Bringing out Our Best, and Our Worst

Article excerpt

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are revealing the best that America has to offer, and the worst.

Pat Tillman epitomized the best. We all know the story: turning down a $3.6 million-per-year NFL contract to join the military out of a sense of duty for his country, and making the ultimate sacrifice. Thousands like him gave up good jobs and the safety and security of home following 9/11, in order to try to preserve a way of life.

The best of America is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of American military personnel and civilians risking their lives to bring electricity, water, schools, health care, sewage disposal, transportation, telecommunications, and other benefits to the people of a distant region. It's reflected in the efforts of the administrators, diplomats, soldiers, security workers, and NGO workers trying to instill freedom and the rule of law.

Few seem to grasp how radical a phenomenon this is. From ancient times until the 20th century, whenever one nation vanquished the regime of another, what typically followed was a vast transfer of wealth from the latter to the former. The people of the weaker state would be plundered and/or forced to pay burdensome taxes or "tribute" to the dominant state while getting nothing in return.

And many of their freedoms were taken away.

When the United States prevails, the opposite occurs. Americans transfer vast amounts of their wealth to the weaker state; in the case of Iraq, tens of billions of dollars so far. And rather than oppressing the defeated, America endeavors to bring them liberty, democracy and economic opportunity.

Compare the current condition of nations we defeated, such as Germany and Japan, with those we did not: Vietnam and North Korea.

But alas, the Middle East conflict is bringing out the worst in America as well.

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs are as bizarre as they are appalling: keeping prisoners naked for long periods of time; forcing male detainees to wear women's underwear; arranging prisoners in sexually explicit positions for photographing; forcing groups of male detainees to perform sexual acts while being photographed.

Only among Americans, it seems, would prisoner abuse take this bizarrely perverted form, complete with pictures. …