Debating whether two things are alike or different is about as useful as building a bomb shelter out of lead pencils. I don’t know anyone who’s stacked millions of HB-2 pencils one atop the other as a shield against a nuclear blast, but I do know a lot of people who slip into the quagmire of arguing over whether x and y are truly alike, or whether they’re so different they can’t be mentioned in the same breath. Which probably means there’s a seductive appeal in these kind of alike vs. not alike debates.
But seductive or not, debates of this nature always turn out to be sink holes of time, emotion and energy, for one simple reason — they’re irresolvable. No matter how similar two non-identical things are, they’re also dissimilar, in some way. You might as well argue that two snowflakes are similar, or different.
Take, for example, the argument that you, and George W. Bush, are very much alike. You both have internal organs, lungs for breathing, you both get hungry every once in a while, neither of you likes being constipated, you’re both sometimes embarrassed, the two of you like sleeping when you’re tired, and so on. Anyone with a half-decent imagination and oodles of time could fill a War and Peace size tome with ways in which you resemble the current-serving president.
But, then , you could also fill a book larger than Gone with the Wind with dissimilarities. You’re from New York; he’s from Texas. He’s the president; you’re not. You ride a bicycle to get around; he’s chauffeured from place to place in a bulletproof limousine. He knows Dick Cheney; you don’t. He could stop the first federal execution in years, but won’t; you can’t stop the execution, but would if you could. In other words, there are countless ways in which you and he are different, and the same.
The futility of debating likeness and difference was obvious in the last presidential election, when endless argument raged over whether Bush and Gore were essentially the same, or different. Of course, they were both the same, and different, so no matter which argument you made, you were right. Still, that didn’t stop a whole lot of people from debating the point.
The Bush-is-Gore-Gore-is-Bush camp emphasized the essential similarities of the two men’s platforms. Wags took to calling them Gush, or more fittingly, Bore. Filmmaker Michael Moore directed a Rage Against the Machine video that had images of the two presidential candidates morph into each other, as clips from either man’s speeches, almost identical word for word, played back to back.
On the other hand, Moore, for all his rhetoric about how the two were in reality one, ran himself ragged when the outcome of the vote was in doubt, organizing people to pressure the Supreme Court to allow the vote count to continue in Florida so that Bush wouldn’t win. It seems that whether differences are tiny or large, depends a whole lot on how soon you’re going to get whacked upside the head with some of the more unpleasant differences. It’s easy to overlook differences when distance makes them an abstraction, like missing the differences that distinguish a convoy of Serb tanks from a convoy of refugees from 30,000 feet up.
Elsewhere, I’ve argued that the US resembles Nazi Germany in its jack booting around the world — a word choice considered an act of lese majesty by modern-day Chauvins. Forever dashing my secretly held hopes of taking up residence one day on Pennsylvania Avenue, I noted that Nazis at least confined their jack booting to Europe.
That, it turns out, was too much to go un-remarked on — kind of like accusing avuncular Walt Disney, creator of so many lovable cartoon characters, of promoting racist stereotypes and sympathizing with Hitler (which he did, but you win few friends by pointing it out.)
“It’s unconscionable to compare the US to Nazi Germany,” fulminated one reader.
At first, I scratched my head. When had I compared Americans to Nazis?
I’d certainly never called the US government a bunch of Nazis. War criminals yes, but never Nazis. True enough, I was no friend of US jingoism and militarism, but try as I might I couldn’t remember suggesting that the American eagle was the equivalent of a Swastika, or that George W. Bush was the last in a long line of serial Hitlers, or that the US Air Force reminded me of the Luftwaffe, or that the US had forced blacks into ghettos as the Nazis had forced Jews into ghettos.
And then it dawned on me — the jackboot remark.
Feeling a little badly, I sat down to write a letter to soothe my reader’s offended sensibilities, knowing all the while that he would never get past the opening sentence.
“Asshole,” I could hear him muttering, as he quickly jammed the delete button, forever banishing my petition for understanding to the ether.
I was only comparing the aggressive expansionist foreign policy of the United States to that of the Nazis, and the readiness of both to press into service powerful militaries in support of that policy, I pleaded.
I wasn’t suggesting they were identical. Like lemons and oranges, they’re both different in some ways, and similar in others. I quickly added that I was in no way attributing the horrors of Nazi Germany to the US.
But as I paused to think about how to continue, I started to remember a long line of horrors of which various US governments were the architects.
For example, the US helped Indonesian dictator Suharto rise to power, then helped him track down communist and other left opponents of his regime. As many as one million of Suharto’s opponents were methodically murdered — with the US’s blessing. Communists, it seems, don’t often get mentioned in discussions of victims of mass, systematic, killings, but a whole lot of them have been methodically murdered over the last century, and US governments have often been behind the atrocities, if not directly pulling the trigger, then cheering all the way. Strange. If you kill communists it’s not considered an atrocity — just a welcome housecleaning. But then the Nazis, who lumped the communists in with the Jews, thought of the extermination of both in the same way. The only difference is that US governments would never tolerate the slaughter of Jews. Tolerating the slaughter of communists, however, is quite another matter.
A decade after killing his way to the top , Suharto — a man who deserved to be called a Hitler more than Milosevic ever did, but wasn’t — invaded East Timor, various US governments shielding him and his regime from any kind of international sanction. While consolidating control over the former Dutch colony, Suharto managed to engineer a virtual genocide of the island’s inhabitants, while US governments year after year supplied the murderous regime with military aid and training.
And while the White House has never given the order to round up and slaughter millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and political dissidents, as Hitler had, various US governments, Democrat and Republican alike, have overlooked, supplied with weapons, supported, excused, and even encouraged nasty Nazi-like regimes that shared Hitler’s penchant for exterminating people, on a smaller scale, yes, but not much smaller — Suharto’s regime being only one of them. There was Pinochet. The Shah of Iran. And Saddam Hussein too, a vicious dictator brought to power in a CIA-engineered coup, who was elevated to the pantheon of officially odious enemies only after falling out of favor with his US backers over Kuwait. And that’s only for starters.
And while there’s been no US-inspired holocaust in the 20th century, other than that perpetrated against communists, the US leads a sanctions regime against Iraq that the UN says has killed well over one million Iraqis. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the deaths were “worth it.” The current Secretary of State Colin Powell says he’ll re-energize the sanctions.
But that’s not all. Other US behavior parallels Nazi Germany’s contempt for life.
The US invaded, carpet bombed, and poisoned Indochina, taking the lives of two million Vietnamese. And while rivers of American tears have been cried (understandably) for the 55,000 adult Americans killed in the conflict, you couldn’t (incomprehensibly) fill a wine bottle with American tears spilled over the much larger number of Vietnamese men, women and children killed in the same war. Which might be like the Nazis treating the lives of their ethnic own (the super-race) as something quite apart from that of the Jews, so easy to exterminate because they were considered unworthy of the empathy one might normally feel for fellow human beings.
It’s the only country ever to use weapons of mass destruction, and it refuses to renounce the right of first strike, even against non-nuclear states.
The National Missile Defense, or NMD, which the Bush administration says it will go ahead with over the objections of much of the world and despite the ABM treaty which forbids it, threatens to ignite another nuclear arms race. If the NMD is successful, it will allow the US to strike first, without fear of retaliation, undermining the post-World War II basis of deterrence, MAD, or mutually assured destruction.
Militarism? American governments, like the Nazis, have maintained huge militaries, and have few reservations about using them, only showing caution these days in not endangering the lives of their own soldiers. The lives of foreign civilians, however, are quite another matter.
Madeleine Albright once remarked to Colin Powell, who at the time was head of the US military, that there was little point in having a military colossus if you’re never going to press it into service.
You can imagine Albright at home saying, “Honey, what’s the point of laying out huge sums of money every year to upgrade our arsenal of handguns if we only use it to deal with intruders? I mean, we have more guns than we need to discourage cat burglars, and cat burglars are never stupid enough to come around anyway, so get over to the Griswold’s and start shooting up their kids until Howard and June agree to let us use their pool on weekends. Damn, we’ve spent enough on those guns. Let’s get something from them.”
The White House’s readiness to use the colossal American military — many times larger than the combined militaries of its official foes has rarely met with much restraint, either that imposed by the UN, international law, or simple conscience. One of the principal requirements, it seems, of being considered worthy of the post, President and Commander in Chief (the Commander in Chief part emblematic of the country’s martial addictions), is to be ready to dispatch foreign civilians to an early grave without losing a moment’s sleep. Which is why governors, who routinely order the executions of people who have more than a slight chance of being innocent, but an excellent chance of being poor and the wrong color, make such good candidates for president. They’re ruthless, cold, and unfettered by moral reservations, but cover up their moral failings by paying a conspicuous lip-service to the words of the Nazarene. Which means, if you stop to think about it, that the world is being run by its most morally odious people a kind of moral kakistocracy of sociopaths, hiding behind the facade of a hypocritical Christianity.
One wonders whether Jesus would have ordered the bombing of Baghdad, or Belgrade, or the blockades of Yugoslavia, Cuba and Iraq, and then dismissed the ensuing human misery and suffering, as unfortunate, but worth it?
Racism? Well, the Nazis had theirs, and the Americans, at the time they were at war with the Nazi Germany (the Nazis having declared war first, it should be remembered) had theirs, too. Different yes. Americans weren’t systematically slaughtering Jews, but Jim Crow and racial segregation flourished, the US Army was officially segregated, and black and white blood was kept separate. Wounded white soldiers wouldn’t, thanks to Uncle Sam, have to be transfused with black blood.
The Civil Rights movement did a lot to change official racial segregation, but anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism — both its unofficial and subtle official kinds — continues today.
And then, if you want to talk genocide, as so many do when they say you can’t compare the US to Nazi Germany, take a look around and ask yourself why you see so few of the original inhabitants of this continent. They didn’t decide to slink away to reservations to live lives of poverty and misery. They were slaughtered, enslaved, and driven from their lands by — could it be? — the original ethnic cleansers.
So yes, while US governments haven’t been entirely like the Nazi government, they have, in some instances, been far more humane, less cruel, more liberal, in others, more vicious, more imperialistic, more hegemonistic, and more murderous.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.