We Americans are facing a number of crises; this post will examine the pros & cons of Americans’ common values & beliefs (our culture) as it relates to the tasks before us. Most Americans are blind to what this post examines. Several things suggested I write this post, for instance, a good brother-in-Christ, who, bless his heart, reflected the American can-do attitude. (Give an American a crisis & he often will love the challenge.) Today he was sure there would be solutions found to save the dollar, stop Hillary from being elected & prevent Christians from suffering severe persecution. (What can you do but love Americans.) Another item focusing my mind on America’s abilities was to fly over our cities; I am proud (in a good way) of what Americans have accomplished & when you fly our cities as you are landing & see the mighty buildings & superhighways, it is impressive. From a bird’s eye view, it is easy to forget the crises we face. I am perhaps the right person to write this, being both an American and having lived in Asia, Africa & Europe, & having spent a decade living outside of American culture.
I am reminded of the joke, why did God create marriage? So people would not have to fight with strangers. And why am I an American? So I don’t have to butt heads with foreigners. I will use my extensive knowledge of military history to provide examples of the way Americans think. Having grown up outside of America, I will also use my experience gained from looking at Americans from the outside to describe how Americans think. There was a book The Ugly American; it is describing how we appear to others, and yet, while I am not making excuses for what seems ugly to others, if one knows how those apparently “ugly behaviors” became national traits, one realizes these were the traits that meant life or death on the frontier.
First, let’s see how Americans got their can-do culture. In general, Americans don’t like to hear that they have a culture that is deep & determinative, because that means our “self-made-individualism” myth is false. (And for all those who want to argue that Americans are individuals & don’t have a culture, let me say this, Americans think more alike than the populations of many countries. Also, Americans in general hold contradictory values which cause their behavior at times to be a little skitzo, and not all people do what they think they should do,…so long story short…all Americans don’t act the same…but there are general truths that are dead on accurate. So please, hold your piece & learn.) In the old countries, which have long traditions & ancient cultures, many of the problems they face are repetitions of what they faced before, so they grab ahold of what worked in their past. But when the early settlers came from Europe, they faced incredible new challenges, and most early settlers died. The old ways failed. Those that survived were the ones who were innovative & had can-do attitudes and quick learning skills. You made it up as you went. The environment as the frontier shifted west was always changing. My pioneer ancestors looked at what was called the “Great American desert” & they helped turn it into the heartland of America’s productive farmland, the breadbasket of the world. They thrived on trial & error & ingenuity. Older cultures like the Amish & Japanese find success by perfectionism. They refine what was done in the past. Japan & Germany use highly skilled specialists…Americans seek success with innovation. Pioneers had to be jack of all trades to survive. There was always something better somewhere else, so Americans are a restless mobile people. This attitude shows in Americans; they are never satisfied, in fact it is a sin to be satisfied, they always seek a better job, wage, husband, etc. No time to specialize as they occupation/job hop. They had a country w/ seemingly unlimited space, resources & opportunity. There were no limits, & no king or aristocracy looking over your shoulder to stop you. Amer., more than others, believe they can determine their own future. The only attitude accepted in our culture is optimism, the can-do attitude. 4 yrs. ago, when getting ready to compete in a grueling 6 event iron-man contest, I tried to realistically explain the challenges to friends. To be honest, realistic, & objective in America about problems is to be seen as negative & defeatist. My friends thought I must be ready to quit, & thought I needed scolding & encouraged. Quite the opposite, I was going to excel because I was accurately seeing the problems. As my realism being taken for pessimism is pretty much a given, I warn people I don’t talk like other Amer. & not to think I am giving up just because I examine & verbalize the challenges before us.
In WW 2, it was almost impossible for the British to get Americans to think realistically. When they warned us to us to use convoys & black out our cities, we ignored them until our shipping loses were catastrophic. Warned by the Brits that daylight bombing meant unsustainable losses, Americans were incredulous, & bombed by day anyway. Amer. had deluded themselves that our bombers were invulnerable. While the Americans were able to perform their bombing by day (the Brits went by night), we did suffer heavy losses like we we’d been warned. But Americans view defeats as temporary setbacks. Failures & their consequences are seen as temporary. Fortunately, it was a British general Montgomery, who had control of Normandy’s D-day planning/execution, and he doubled the no. of troops going in on the first wave from what the Americans unrealistically thought would work. Taking risks on the frontier was a normal day. To stop believing in oneself could mean death on the frontier. The pioneers had nothing to fear from taking risks, while in the old countries, the attitude was opposite. Americans are sure that if they persist, they will prevail. We are the progeny of the successful pioneers. So in WW 2, we suffered incredible losses in the Huertgen Forest & at Metz, two silly battles that had no purpose except once we started, our generals had the attitude if they persisted, they would prevail. If we are forced to quit persisting, then we delude ourselves that we didn’t want to win. Americans have told me we didn’t lose in Vietnam, we just didn’t care to win, so we left. In their minds, we remain undefeated.
Having cut themselves off from the old world & history, and looking forward to the new challenges in their New World, most Americans have in general only associated w/ other Americans, or foreigners that are trying to share the myth that America is the land of no limits to opportunities. Long story short, Americans are convinced that other people are all fundamentally like Americans. Differences are, they believe, minor, surface & insignificant. And Amer. stubbornly refuse to believe culture is important, or else they can’t be self-made. When foreigners don’t give up their odd behaviors & strange attitudes, Americans see them as “unreasonable”, “rigid” & not motivated to understand. The reality is that foreigners are drawing from the deep wells of their old cultures. From having been in 34 countries, I can honestly say Americans are uniquely unable to deal w/ foreigners, & poorly equipped to comprehend the views of others. Since Amer. see themselves as diverse & multicultural, they think we are normal, and everyone should come around to our way of thinking. To others we simply seem arrogant & ignorant. Our allies, the British, in WW 2 saw us that way. Our enemies, the Germans, did too. We told our tankers that American tanks were superior to German tanks. They had to wait until battle to learn different. When Rommel attacked us, reality intruded. Our tanks, Lees & Grants, were toys…even the standard battle tank the Sherman, was a toy compared to the German main battle tanks. Even American tankers 18 months later, when going into battle the first time, were still being lied to that America’s tanks were superior to Germany’s.
The lens of rose colored optimism in America has created a culture of hype. Obstacles are trivialized. Fake it, ‘til you make it. My West Point training is a case in point. Our honor system stressed never lying. But a good pull out factor—faking it, was highly valued. As one highly successful Amer. businessman said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” Older cultures don’t trivialize risks. In fact, if things are working smoothly, Amer. get uneasy & fretful. In the work force, I repeatedly saw things fixed that were never broken, because change is seen as good. If it isn’t broken, then break it, seems the American way. That is seen as pro-active. When I was Amish, I was often bombarded by Americans saying the Amish should change…it seemed of no consequence to these advice givers that the Amish were successful. Darn-it they should change & get with the program.
What we have discussed is the Can-do attitude that was life or death for the pioneers. They had to be resourceful, ingenious problem solvers or die. In fact, in the early colonial days most did die. To be satisfied in a land with no limits was to be someone who has given up. They did not want to listen to, “Here is why it won’t work…” Americans still don’t. The frontier called for flexibility. But Amer. flexibility can easily morph into simply spinning one’s wheels needlessly…change for change sake. The Amer. workplace is in constant flux. Managers want to shake things up & leave their own mark. Change is valued over continuity. Optimism (no matter how wildly unrealistic) is valued. If you are realistic, you will be told to get a grip on things, snap out of it, & things will work out. The can-do attitude at times achieves incredible things. The first sub “Turtle” (invented by an Amer. in the Amer. Revolution) was an example of the Amer. spirit. I was fascinated that he used luminous foxfire plants to light up the dials in the dark. In the Civil War, lacking skilled craftsmen, materials & accurate plans, Capt. Issac N. Brown constructed the Confederate ironclad CSS Arkansas, which could outfight all the in theater Union ships (as well as the entire British & French fleets). For his crew of 232, he used recruits who were willing but by & large had never been on a ship. Another example, of the can-do spirit is the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Seriously hit in a battle in Aug 24-25, ’42 & again in Oct. 25, ’42, both times the crew of the carrier creatively repaired the ship. Japanese estimates that the ship would out be of action for a long time for repairs were foiled because of Amer. ingenuity. The inventiveness of the Americans repeatedly helped in WW 2, but typically we were short on experience. Failure was typically viewed as laziness or incompetence; & officers in charge sacked, even if the facts showed they’d done their job as well as could be expected. Americans don’t tolerate negative attitudes or failure, even though they tend to operate on hype rather than realism. These are the cultural attitudes as we enter into some of the hardest trials this nation has ever experienced. I, of course, would like to see more realistic thinking, but I know that that challenges some of America’s cultural myths to their core!!