In the face of non-stop stories of slaughter of those meant for liberation, Americans who support the war have retreated from reality to a higher ground: to the purity of their own wishes and intentions. The war is no longer, if it ever was, about democracy or freedom. The worse the news gets, the higher these people climb, away from the turbid waters of the Iraqi hell: away from the reality principle.
It turns out the war is not about American security, nor about Iraqi well-being. It should be obvious by now that the deaths of 20,000 Iraqis has not increased Americans’ feeling of security; nor has this grisly toll improved the welfare of Iraq – least of all the well-being of the 20,000 who until last year still breathed this earth’s sweet air. The worse things get, the higher Americans retreat into a fortress-like narcissism which no facts can penetrate. Read between the lines of the words of those who attempt to justify the inhuman waste of the war and one finds that the war is absolutely vital to – what? To our sense of who we are. “As Americans.”
It is quite a brilliant concept: a war to define who we are, death be damned. The danger in losing the war is not Iraqi nukes or a renewed dictatorship – neither of these things ever really concerned anyone – but a crisis in American confidence and self-identity. The stakes of the war are no more or less than keeping our sense of self virtue and righteousness intact. How convenient, then, that Iraqis should be doing most of the dying. Should we “falter,” or “waver,” we will prove ourselves moral weaklings, apparently. Heavens. Better far that thousands die than that we experience self-doubt. Already the linguistic terrain of the debate has been mined with the notion that withdrawing – otherwise a rational response to a growing catastrophe of our own choosing – is a sign of unmanly weakness. And weakness is apparently the sin most unforgivable to the American Right. Anything else can be excused, including greed and hatred. But weakness? Not a chance. For all their talk of “values,” the only value that matters to them in Iraq is avoiding looking weak at all costs.
There is little more dangerous to this country than a Puritan obsession with searching out weakness – even the weakness of thought and skepticism – and punishing it. Fascism has always grown best in social ground tilled by obsessive fears about “weakness” and a worship of “strength” above all. The deadliest shift within Fascism comes when moral virtue gets hollowed out and magically replaced with power. Power is held to be that which reveals virtue, and virtue justifies any act of authority so legitimated. Iraq is providing a cultural petri dish for the United States. The more apparent America’s suicidal missteps, the more energized will the Right be. The Right grows strong from the energy that must be summoned up to deny a hostile reality. All this energy, produced by resentment, insecurity, and the frustration of a once-great nation, is poured into repairing the constant damage to the fragile national self-esteem.
Pure strength, defined shallowly as the absence of weakness, absence of reflection, absence of doubt, will come to be the all-healing fetish of a nation that knows deep down how far from virtue it has really slid. If there was a real self-assurance about American goodness, there would be no Ann Coulter-like vitriolic anger. If American really believed deep down how good it was, why the need to prove it with the blood of its sons? This anger on the Right is the surest sign of weakness. The weakness comes from internal division, the turmoil produced by the work of denying reality. The war, and wars to follow, will be nothing more or less than ever more desperate attempts to prove ourselves the Exception among all nations: God’s chosen people, incapable of sin. But the awful reality, in the carnage we wreak, will not let this restless people’s subconscious rest. And so new wars and new adventures will be required, in Sisyphusian attempts to erase an ever-growing doubt. And thus will a dumb, silent, invincible and immobile concept of strength come to be feted above all other idols.
What I mean to emphasize is not that American nationalists are divorced from reality but that they seek desperately to be so. And from that protected position, to overwhelm or convert that reality with a higher state of being, called “America.” The shrillness of the nationalism is in direct proportion to the unpleasantness of the reality being repressed. To a people profoundly insecure about their rightness, their righteousness, their identity, their purity, anything they look at is reduced to a mirror of their own struggle. They see themselves everywhere. To try to change the subject from the question of American Greatness to real questions of survival is to risk being labelled “Anti-American,” whose real meaning is “Anti-Nationalism.” Hence the grim, ridiculous determination to “finish the job” in Iraq. Finishing the job, of course, has everything to do with making the US look good and nothing to do with Iraq itself. Why else would people be willing to sacrifice 1000’s of human lives and the nation’s fiscal sanity for the good of a people they know nothing about, have had no contact with, and cared nothing for until the White House decreed that we do so – not to mention that this people never asked for our “help.” Besides the obvious role of the neo-conservative clique in manipulating the levers of the state for propaganda purposes, and the quiescent role of the media, it is clear that to many common people, Iraq has – voila – a deep and intense meaning for them. This meaning, though, has nothing to do with people’s actual experience with Iraq – nothing. And although this meaningfulness is orchestrated and decreed by the government, it endures in ways not merely attributable to top-down orchestration.
The Iraq crisis, precipitated by America, has precipitated an America crisis. Disaster in Iraq endangers, in American eyes, not Iraqis, (who meant nothing the previous 20 years of America-sponsored and abetted slaughter), but the American Faith, much like the crisis brought about by a religious prediction that turns out to be wrong. If we look at an important example of such a crisis – the realization by early Christians that Jesus’ prophecies were not literally true, and he was not returning to rule in their lifetimes – we see that when the assumptions underlying one’s faith are threatened, the reaction is an intense need for affirmation from other people. In such a way, a small Jewish cult transformed itself overnight into a proselytizing machine which took over the Roman Empire. In the same way, American exceptionalism, a secular religion, is threatened in Iraq: “Surely with democracy on one side and God on the other, the U.S. ought to be able to prevail over sordid local problems and convince the world of the miracle of American power: the only temporal power in the world that stems not from control of resources, but from closeness to God.” The fact that the world is merely baffled at our insecurity and at our naïve incantations, and the Iraqis refuse to play their pre-destined role of grateful child enrages American Nationalists. Such attitudes of skepticism threaten the foundations of the American’s (delusional, I believe) identity. Hence the bellicosity toward France, out of all logical proportion to France’s refusal to join in the war, which it shared with many other countries. Joining the war would have had the effect of the Roman magistrate joining in the Christian worship service: the act of joining is a tremendous salve to the Christian’s crisis of identity.
If they believe I am who I assert I am (a privileged, righteous people close to God), then perhaps it is true, after all. . . The reason France was singled out was perhaps due to the way France’s rejection was made so self-confidently, without any apology. France did not make excuses, and so soothe the American insecurity complex with white lies, but claimed specialness for itself, a competing specialness said to be better than the American Way. Other nations apologized for their refusal, showing that they still respected the power of the Master, whereas France declined to couch their refusal in fawning, fearful terms. So France was punished by being feminized in the angry popular imagination.
Note: the above is the text of a flier I printed up for a Halloween Day "protest" a few days before the 2004 presidential election. I walked along the main road in my Connecticut town dressed as the Grim Reaper, holding aloft a sign (atop a pole with a long blade) to the effect that the Reaper supports the man responsible for so many deaths. My younger brother walked in front with a sign reading, "Welcome the Honorable G. Reaper." Wow. My little piece of theatre provoked outrage, obscenities, and expressions of support. But Bush still won.