Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The wearisome burden of superheroism.

In his fifth voyage, Sinbad came across a taciturn old man inhabiting the island where the Arabian Nights sailor was marooned. This worthy hopped on to Sinbad’s shoulder with his tacit consent and then refused to let go of his seat. Finally, according to Scheherazade, Sinbad had no alternative except to get his tormentor drunk and stone him to death.
Ever since the US of A usurped the role of World Supremo – did it happen in 1898 when it declared war on Spain and with the Paris treaty wrested virtual suzerainty over South America and the Philippines? – the mantle has rested heavily on its shoulder.
In the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched his Great White Fleet of 16 battleships with assorted escorts on a 14-month global cruise in order to demonstrate his country’s naval capabilities and preparedness. (Remember Nixon and Kissinger sending the US Fifth Fleet post haste to the Bay of Bengal in 1971?)
Once you’re on the superhero/superpower throne, it’s not easy to abdicate. You’ve got to keep on playing the role, like it or not. (Lord Acton’s axiom: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Note: Italics mine.) America did try to keep aloof in the Great War till Germany used U-boats thus forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand in early 1917. America’s entry on the Allied side in World War II too was belated: it only entered the theatre after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. (By the way, by a strange twist of Fate, Captain America had become Marvel Comics’ top selling title at around this time clocking a monthly sale of as many as one million copies. Point to ponder: Why is a majority of comicbook superheroes born in the USA?)
What has always surprised me, though, is how Uncle Sam never got his fingers entangled into the Great Game – the on-going strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Empire (and, after 1918, Soviet Union) – during its heyday. The American intervention in the Afghan Civil War was in fact as late as in 1979 as a Cold-War related retaliation to the Soviet initiative in the region and later directly when the Russian withdrawal left a power vacuum there. After the World War II victory, there have been many more episodes in the overseas adventures of Uncle Sam in his Captain America avatar: Korea, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Gulf War, Iraq, and now maybe Syria – apart from his several covert interventions on the side of Banana Republic chief honchos. When you have the world’s biggest stake in armaments, covet the world’s oil reserves most avidly and have always fancied yourself in the role of World Supremo, you don’t have much of a chance. Or, choice, for that matter. You’ve got to carry your burden, trudge with it and like it or lump it. Unless you decide to emulate Sinbad’s “carved in stone” example…