1983: The Year I Began to Learn Of American Realpolitik
I’d never seen an airshow before, and I wanted to see if it was as exciting as people said. Those of us who worked belowdecks on the USS Ranger (CV-61) were told to stay remain within the skin of the ship. Only those who worked on the flight deck would see the airshow. The reason, scuttlebutt had it, was that we were just holding an airshow as a diplomatic gesture for some Guatemalan general. This made sense in that as soon as we left San Diego on deployment, instead of proceeding to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, we suddenly took a hard left and steamed south, off the coast of Central America.
“To hell with staying down here,” I told myself, “I’m going to go see what that airshow’s all about.” So I went up to the stacks (the “exhaust pipes” of the eight boilers below) up at the very top of the superstructure, almost the highest point one could go on the ship. No one stopped me, but if they had, I was going to tell them I had to go inspect the stacks. I’d already learned that a guy can get away with almost anything as long as he looks like he knows what he’s doing.
The airshow began, and I watched as some A-6’s dropped practice bombs, some of the electronic warfare planes flew by, and so forth. Then the announcement came that there would be a flyby of an F-14 Tomcat. Even though I’d been on board just under a year, I was just a 20 year-old junior enlisted and hadn’t seen a Tomcat in flight in real life before. The Tomcat approached from the stern and was flying soooo slow off the port side, with its landing gear extended, as if the pilot were trying to bore us all to death.
Nobody saw what was coming. While everyone topside was engaging in a collective yawn with their eyes focused on the slow-as-molasses Tomcat, another Tomcat scrrrreeeeeeeamed by the flight deck at just below the speed of sound. I can’t speak for anyone else that day, but I nearly crapped my pants. The pilots and anyone else who had known what was coming had to be laughing their asses off. That also meant the airshow was done. After all, how do you top something like that? I headed belowdecks, back to work in the pit, but grinning that I’d gotten away with ignoring orders.
Junior enlisted of the day normally had a “worm’s-eye view” of current events i.e. we spent most of our time in the dirt and in the dark. There was no internet yet, so the only news we got was normally from newspapers sent by family. But about once a month, those up in Comms would post a one-page memo with short blurbs about what was going on in the world. I still remember the moment I was standing in the passageway reading one of those pages of news someone had posted on the bulkhead, and there it was: “Guatemalan general takes over nation in coup 08–08–83.” (that’s not an exact quote, but the meaning is the same).
I checked, and August 8th was the day after the airshow. Gee, why were we there?
I didn’t think much about it at the time, but that was the moment the worm began looking for a pair of binoculars. As time passed, I learned about what we’d done in so many other third-world nations, and how many murderous dictators we’d supported along the way.
Nobody wants to think they’re on the wrong side, that their hard work has been in support of rape and murder, of government-sponsored terrorism and the ruination of peaceful democratically-elected governments. But that’s what we’ve done as a nation, and told ourselves in so many words that third-world nations simply don’t matter in the grand sweep of history, that the lives of the people there simply aren’t as important as our own.
Am I condemning America? No. We have to remember that until the early 1990’s, this was all part of the Cold War, the most dangerous time in all human history. More than once we were within mere minutes of a global thermonuclear exchange. Even worse, there were powerful individuals in our military — like Generals LeMay, MacArthur, and McNamara — who wanted the Cold War to turn hot, to let the missiles fly, to just get it over with. In the eyes of most Americans, we were fighting a very real war against the spread of communism. To the modern mind, the word “communism” may not sound like a clear and present danger to all we Americans hold dear, but one need only look at what’s happening in Xinjiang in western China to see the results of having a powerful nuclear-armed dictatorship answerable to no one.
For much of our country’s history, we have done the wrong things for what we thought at the time were the right reasons. We as a nation have lived a consummation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s maxim:
“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”
Unfortunately, by our eager acceptance of our nation’s crimes in the name of patriotism and “Christianity” (and a considerable degree of white supremacy), a wide swath of our population has learned to reject altruism, and to view empathy as a weakness rather than as a moral imperative.
“Nations do not have permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” This quote is often attributed (in different forms) to Henry Kissinger, Charles de Gaulle, and Joanne Liu, but was first stated by Lord Palmerston back in the mid-1800’s. That quote is also the purest expression not only of realpolitik, but of sociopathy, a blanket rejection of empathy and altruism in favor of a zero-sum approach in all things. Come to think of it, that sounds awfully close to capitalism.
Will we as a nation ever learn to do better, to refuse policies such as “regime change in the name of democracy”? Unfortunately, as we are among the richest and most powerful nations on the planet, the answer is probably no. There is no instance in human history of which I’m aware wherein a powerful nation has refused to meddle with and bully lesser nations. This holds doubly true when it comes to international trade.
The key word, however, is “probably”. Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Remember, not so long ago the acceptance of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality was unthinkable. Even twenty years ago the possibility of a Black man with a funny name becoming president would have been considered ludicrous by most.
As a nation we’ve committed great wrongs. We can do better. We can reject realpolitik, own up to our wrongdoings, and commit to doing what is good and right for all. But in order to do better, we have believe we can. Only then can we accomplish what’s never been done before.