Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It's Always 'Over There'

I was browsing through the US History section in the local Barnes and Noble bookstore in search of books on the American Civil War. Couldn't find any. A bit perplexed, I asked the store attendant who happened to be nearby. She told me to look up. Turns out that the American Civil War enjoys its own section with an extensive collection of books under its own sign.

According to Barnes and Noble, there are two facets of American history:  the Civil War and everything else.


Thanks to Amber, I have been following this blog kept by a soldier named Nate currently on a tour in Iraq.

You should really read it.

His tone and outlook have grown increasingly dark and somber with time, but he somehow has managed to philosophize the madness around him and expresses quite eloquently the pervasive sense of powerlessness.

This excerpt from his most recent entry caught my attention. Please do not skimp over it as we tend to do with extensive quotes.

When we return, we will attempt to fit back into a world nearly as fast paced as the one we currently inhabit, back into commercial America, the world of malls, fashions, parties and stock markets; back into the world of unlimited prosperity. We will attempt to go back to church, wondering if the preacher in the pulpit talking about poverty in some far country has ever smelled the stench of human feces in open trenches, or seen the look of hopelessness in the eyes of black-clad women walking war-rubbled streets;

The world Nate gives us a quick glimpse into has gotten me to think about what most of us as American civilians have never experienced.

Think about it.

America stands practically alone in the world as a nation whose living citizens have never seen a war ravage their own homeland. The last war on US soil took place 150 years ago. In contrast, the rest of the world saw two epic world wars, and countless bloody conflicts in the last century.

It's always over there.

Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on the Iraq war, don't you think that grossly distorts our thinking?

Our soldiers will return with harrowing stories of courage and survival in the coming years. We will thank them and listen to their stories. After all, they are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends and fellow Americans.

But how about the civilians caught in the war and their stories? What will come of the black-clad women Nate saw walking war-rubbled streets? What will come of their look of hopelessness? One day the war will end, and we will assume that they will picked up the pieces and moved on.

And get over it.

Well, how well have we gotten over the last war to ravage American soil? The bitter legacy of the Civil War still lives on. The rancorous debate over the Confederate flag still touches raw nerves. The names of the Northern generals still invoke strong emotions in many parts of the South. And according to Barnes and Noble, the prominence of the Civil War in our history demands its own corner.

And that war ended nearly 150 years ago.

Monday, July 02, 2007

My Childhood Recollection of America

On the TV screen in the living room of the house where my family rented a room, a major news story from America broke out. The adults around me went bonkers, reacting to the news with utter astonishment and shock. Until then, I knew very little of America other than from watching "I Love Lucy" dubbed in Korean.

My grandfather could not stop raving about America with the newspaper spread open and his jaw practically on the floor. There must be a God and he must really love those Americans, he murmured over and over. This was coming from a man who had long abandoned religion.

For days and weeks since the news broke, the buzz only grew louder. Only in our dreams would we see something like this happen in Korea, my uncle lamented. The Korean people's respect and admiration for America took a quantum leap that day.

Care to guess what the news story was? No, it was not the moon landing.

It was president Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9th, 1974.

A young boy just a couple of years into academia, I could not make much sense out of it, but the adults' reaction around me was what made this historic event pronounced and memorable.

They expressed utter shock and bewilderment, not because of what you may think. To Koreans at the time, the idea that the head of a state would step down for a misdeed which did not involve dead bodies, and that a transition of power without a single gunshot fired would follow, was simply outside of the realm of possibility.

To put this into perspective, at the time when Watergate consumed the nation here, Korea lived under a military junta who ruled with an iron fist. Two years prior to Nixon's resignation, the Korean president had revised the Constitution to completely rig the electoral system as well as the legislative body, and to outlaw free speech.

Although most Americans may see Nixon's resignation as a low point in the nation's history, to most Koreans, on the day when Nixon walked out of the White House of his own volition to the helicopter as a private citizen, America stood tall.


You may remember from your history class that even though the Constitution did not bar the sitting president from seeking a third term, George Washington declined to pursue reelection despite his enormous popularity after serving his two terms.

I am not sure if even Washington realized what a great precedent he was setting for the fledgling nation's future. The example he set became an unwritten law which endured for nearly 150 years, and nobody prior to Franklin Roosevelt sought to stay in office more than two full terms.

What Washington did, and the subsequent tradition of having every president relinquish power at the end of his last term are absolutely remarkable and unprecedented. In most parts of the world at the time of the birth of our nation, the peaceful transition of power only took place at the death of a king, but even that often faced bloody contention. You may point to England as an established democracy at the time, but the British have enjoyed the benefit of the constitutional monarchy which has stood as a symbol of continuity.

What I did not even imagine at the time was that just six years later, my family would arrive in America. Five years after that, I swore in as a new citizen of this great nation.

For that, I am deeply and eternally grateful.