A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Really, when they complained that we had not fought the Vietnam War forcefully enough, they didn’t mean because we didn’t put enough forces in. They didn’t blame Johnson or the Pentagon. They blamed the left. They blamed the counterculture. They said that American culture had been feminized. ... From their point of view, what happened abroad was really a reflection of what was happening here at home. And we have the same language now, particularly from Cheney, but from Bush as well. ... Their own fears of moral weakness are being played out on this international scale.
-- Historian Ira Chernus
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The Iraq war drags on. Many Americans now see it as a mistake. So what were Americans thinking in 2002 and 2003, when the Bush Administration did whatever it took to achieve this military invasion and occupation of a country that hadn't attacked America? History professor Ira Chernus has some interesting thoughts about Iraq and America. In a conversation with BuzzFlash, he considers what American beliefs and values allowed us to accept the delusional Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld world view. He dispassionately assesses who's actually killing American soldiers deployed to Iraq now. He considers various kinds of victory. And he worries that right-wing framing might lead to the wrong post-war conclusions -- as he believes happened post-Vietnam war. Ira Chernus doesn't have all the answers, but he surely asks provocative questions. For more of the historian's perspective, read on.
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BuzzFlash: In a very insightful piece called Will We Suffer from the Iraq Syndrome? Beware of the Boomerang [posted at tomdispatch.com] you bring up the idea of a "victory culture." Are we still slugging it out in Iraq, with our soldiers still dying, because of the power of the "victory culture"?
Ira Chernus: First, I have to say that I borrowed the term from Tom Englehardt, and his very fine book, The End of Victory Culture. Tom Englehardt is the proprietor of tomdispatch.com. He's also a great historian of culture and a great editor.
My view of victory culture is a bit different than Tom’s. To my mind, the victory culture starts with the assumptions of the first English people who came to North America. They believed they had a divine right to conquer the land and the indigenous people who were living on the land. Their motives were "pure" because they were seeking God’s glory. Of course, we know they were also seeking profits and all sorts of material advantages. But they invoked religious doctrine -- we might call it a set of myths that revolved around a sense of their moral purity, and therefore, their innocence.
That led them, I think, to a sense of special vulnerability, as well -- to this idea that, if I’m innocent, if I haven’t done anything to provoke anybody else’s enmity or opposition, if I’m not part of a relationship, there’s nothing I can really do to change the bad guys’ badness. That makes me more vulnerable and more insecure. I think the victory culture involves these notions of moral purity and virtue, of righteousness and innocence, of vulnerability and insecurity.
Ever since 9/11, we’ve been inundated with the whole constellation of these things in our public culture, certainly from the President on down. But I’m inclined to avoid Bush-bashing. Instead, I ask why Bush’s rhetoric since 9/11 resonated so well with the public? The larger framework of rhetoric that Bush has woven still sticks pretty strongly.
Now we also have the Democrats in Congress telling us we’ve got to cut back our troops in Iraq so we can send them to Afghanistan. We’ve got to spend less money in Iraq so we can spend more money in Afghanistan, chasing the elusive al Qaeda. I think you find this victory culture all over the place.
BuzzFlash: Let’s step back a second and look at the Iraq war. To us at BuzzFlash -- and we’ve written several editorials that have covered this terrain -- Bush has sort of run out of reasons for being in Iraq. It seems to us that his definition of victory now is to not be perceived as losing. He wouldn’t really know what victory was. It’s not achieving a particular set of goals in Iraq -- democracy or whatever. It’s simply not being perceived as losing. Would you agree that that’s a symptom of the victory culture -- that, as applied to Iraq, Americans' sense of mission, of innocence, and being divinely chosen, would then be accomplished?
Ira Chernus: It’s very hard to say. It’s very unpredictable. I’m concerned about the parallels with what happened in the wake of the Vietnam War. Back in the early Seventies, Richard Nixon’s notion of "peace with honor" was essentially finding some way to get the U.S. out of Vietnam and make it look like we hadn’t lost. That seemed to be quite popular with the American public for a few years. By the late Seventies, the notion that we had, in fact, lost in one way or another, was pretty widespread, although it was not polite to say it, as though there had been a taboo against saying it. We know that the Republican right, or the people who we now call the neocons, played very skillfully on the frustration that the American people had that we hadn’t won anything that could meaningfully be called victory. They turned that frustration into support for a huge remilitarization of the culture.
I’m very concerned that something like that could happen now. There’s no need for it to happen. It might not. But it could happen. I think that’s something that people ought to be thinking about.
At the end of the Korean War in 1953, Eisenhower was faced with a similar problem, because the United States had not won. He gave a speech which, I think, is a much more important speech than people give it credit for -- where he very skillfully redefined what was essentially a stalemate as a victory. He said we won because we contained the Communists -- we didn’t allow them to take over South Korea, and therefore, that’s a victory. That notion of containment as victory became a definition of victory as well as peace throughout the Cold War years.
What happened after the Cold War -- and particularly after 9/11 -- is that there was a powerful impulse among the public, and fanned by Bush’s rhetoric, to want to go back to a traditional sort of World War II notion of victory. Obviously, we can’t get that in Iraq. I’m not sure that people are going to be satisfied with the notion that, just because we didn’t lose, we won, the way they were satisfied after the Korean War. We’ll have to wait and see.
BuzzFlash: Let’s look back at something you brought up in terms of the Vietnam War. At the chaotic end of the Vietnam War, with the infamous photos of the last GIs leaving the embassy, and Vietnamese falling off the runners of helicopters because they were trying to flee -- the two people who presided over that were Donald Rumsfeld and his assistant Dick Cheney.
Ira Chernus: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Isn’t part of the backlash that they never got over that defeat, so they weren’t going to allow that to happen in Iraq? They would assert U.S. force in a dominant way, unilaterally. They felt the Vietnam War was a mistake in how it was waged, not a mistake of U.S. dominance.
Ira Chernus: Right. We’re certainly going to feel that from the right wing in the wake of the Iraq war. We’ve been hearing it for a long time from John McCain -- if we had put more troops in, if we had fought it more forcefully, we could have won. But I come at the whole question of Rumsfeld and Cheney back in the Seventies from a different angle. I’m not a psychologist, but I do study ideology and the underlying belief systems of what they say. In my most recent book, Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, I trace the history of the neoconservative movement. What you find in their public words is that they were obsessed with the sense that the counterculture and the radical political movements here at home in the 1960s had weakened the moral fiber of America.
Really, when they complained that we had not fought the Vietnam War forcefully enough, they didn’t mean because we didn’t put enough forces in. They didn’t blame Johnson or the Pentagon. They blamed the left. They blamed the counterculture. They said that American culture had been feminized -- that we had been so weak-willed that we no longer had the resolve to make sacrifices. They had that kind of language which, as far as I can tell, they meant seriously. From their point of view, what happened abroad was really a reflection of what was happening here at home. And we have the same language now, particularly from Cheney, but from Bush as well. I take that language real seriously -- I think they really mean it. I think we might hear an awful lot of that language from the Republicans in '08 -- that the failure in Iraq is a reflection of a moral failure here at home.
That’s why I wrote this whole book about the rise of the war on terrorism -- as a reflection of the domestic agendas of both the neocons and the religious right. Their own fears of moral weakness are being played out on this international scale.
BuzzFlash: If we return to the Puritans' perspective on westward expansion, and we apply it again to Iraq, the victory culture says that as the lone superpower, our nation is, in a way, the chosen people. As we said of westward expansion, we have a Manifest Destiny, and we cannot lose. Those who say pull out of Iraq, those who say it was a mistake, are defying the notion that America should always win. Many Americans believe that we are inherently virtuous and worthy of winning.
Ira Chernus: We need to study the history of these nationalistic ideologies and underlying patterns of language by which people have expressed what it means to be American, because they’re complicated. You’re right, but I would immediately go back to the neoconservative focus on moral fiber, the willingness to sacrifice, to have resolve, because those have always been features of this notion of American virtue. The idea is that we are destined to win because we are a more virtuous people, demonstrated by our willingness to make sacrifices, to stick it out, to not cut and run.
You know, that "cut and run" phrase -- even though it didn’t win the ’06 election for the Republicans, still had a lot of clout. The Republicans were not wrong to place some significant weight on it. Again, this goes way back into the earliest colonial times -- the notion that if you are cowardly, if you don’t have the moral strength to be willing to make sacrifices, to withstand pain, to give up today’s pleasures for long-term moral benefit -- if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not virtuous. And if you’re not virtuous, then you don’t deserve to win.
These things all get tied together in this grand narrative of what it means to be an American, which I think is still very much alive in our culture today.
BuzzFlash: Let’s go back one more time to Iraq. Bush keeps saying we have to defeat the enemy. But as we've said often at BuzzFlash, the enemy in Iraq is undefined and very diverse. It seems to be a civil war, where our soldiers are sitting ducks in between two different sects. We are the enemies of them both, not to mention of al Qaeda and whoever else is there. Yet they keep saying we have to win on behalf of the Iraqi people. The Democrats as well as the Republicans are now blaming the Iraqi government and people, who don’t want us there to begin with.
You have a paragraph in your piece that says, basically, the victory culture is so forceful as a mythology, and it’s so ingrained in us, that it’s divorced from reality. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s an actual enemy that’s definable in Iraq. All that really matters is victory.
Ira Chernus: This is why I called my book Monsters to Destroy. The reality is that real human beings with real grievances oppose various American policies. That is not meant in any way to justify or excuse the way they acted out those grievances, because it was horrible. But after 9/11, the notion that they were real human beings with real grievances disappeared in our culture. They were turned into mythical beings, into monsters. They became just the enemy, the evil ones. That kind of approach has worked for Bush in Iraq.
I have a hunch that if the opinion polls asked the right questions, we’d find out that the American public, by and large, is content to fight a war against a vague, shadowy set of monsters. We don’t need to know exactly who the enemy is, what their grievances are, why they’re fighting.
But you’re right -- that’s one of the bizarre things about this war. We don’t really have a clue, in our mainstream media, what it is that’s driving the opposition. I assume that what’s driving them is that they want us out of there -- we’re occupying their country. But we’re not told those kinds of real human issues. What we’re given is that the enemy is just sort of an ill-defined set of monsters who, because they’re evildoers, have to be defeated.
BuzzFlash: Are our soldiers just caught between warring parties?
Ira Chernus: My impression is that the vast majority of attacks against American soldiers come from Sunnis in a relatively limited part of Iraq. Those are the people who, before the ’03 invasion, planned to kind of melt away, and then regroup and fight a guerilla war. So there is a relatively discreet, definable group that’s doing most of it. The idea that Americans are largely being caught in the crossfire of a civil war is probably misleading.
BuzzFlash: George W. Bush has been blaming the Shiites and claiming they’re being armed by Iran. He believes that the Shiite militias and Sadr City are the main enemies, not the Sunnis.
Ira Chernus: I think he’s wrong.
BuzzFlash: There are mainstream press reports that say the wealthy Saudis are indeed paying and arming the Sunnis, who often are killing our soldiers. But Bush doesn’t bring this up. We certainly are aware that the majority of attacks on Americans are probably by the Sunnis. But that being the case, the majority are not by al Qaeda, which is what Bush claims. But if he’s saying we have to get the enemy, he’s defining the wrong enemy, because he’s saying it’s the Shiites and al Qaeda.
Another issue I’d just like to explore is the nexus between the victory culture and the phrase “support our troops.”
It seems that even the Democrats become paralyzed when you bring up the concept of perhaps losing in Iraq or that they might be perceived as "not supporting our troops." The worst thing about not supporting our troops is sending them off to die and issuing them death warrants in a meaningless war whose mission is undefined -- other than achieving the victory culture.
Ira Chernus: This is going to take us back to our conversation about how this war is going to be interpreted in retrospect, and even if it’s taboo to say it, once it’s generally recognized that we basically lost. There’s going to be a big effort from the right to say, well, we lost because the Democrats, or the liberal media, or the anti-war crowd, didn’t support our troops. I think we’re going to be hearing that for a long time.
BuzzFlash: "Victory culture" is a phrase Tom Englehardt and you have used, but "support our troops" is the phrase that the Bush Administration brings out to cudgel the Democrats, and the Democrats run into the corner writhing in fear.
Ira Chernus: They play right into it.
BuzzFlash: They don’t seem to be able to redefine it. Yet here we have the scandal where Bush oversaw the decline of the Veterans’ Administration healthcare system, where our soldiers came back and were ill-treated medically. Yet, he personally seems immune from it.
Ira Chernus: Everybody who follows the news knows that the Administration was not supporting the troops from the very beginning. We had the reports about inadequate armor.
BuzzFlash: The Humvees that weren’t shielded.
Ira Chernus: It is amazing that the Republicans have been able to create this public perception that the Administration supports the troops, and anybody who opposes the Administration policy doesn’t support the troops. It’s an out-and-out lie, but they’ve been able to foist it on the public pretty successfully.
BuzzFlash: Nancy Pelosi spoke up about the Bush Administration's euphemistic "surge." The White House said her words were -- I’m paraphrasing -- a vile attack on our troops. Now the Democrats have proposed a budget that’s in excess of what Bush asked for, although there are some timelines in there, too.
But the Democrats can’t just seem to say: Oh, really, supporting our troops would have been supporting care for them, would have been supporting body armor for them, would have been not sending them there in the first place. That’s supporting our troops, because otherwise, we’re undermining our military and we’re undermining our troops. But they are so afraid of just that expression -- "support our troops." Yet we have no goals. We have no missions.
And someone like Hillary Clinton, who really almost embraces the victory culture and the "support our troops" culture, is so fearful of the so-called center perceiving things that way, that she can’t turn that definition around and actually reflect reality. She has to reflect the myth.
Ira Chernus: I am a historian. I put everything in historical perspective. There’s this long tradition that, as soon as somebody puts on a military uniform, they no longer really are an individual. They become a kind of icon, a symbol of what America stands for. That, too, is a very old story. It’s still very, very powerful.
I’ve been pondering this. What is this thing about support our troops? Why does it have so much power? Unfortunately, the pollsters don’t ask these questions, so we can only speculate, but we have some literature on the history of that symbolism of the men in uniform. I think it gets its power because it revolves around the very same notions I was talking about before -- ideas of virtue, moral purity, willingness to sacrifice, ideas of people who do their duty.
Very strikingly, you hear it in interviews with the guys and women who are over in Iraq. Over and over and over again, they’ll tell you that they don’t really understand why they’re there. If they offer a political analysis, they generally don’t agree with the war. But they say, well, I signed on, and it’s my duty.
Then the other side of it is this sense of loyalty to their buddies. When you read the literature on military culture, over and over and over again, the main theme is that what motivates soldiers is loyalty to their buddies, loyalty to the platoon, loyalty to the people that they’re fighting with. There’s this very powerful sense of these moral virtues that are expressed in the military more powerfully and more clearly than in civilian life. It’s not only military people who believe that, though. Civilians tend to believe that, too. How many people have sent their sons and daughters off to the military so that they could grow up? I sent him off as a boy, and he came home as a man -- that sort of thing.
So there’s this enormous set of ideological beliefs -- you might call it myths, even -- woven around the military that come into play here. It’s something that I haven’t seen discussed in the media virtually at all, but people who have studied this stuff are aware of it.
BuzzFlash: The Bush Administration have taken expert advantage of these beliefs. Given everything you’ve said, and the whole notion that supporting our troops is sacrosanct, it seems the mere placement of troops overseas within the theater of war provides some inherent cover and virtue to that activity, regardless of the reason or location.
Ira Chernus: Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that the President can send troops anywhere. I've been studying Franklin Roosevelt in particular, but I've been looking at the inordinate power that the Executive Branch has taken over in the last seventy years or so. Maybe the Constitution gives him that right, and the lawyers will debate that. But Congress has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to play a role in determining where our troops go.
Once the troops are there, all of this ideology, all of this symbolism, kicks in immediately. It’s so powerful. Friends of mine went to visit their local Congressman, and the Congressman’s aide said, well, sure the Iraq war isn’t going well. We probably ought to get out of Iraq. But as long as we have boots on the ground -- that was the phrase the guy used -- as long as we have boots on the ground, Congressman So-and-so is not going to vote against any funding for these people.
The fact that the President is free to send troops anywhere, and that the Congress seems to just kind of lay down and accept it, means that this kind of powerful imagery of troops on the ground, our troops, can be used for virtually any purposes that the executive wants.
BuzzFlash: Victory culture -- I’ll play devil’s advocate here. We are a nation like many nations that like sports. We particularly like football and baseball, but football’s become, in many ways, the symbol or the kind of a corporate competition of America. It’s the corporate sport.
Ira Chernus: Because it’s more violent.
BuzzFlash: It’s more violent, and, you know, in baseball, almost anyone can stand out as an individual. In football, you’re really a cog in the team. We root for our teams and we want victory. So what’s surprising about a victory culture? Doesn’t everybody have a victory culture? Doesn’t every country want to win? Doesn’t everyone want to be on the winning team? And if you’re an American, you want victory in Iraq because you don’t want your country to lose. Whatever the goals and missions may have been, once you’re there, you want victory because, just as with a sports team, you want to be on the winning team.
Ira Chernus: To some extent, that’s true. And there’s always going to be some similarities between any two situations, any two nations. But every situation also has its unique features.
Actually just now, this piece I’m writing about Roosevelt begins with noting that historians don’t go anymore looking for the American character. You know, there used to be a series of books back on the 1930s, 40s, 50s -- about the American character, making these big generalizations about America and Americans. We don’t do that anymore. That’s gone out of fashion.
But there are certain traits or certain, let’s say, historical developments, that you can point to in the history of our country that are different from other countries. I think one of the most important is that --and this gets a little philosophical, but I think it’s worth pointing out -- that the United States is, compared to the other major industrialized countries of the world, a newcomer. We’re a very young country historically. And we were consciously created, of course. I mean, who created France? Who created China? Nobody --the French and the Chinese people can have more of a sense that they’ve always kind of been there. They can feel that way more easily.
We’re much more aware of our founding myths -- that’s why we talk about the Founding Fathers. And what brought us together, or, let’s say, the way that the creation of this country was justified, was largely a set of ideas, a set of beliefs, a set of ideals. And so we need a purpose to justify ourselves. I think it’s fair to say that the French don’t worry so much about why is there a France. They’re just sort of there That’s like saying, you know, why is there a Mississippi River? It’s just there.
But in the United States, we’ve always had more of a sense that we need to justify ourselves. When you combine that with the historical reality that certainly, as recent as the 1940s, we’ve had immensely more power of almost any kind than any other country in the world, then this sense that we need to win victories in order to justify our existence, and that we need victories in order to justify our power, and this longstanding belief -- again, going back to the Founding Fathers and even earlier -- that because we need to justify ourselves, we need to justify ourselves in moral terms. Again, other nations don’t feel quite the same deep-seated need to justify their own existence morally. Those kinds of factors put us historically in a somewhat different category.
And then there’s a whole another side to this that we haven’t gotten into -- the kind of imperialist vision and the commitment that lies in the policymaking and that, I think, leads to a kind of military adventurism. Because we have the power, because we have the degree of control that the elite feel needs to be defended and maintained, we’re more likely to get involved in these kinds of military conflicts. Then the victory culture kicks in as a kind of justification for a need for victory.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much.
Ira Chernus: Thank you. I always enjoy these conversations. I hope we can do it again sometime.
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BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
Ira Chernus Helps Us Understand the Administration's 'Scheherazade Stories'-- and Create Better Ones for America (A BuzzFlash Interview, 8/2/06)
Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, by Ira Chernus, Paradigm Publishers.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW