Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Limits of Experience

Fifty years ago Bill Lederer wrote The Ugly American, based on his two decades as a US naval officer in Asia. He believed the US was "losing" Asia because we didn't understand the area and communicated poorly. In a sense he was right- our racial prejudice and the message we communicated of white dominance were ignorant and dysfunctional. But the US did not "lose" Asia, we discarded it when they didn't accept our proposed dictators for their countries. When we recovered from our attempts to rule Asia, we regained much of what we had discarded.

In the interim, of course, we fought two full scale wars and continuously in half a dozen other countries. We made ourselves insane with fear and suspicion, fired and blacklisted all our actual experts about the region, lost 60,000 of our young men to war and 400,000 to Canada, and convinced most Asians that the US was no longer the country of George Washington or democracy. In fact, the entire productive capacity of the Baby Boomers, over their entire lives, was wasted, and we opened the 21st century with nothing more than improved Levittowns and safer Model Ts.

In spite of his years of experience, Lederer was massively wrong. Seen from the vantage point of what we've learned since, it's a painful read.

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