My blog post of yesterday brought a thoughtful response from Rose Kent, a writer of wonderful children’s books: “Some assets can also be liabilities. Our can-do spirit has served us well at times. Surely it brought us independence from the most powerful nation in the world in the 18th century. It saved the world from totalitarianism as well. We Americans need to do a better job of learning from our mistakes. Vietnam became a topic nobody wanted to speak of from early on after the war. But there was a great deal there to unpack.”
As usual, Rose brought balance to my thoughts. Despite my intent, my words came off stressing the negative. What I meant to say is that our can-do attitude is admirable but can mislead us. As colonies and later a young nation, we faced challenges that required us to be stalwart and positive. Our westward push to the coast of the Pacific Ocean succeeded because we held our heads high and carried on. And our performance in the two world wars bespoke our optimistic leadership. Our can-do attitude on the whole is a good thing.
But we as Americans need to learn not to look down on other cultures who have suffered defeats and disasters we have never known. We must learn the humility to see others, who are different from us, as our equals. We especially need to overcome out linguistic arrogance and learn other languages. In the process, we’ll learn deeply about how people in other cultures think.
And Rose is right that we need to look at the Vietnam war and understand why we lost. A good many books have come out in the last half-dozen years examining in detail where we went awry. We can’t afford to lose wars because we don’t understand the culture and strategy of the enemy and can’t figure out how to counter it.
My sense is that younger Americans, those under fifty and especially those in their twenties and thirties, have learned from the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They will do better than we have done. I pray that they study the languages of those who oppose us. I propose that they start with Chinese, a language that taught me volumes about how to think in general and particularly about how the Chinese think.