MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
In the wake of the Islamic State (IS) attacks in Paris, many American liberals, from the president on down, have accused conservatives of something like warmongering – rushing to demand large-scale U.S. military force in response to a perhaps exaggerated IS threat. There is plenty of truth to the charge. But before they point the finger of blame, liberals should take a good look in a mirror framed by historical perspective and consider their own role in the move toward wider war.
Since the Vietnam war era, it has been common for liberals, especially those at the far left end of the political spectrum, to lament that Americans are, and have always been, too eager to go to war. But history does not sustain the charge. The American attitude toward war has always been ambivalent. In every war that the U.S. has fought, a sizeable portion of the public has either resisted entry into the war or eventually rejected it as a mistake. World War I and the Iraq war saw both kinds of responses.
Since World War II, at least, the American public as a whole has endorsed war only when there was a widespread view that we faced an enemy bent on destroying or conquering our whole nation – what is now often called an “existential threat.”
The loud chorus of demands for more military force since the Paris attacks thus suggest that many more Americans do see the IS as an existential threat. Among the Republican presidential candidates, Ben Carson has used that term explicitly while others have only implied it. Senator Lindsey Graham has also used the term explicitly. A best-selling author echoes that view in the Washington Times.
Over at the Washington Post, the editor of the editorial page warns that the IS, if not already an existential threat to the U.S., is well on its way to becoming one. Other influential voices warn that our “way of life,” if not our physical homeland, faces an existential threat, the same warning often heard during the cold war.
It’s not only conservatives who raise the parallel with the cold war. In the New York Times, liberal columnist Roger Cohen suggests that we are fast approaching World War III – the term used so often during the Cold War to raise the specter of massive nuclear destruction of the American homeland.
In fact, any talk or implication of the Islamic State posing an existential threat to the United States is based far more on fantasy than reality. Why, then, is there such a growing militaristic mood? Which is to ask, why such a widespread belief that we do face an existential threat to our homeland?
Here is where liberals should look in that mirror framed by historical perspective and see something disturbing.
The idea that the United States might be conquered by a foreign enemy had not been heard from a president since 1812 until the iconic liberal president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, voiced it repeatedly in 1940 and 1941. Trying to raise public support for U.S. aid to Britain against the Nazis, FDR told Americans that the German air force was preparing to set up bases in South America, from which it would launch attacks against places like St. Louis, Kansas City, and Iowa – the very heart of the homeland.
Once the U.S. entered World War II, it was natural to extend that imagery of existential threat not only to the Nazis but to the “Japs.” In the late ‘40s another iconic liberal president, Harry Truman, led the nation to transfer the same kind of fear almost seamlessly to a new foe, “the commies.”
In 1960 John F. Kennedy, still the darling of many liberals, won the presidency largely by playing on that fear; he warned that the Republicans had created a “missile gap,” leaving the U.S. vulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack. Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the most liberal president ever on domestic issues, used a similar fear to justify war in Vietnam. If we did not fight the Reds over there we would have to fight them in San Francisco, he insisted.
This liberal heritage made it easy for Americans to believe Ronald Reagan’s warnings about the communist threat – Reagan called it the “window of vulnerability – and George W. Bush’s warnings that Saddam Hussein was preparing to conquer the United States with his nuclear arsenal.
In every one of these cases, historians have been able to show that the threat was either exaggerated or wholly non-existent. But fears like this rarely stem from verified facts. They stem from imagined realities so powerful that they have the weight of myth. Indeed American political culture has been immersed, for decades now, in a whole mythology of homeland insecurity, centered on the notion that the United States faces a permanent existential threat, though the name of the enemy is subject to change.
One of the central tenets of the mythology of homeland insecurity is that our enemies have no rational motives. Like the devil, they are driven by an irrational will to evil for its own sake. The possibility that they are responding to U.S. policies or behaviors is ruled out a priori.
The logical conclusion is that no changes in U.S. policy can mitigate the danger posed by the enemy. Military force to destroy, or at least contain, the threat is assumed to be the only option. The Nazis, whose conquests gave rise to this mythology, still serve as the parade example, continually displayed to prove that this chain of mythic reasoning is valid.
Conservatives have happily adopted the mythology of homeland security and adapted it to current historical circumstances. But its true birth parents were predominantly liberals.
With such a long history of devoted support across the political spectrum, this mythology has become the most basic frame within which all issues of national security are discussed. Voices that do not accept the mythology as a basic premise have been largely relegated to the margins of American public discourse.
Naturally, then, the public response to the attacks in Paris is massively shaped by fears for the very existence of the homeland. Every fearful word is magnified by the dominant mythology into a fear of existential threat. Thus it becomes further reason to demand a stronger military response. Conversely, every call for a stronger military response is heard through the filter of the dominant mythology and reinforces the idea that we face an existential threat.
Liberals may find all this illogical. Devoted as they are to reason, liberals understandably avoid facing a truth they find unpalatable: In political life, as in so much of life, mythology is usually more powerful than rationality. So liberals may easily be unaware of the effects of their words.
But those effects are very real. When liberals say anything that stirs fear of the Islamic State, and when they call for increased military action, no matter how minimal, they are feeding the growing sense of existential threat. And at the very highest level, liberals are doing just that.
Barack Obama has called the IS “the face of evil.” Hillary Clinton has moved hawkishly to the president’s right, calling for stronger military force because “we need to crush ISIS.” Such words are bound to feed the fear-driven war fever.
(The same concern applies to progressives and democratic socialists who are further left than liberals. Bernie Sanders proclaims that “our priority must be … to destroy the brutal and barbaric ISIS regime.” Sanders cautions against rushing to increase our military force, apparently not recognizing that his florid words will encourage the rush to force regardless of his cautions.)
What liberals should see when they look in the mirror, then, is their own double culpability. First there is the legacy of the liberal past, creating the mythology of homeland insecurity that shapes every moment of the current debate. Then there is the reality of the present, when liberals, however unintentionally, help shift the debate to the right with words that reinforce the mood of fear and the resulting belief that we must ratchet up the military force.
Liberals are supposed to be committed to a faith that all conflicts can somehow be resolved peacefully through rational discourse. That is their cherished mythology.
Some liberals may give the proven facts of the current situation close logical scrutiny and conclude that peaceful resolution through reason is not possible. If so, they should do what many liberals did in FDR’s day: consciously renounce liberalism when it comes to foreign affairs.
Other liberals may find a way to break out of the stranglehold of that mythology, dig deeper into the facts, apply a more rigorous logic, and remain true to their liberal tenets. They will find a way to grapple with the complex challenge of the Islamic State from within the traditional peace-oriented mythology of liberalism. So will progressives and social democrats, who hold the same faith in peace through rational discourse.
As a first step, everyone who remains true to the left will patiently explain why American military force against the IS should not be increased but ended – because every bomb that falls is another recruiting card, “like manna from heaven,” for ISIS and another invitation to ISIS to launch more attacks.
As a second, perhaps more difficult, step, liberals and leftists will watch their own words carefully. They will avoid any words that might feed, however indirectly, the image of the IS as an existential threat to the U.S. Instead, they will directly attack that notion and do whatever they can to undermine its credibility. Doing so, they will also be attacking the whole structure of the mythology of homeland insecurity.
Finally, to attack that mythology from another angle, liberals and leftists will examine U.S. policies and actions carefully, asking how we might be contributing to the problem. Out of that analysis they will suggest changes to U.S. policies and actions – beyond an end to military force – that might ease rather than exacerbate the conflict. That’s no easy task. But no one ever said it would be easy to be a true liberal.