February 28, 2006

The Apocalyptic Crusader, Continued: American Apocalypse

[I originally wrote this on March 18, 2005. I republish it here for reasons that will be obvious. These ideas are central to our current foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq and the possible coming crisis with Iran. And the Lifton article that I excerpt is an invaluable aid in tying together many of the themes that concern me. More particularly, Lifton's approach (and that utilized by James Carroll, too) perfectly complements Alice Miller's analysis of the psychological dynamics involved to provide what is, in my view, the most comprehensive picture of the forces that give rise to the present crisis -- and this combined analysis also points to the solution, if people will only confront all the sources of the immense destructiveness men perpetually inflict on others, and on themselves. In addition, as Lifton and Miller note and as I mention in the essay about Paul Berman I've also reposted, the desire for revenge features prominently in all of these dynamics. People usually underestimate the significance of that desire, in terms of the scope of its power and its full reach. They shouldn't: the consequences of all these forces tragically continue to play out before the entire world, every day.]

I'm catching up on some articles I first read months ago, but have not had time to write about until now. Here is one of particular importance: Robert Jay Lifton's, "American Apocalypse," from last December.

I find this piece of immense interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it so closely echoes similar themes discussed by James Carroll (noted in my essay about the apocalyptic crusader, and Carroll in fact references Lifton's book, Superpower Syndrome) and, in a different sense, by Matt Taibbi (in an article I discussed in the second half of an entry explaining my support for Kerry in the last election). There is one element missing from Lifton's analysis in my view -- and that element is supplied by Alice Miller. I will deal with that in a moment, but first let me offer a few excerpts from Lifton's article:
[W]e are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing warmaking and military power. Both sides are energized by versions of intense idealism; both see themselves as embarked on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve that purpose.

The war on Iraq--a country with longstanding aspirations toward weapons of mass destruction but with no evident stockpiles of them and no apparent connection to the assaults of September 11--was a manifestation of that American visionary projection.


The American apocalyptic entity is less familiar to us. Even if its urges to power and domination seem historically recognizable, it nonetheless represents a new constellation of forces bound up with what I've come to think of as "superpower syndrome." By that term I mean a national mindset--put forward strongly by a tight-knit leadership group--that takes on a sense of omnipotence, of unique standing in the world that grants it the right to hold sway over all other nations. The American superpower status derives from our emergence from World War II as uniquely powerful in every respect, still more so as the only superpower from the end of the cold war in the early 1990s.

More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement--of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower--the world's only superpower--is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.

The murderous events of 9/11 hardened that sense of entitlement as nothing else could have. Superpower syndrome did not require 9/11, but the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon rendered us an aggrieved superpower, a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit.

Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability. A superpower's victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry determination to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world. Integral to superpower syndrome are its menacing nuclear stockpiles and their world-destroying capacity.

In important ways, the "war on terrorism" has represented an impulse to undo violently precisely the humiliation of 9/11.


The war on terrorism is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end. It therefore enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil.


The war on terrorism, then, took amorphous impulses toward combating terror and used them as a pretext for realizing a prior mission aimed at American global hegemony. The attack on Iraq reflected the reach not only of the "war on terrorism" but of deceptions and manipulations of reality that have accompanied it. In this context, the word "war" came to combine metaphor (as in the "war on poverty" or "war on drugs"), conventional military combat, justification for "pre-emptive" attack and assertion of superpower domination.


The amorphousness of the war on terrorism carries with it a paranoid edge, the suspicion that terrorists and their supporters are everywhere and must be "pre-emptively" attacked lest they emerge and attack us. Since such a war is limitless and infinite--extending from the farthest reaches of Indonesia or Afghanistan to Hamburg, Germany, or New York City, and from immediate combat to battles that continue into the unending future--it inevitably becomes associated with a degree of megalomania as well. As the world's greatest military power replaces the complexities of the world with its own imagined stripped-down, us-versus-them version of it, our distorted national self becomes the world.
At the end of his article, Lifton has several suggestions for developing "wiser, more measured approaches, more humane applications of our considerable power and influence in the world" -- and this is part of what he says:
We need to take a new and different lesson from Lord Acton's nineteenth-century assertion: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Acton was not quite right. The corruption begins not with the acquisition of power but with the quest for and claim to absolute power. Ever susceptible to the seductive promise that twenty-first-century technology can achieve world control, the superpower (or would-be superpower) can best resist that temptation by recognizing the corruption that follows upon its illusion.

To renounce the claim to total power would bring relief not only to everyone else but, soon enough, to the leaders and followers of the superpower itself. For to live out superpower syndrome is to place oneself on a treadmill that eventually has to break down. In its efforts to rule the world and to determine history, the superpower is, in fact, working against itself, subjecting itself to constant failure. It becomes a Sisyphus with bombs, able to set off explosions but unable to cope with its own burden, unable to roll its heavy stone to the top of the hill in Hades. Perhaps the crucial step in ridding ourselves of the syndrome is recognizing that history cannot be controlled, fluidly or otherwise.
As I noted in my earlier post about James Carroll's article concerning the apocalyptic crusader, Alice Miller is one of the very few writers I know of who has explained the full psychological meaning and roots of the phenomenon that both Lifton and Carroll describe so well. Here is part of what I said there:
In a previous essay (also from my Miller series), which began with an examination of the scorn and contempt that many hawks heaped on Spain in the wake of the Spanish election last spring, I spoke of the ultimate roots of the hawks' reaction. After setting forth an excerpt from Miller's book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (which you need to read to understand my comments more fully), I wrote:

"In light of Miller's analysis, we can now see the real tragedy of the terrorist attacks in recent years -- the attacks of 9/11, the attack in Madrid, and all the other atrocities that we have witnessed. The people who commit such monstrous acts are the perfect embodiments of the mechanism Miller describes: these are people who were terribly abused as children (read any description of the kind of education and upbringing endured by any terrorist), yet they deny their own history and their own immense pain, and idealize and venerate their elders, and their religious leaders.

"Now, as adults, since their denial continues, they seek revenge -- and no mounting toll of bodies will sate their need, and their arguments are impervious to reason: [quoting Miller] 'The unconscious compulsion to revenge repressed injuries is more powerful than all reason.'

"Such terrorist attacks demand a response, and they demand that our political leaders protect us from future attacks, to the extent possible. But a reasoned response would be one targeted to those who represent the danger: it would be an attack on the terrorist networks themselves, not on a third- or fourth-rate dictatorship that represented no substantial threat either to its neighbors, or to us.

"But those who plan and implement our current foreign policy, as well as those who defend them, have adopted a different strategy, which arises from a different source altogether. They are using the threat of terrorism as a springboard to remake the entire world, one area at a time -- utilizing the Utopian delusion of 'nation-building' as their rationale, and as their rationalization. They ignore the lessons of history, which show that such a delusion is simply that -- a delusion, one that it is doomed to fail; they ignore the huge costs in both human life, and economically; and they ignore that our current course provides a recruiting tool for our enemies that the terrorists themselves could only dream about, and would not be able to provide themselves, if we did not offer it to them.

"But the hawks and their defenders ignore all this -- and they ignore the indisputable fact that rather than minimizing the dangers we face, our present course only increases them -- because they are not focused on the reality of the threat that faces us. And this leads to the additional tragedy now unleashed by the terrorist attacks of recent years, and it is this tragedy that almost no one cares to name, or to face.

"The fact that we have been attacked by monsters who seek revenge for the injuries they themselves have suffered in the past, and particularly in their childhoods, has provided a morally defensible 'cover' for the hawks now to engage in a similar revenge fantasy, arising out of the injuries that they have suffered in the past, and in their childhoods -- and it takes the form of their desire to remake the world, of their plans of 'nation-building,' and of their desire to impose their will on the rest of the world by military force, one country at a time.

"This is the source of the rage and condemnation you see directed at the people of Spain. The hawks are saying, in effect: 'How dare you disobey and disagree with us? How dare you question the wisdom of our course? How dare you suggest that you might have another plan of action which would achieve the end we say we care so much about, and would achieve it more effectively, and create less new dangers in doing so? Don't you understand that we know best, and that we are not to be questioned? How dare you?'

"This is the voice of the enraged parent -- who inflicts untold cruelties on his child, all the while proclaiming that he is committing monstrous acts for the child's own good. And, in fact, this is precisely what the hawks tell anyone who disagrees with them, and what they tell the entire rest of the world: we know what is best for you, not your own citizens, and not your own leaders. We do -- and you had better do what we say ... or else.
This is the crucial point to note: this statement of Lifton's -- "A superpower's victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry determination to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world" -- parallels precisely the injury suffered by the child as described by Miller. The first is only the adult projection -- across the entire world, with all of civilization at stake -- of the trauma the child first suffered. Moreover, the people who direct our current foreign policy, and those people who support it with enthusiasm, are all driven by the desire for revenge, as described by both Lifton and Miller, for the simple reason that they have failed to surface and resolve these longstanding emotions. The majority of people would rather die than acknowledge this truth, because to acknowledge it would require them to challenge the family (and more particularly, the parental) mythology that sustains them -- and it would require them to question the authority figures in their lives. And this they will not do. As I stated toward the conclusion of another installment in my "Roots of Horror" series:
These are the victims described by Miller -- now grown into adulthood, continuing their denial, with additional authority figures added to the ones they first had. Besides the original parent, they now revere our government and our military and, beyond a certain point, nothing they do is to be challenged. To do so would bring into question these individuals' entire false sense of self, it would undermine their worldview completely, and it represents a threat that cannot be allowed to come too close. As always, what is dispensable in all this are facts, untold national wealth, reputation and prestige, and above all, the lives of human beings.
Finally, with these dynamics in mind, I will repeat part of what I said toward the end of my entry about the Carroll article:
[T]hat is the greatest danger of all: because both sides are utilizing the same overall framework, one animated and given tremendous emotional impetus because of the deep and powerful psychological forces at work, today's conflict could all too easily lead to worldwide conflagration, on a scale we have never before witnessed. And I say that fully mindful of the enormity of the destruction of both World Wars.
In my view, that remains the profound danger -- and the longer the atmosphere of ongoing war and crisis continues, the greater the danger grows.

I wish I could end this post with an encouraging thought, but I'm afraid I can't. I genuinely do think the danger is incalculably great and that, if certain forces are fully unleashed, the destruction may be of a scope vaster than we can possibly imagine. But I desperately hope to be wrong. If I prayed, I would pray to be mistaken about all of this. But I fear that I am not.