Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite political columnists, is an insightful observer of the world around us and our place in it as Americans. Her April 21 column, "What the World Sees in America," is a must-read.
Noonan begins with a commentary on the wars America has lately been involved in -- wars of dubious purpose in which our superb military is expected to break things and kill people in response to its orders from civilian authority and in furtherance of the interests of our nation. At the same time, our troops are expected to do "nation-building" in primitive societies where no concept of nation even exists. There's a level of nonsense in this that defies description and makes "victory" (however we attempt to define it) elusive if not entirely illusory.
She reacts to an experience during a recent visit to Afghanistan:
Our long wars have cost much in blood and treasure, and our military is overstretched. We're asking soldiers to be social workers, as Bing West notes in his book on Afghanistan, The Wrong War."
I saw it last month, when we met with a tough American general. How is the war going? we asked. "Great," he said. "We just opened a new hospital!" This was perhaps different from what George Patton would have said. He was allowed to be a warrior in a warrior army. His answer would have been more like, "Great, we're putting more of them in the hospital!"
But there are other reasons for a new skepticism about America's just role and responsibilities in the world in 2011. One has to do with the burly, muscular, traditional but at this point not fully thought-through American assumption that our culture not only is superior to most, but is certainly better in all ways than the cultures of those we seek to conquer. We have always felt pride in our nation's ways, and pride isn't all bad. But conceit is, and it's possible we've grown as conceited as we've become culturally careless.
Then Noonan creates a scenario in which a relatively sophisticated man from Afghanistan visits the U.S. for the first time, arriving in New York and traveling on to Washington. What does he see in the homeland of the soldiers and diplomats who are busy doing nation-building in his own country? The irony is palpable.
She divines the conclusions of her fictional visitor from Afghanistan:
By the time you reach Washington ... you are amazed to find yourself thinking: "Good thing America is coming to save us. But it's funny she doesn't want to save herself!"
(This article was also published at Opinion Forum.)