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Feb 25 2015

The Exceptional Ugly American

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Back in 1958, the novel “The Ugly American” hit the best seller list and was made into a movie in 1963 starring Marlon Brando. Although the book was fiction, it was obvious that the country it was set in was based on Vietnam and some of the characters were real people.

The book describes the United States’s losing struggle against Communism-what was later to be called the battle for hearts and minds in Southeast Asia-because of innate arrogance and the failure to understand the local culture. The title is actually a double entendre, referring both to the physically unattractive hero, Homer Atkins, and to the ugly behavior of the American government employees.

In the novel, a Burmese journalist says “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” [..]

The “Ugly American” of the book title fundamentally refers to the plain-looking engineer Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects, such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. It is argued in the book that the Communists were successful because they practiced tactics similar to those of Atkins.

According to an article published in Newsweek in May, 1959, the “real” “Ugly American” was identified as an International Cooperation Agency technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques, and helped to start home canning industries.

Another of the book’s heroes, Colonel Hillandale, appears to have been modeled on the real-life U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Edward Lansdale, who was an expert in counter-guerrilla operations.

After the book had gained wide readership, the term “Ugly American” came to be used to refer to the “loud and ostentatious” type of visitor in another country, rather than the “plain looking folks, who are not afraid to ‘get their hands dirty’ like Homer Atkins” to whom the book itself referred.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Today’s US foreign and military policies are no different than the 1950’s. Since World War 2, America has lost much of its stature mostly because of the concept that the United States is exceptional, that this country is unique because of its democratic ideals and the personal freedoms of its citizens. While that may have been true in the early 1800’s when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville described the concept in his writings, “Democracy in America,” it no longer applies today. The US disregard for the rule of law, its own and international, spying on its own citizens and those of other countries and their leaders, waging illegal wars, killing innocent civilians with drones, torture and targeted assassinations from secret lists are just a few of the reasons the US is no longer that country of de Tocqueville’s writing.

Yet, far too many refuse to admit it. Too many of elected officials, advisers and the media glorify the “war on terror” and our interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. It has been glorified by the entertainment industry in films like Academy Award nominated “Zero Dark 30” and this year’s “American Sniper.” Both movies were mostly ignored for awards by the Academy members much to the chagrin of the right wing media. The people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and others, see Americans as the terrorists. The don’t hate the US for its freedoms, as is oft repeated by those who would perpetuate war, they hate Americans because it is killing them and destroying their homes.

Adele Barker, a professor in the Russian Department at the University of Arizona, recently spent six months teaching at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. After she had seen “American Sniper,” she recalled something one of her students had said in an e-mail and wrote this

In Pakistan, my classes were unusually small, 10 students compared to 100 students for other professors.

Then I found out the reason why.

“No one wanted to take your class,” my former student explained to me in an email. “You were American; we hated you. You come in here and kill our people and then call us terrorists.”

In the minds of those who live with ongoing daily violence in the Middle East and Pakistan, America has become part of the problem. We have become the terrorists we seek to eradicate. [..]

My student had put her finger on something so essential, so basic as to why we keep getting the Muslim world so wrong.

Who for people like my students are the terrorists?

Of course they are the Taliban and those responsible for sectarian and ethnic violence. But America is right there in the mix, sowing hatred as we attempt to bring peace.

You can’t have it both ways. [..]

And that is what is the matter with American Sniper. It celebrates the very values that are driving a wedge between the U.S. and the Muslim world. It celebrates hate, it celebrates Islamophobia, and it celebrates killing.

We are living in a highly charged, highly sensitive time in our relations with the Muslim world in general. [..]

As I walked out of the theater I thought of Chris Kyle’s tortured plea in the movie to a young Iraqi boy to put down the Kalashnikov rifle he has just picked up lest he have to shoot him. I remembered the 132 school boys who were gunned down in Peshawar with another 121 wounded on Dec. 16 this past year by the Taliban. [..]

The fact that it won in no major categories is irrelevant.

What is relevant is this: in the misguided belief that we can police the world we export the very hatred that incites the countries we are trying to “save” to more violence. No one wins these kinds of wars. No one wins from this kind of film.

Least of all the people we think we are saving.

Much like Homer Atkins in “The Ugly American,” Prof. Barker went to help the people in a constructive way but found out that because of the ugly behavior of the American government and Americans like Chris Kyle, she became hated.

Until Americans start electing leaders who recognize the need for a major change in foreign and military policy, its citizens will be viewed as ugly and hated by those they are trying to help.

1 comment

  1. TMC

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