February 20, 2007

Dominion Over the World (VII): The Mythology of the "Good Guy" American

Part I: Iraq Is the Democrats' War, Too

Part II: Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much

Part III: The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony

Part IV: A "Splendid People" Set Out for Empire

Part V: A Global Empire of Bases

(Sidebar): Ah, Democracy...Ah, Peace

Part VI: Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas

In a number of essays, I've discussed the mythology about America and Americans that the great majority of people unthinkingly accept. Most recently, I analyzed this mythology with regard to the history of United States foreign policy, in the second part of this series.

As I described it in that piece, "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much," our national mythology sees the United States as uniquely successful in world history. We see our success, and our power on the world stage, as inherently tied to superior moral virtue. We are so successful because we are uniquely virtuous, and our national power confirms our morality, in relation to which all other peoples and all other countries can only suffer in comparison. One of the many dangerous and inevitable consequences of this view is an often virulent racism that has been reflected in our treatment of many very numerous groups of people: the Native Americans, the slaves who were brought here and were an integral part of the new country's economy, Germans in World War I (German-Americans were the "scum of the melting pot," who now needed to be gotten "rid of"), the Japanese in World War II (the "yellow Japs," who were "regularly compared" to "monkeys, baboons, and gorillas"), and a number of other foreigners and immigrants. Very recently, we witnessed the sickening spectacle of this atavistic racism unleashed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I expressed the relevant part of this national mythology as follows:
In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
One point is crucial: a critical part of our national mythology is the insistence on viewing our nation and ourselves as Americans in comparative terms. When we insist that we are uniquely "good" and "virtuous," this logically necessitates a further conclusion: we are better than everyone else. We are "the Good Guys." The emphasis is not only on "Good," but on "the": we are the Good Guys in a way that no one else is, or can ever be. (On this issue, also see this post from yesterday, in response to this.)

There is still another vital point. This kind of perspective arises in large part out of what Chris Hedges calls "mythic war," a subject I discussed in the third part of my Iran series. Note how Hedges describes this phenomenon (from his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning), and note how it tracks the way in which we view ourselves all the time, even when we are nominally at peace:
But in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses.


When we allow mythic reality to rule, as it almost always does in war, then there is only one solution--force. In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build. [See The Apocalyptic Crusader for more on this point.]


The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. ... By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune.
This in turn ties directly into William Pfaff's point that Americans "think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it" -- a solution which is unique and so supremely good that we are obliged to share it with others, by force as necessary.

I want to emphasize that this mythology about America is one that, in its central components, arises out of a perspective based on endless, violent conflict: in this sense, we see our country and ourselves as being eternally and perpetually at war. This is a matter of considerable consequence. Given events of the last several years, we can see that it is not at all inaccurate to observe that when wars which are necessary for our self-defense do not manifest themselves, we must invent them. In large part, this explains why Americans acquiesced in our criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq -- and why there is now no massive public demand that we end it immediately. In terms of our mythology, we see ourselves as always being at war, with peoples and countries that are always our inferiors. In this manner, we ensure that what we perceive as an "existential" threat to our nation's continued survival is always present. And so we very frequently are at war (and if not war conducted openly, we engage in an endless series of covert interventions).

Through a series of events that constitute in large part only an historical anomaly, we are now the sole superpower in the world. Needless to say, for many Americans this only serves as further proof of these beliefs, which are treated as unquestionable axioms. After all, only the best and most virtuous nation could become the sole superpower. This set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing beliefs is shared by almost our entire governing class, regardless of party affiliation, and it serves as part of the foundation of our foreign policy in its broadest outlines. Because of our sole superpower status and the underlying mythology to which it connects, we as a nation are at an exceptionally dangerous moment historically, one which has no antecedents in certain ways.

Let's return to this notion of Americans as "the Good Guys." As I've noted before, the first international episode which established the pattern for U.S. interventions overseas occurred with the U.S. occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. The following excerpts are from Paul A. Kramer's The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. If you hold the belief that we are uniquely good and virtuous in almost all our actions, see how that conviction fares as you read the following (the highlights are mine, and I've omitted the numerous footnotes):
On the ground, racial terms like "gugu" and "nigger" both reflected and enabled a broadening of the enemy. In their letters and diaries, U.S. soldiers sometimes attached them to descriptions of combat status -- such as "nigger army" -- which, in effect, made them racialized terms for "insurgent." In some cases, they continued to distinguish combatants and non-combatants, referring to the latter as "natives" or "Filipinos." But in other cases, soldiers used both "gugu" and "nigger" to refer explicitly to noncombatants. "At meals [sic] times there are always a lot of little 'gugus' around, each with his tin can, begging scraps to eat," wrote Perry Thompson. Peter Lewis described how "the Niggers keep going to Church" on Easter. ...

Racial terms and exterminist sentiment were at the center of the most popular of the U.S. Army's marching songs, which marked the Filipino population as a whole as the enemy and made killing Filipinos the only means to their civilization.


One Nebraskan soldier boasted to his parents of his comrades' bold, aggressive fighting spirit, restrained only by officers' reticence. "If they would turn the boys loose," he wrote, "there wouldn't be a nigger left in Manila twelve hours later." ...

Racial exterminist impulses were also in evidence in U.S. soldiers' descriptions of violence against prisoners and civilians. The American torture of prisoners -- some fraction of which appeared in soldiers' letters, newspaper accounts, and court-martial proceedings -- was often, if not always, justified as a means of intelligence-gathering. The most notorious form of torture by the American side, if far from the only one, was the "water cure," in which a captured Filipino was interrogated while drowned with buckets of filthy water poured into his mouth. The scale of its practice and the frequency of death remain difficult if not impossible to establish. Later blamed almost exclusively on the United States' Macabebe Scouts [a Filipino group with whom the U.S. Army closely collaborated, just as the Spanish colonial army had previously "recruited" them], it was in fact the tactical expression of the military policy of attraction, undertaken in many cases by U.S. and Filipino forces working together both secretly and with the tacit approval of U.S. officers. In the context of guerrilla war, the water cure would simultaneously cure Filipinos of their unknowability and Americans of their ignorance.


Along with torturing them, U.S. soldiers also killed Filipino prisoners. Rumors of "no-prisoners" orders were common. Arthur C. Johnson of the Colorado Volunteers, for example, reported as early as February 1899 that Manila's prisons were already overflowing, and "the fiat is said to have gone forth that no more prisoners are to be taken"; he anticipated that "the Filipino death list promises to correspondingly increase." ...

The ultimate form of exterminist war was the killing of acknowledged noncombatants. As early as April 12, 1899, an entry in Chriss Bell's diary took derecognition to its furthest extension: Filipinos had already "caused so much trouble & murdered so many of our boys" that U.S. soldiers "recognize them no longer but shoot on sight all natives. Natives will not or cannot understand kind & civilized treatment. If you treat them as equals they will think you are afraid of them & murder you."


One of the most banal and brutal manifestations of racialization was U.S. soldiers' imagination of war as hunting. The Manila occupation and "friendly policy" had frustrated martial masculinity; the metaphor of the hunt made war, at last, into masculine self-fulfillment. All at once, a language of hunting bestialized Filipinos made sense of guerrilla war to American troops, and joined the latter in manly fraternity. "I don't know when the thing will let out," wrote Louis Hubbard one week into the war, "and don't care as we are having lots of excitement. It makes me think of killing jack rabbits."


The most notorious orders of indiscriminate killing were Gen. Jacob H. Smith's late October 1901 instructions to Marine Maj. Littleron W.T. Waller, following Filipino revolutionaries' successful surprise attack against U.S. soldiers at Balangiga on the island of Samar, to make reprisals against the entire population of the island. "I want no prisoners," he had directed. "I wish you to kill and burn." Smith ordered "all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States." When Waller had asked the general for clarification, Smith stated that he considered any person over the age of ten "capable of bearing arms." The interior of Samar must be made "a howling wilderness!" The direct result of these instructions was systematic destruction and killing on a vast scale.
The genuinely shocking similarity of all these details to what has unfolded in Iraq, and what continues to unfold in that devastated country every day that we remain, is so obvious that I need not belabor the point. But the similarities do not end there. There were some attempts to publicize the horrors of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, in hopes of stopping them. Then, as now, such efforts had almost no success at all:
If racialization encouraged U.S. soldiers to broaden the war toward exterminism, race also legitimated this process from above, undermining moral and legal claims against U.S. soldiers accused of wartime atrocities in the halls of American governance, in press debates, and in courts-martial. Race would not only justify the ends of the war -- especially as the necessary response to Filipino savagery and tribal fragmentation -- but would be used to justify many of the "marked severities" employed by U.S. soldiers to bring it to its desired conclusion.


In both the press and the Senate hearings, the army's defenders repeatedly held that atrocities were rare; that where they occurred they were swiftly and thoroughly punished; and that testimony to the contrary was exaggerated, partisan, cowardly, and traitorous. But racial arguments, of at least four varieties, were crucial to defending the war's means, just as they had been to the justification of the war's ends. The first variant claimed that the Filipinos' guerrilla war, as "savage" war, was entirely outside the moral and legal standards and strictures of "civilized" war. Those who adopted guerrilla war, it was argued, surrendered all claims to bounded violence and mercy from their opponent. ...

In their effort to depict Filipino combat as savage, the war's defenders made much of what they considered evidence of a Filipino "race war" against whites. Racial exterminism by whites, it seemed, was merely the inevitable, progressive working out of history; race war took place only when nonwhites resisted white domination, in violation of the natural order. ... The Filipinos' race war, it appeared, contrasted sharply with the war of civilization waged by the United States.

If the first argument defined U.S. actions as outside the moral and legal frameworks of civilized war, a second one distanced American atrocities from U.S. initiative: Civilized men might reluctantly adopt savage methods to defeat savages, but they could do so without surrendering their civilization; guerrilla war was tactical for whites, ethnological for nonwhites.


If U.S. atrocities were not a matter of race, they must be a matter of emulation: Americans appropriated what little savagery they had undertaken from their immediate surroundings. ... Where forced to concede that American soldiers had participated in torture, apologists claimed they were merely mimicking or assisting Macabebes. Torture by whites, then, was not morally or racially essential but temporary, contingent, and contextual.


A third argument attributed U.S. atrocities entirely to Macabebe collaborators organized into Scout units. While the emulation argument suggested that Americans were merely subject to the tutelage of savages, this third argument was that atrocities had been committed almost entirely by cooperating Filipino troops over whom American officers had little or no control. Call it a policy of outsourcing savagery; where the Macabebes had been hailed as "Filipinos in Uncle Sam's Uniforms" during their recruitment, they were represented during atrocity investigations as a kind of mad unconscious that could neither be dispensed with nor fully harnessed. ...

A fourth argument, that of "degeneration," made U.S. atrocities the by-product of civilizational meltdown. Inextricably a medical, racial, gendered, moral, and sexual discourse, "degeneration" had attained its greatest explanatory power at this moment on a vast, Euro-American and interimperial scale. Discourses of "degeneration" had been common throughout the war, emerging from anxious discussions of tropical heat, disease, and exhaustion, as well as contact between "races." It was unsurprising, then, that it came to play a key role in rationalizing U.S. atrocities: rather than "emulating" their human and physical environments, American soldiers had collapsed into them.


The unit's moral "degeneration" is ... a mirror of its surroundings. Cut off from civilized associations, they are imprinted with -- indeed penetrated by -- their savage surroundings. Here, perhaps, was an eerie reversal of the water cure, in which Americans were being forced to consume the Philippines against their will.
Most Americans know nothing of this history. Large-scale public ignorance is necessary to the perpetuation of a fundamentally false national mythology. Today, more than one hundred years later, all of this is repeated again, in precisely the same form. An honest observer knows that we learn only of some of the worst atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, those that cannot be denied or covered up. There are countless acts of barbarism about which we will never learn anything. And even when we cannot deny the occurrence of monstrous acts, we minimize and "explain" them using identical, contemptibly dishonest mechanisms.

Our mythology is crucially tied to our conception of our self-worth. For most of us, it is life itself. Dispense with the lies and death ensues, at least that is how many Americans experience it psychologically. I think only a monumental shock to these illusions -- in the form of a major economic collapse, a conflict of horrifying devastation, or by some other means -- will ever pry most Americans from these dangerous and destructive fables to which they cling with increasing desperation. In the meantime, the death and destruction will go on, exactly as they have before -- and most of us will do precious little to try to stop them.

Tragically, the truth for many Americans is still worse. In an essay about the alleged policy justifications for the Philippine occupation, "The Old Theme -- A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do," I offered some excerpts from Matthew Frye Jacobson's Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. The final passage from Jacobson that I included was this one:
When we recall and squarely face U.S. conduct in the Philippines at the dawn of Pacific empire in 1899, we [cannot] pass off the U.S. rise to global predominance as blind, unintentional, or accidental. Despite some opposition, the United States consciously chose imperial power along with the antidemocratic baggage and even the bloodshed that entailed; and many Americans--none more than Teddy Roosevelt--liked it.
To which I added:
And too many Americans like it still.
And that, dear reader, is the simple, infinitely awful truth.