The myth of American exceptionalism

But even more galling was Obama’s Fort Bragg address to troops returning from Iraq. He commended their willingness to sacrifice “so much for a people that you had never met,” which, he insisted, was “part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right … a unique willingness among nations to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity. This is who we are. That’s what we do as Americans.” Towards the end Alan Greenspan, the long-serving chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, thought such statements absurd. “I am saddened,” he wrote, “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

But when viewed through the lens of exceptionalism, even the worst atrocities can become tolerable to the historically challenged. The U.S. invasion of Vietnam is the most egregious case of external aggression by any nation in the post-WWII era. Martin Luther King, America’s greatest moral voice since the Second World War, said, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.” However, a recent Gallup poll found that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 believe the war was “not a mistake.” In May 2012, Obama announced a 13-year “commemoration” of the Vietnam War, honoring those Americans who fought “heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.”

We wonder which ideals, exactly, Obama was referring to. A few years before his death, former secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told students at American University that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that war. Most college students, when asked in informal surveys, place the number at a quarter of that amount or less. The Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. contains the names of 58,272 Americans who died in the war. Its message is that the tragedy of that wretched war was that 58,000 Americans died. The wall is 146 feet long.

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