Originally published in 1958, “The Ugly American” (Lederer & Burdick) documented American blunders abroad and our failure to identify that what we termed communism in undeveloped countries was merely the screams of hunger and hopelessness becoming manifest. 15 years later, we extricated ourselves from Vietnam and licked our wounds for 30 years, finally coming to some sort of accommodation with free fire zones, Agent Orange, and My Lai. Never again, we swore. We would protect our nation’s security but only move into war zones when gross injustice or humanitarian concerns demanded a response — Somalia, Bosnia, the first Gulf War.
We felt relief: a line in the sand had been drawn that we would not cross. The new American protocol called for self-protection but also restraint, a hint of nobility, and the belief that, above all, we were the primary bastion of freedom, diversity, and the rule of law.
September 11 shook that hard-fought-for ideal. No longer must we simply protect our borders but now we had to look around us wherever we were – at the stranger waiting for a train, the sweating, swarthy fellow traveler at the airport, the foreigners in the upstairs apartment.
We felt betrayed. The quid pro quo of “You leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone” went awry. Those who hate us were intruding into our private space. We felt violated. In a predictable reaction, we struck out, seeking the enemy in the hills and caves of Afghanistan where our agony had been meticulously planned with premeditation and cold indifference to our pain.
For two years, we slowly revised our goals, our ideals, our national commitments. Our outraged sense of self, revulsion, and anger gradually overcame our democratic belief in the rights of all to national self-determination. To fight the enemy, we became him. We adopted his mindset of the ends justifies the means. Angry and frustrated at his ability to strike at our very heart and make our world fearful and dangerous, we morphed into him, using offense as a means of defense against the terrifying vulnerability we feared to face.
In 2003, the decision was made to openly attack a sovereign nation state which, although famous for verbal saber rattling, posed no direct threat to us nor had it committed an illegal invasion or recent attack on anyone else since the last Gulf War.
With guns blazing, we marched into the OK Corral. Despite the absolute predictability of enemy combatants fading into the general population rather than standing their ground and being annihilated, we were “surprised” at the ease of entering Baghdad. We had forgotten the lessons of our own Revolutionary War when it became clear that standing face-to-face with well-supplied redcoat squares was a recipe for total destruction.
“Mission Accomplished” trumpeted the President, the Administration, the temporarily impotent and sleeping media. The worst was over. There were now simply “mopping up” operations left in a country which should be overwhelmingly grateful for what we had achieved. Instead, of course, more U.S. troops would die after our mission was “accomplished” than in the hot war itself.
Why the surprise? Once again, as in the days of Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, the bombing of Cambodia, once again the face of the Ugly American was exposed to the world.
Why are we hated? We are the superpower, the bully in the school yard.
Difficult as it is to forge an uneasy truce with us when we act with restraint and decorum, it becomes impossible when we throw our weight around and beat our collective chest with pride, hubris, and the will to move alone without trying to rally allies or international support. The Ugly American is loose in the streets of the Middle East, a target for all, a friend of none: arrogant, defiant, outcast, and alone.
Never again, we said. Oops – the isolation and the hate is back. We can now have the satisfaction of knowing we generated it all by ourselves. Who needs an enemy when we have us?
Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the effects of cultural forces and employment on the individual. The author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The Worker’s Edge, she can be reached at http://www.virginiabola.com