If one thing were ever true about America’s own interpretation of its foreign policy and role in the global arena, it is that it is unapologetic. The American public’s worldview is shaped and informed by selective historical memory that is perpetuated in classrooms nationwide. Such memorializing of particular events fuels an almost messianic national psyche, which provides a basis of popular support for often self-defeating foreign policy initiatives. The disastrous campaign to defend U.S. interests in Afghanistan and ensuing damage caused by drone strikes throughout the Middle East are two prominent illustrations of such failures. This in turn, calls for the diversification of competing historical narratives in America’s public education in order to prevent its population from holding a limited understanding of the past and allowing unreasonable ideology to propel overseas ventures. A more comprehensive understanding of past events may not change the outcome of certain policy measures per se, but it will at minimum provide a more receptive space for debate and thus allow for a diverse range of opinions to weigh in on detrimental policy proposals.
The American National Psyche
Whether it results in a well rounded or even restricted understanding of the past, history is continuously filtered for contemporary interpretation for which may be called selective historical memory. It is the strategic remembering and convenient forgetting of prior events that make societies contextualize the past as if it were a present reality. By strategically selecting interpretations, there are many truths to a single event but never a single truth, therefore designating it the creation of a common history. In the case of nation states like America, it is capturing the trials and tribulations of past events that most vividly contextualize the meaning behind possessing U.S. citizenship. Consequently, the selectivity of events in U.S. history have created a mentality that often fails to take many diverse and often competing narratives into account, which impact the creation of and support for self-defeating policy initiatives abroad.
So what is the collective mindset that every patriotic citizen tends to feed off of in support for U.S. foreign policy measures? It is a mentality enshrined in the concept of ‘rally around the flag’. Americans are vulnerable to the call for action in the form of serving the ideas of liberty and freedom, as they are mistakenly told that these concepts hardly exist anywhere else as much as they do within their borders. Historical events that have been convoluted into self-serving nationally recognized and absolute truths fuel this mentality. And so it is through skewed perceptions of U.S. efforts to end the Second World War, its self-congratulatory response to the civil rights movement, erroneous impressions of spearheading woman suffrage, tolerance of dissent over the Vietnam War, and after traumatizing events like 9-11, they see themselves as the ultimate embodiment of democracy, free speech, capitalism, and equality. Therefore, even through their faults they celebrate themselves for being well-rounded and lenient, understanding and charged with a moral imperative to disperse these ideals throughout the world. In this same sense, they personify the biblical injunction to become a ‘city upon a hill’ as called for in Matthew 5:14 and echoed in the words famously used by John F. Kennedy and then later by Ronald Reagan to depict the enormous trust and responsibility placed upon Americans. In being founded by diverse immigrant populations looking for a better future, U.S. citizens best capture the historical image of well-seasoned veterans that have fought, struggled, and found unification amid differences that cannot be located elsewhere, and that supposedly serves as an example for humankind to follow.
These ideals are reinforced in the tolerance of ethnic diversity, religious freedom, strong racial and gender equality standards, and the ongoing desire of so many foreigners that attempt to cross over its borders. Thus, people who have filtered through the education system are parented by the baby boomers and the “American dream(ers),” who see their country as a land of opportunities, where an endless work ethic knows no bounds in the quest for material success and having the mere chance to live free from fear and persecution because you may be different. To this extent, Americans advertise themselves and their resolute frontier as a safe haven. Though undoubtedly well intentioned and honorable in its original quest, these American ideals are often vocalized through a preference for positive historical narratives. The resultant American national psyche has a tendency to overstep the boundary from national pride to idiosyncratic provincialism, exemplifying the hazard in not having competing narratives that better educate the popular public support for foreign policy initiatives.
A downward spiral
With such enamored manifestos being present in most countries, the problem with the American psyche then becomes its tendency to give a false impression of its own importance, dangerously straddling the line between national political self-interest and a moral imperative. We have all heard the “U-S-A” chants and witnessed the on-and-off again preoccupation America has with overseas conflicts, as it curiously self-appoints itself as the globe’s psychiatrist. This Wilsonian diagnosis is not new. What has become a recent trend is how this memorialized psyche has transformed into a militaristic platform for oxymoronic foreign policies that are overly aggressive.
The repercussions stemming from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are substantial and can be directly tied to the selective historical memory and lack of competing classroom narratives. There is little doubt that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 unsettled every American. And for good reason. The traumatic image of the collapsing twin towers, a lack of information surrounding the emerging Taliban terrorist faction, and a controversial national debate over the urgent need for a proper response presented the American psyche with its first millennial challenge to personify its originally good virtues and properly rehabilitate transgressing neighbors. Yet, what matters is not whether the actions of the U.S. were justified by moral discernment, but rather how this populist mentality harmed its national interests in nation building and seeking security. By targeting the Taliban and its allies, America declared war on a terrorist faction and not even a sovereign state. What’s more, the U.S. neglected the ongoing civil war taking place within Afghanistan, amongst other colossal challenges. But when God is on your side, every adversary can only be the devil. Therefore, a failure to eradicate the region of their Taliban and later Al-Qaeda adversaries, the subsequent substantial loss of military personnel, the generation of anti-Western sentiment in streets across the globe and among foreign elites, and the trillions of tax dollars that went down the drain made the decision to go to war a self-defeating policy – one that could have been more properly calculated had the American historical narrative been more objective in its approach. It is erroneous to claim that the U.S. public would have altogether abstained from the blunders that followed in Afghanistan had they not had such an engrained national psyche, but at least the breadth of opinions leading up to the war would have varied.
The destructiveness that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced the assumption that the U.S. was peddling global hegemony, but overlooked the subsequent asymmetrical warfare tactics (i.e. the Predator and Reaper drone attacks) as America’s way of projecting its selective historical memory onto the international scene. President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding the 2013 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, underscored the fact that these “signature strikes” were targeting adversaries not necessarily for what they had already done, but because they displayed key patterns of terrorist behavior. This sounds an awful lot like the reflection of the American psyche that endorses the saying that, “America does not negotiate with terrorists.” The downward spiral of America’s unchallenged supremacy that it enjoyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union is partly the result of this rather cloudy approach to war that has moved from conquering foreign adversaries to their total obliteration, as they are seemingly attacking America not because of what it does, but rather what it represents. In return, the U.S. has somehow made perfect sense of complicated identity practices surrounding terrorist factions and engaged in the parallel: killing its enemies for who they are and not necessarily for what they do. In a moment of introspection, Obama later observed:
“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”
This demonstrates how recently, America’s foreign policies that were originally designed to fortify and grow their regional clout have failed partly because of a lack of rational analysis of alternative historical narratives. By demonizing the enemy in such a way, the U.S. has managed to create foreign adversaries all over the Middle East, undermining America’s image as a sincere force for freedom and social justice. So if Obama’s caution is to be realized, Americans must cautiously expand the scope of competing historical narratives in the classroom in order to ‘make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom’.
If history can teach us one thing, it is that every state has a pinnacle of success followed by downfall. Being a relatively young country that has yet to experience true national blunder strengthens America’s perpetuated historical narrative as one of dignified successes, supplying the national psyche with evermore justification to buttress foreign policy initiatives that demonstrate the same moral authority and economic power as in the 19th century Manifest Destiny fervor. Reinforced by past triumphs, the collective mindset of the U.S. has moved from a once self-serving yet successful nationalism that suffused the “American dream” to a self-defeating motivation that has generated oxymoronic foreign policy moves.
By diversifying the amount of competing narratives in American history education to include different perspectives on how and if an event actually occurred, pluralism will logically take its course in filtering and often correcting the memories of past events. Furthermore, it will help prevent U.S. public opinion from engulfing itself in a narcissistic view of America’s role in the globalizing world at large. Until that day, past events such as the war against terror in Afghanistan and extensive drone strikes across the Middle East remain tokens of the dangers of U.S. selective historical memory that loom over its foreign relations, undermining the democratic rationale that it traditionally sought to champion.