Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Ideal-Real: Bush May Stink but America Has Always Been a Bit Stinky

Americans need to quit thinking that it’s simply George W. Bush who ruined the U.S. of A. these last few years. It’s not just one man who made the U.S. seem so evil, so cruel, so messed up. We’ve got our own healthy history of not-so heroic deeds that need to be understood in relation to our idealized vision of the U.S. as the greatest place in the world.

Even World War II, which for most Americans (myself included) as well as most of the world represents a so-called act of moral and ethical excellence and liberation, needs to be reclarified. To a certain extent, it’s true that the Americans “freed” Europe from the Nazi. And in our history classes, we shouldn’t pass over this ideal victory of democracy and human rights triumphing over fascism, oppression, and willful human subjugation. The ideal has its place, but so must the “real,” less-glorifying edges to that ideal truth. Take for example, how American soldiers subsequently treated some German after their victory (this selection comes from a blog):

At Schwaebisch Hall, a particularly infamous prison near Stuttgart for officials suspected of major war crimes, MacDonogh writes:

“The Americans had used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau. … Worse still were the mock executions, where the men were led off in hoods, while their guards told them they were approaching the gallows. Prisoners were actually lifted bodily off the ground to convince them they were about to swing. More conventional methods of torture included kicks to the groin, deprivation of sleep and food and savage beatings. When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry into the methods used by their investigators, they found that, of the 139 cases examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.” (in Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation)

Equally stirring is the account of the Hofer brothers who were religious pacifists and conscious objectors to military service during WWI. They were imprisoned, tortured, and so poorly treated that eventually all but one died – all of this because they didn’t believe in war in a country idealized as the “home” for all those seeking religious freedom and human tolerance. If you don’t know their story, it definitely merits reading.

It’s amazing what shocks people sometimes. What seems incredibly obvious and well-known to some is so blatantly new or shocking. Maybe it’s because people don’t read enough, but I suppose even people that read a lot don’t always get the right information. (When I was young, much of my view of the world changed after crossing paths with a book called something like an Underground Education, because it marked the first time I distinguished between what I read and what was the “whole” truth.)

Our educational systems and our cultural histories hide and distort the truth such that we come out of school with a certain view or image of one’s country. We grow up feeding off a certain ideal or mythological representation of how or what one’s country’s like. These imagined ideals are a necessary part of a progressive society, which seeks to embody its present goals and hopes in a not-so real past. These ideas are part of the cultural or communal traditions we learn as children.

But we can’t stay children forever. As young adults, these ideals need to be sprinkled with some ideal-tarnishing realism, with stories that shatter our childish visions of what we are and were. And as adults fully aware of our role as critical citizens, we need to act in accordance with a complex political and personal tension between remembering and memorializing, between idealizing what is real and keeping real what is ideal.