Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...


Tuesday, December 30, 2003  

Time has selected "the American soldier" as its person of the year--the biggest cop-out since it selected "American Fighting-Man" in 1950. Strangely, though, it may be perfectly appropriate. The magazine has secured its irrelevance, choosing embedded, feel-good simplicity (read: Bush's bizarro-world reality) over a selection that might actually reflect the complexity and difficult times we live in. Even the magazine's description of its choice is an admission of copping out.

To have pulled Saddam Hussein from his hole in the ground brings the possibility of pulling an entire country out of the dark. In an exhausting year when we've been witness to battles well beyond the battlefields—in the streets, in our homes, with our allies—to share good news felt like breaking a long fast, all the better since it came by surprise. And who delivered this gift, against all odds and risks? The same citizens who share the duty of living with, and dying for, a country's most fateful decisions.

Scholars can debate whether the Bush Doctrine is the most muscular expression of national interest in a half-century; the generals may ponder whether warmaking or peacekeeping is the more fearsome assignment; civilians will remember a winter wrapped in yellow ribbons and duct tape. But in a year when it felt at times as if we had nothing in common anymore, we were united in this hope: that our men and women at arms might soon come safely home, because their job was done. They are the bright, sharp instrument of a blunt policy, and success or failure in a war unlike any in history ultimately rests with them.

This is a magazine that's chosen Stalin (twice), Khomeini, Deng Xiaoping (twice), and Nikita Kruchev--though no one particularly thorny recently, of course. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein have made the cover--despite provoking the US to war. Instead, Time has timidly retreated into a false shell of security. America's fightin' men (and women) can be depended on to save the day. If the next decade looks anything like the decade that started in 1950, wherein we retreated to a syrupy, Disney-like simalcrum, I'm not looking forward to it.

Listen to how Time envisioned the world in 1950:

As the year ended, 1950's man seemed to be an American in the bitterly unwelcome role of the fighting-man. It was not a role the American had sought, either as an individual or as a nation. The U.S. fighting-man was not civilization's crusader, but destiny's draftee.

But in fact, I'm selling the editors in 1950 short--they at least appeared to have some insight. What's really creepy is how much of their description can be used today.

Most of the men in U.S. uniform around the world had enlisted voluntarily, but few had taken to themselves the old, proud label of "regular," few had thought they would fight, and fewer still had foreseen the incredibly dirty and desperate war that waited for them. They hated it, as soldiers in all lands and times have hated wars, but the American had some special reasons for hating it. He was the most comfort- loving creature who had ever walked the earth—and he much preferred riding to walking. As well as comfort, he loved and expected order; he yearned, like other men, for a predictable world, and the fantastic fog and gamble of war struck him as a terrifying affront....

No matter how the issue was defined, whether he was said to be fighting for progress or freedom or faith or survival, the American's heritage and character were deeply bound up in the struggle. More specifically, it was inevitable that the American be in the forefront of this battle because it was the U.S. which had unleased gigantic forces of technology and organizational ideas. These had created the great 20th Century revolution. Communism was a reaction, an effort to turn the worldwide forces set free by U.S. progress back into the old channels of slavery.

The American fighting-man could not win this struggle without millions of allies—and it was the unfinished (almost unstarted) business of his government to find and mobilize those allies through U.N. and by all other means. But the allies would never be found unless the American fighting-man first took his post and did his duty. On June 27, 1950, he was ordered to his post. Since then, the world has watched how he went about doing his duty....

Like all British observers of the U.S. Army, this observer was both envious and appalled at the bulk and variety of U.S. equipment and its "amenities." One Briton in Korea says that he saw tanks held up for hours by beer and refrigerator trucks. Another, who had been with U.S. troops landing in Southern France, said last week. "In France, I thought someone was just having his little joke when they brought the office wastebaskets ashore from the ship. But damned if they didn't do the same thing in Korea, too."

...More surprising—and disgraceful—was the fact that the American fighting-man in Korea, despite his country's vaunted industrial superiority, found that his government had not given him weapons as numerous or as good as he needed and had a right to expect.

So congratulations, Time, you've offered up analysis with a 53-year-old layer of dust. I have an idea for who should have been the Person of the Year--and it wasn't the poor saps who were used as pawns in a game of international chicken. But more on that later this morning.

posted by Jeff | 8:50 AM |
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