Chernus, The American Audience in the Theater of War

Posted on

[Note to Tomdispatch Readers: After you’ve read the Chernus piece and my introduction, check out my newly reissued, updated-for-Iraq book, The End of Victory Culture; it offers a history of American triumphalism from the first captivity narratives of the Puritans through Rambo and Pvt. Jessica Lynch that makes some sense of the present moment. It can be purchased by clicking here]

Has anyone noticed that our commander-in-chief no longer plays dress up? He hasn’t done so for a while and that’s no small thing. It’s a phenomenon that came and went almost without comment in the media.

I don’t remember the first time I noticed that George W. Bush liked to dress up. It could have been in May 2003 when he strutted across that carrier deck all togged out to announce that “major combat operations had ended” in Iraq, or when he started appearing before massed, hoo-ahing troops in military-style jackets with “George W. Bush, Commander in Chief” hand-stitched across the chest, or when he served that inedible turkey in Baghdad. I can’t tell you either when it first registered that he was visibly enjoying himself “in uniform”; or when it occurred to me that this was not just play-acting, but actual play of a very young and un-presidential sort; or when I first noticed that, “in uniform,” he looked strangely like a life-sized version of the original 12-inch G.I. Joe doll. (“Action figure” was the term first invented for it, because who wanted a boy to think he had a Barbie, even if it came with its own “beach assault fatigue shirt” and “bivouac pup-tent set”?)

Here’s something I suspect goes with the above. With rare exceptions, the fiercest post-9/11 “warriors” of this administration were never in the military. They had, in the Vice President’s words, “other priorities in the ’60s.” Hence that old (and not very useful) term “chickenhawks.” On the other hand, a surprising number of Democrats in Congress had actually served in the military — not that, from Senators Max Cleland to Jack Reed, it did them much political good. Americans have preferred, it seems, to hear their war stories from the men who sat out the wars.

The reason, I suspect, is simple enough. I’m about George Bush’s age. My father, like his, fought in Asia in World War II. In the 1950s, my childhood years, that generation of fathers — the ones I knew, anyway — were remarkably silent on their actual war experiences, but to us kids that made no difference. All we had to do was walk to the nearest neighborhood movie theater, catch Merrill’s Marauders, or some other war flick, and it was obvious enough just what heroic things they had accomplished. George Bush and I both sat in the dark, enveloped in the same American mythic tradition — already then a couple of hundred years old — that I’ve called “victory culture”; we knew Americans deserved to, and would, triumph against savage enemies out on some distant frontier; we both thrilled to the sound of the bugle as the blue coats charged; we both felt the chills run up our spine as, with the Marine Hymn welling up, the Marines advanced victoriously while “The End” flashed on the screen.

Here’s the difference: I left that movie theater in the Vietnam era. Much of the Bush administration seems to have remained in the dark. There, it seems, they sat out defeat and emerged strangely untouched, as I’ve written elsewhere, as the Peter Pans of American war play. While, in the 1980s, G.I. Joe shrunk to 3¾-inch size to squeeze into the Star-Wars universe and began fighting fantasy villains, while others absorbed the Vietnam lesson, they arrived in the post-9/11 moment with a still untarnished dream of American triumphalism. And that, as Ira Chernus makes clear below, is what Americans wanted — and many, against all odds, still want — to hear.

The President and his top officials were the ones who could still embody the idea of a “good war,” both enjoying the performance themselves and making it seem thrilling; and, for some years, a remarkable number of Americans suspended Vietnam-style disbelief and went with the flow. Under the circumstances, a surprising number still do. It just turned out — and who in the “reality-based” world can truly be surprised — that they couldn’t translate their all-American fantasy world, or the President’s dress-up dreams, into reality. Fighting actual wars proved a painfully different matter. Tom

Glued to Our Seats in the Theater of War
Tall Tales from the Annals of the Bush Administration
By Ira Chernus

A week has passed since George W. Bush announced that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq in “a security engagement that extends beyond my Presidency.” Last spring, those words would have evoked howls of protest from Democratic leaders. Now, scarcely a peep.

While the world was on August vacation, Republican and Democratic leaders moved toward a compromise. The outlines are clear enough: Some U.S. troops will start leaving Iraq soon, but tens of thousands will stay on indefinitely with a permanent mission of providing something called “overwatch.” This open-ended “Korea model” seems to be a done deal. About the only issue left to debate is how fast the “transition” should happen, how quickly the troops that aren’t staying should be “redeployed.”

Peace activists who despair of the spineless Democrats should keep in mind that Bush and Cheney have compromised, too. In his most recent speech, just six years and two days after he became our tough-as-nails “war president,” the Decider announced that he has decided to do what many Democrats and the peace movement have been demanding — begin getting troops out of Iraq.

Yes, the numbers will be so pitifully small that many already claim they are meaningless. Nonetheless, it’s a major shift in Bush’s narrative. And that counts for something all too real, because the debate is hardly about policy any more. It’s mainly about the stories we tell about policy — and about “America.” Perhaps it always was.

Every war is bound to turn into a story. Every war is experienced as dramatic spectacle — the more mythic the better. It’s no coincidence that the military refers to a battle zone as a “theater.”

Political “battles” are high drama, too. On the campaign trail, the most gripping plot usually wins. In that context, a debate about the math of minimalist “drawdown” — how many troops should leave and how soon — is hardly the stuff of legend, the sort of thing to fuel public passions. And yet the two major parties have to conjure up the illusion of a profound, emotionally stirring difference between them. So they turn a debate like the present one about troop numbers and time frames into a contest between larger competing narratives.

Last spring, with the President’s surge plan seemingly floundering, it looked like the Democrats were winning that contest. Then, over the summer, the administration began to catch up — and not just by accident. According to the Washington Post:

“Ed Gillespie, the new presidential counselor, organized daily conference calls at 7:45 a.m. and again late in the afternoon between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the U.S. Embassy and military in Baghdad to map out ways of selling the surge. From the start of the Bush plan, the White House communications office had been blitzing an e-mail list of as many as 5,000 journalists, lawmakers, lobbyists, conservative bloggers, military groups and others with talking points or rebuttals of criticism. Between Jan. 10 and [early September], the office put out 94 such documents.”

Call it a surge of words on the home front. But mounting a publicity blitz, no matter how well funded, is no guarantee of success. You have to put on a show good enough to sell tickets and elicit applause. So, why did the pro-war show draw a big enough audience (at least among beleaguered Republicans) that many key Democrats, frustrated by Congressional voting math and frightened for the 2008 electoral future, began to wave the flag of compromise — and so few Republican Senators were willing to support even the Democrats’ half-way measures?

A War President Who Can’t Win the War

Part of the answer is revealed in the most astounding polling figure of recent weeks. A New York Times poll asked, “Who do you trust the most with successfully resolving the war in Iraq?” In response, only 5% of those polled gave the nod to the Bush administration, just 21% to Congress, but fully 68% — more than two out of three — plunked for “the military.”

Once again, the top-rated show of the season is evidently that all-time favorite, “The Military Saves the Day,” a sequel to the smash hit of the past several seasons, “Support Our Troops.” No wonder the White House brought its hero and surge commander, General David Petraeus, on stage for the final scene in this act of a seemingly unending drama. No wonder Bush used the general as cover, not only for continuing the war, but for making his own shadowy compromises in his September 13 address to the nation (which, by the way, drew a far smaller audience than his last major speech introducing his surge plan, or “new way forward,” on Jan. 10). “General Petraeus recommends that in December, we begin transitioning to the next phase of our strategy,” the President said. “Our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks.” It was as if, all of a sudden, the newly four-starred general, and not the President, were now the commander-in-chief.

For White House scriptwriters, there was certainly another reason to give the general the leading role in this scene from the administration’s home-front Iraq drama. He has actually seen something of the reality of war. Everyone knows that the President (like the Vice President and others high in this administration) studiously — even notoriously — avoided the real theater of battle. With his wartime credibility always somewhat suspect, all Bush can offer is an illusion spun out of dramatic words.

Bush and his writers also made compromises in their story line. The ringing language of past years about bringing “freedom” to Iraq and the Middle East, though not completely absent, was far more muted this time around. Instead of spreading good tidings about an American mission to liberate the world, the main theme of the President’s Petraeus speech was a reprise of another close-to-home classic: “The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States.” The post-9/11 narrative — defending America against those who would destroy us — had again taken center stage.

No facts are available to indicate that the war in Iraq is making Americans safer, as Petraeus himself admitted. So, the President’s claim made no sense — not, that is, if you were measuring his argument against facts or logic. But don’t fool yourself, it made fine sense as a good old-fashioned American yarn: The band of brothers righteously defending themselves against evildoers who will annihilate us if we don’t annihilate them first.

There is, however, one crucial piece of that old American yarn that Bush now has no choice but to downplay — the piece that says the good guys always win, unconditionally. After years of announcing that victory was at hand, or at least claiming that he had a surefire strategy for victory, he can no longer tell that part of the story because no one will believe it any more. In his latest speech the word “victory” — which he once used 15 times in a single speech — was missing in action, replaced by the far less martial, so much less triumphant word “success.” The “Korea model,” that more than half-century of garrisoning the southern part of that country after a stalemated war, lets us know what “success” is supposed to mean: A government (or a set of regional governments) in Iraq that can provide safety for American troops on their permanent bases and wherever they go throughout the country.

But even that hard-to-imagine outcome would be far too pallid a dénouement to look like victory to an American audience. In fact, that’s one big reason Bush’s public support has eroded enough to force him to make compromises. He’s a war President who can no longer promise to actually win the war.

A Test of Character

A good plot raises the right question, one that keeps people in the theater because they care deeply about the answer. In the battle of narratives, this administration, no matter how crippled, still knows what the right question is.

When it comes to Iraq, in recent months, Democratic scriptwriters have indeed spotlighted a question: Can inept Iraqi politicians succeed in getting their act together, when brave Americans give them the time to do so? It’s just not the right question from a story-telling point of view. Few Americans really care about the performance of a faction-torn foreign government on the other side of the world.

The administration’s story might seem to turn on a question with little more mobilizing power: Can American troops succeed in reducing violence in Iraq? But behind that question — and General Petraeus’ elaborate charts on the metrics of violence in that country — Republicans build dramatic tension by raising a very different question, which really does matter to a sizeable part of the American audience: Does our nation have the “character” or the “stomach” — Dick Cheney’s favorite word — to keep on fighting evil until something that can plausibly be called “success” is conjured out of the dusty air of Iraq?

Bush raised that question in the opening words of his recent address: “In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.” And he offered the answer many want to hear — even if not, at the moment, from him — in his closing words: “Support our troops in a fight they can win.”

That has, of course, been the basic plot of Bush’s Global War on Terror. Since September 11, 2001, he and his speechwriters have been telling a story whose hero is not, in fact, a president, or a general, or any individual, but “America” — with all the world, by rights, its stage.

In Bush’s story, as long as America is strutting across that stage, playing the lead with a commanding tone, fighting evil at every turn, Americans can feel like winners and heroes. All of this is supposed to be not an American ego trip, but a classic test of character.

Only by defeating evil enemies, in Bush’s tale, can you prove you have character. It’s the old story of victory culture, and millions of Americans still believe in it.

Millions more wish they could. If they are old enough, many remember a time when they did — before Vietnam. Failure in Vietnam cast into doubt all the old American verities about heroism, character, and national direction. It left many wondering whether the old stories could ever be played out again on the stage of American life — and feeling remarkably good, after September 11, 2001, when victory in war seemed once again to become the finale of our national drama. The growing feeling since that “Iraq” is Arabic for “Vietnam” has, of course, been devastating to any sense of fated American triumph. Yet millions of doubters must still yearn to believe in an American story that ends with good defeating evil on some planetary frontier.

Because the Iraqis have proven so unwilling to play the role of defeated enemy in the theater of battle — and the Iraqi situation has grown so complex — the Bush administration has been left with little choice but to blame all evil on al-Qaeda, in Iraq and elsewhere. As a White House official told a Washington Post reporter, at least Americans “know what that means. The average person doesn’t understand why the Sunnis and Shia don’t like each other. They don’t know where the Kurds live And al-Qaeda is something they know. They’re the enemy of the United States.”

In such a script, our protectors are “the troops,” the ultimate symbol and proof of America’s character. The most powerful weapon of war supporters has long been the question, raised with appropriate self-righteousness: “Don’t you support our troops?” The politically correct antiwar answer almost has to be: “Yes. That’s why I want to bring them home.” As it happens, though, such a response has had little effect because it misses the point.

“Supporting our troops” is not about helping individual soldiers to live better lives or, for that matter, making their lives safer. It’s about supporting a morality play in which the lead actor, “our troops,” represents all the virtues that so many believe — or wish they could believe — America possesses, giving us the privilege (and obligation) of directing all that happens on the world stage.

Bush put on yet another performance of that morality play on September 13th, ending with the almost obligatory tragic message from grieving parents: “We believe this is a war of good and evil and we must win…. even if it cost the life of our own son. Freedom is not free.” That sums up the essence of the drama. Coming from people whose child is dead, it’s seems like a show stopper. What else can you say?

The Democrats Read from a Thin Script

In response to the President’s Petraeus address, the Democrats’ answer man, Senator Jack Reed, did not actually have much to say. He did make it clear that, when it comes to war and the military, he’s a lot more in touch with reality than the President. “I was privileged to serve in the United States Army for 12 years,” Reed said modestly. He might have added that he was a West Point graduate and an officer in the famed 82nd Airborne Division.

But like so many Democrats, including legless former Senator Max Cleland and Vietnam veteran John Kerry, he found himself mysteriously unable to turn his real-life experience into an effective post-9/11 narrative. A powerful drama creates a world of its own, one that can easily feel more real than reality. Even after so many years of disaster and so much repetition, against Bush’s rich drama, Reed could still offer only a thin script with feeble characters, little if any plot, and no sense of direction. Mostly he carped at the commander-in-chief of what the Democrats themselves acclaim to be the finest fighting force in the world. So he left his party open to the same criticism thrown at Sixties radicals: “You only know what you’re against. You don’t know what you’re for.”

The Democrats’ story does embody positive values. It calls on us to act in an old American tradition of pragmatism, where the only question that matters is: “Is it working?” If it’s not working, you try something else that might actually get the job done. But Reed never even suggested what that something else might be.

In a battle between stories, it’s often not enough to attack the incumbent’s ineptitude. As John F. Kennedy, another Democrat with a real-life war record, knew, you also have to tell a satisfying tale about moving onto a new frontier, where you can pass that test of character and become a profile in courage. Heroism makes for a more alluring story than timidity every time.

So, even if the practical side of Americanism screams out, “Leave the theater, now!”, there is still a powerful impulse to stay glued to our seats until the bugles sound, the cavalry charges, and our side wins the day.

The Democrats sense that. They sense as well that opposition to the war is spread wide but not necessarily deep; that public opinion might, at least to some extent, still be turned by a well-produced show — as the marginal poll gains of the President among Republican audiences in the last two months have indicated. The Democrats fear that, if they truly lead the way to the exits, they might turn around one day to find less than half the voters following. That’s why so many of them — and all too many Republicans as well — are afraid to act on what they know is right.

The Show Must Go On

The great debate about Iraq is not, and never really was, about what we should do in Iraq. No matter how many Iraqis have died or become refugees thanks to the Bush intervention, they remain largely ignored bit players in our central drama, which is, and always was, about what we will make of America. Now, the outcome of that debate is coming more clearly into view and it’s not a pretty picture. The compromise the two parties are hammering out on Iraq policy reflects a deeper compromise the public seems to be groping toward on national identity — between who we are in reality (pragmatic, if sidelined, civilians who know a war is badly lost and want to end it) and who we are in our imaginations (heroic soldiers proving our character in the theater of war).

All theater, all storytelling, rests on the power of illusion and the willing suspension of disbelief. Bush and the Republicans have repeatedly given millions of doubters a chance to suspend their post-Vietnam disbelief in traditional tales of American character; the Democrats have given millions of doubters a chance to suspend their disbelief that the will of the people can make any difference whatsoever. The two parties join together to give the whole nation a chance to believe that a fierce debate still rages about whether or not to end the war. That political show we can expect to go on at least until Election Day 2008.

And we can expect both parties, and the media who keep the show going, to abide by an unspoken agreement that one kind of question will never be asked, because the tension it raises might be unbearable: Is it moral for our troops to occupy another country for years, bomb its cities and villages, and kill untold numbers of people halfway across the planet? If the script ever makes room for that question, we’ll be able to watch — and participate in — a far more profound debate about the war.

Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Copyright 2007 Ira Chernus