Jerry Saltz Plays the Innocent Abroad


It isn't difficult to go overseas and find things about America to criticize. Here in Germany, I've seen enough of that already. Boring.

Critic Jerry Saltz found a piece of art that made him write:

“This makes me embarrassed to be an American,” the mega-curator of an extremely well-known U.S. art museum groaned to me.

And the thing that made this poor soul embarrassed was the image you see above, of what appears to be an American-made tank flipped onto its top and affixed with a treadmill. As a piece of art, it's no great shakes. I would have stood it on its end and had dove-shaped holes drilled through it and I would have had fountains of fake blood poor out, but that's me. I'm obvious in my sensibilities and certainly not genius enough to put a treadmill on something like an upside-down machine of war. Soldiers are fit; is this a commentary on how important it is to be in good shape before you go to war? The symbols here are confusing.

The problem with these things comes back around to a peace-and-love view of the world that certainly worked forty years ago but doesn't really work anymore. We should strive to live in a world where modern tanks like this are no longer necessary. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the United States is bogged down in several and various costly peacekeeping operations (remember the Balkans or Sinai? Korea? Europe, et al?) and our global footprint is massive. We are leaving Iraq and we are supposed to begin leaving Afghanistan soon. We are sort of involved in something in Libya but I don't know what that is anymore.

Tanks are practically useless in our modern fight against the tactic of terrorism. Tanks aren't really even in serious use--the armored personnel carrier, the Stryker, the v-shaped bottom of the MRAP—those are all in vogue are are much more prevalent than tanks. When an improvised explosive device (IED) goes off, it is more likely to be used against a vehicle that can actually operate on the roads in Afghanistan. Tanks are impractical and go against our “counterinsurgency” or COIN doctrine (such as it is).

As a piece of art, this one misses entirely, and probably not just for me, since tanks aren't the symbol of anything other than quick victory and tightly-formed parking lots. It’s a clumsy piece of work, and it strikes me now as being utterly half-assed.

What should make a person ashamed to be an American is when their country doesn't uphold the rule of law or when it tortures people. I think that when America leaves people to be slaughtered or turned into soap products or when it uses its economic might to crush the aspirations of dirt poor people living in hovels, fine, be ashamed. Don't blame the vehicles that protect infantry when they are advancing towards a conventional enemy (or when they are trying to keep the peace in some dusty, forgotten hellhole). The best representation of such a thing is the exclusive contract with a dictator, signed in blood, accompanied by a bribe, given without competing bids to a cutthroat company full of craven money whores.

I do know this--when the United States military arrived in the tsunami-devastated areas of Japan, a lot of goodwill was spread around, even though the Japanese openly demonstrate their opposition to our armed forces. When Americans helped stopped the slaughter in the Balkans, it would have been nice if Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic could have been brought to the Hague more quickly.

The fact is, they would be defense ministers in a regionally-belligerent Greater Serbia today if we ugly Americans had not used our planes and our wits and our economic power to put a stop to these madmen. When there's trouble, people scream for the Americans and then they scream about the Americans and then they eventually get around to screaming in spite of the Americans. That peaceful part of Europe where this exhibition was held? Venice, you say? Who liberated it? Anyone?

April 25 is a national holiday in Italy, but not because they’re all thinking of San Marco.   It commemorates the liberation of Italy from the Nazi-Fascist regime in 1945, which was accomplished by, among other things, organized  insurrections in major Italian cities aided by the advancing American and British armies.

Lino was born in 1938, and he remembers the American troops arriving in Venice, and how he and all the other neighborhood kids ran to Piazzale Roma to see them and to score chewing gum and chocolate.   He also remembers going with his school to the Piazza San Marco on April 25 that year to celebrate, along with what was probably every other school in the city.   The Piazza was thronged with children, all the boys in short pants (like everybody else, Lino wore shorts, summer and winter –legs all chapped and red — till he was 14.)

The only thing people will never forgive is a favor, especially one that was never demanded to be repaid. Plenty of Italians know the real score of history. Plenty of others look to America to come to their aid if such a fate should appear on their borders. I think we are neglecting Africa in the worst way these days, but the answer isn't guns or invasions. It's a better system of integrating Africa into the modern world, where wars can be stopped in ways that don't require Republican Presidents starting them all the time. Yes, we need peace, not lectures. But America isn't really the devil anymore, nor was it ever.

Anyone who knows how the world really works--the strong dominate the weak, resources are meant to be fought over, and guns rule where diplomats fear to tread--would listen to an American abroad say such a thing out of what has to be some sense of  misguided shame and wonder, "yes, but what is it about America that would make you proud? Anything?"

War should make Americans feel a sense of remorse and sadness. It represents a failure to solve a problem that is now going to be solved in the worst possible way. But putting a treadmill, a hunk, and a tank on it’s back is a crappy way to get that sort of idea across.
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