The Lonely American


Gaither Stewart


Each day in Rome I watch the TV news images of American soldiers on the streets of Baghdad and wonder if the same images are even shown in the United States. If they are shown, I wonder why the people do not rise up in revolt. Each day anew I feel a deep sympathy for the infinite loneliness of the American soldier in Iraq.

The soldier in dust-colored camouflage uniform and helmet, his bullet-proof vest (not really bullet-proof and certainly not bomb-proof, as I see each day: five of them died yesterday in Baghdad alone), brandishing his automatic weapon, standing alone at a Baghdad check-point, an empty look on his face (though he must be terrified and wondering how he got into this chaos), surrounded by a world he does not understand, by people speaking a language he does not understand, in the middle of a war he does not understand, this bewildered American seems to be the loneliest man in the world.

Because I am an American, I watch this soldier sadly. I think that there stands the emblem of America’s isolation in the world. And I think also that something is dreadfully wrong in a country that has an oversupply of volunteers to go to the deserts to kill strangers with super weapons and drop firebombs on cities from invisible planes in the stratosphere - and with a ten per cent chance of being killed themselves for the worst possible reasons.

Beyond politics, beyond the questions of war and peace, I wonder about Americans in general, so lonely in the universe. A whole people feeling the loneliness you feel behind locked doors. A kind of vacancy. What is it, I ask myself, that other people have and we Americans do not? Or what do Americans have that others do not? Why are Americans different? I do not believe it was always that way. But it is today. And it is a mystery.

Recently I began asking friends in Italy where I have lived for over three decades those questions. Italians say that Americans are spoiled; they have it too good; they haven’t suffered enough. Europeans often think of Americans as children, difficult children, whom real life has not yet touched, with a childlike air of impregnability about them.

But there is no clear answer. Europeans do not understand my questions. I think my questions are not clear. Few Europeans admit that they consider Americans fundamentally different from other human beings. Few admit to anti-Americanism. For most people in the world we all belong to the same species. We are all just men. We all must aspire to feeling a oneness with the world. 


Still, old friends in Europe occasionally ask me what I as an American think about one thing or another. They ask because they see how different things are in America. What do I think about ordinary things like national health services and pension plans, about unemployment compensation and welfare, about electoral systems and democracy? How is it possible, some ask, that America’s powerful presidents are elected by a minority? Very often they ask about the death penalty, non-existent in Europe. Today in these times, the most frequent questions concern war.

Now, progressive Americans might believe my answers to such questions are obvious: that of course I as a progressive favor a national health service for America, pension plans, unemployment compensation, welfare, immigrants, a multiparty political system, democracy, oppose capital punishment, and reject war.

Still, that is not my point, either. I believe Europeans really want to ask what is wrong with America. Not wrong in the sense of right and wrong. But wrong as in astray, As in to go wrong, But they do not know how to frame the question. They too speak of the differences of the nation of America but I believe that without realizing it they too want to know why Americans as individuals are different from other peoples.

What is missing in Americans? For example, what do simple Mexican people have that Americans lack?

When I settled in Europe in the Sixties, Americans were still broadly well received throughout the continent; America then still had a lot of credit for its help in World War II and for the Marshall Plan, although already then admiration was mixed with envy and resentment at American success and arrogance. Here I should say straight away that Americans were then well received except by part of the sceptical European Left that, as it turned out however, was right in its suspicions.

The pre-Vietnam years were still good years for Americans. America was leading the “free world” alliance against the Soviet Union: Moscow’s quashing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague rebellion in 1968 covered America’s spreading dark spots in matters like Watergate, the crushing of democracy in Latin America, and the growing involvement in Vietnam. The existence of the “evil” Soviet Union and the Cold War gave America’s rulers a free hand as it did for another two decades.

Though as a rule most governments lie to the governed, it was precisely the great Cold War lie that poisoned America and Americans. For it was a lie. In the name of anti-Communism, everything was permitted. Everything was justified in the same way everything is permitted today in the name of anti-terrorism. America was good. God was on America’s side. Few Americans doubted. My generation hardly even considered the question of right or wrong, of good or evil. Everything was clear: Communism and the Soviet Union were evil. America was blessed by God.

The most virulent anti-Communist propaganda filled the eighties: star wars, nuclear warfare scares, statistics and testimony showing that Communism’s conquest of the world was imminent; Soviet military-economic power was a terrible thing. What a surprise then for the Soviet experts that at the end of that same decade the Berlin Wall fell and overnight the whole shebang collapsed. It was a paper tiger.

Yet, more Europeans had begun doubting the state of American democracy. The category of sceptics broadened. Vietnam and American support of dictatorships from Chile to Nicaragua, from Iran to the Philippines, eroded doubts among many Europeans in whose minds America was now becoming the “empire of evil. In America, dissident voices were labelled anti-American, Communist traitors—and today, terrorists.


In Europe today it is no longer a question of what reactionary Washington labels the European Left’s “visceral anti-Americanism.” The sad reality is that antipathy to this America has infected many if not most Europeans.” Now it has become a question of right and wrong, if not of good and evil.

Though most Americans believe in the myth of their democracy, a European poll I saw in the Italian press some months ago showed an America far down the list of developed democracies. The criteria, as I recall, had to do with electoral systems (no one understands the American system!), political representation, the distribution of real powers, etc. For example, surprise, surprise, Germany’s democratic parliamentary system stood at the top of the list.

Some Americans reductively think anti-Americanism is a question of hate and envy of America. But it is not true. It is my experience and the opinion of Italians, or French, or Dutch, or Germans, or Danes, that the quality of life in Europe is simply much higher than in America perennially preoccupied with comfort and ease. This is not to say that Europeans are not greedy and avaricious for creature comforts. On the contrary. Yet, because of social correctors within the market economy, because of the social state, the poor in Europe are less poor than in America. Can any sane person believe Europe is craving for fast food joints and endless shopping malls and national flags and advertising banners waving everywhere and God on the lips of its leaders? Is this the progress America wants to export and go to war for?

The truth is Europeans see America as the land where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. They see a government that does little for its citizens in a land where the word social is taboo. And God has nothing to do with it.

Nor is it true as many Americans might like to think that Europeans want to be like them. Italian emigration to the USA? No more! Many Italians visit America or go to shop there—everything costs less with European currency since the dollar has been artificially devalued in order to make Europe pay for the war in Iraq. But today I know no Italian who would like to live in America. But I know many Americans who would like to live in Italy. If it is true that a tiny minority of Europeans still hold to America and imitate it, they are not the best of Europeans.

Perhaps never before have the differences between Americans and Europeans been greater. But why? What is it? Who is at fault? Why this gulf?


Politics and economics and peace and war apart, I believe it is a question of Americans’ uncertain place in the human race. When I write here Americans, I admit I have in mind white conservative Americans of European heritage of the great American heartland. And also those who spend so much time speaking of tolerance and trying to decide which politically correct label to attach to Blacks and Indians and Latins—as if “African American” and “Indigenous American” and “Hispanic American” made things right. It is my experience that the majority of these Americans are not on the same wavelength as other people in the world.

Oh, the accused will gasp and say how naïve! How anti-American! How narrow-minded! How prejudiced! The fact remains that as human beings Latin Americans are on the same wavelength as other people in the world. Russians are. Arabs are. Asians are. Most black Americans and Latinos and Indians are.

So why not white Americans? Many will be surprised—though they shouldn’t be—to hear that they are regarded in Europe in the same way they are among the ghettos of blacks and browns in LA or Miami or New York City.

And their government is largely at fault.

Their government, their society, and their lonely culture.

American tourists today cut a pitiful figure traipsing curiously around Europe, seeing only quaintness and cuteness and condescendingly trying to imitate. They make countless digital snapshots but never quite get the real picture. As if living a year in a Tuscan village were bridging the gap. The local people will drink wine with you. They will reach out to you. They will try to love you. They want to be able to feel the real you. To feel that you are like them.

But, I fear, they will never understand you or even grasp why you are there. For Americans are a people of many emotions and sensations but embarrassed by feelings.

Even more. Such false relationships are symbolic of the more profound differences, the chasm separating Americans from the rest of the world. How, the European wonders, can a citizen of the leading power of the civilized world support the death penalty? Just think about that one point for a moment. How can you explain legalized state murder to a person who considers it barbarous?

Or, the average European wonders, how can a majority of voters of the land of freedom support a system dedicated to crushing freedom? How can citizens of the land of democracy vote for a government that sponsors dictatorships around the world and calls them democracy? How can a democratic nation exist in a political system of two-parties, which though they have different points of departure and programs, in power are so similar as to form a one-party system? How can a people ready to go to war to export democracy sacrifice its own democracy in the process?

The mystery is why a majority of Americans who bother to vote sustain a government that fears and hates democracy and its own Constitution as ours does? Why are Americans as chained to their leaders as convicts are chained to their guards? And why do they tolerate a government that needs a wall around America?

Which leads inevitably to the danger of the gradual but inevitable degeneration of an enduring ideology based on anti-Communism, anti-Socialism, anti-terrorism, all of course with God’s special blessing and protection, straight into Fascism.

One could think that Americans are retiring from the world. That they have forgotten the rest of the human species. As if they no longer even have the same weaknesses and strengths of other people. That they stand outside even themselves. Outside, and alone.

People from the prison of the former Soviet Union were once like that—when they were let out they saw the rest of the world with astonished eyes. 

I have not answered my question. I still do not know if I have posed the question correctly. We Americans want brief and concise answers to clear questions. Maybe that in itself is part of my point.

I feel ill at ease writing this. I am uncertain. I am sad. I am not objective. But life is not objective. Life is not accommodation. Life is not concise. Human life cannot be reduced to a few precise sentences. Life is not a short short story.

Yet, Americans are different. In a negative sense. My gut feeling is that it is due to a lack of connections with the rest. No wonder the national paranoia. No wonder America’s sense of loneliness.

Hopefully, Americans will begin to search for their lost kinship with the rest. For it will always be true as the English poet John Donne wrote that, “no man is an island, apart from the main.”


Rome, August, 2005

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com or http://stewart.windriverpress.com) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Back Issues.