I ended my previous blog by quoting George Kennan, the architect of the containment doctrine, who wrote in 1995 that there had never been “…the slightest danger of a Soviet military attack.” Significantly, he waited to admit that the Cold War had been a lie until after Saddam Hussein had become America’s favorite symbol of the Other.
In 1987, however, Kennan, unable to restrain himself, had predicted, “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented” (my italics).
Again, we look at our primary mythmakers – Hollywood – to see how the nation was so willing to overlook the lies. In the 1980s, the memory of Viet Nam remained a blemish on the skin of American myth, and public opinion was still solidly against intervention in Central America. So Hollywood was assigned the task of re-writing the war. Revenge fantasies starring lone, persecuted heroes such as Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Morris made men feel better about themselves and about war. These films deliberately inverted reality, using the old theme of the captivity narrative. Now and in our future movie memory, the Vietnamese (in over a dozen films) became the torturers, although Russians commonly directed them. “Myth,” writes James Gibson, “readily substitutes one enemy for another…If Russian white men really controlled and directed the yellow Vietnamese, then the U.S. defeat becomes more understandable and belief in white supremacy is confirmed.”
Other post-Viet Nam films included Red Dawn, Invasion U.S.A., Red Scorpion, Firefox, Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October, The Falcon and the Snowman, etc. For more on direct collusion between Hollywood and the military, see David Sirota’s article, “How Your Taxpayer Dollars Subsidize Pro-War Movies and Block Anti-War Movies (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/how-your-taxpayer-dollars_b_836574.html?ref=email_share).
Ronald Reagan mastered the intermittent reinforcement of denial and fear, reassuring white Americans that Eden was secure, and terrifying them with prospects of immanent nuclear war. As President, he described the external, communist Other with demonizing rhetoric: evil empire, shadowy, fanatics, satanic and profane. The corporate media complied. Long before Fox News, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report commonly depicted Russians as savages, dupes, adventurers, despots and barbarians. Their methods were brutal, treacherous, conniving, unmanly, aggressive and animalistic. “Unmanly” yet “aggressive” – only the Prince of Darkness himself (or Dionysus) could hold such contradictory projections.
Despite their 12,000 nuclear warheads, Americans were informed that they needed the “Star Wars” missile defense. The greatest power in history couldn’t protect itself from the barbarians outside without appealing to the high-tech gods. Nor could it solve the internal threat without building more prisons and establishing SWAT teams in every city.
After seventy years and trillions of dollars wasted, the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The result was worldwide euphoria. Sixty percent of Americans favored huge cuts in defense and a “peace dividend” that would eliminate poverty. But visions of infinite wealth drove the new opportunists, who demanded further deregulation and increased military spending. Other visions drove the Puritans. Psychologist Lionel Corbett suggests that such people cannot tolerate peace, because happiness produces guilt and the desire to be punished, especially if we feel too greedy. But neither greed nor guilt could generate support for new aggressive policies. Fear could do that, and this required a new external Other.
Over the years, the image of the external Other had shifted from the Indians, resting briefly on Mexicans, Spanish, Germans and Japanese before finding its home among the Communists. However, there was always a problem with “othering” the grey-suited and anonymous Russians: despite their slightly exotic, Slavic features, they were white.
Around 1985, the Other became more personal – and darker – when television identified many charismatic Third World villains. After the first generation (Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro) came Moammar Khadaffy, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Manuel Noriega, Kim Il Sung, Slobodan Milosevic, Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and perhaps the greatest of all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was too good to be true: a Holocaust denier who sought to possess nuclear weapons.
Note three themes here. First, U.S. propaganda attacks were often timed to impact (or obscure) domestic issues. Second, only Milosevic was white (but Slavic). Third, several of these men had previously worked for the Americans. Back in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt had said of Nicaragua’s Anastacio Somoza, “He’s an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” It is as if the U.S.’s long-term policy has been to keep the worst murderers on ice, allowing them to quietly do their work and amass their fortunes until it needs to reveal them as the Devil’s latest incarnation. Then they become expendable, or, as with Bin Laden, even more valuable as fugitives, hiding in caves and bazaars, plotting more evil out there.
When Communists became our friends, it was a dizzying experience for older Americans, who grew up fearing Russians, then Germans and Japanese, then Russians again, along with Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Nicaraguans, Iranians and Arabs, while Germans and Japanese became allies. Still, Hollywood took years to portray Russians (in 2001’s Enemy at the Gates) or Vietnamese (in 2002’s We Were Soldiers) as moral agents. By then, the image of the Other had shifted.
Renewing the myth of innocence requires something more than small-time dictators. As Communism disappeared, conservatives found the answer. Terrorists hated freedom and meant to destroy our way of life. Wily, shifty, turbaned, bearded, they almost invariably had dark skin. And they were already among us; once again, no one could be trusted.
Indeed, militant Islam had been growing for three reasons. First, the U.S. had eliminated almost all secular forms of resistance to Western domination, while staunchly supporting Israel. Second, it spent billions supporting fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Third, it needed an Other.
An American general had lamented, “The drug war is the only war we’ve got.” The Gulf War made violence acceptable again with its video game images, and pacifist euphoria dissipated. George Bush boasted, “Viet Nam has been buried forever in the desert sands.” Saddam, more valuable to the myth as the face of evil than as ex-dictator, remained in power for another twelve years. An official candidly admitted, “Saddam…saved us from the peace dividend.”
Sensing the opportunity, Hollywood contributed Rules of Engagement, Iron Eagle, True Lies, The Siege, Delta Force, Harem, Executive Decision, Forbidden Love, The Kingdom, Four Feathers, 24 and many other films, video games and TV shows that demonized Muslims. By 2012, critical praise for Zero Dark Thirty and Argo showed that the demonization genre had become accepted, middle-of-the-road fair.
In the year 2000, the U.S. had over a thousand military bases in other countries. Pundits bragged, “Others welcome our power.” Exactly the same pompous yet mythically effective rhetoric had rallied the innocents in 1900 as Americans massacred Filipinos, in 1800 as they subsidized repression in Haiti, and in 1700 as they slaughtered Indians and took over their lands.
I have written extensively elsewhere about the extremes to which our government has gone to increase fear and anxiety over the past thirteen years. I hope that these last three essays have provided the background that explains our national willingness to accept its propaganda. At every point during the Cold War, and at every point since its end, the U. S. government, no matter who is President, has relied on the fear of unprovoked attack by the evil Other to justify its massively wasteful and destructive military empire.
I write these essays in the week after the Boston Marathon bombing. Already, one old friend from Boston has informed me of her new support for “law enforcement.” Already, Secretary of Defense Hagel has offered Israel yet another new weapon deal and mused publicly about Israel’s right to unilaterally attack Iran. And let’s be clear about this one: The U.S.’s own intelligence agencies have concluded that Iran has no intentions to build a nuclear bomb (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/world/middleeast/us-agencies-see-no-move-by-iran-to-build-a-bomb.html).
I ask you not to fall for the inevitable calls for increased preparedness, further restrictions on civil liberties and a halt to immigration reform.
And I ask you not to fall for Barack Obama’s self-righteous condemnation of Republicans for not passing gun control. Not until he stops saying (in regard to Iran) that “all options are on the table.”