has brought the doomsayers out of their funk holes. Apparently, war is only tolerable if no one gets killed. The Taliban prisoners slaughtered at Mazar-e Sharif got more sympathy from the left than the Americans murdered in the twin towers.

According to George Monbiot, a regular Guardian columnist, President Bush rejected a genuine offer by the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden because the president wanted to crush Afghanistan. Thus, at a stroke of Mr. Monbiot's pen, a murder hunt is transformed into a neo-imperialist war of conquest. In an article last week, Anne Karpf described the efforts to identify WTC victims through DNA sampling as an example of arrogant American excess. According to her, the obscene sums offered to the bereaved reveal the shameful "lack of equivalence" between death in Afghanistan and death in America.

Evidence suggests that some 250 Britons died when the twin towers were hit. That makes it the worst terrorist incident inflicted upon the British. The loss has been deeply felt within this country. But critics on the left ignore that aspect of the carnage. Apparently they think it is not proper to nationalize grief.

The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote in "The Man Died": "A war, with its attendant human suffering, must, when that evil is unavoidable, be made to fragment more than buildings: It must shatter the foundations of thought and re-create. Only in this way does every individual share in the cataclysm and understand the purpose of sacrifice."

A couple of weeks ago, Chelsea Clinton revealed that she felt a need to surround herself with Americans, because the British at Oxford (where she is studying) didn't seem to understand. I know exactly how she feels. Among some groups in Britain, realization seems a long way off. Spared the suffering, they selfishly indulge their addiction to criticism.

Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the Department of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews.

Permissions