© 1980, 2014 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: This essay was originally published in the Monahans News under my “Just Between You and Me” column for March 20, 1980. It relates to the events surrounding the assault on the American embassy in Iran. However, while looking over this and other old writings in my files, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance to our current involvements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
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The American temperament developed long before the Revolution. In fact, some might well argue there could not have been an American Revolution without such a temperament.*
However, America did not really have an articulate voice until Walt Whitman. And, for me, what was most peculiarly American in Whitman’s expression was his insistence on being a person of contradictions. He did not blush at such an admission, but rather proclaimed it.
I think that quality of being an American makes it easier for me to accept contradictions within myself, especially in regard to my attitude toward my country. Right now, for instance, I am both proud of the U.S.A. and embarrassed for us.
I am proud because, in spite of aggravation and incitement, we did not react with military force against the Iranians when they took over our embassy there. Some claim, and probably correctly, that such assaults don’t happen to the Soviets because nationalistic terrorists realize the Soviets would not hesitate to sacrifice their own countrymen in order to save face. To a degree, that is what they are doing now in Afghanistan.
To argue that we should do likewise—i.e., act like brutes to achieve at least a grumbling respect—is to say we ought to forgo our notions (or ideals?) of developing a civilized world. If a person who cherishes his own honor succumbs to a temptation to act dishonorably because he realizes his opponent has no intention of acting honorably and therefore is likely to prevail, then he who compromises will have already lost part of the contest, because he will be allowing the opponent to dictate the terms by which it is to be fought.
I’m not claiming we have not acted as brutes before. We have. But, we are also growing as a nation, and I choose to look on certain sorry episodes in our history as teething stages in our maturation. The very fact that we publish those episodes is an index of our maturation.
The embarrassing aspect of the Tehran captivity is that we are allowing the Iranian militants to siphon every ounce of publicity possible out of it. In a manner similar to our mercurial economic news, newspapers grab up every new note of hope and disillusionment. It seems that every time the Iranians see their great moment slipping from page one to the inside pages they pull some new publicity stunt to retrieve their position on page one. AND WE LET THEM DO IT!
I suppose such manipulation is unavoidable in a nation with a free press; and, as much as it disgusts me, I would rather put up with the manipulation than lose the first amendment. Still, I often feel like screaming at my countrymen, “Quit expecting other peoples to play by the rules. Quit expecting them to keep their commitments. Quit expecting honor from them. But, never stop expecting those qualities from ourselves.”
— The Monahans News, March 20, 1980
* For more detail on “American character traits”, see http://www.icyte.com/system/snapshots/fs1/5/9/a/c/59accd6acfd8372a8372b65d71592281c22e12c2/index.html