Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. – Oscar Wilde
This week’s act: Chemical warfare, more familiar to contemporary Americans as “weapons of mass destruction.” Why do these phrases move us so, or to be more precise, why are they intended to move us so?
Barak Obama is lying, again, precisely as previous presidents did regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada and countless other situations. His handlers have determined (in the case of Syria, months ago) to make war, again, and have either found or contrived, yet again, an excuse to gain public support.
I was wrong, happily, when I predicted, “The attack will happen this coming holiday weekend, as has happened often before, because the nation will not be paying attention. Soon, public opinion, which today is solidly against intervention even as it is proven that the Syrian government is not responsible for last week’s chemical massacre will quickly reverse itself once “American boys” are placed in harm’s way…These statements appear to me to be as plain as day. People of good will around the world will protest, but the act – the crime – will have been accomplished, and we will be involved in yet another war.”
It seems that massive public pressure may well have forced the President and his toady Secretary of State into a sham attempt to get Congressional approval – even as he brags that he doesn’t need it. Clearly, he intends to pursue this madness. The only unanswered questions are whether this proxy war is more about Russia or more about Iran. In any event, it is clearly about oil.
The intention of this essay is to offer what I can in terms of understanding the mythological and psychological implications.
On NPR’s All Things Considered, correspondent Mara Liasson claimed that the President “has done everything he can to avoid another foreign military involvement, but he can’t avoid it after the widespread use of chemical weapons on this scale.”
That statement concisely summarizes a fundamental aspect of the myth of American innocence: the heroic, lone, exceptional nation, divinely-ordained to save the world from evil (previously communism, now terrorism); never striking the first blow, always searching for peaceful alternatives, but finally forced by acts so evil as to require a response of Biblically violent proportions: murdering to show that murder is evil.
For at least 150 years, in literally hundreds of events, the American mission (known as the white man’s burden, bringing the good news, making the world safe for democracy, nation-building, etc.) has had four assumptions. First: unique, divinely sanctioned purpose. Second: generous, idealistic intentions, never financial gain. Third, unenlightened, oppressed people who long for our help. Fourth, a pretext for intervention: unprovoked attack.
The story remains deeply embedded in our psyches. When economic pressure and clandestine operations or political assassinations fail, American leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, fabricate provocations and attack. Our self-image, however, remains staunchly innocent because the myth teaches that redemption (for both ourselves and those we would save) comes not through peace but through righteous violence. “The distance between such noble principles and such self-serving aggressiveness,” writes historian Walter Nugent, “ is the measure of hypocrisy.”
But Americans, though naïve, are no more inherently violent than other peoples. The state must regularly administer massive dosages of indoctrination to reanimate our sense of innocence. Propaganda merges with belief; every student learns that America never starts wars but always aids those in need. The mythic appeal is so fundamental that occasional disclosures of the truth – cracks in the myth of innocence – do little to alter popular consciousness.
Still, the narrative of innocence requires constant ceremonial maintenance, including the regular creation of new images of “evildoers,” to quote George W. Bush.
Let’s put the notion of WMDs in the proper context.
Some historically-minded people will remember the images of soldiers suffering from poison gas attacks in the trenches of World War One (the Germans first used gas, but the British and French soon followed), or even earlier, the U.S. Army distributing smallpox-laced blankets to Native Americans, perhaps the first instance of bioterrorism. Of course, the gassing of the Jews and others in the Holocaust remains our most enduring image of genocide, among many other examples from the past century.
However, we also have the example of America’s nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only use of such atrocities in history. By the way, new research has indicated that these two cities were among the few Japanese cities deliberately left undamaged by previous bombings so that the U.S. could study the effects of the bombs on pristine populations and buildings.
We are justifiably horrified by these facts, but few remember how casually Americans took the news of the “conventional” fire-bombing (by napalm) of Tokyo a few months earlier that killed over 100,000 people in a single night. And in a few weeks, perhaps, few Americans will remember that the U.S. had refrained from intervening in Syria even though it knew that 100,000 people had already died – many of them by the Al-Qeda forces we support. Only the terrible deaths of another three hundred – by weapons of mass destruction – seems to motivate Obama to action.
Since the end of WW Two – that is, in the lifetimes of most living people – what are the actual examples of the use of WMDs?
1 – Viet Nam: B-52 carpet bombing that exceeded the tonnage dropped on all of Europe during WW Two; napalm; “anti-personnel” (translation: meant to damage people rather than their possessions) ordinance such as cluster bombs designed to look like children’s toys; and massive defoliation (Agent Orange) that continues to spread cancer to Southeast Asians into the third generation.
2 – Iraq: chemical warfare waged upon Iraq and the Kurds, with the foreknowledge and permission of the U.S., and the large-scale use of depleted uranium by American forces throughout the region from 1991 to the present. Indeed, in trying to make the case for a Tomahawk missile attack on Syria, Obama ignored the fact that fully 40% of the victims of cluster weapons, which the US has used massively in Iraq, Afghanistan and even in Yemen, are children.
For more on our own history of inflicting chemical violence upon the Third World, see “10 Chemical Weapons Attacks Washington Doesn’t Want You to Talk About.” The U.S. reached further heights of hypocrisy in September when it demanded that all Syrian chemical weapons, stocks and production facilities be eliminated by June 30 of next year. The US itself has been quite slow in eliminating its own stock, which is three times the size of Syria’s. The U.N. Convention on Chemical Weapons, which Washington ratified in 1997, required signers to eliminate all stocks of chemical arms by 2012. But the US, like Russia, requested an extension to 2023 – over a quarter of a century.
Similarly, it has never and will not require its surrogates in Israel to admit the presence of their own nuclear and chemical weapons.
Clearly, WMDs are a smokescreen intended to help Americans forget our complicity in mass murder and then to project it upon our convenient, contemporary scapegoats.
This idea of projection is fairly simple psychology. The reason I mention it so often, however, is because, unlike any people or mythology in world history, repression of the national shadow and displacing it onto the Other has – from the start – been absolutely essential to the identity of white Americans. Without this particular form of group unconsciousness, we would not know who we are.
This is why Obama is merely the latest in a very long line of national leaders to attempt to manipulate it. It would seem that the government has resurrected the notion of WMDs at this time as its response to two domestic issues:
1 – The revelations that it has been spying on all Americans. See “What The Assault On Whistleblowers Has to Do With War on Syria,” by Norman Solomon.
2 – The continuing national economic trauma: 95% of all gains in recent years having gone to the top one percent, and Congress is about to cast another 3-4 million people off food stamps.
This is a dark time, and it will get darker before the light comes back. In an attempt to see something positive in this news, I return to the question: aside from its propaganda value, why does the talk of WMDs carry so much meaning? Or does it? Why do the government and the corporate media use them so much? Do they not, in Shakespeare’s words “protest too much?”
Have our gatekeepers begun to understand that the old, tried-and-true justifications and provocations for U.S. intervention no longer excite us as they used to do? Have they, perhaps, sensed that Americans have other concerns, such as a collapsing environment, a housing crisis and a depressed economy? Do the gatekeepers sense the need to up the ante?
Will there come a time when that ante can no longer be raised, when the house calls in its chips?
“In a dark time,” wrote the poet Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.”