Dalton Delan: America’s birthday and democracy’s gut-check
This week, we celebrated our split from Britain — a pretty clean break which still required a second thumping to secure our independence after they burned Washington in 1814.
We retained an umbilical cord, so when they arrived across the pond 150 years later, singing “I want to hold your hand,” we took them up on the offer. It was the sort of invasion you could sing along to. But on the geopolitical front, it has looked more like that earworm by Stealers Wheel: “Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” We are the middlemen, steering a course in which, like true Southern gentlemen, we pick you up after knocking you down or, as in several wars, we circle the drain without ever plugging it.
It began with the Civil War, which should have had a decisive conclusion, such that “freedmen” would be truly free. Instead, after a dozen short years of Reconstruction, we got nearly a century of lynching, wage slavery and Jim Crow segregation. We continue to suffer from white backlash that has allowed a pack of dog-whistling presidents, from Wilson to Nixon and Reagan, descending to Trump and his sly Fox messengers. The whole MAGA saga reads as a coded cry to return to a time when white men were men and women and communities of color were far from supreme in our courts.
The First World War did a darn good job, via the imposition of crushing reparations, setting the stage for the Second. Then at Potsdam we turned turkey and carved up Europe, icing a Cold War cake. A harried Truman handed Stalin a free pass, and it took until 1989 for that artificial construct the Beatles sang about in “Back in the USSR” to collapse from structural defects. Fast-forward to Putin, in revanchist rage ravaging Ukraine, to make Russia great again, and “here’s another fine mess you got me in,” as Stan Laurel rebuked Oliver Hardy in 1930.
Scrambling to “win one for the Gipper,” we’ve fumbled the ball time and again. We never actually declared war in Korea, though you’d never know that on the ground, then never ended it. The less said the better about Vietnam, the domino we inherited from France. Unless, of course, you fought for Pork Chop Hill as my uncle Arthur did, and then watched from home with wry distaste as Walter Cronkite brought us the taking and retaking of the same bloody hills in Vietnam, until even he had had enough.
For a read on this boomerang, see “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes and “Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson. These journeys into the heart of darkness make boon companions to two towering World War II epics treating different sides of the same coin: “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller and “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass. In addition to the T-shirt, these guys at least brought back our first glimpses of black humor in tales told by an idiot.
The hits just keep on coming. The Bay of Pigs, the Beirut bombing, halfway in Kuwait, Black Hawk Down, back to Iraq and an Afghanistan exit echoing the fall of Saigon. It’s no surprise that Zelenskyy has a hard time believing we will go the distance in Ukraine without his public badgering to keep us from waffling.
Which is not to say we are solo customers at the Waffle House. The Marshall Plan may have transferred $13 billion from U.S. coffers to nations such as Germany and France, but you’d be hard put to spot much backbone in Olaf Schulz and Emmanuel Macron, who backtrack fearlessly on any given day.
As inflation soars and recession looms, we will be hard-pressed to stay the course in Ukraine. Americans vote their wallets. Pressure will mount on Biden to follow Macron’s breadcrumb trail to shrinking Ukraine, ceding the Donbas region and a land-bridge to the Crimean Peninsula. Putin is counting on the invertebrate nature of the U.S. and the European Union.
Watching from the sidelines is Xi Jinping, hungry as a wolf to gobble back Taiwan. With the Chinese centennial in 2049, he has a quarter-century or more to do it. Breaking ground last month at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, as well as unveiling the Fujian, an aircraft carrier named for the province closest to Taiwan, Xi shows no sign of being cowed by Putin’s example. With infrastructure inroads from Africa to the Caribbean, and awareness that even democracies such as Israel, India and South Africa have refrained from sanctioning Russia, China sees us as a paper tiger. From Xi’s perspective, our bark trumps our bite.
We’ll need a revolution in will to stay the course. It’s hard to see that happening as we struggle to preserve our own democratic norms. The middle doesn’t solve the riddle of war.