Berto Jongman: Eric Garland on 20th Century Myths Driving US Intervention

Ethics, Lessons, Officers Call
Berto Jongman
Berto Jongman

Myth 1 : America has to act.

Myth 2 : America’s actions are benevolent.

Myth 3 : America can win wars.

The 20th century myths driving US intervention

The logic behind a possible US strike in Syria is anachronistic, writes author.

Eric Garland

Al Jazeera, 15 September 2013

In the past few weeks, I have fielded phone calls from exasperated young colleagues in Washington DC. As strategic thinkers, they are flabbergasted that the same cohort of leaders could possibly present a casus belli for Syria that is so risk-blind and mindless, lacking any evidence of a longer-term vision. More than once I have heard the phrase, ” How can it be that people with such authority could possibly still think this way after the last twelve years?”

Even if you aren’t a young American policy analyst in DC, you might be equally bewildered how the United States could be considering yet another intervention in the Middle East with limited moral justification, flimsy legal cover, and no clear strategic endgame. There is a logic here to the proposals of Kerry, Power, McCain, Graham and company – but that logic is driven by the myths from another age. To understand the mentality of the current crop of US leaders as they claim the right to enter the Syrian civil war on behalf of morality, look to the myths that drive people who grew up in another time.

The tenacious 20th century myths of today’s leaders

The Post-World War II era was a transformative moment for the United States. As America fit into its new role in the global balance of the Cold War, its culture had to evolve to meet the new requirements of the era. Entirely new myths were brought to bear after the events of the early 20th century that had given the United States military, economic, and cultural power that has only rivaled the great empires of history. The men and women currently in power in the United States government were instilled with those powerful new myths that have guided how it handles national power.

As you witness statements and actions from these people, think to the following notions that seem completely normal to Americans of this specific generation.

Myth 1 : America has to act. The Post-War era divided the entire planet into two distinct camps: The Free World and the Communists. World War II completely rewired the global power balance. Whereas Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the US and Russia used to all be great powers, now there stood but two countries able to carry on a global fight – the US and the Soviets.

Both nations had highly defined ideologies, America from an older liberal tradition, and the Soviet Union from a new and vigorous communist doctrine. The Soviets made clear their plans for this ideology soon after 1945.  They told the world that they would bring communism to all people – at the point of a gun, if necessary.

The United States became the only nation-state with the power to counter the immediate Russian strategic onslaught, given the destruction in the rest of Western Europe. Thus was born the phrase “Leader of the Free World,” and the notion that if America doesn’t act, who will?

Myth 2 : America’s actions are benevolent. The United States found itself in a unique position in 1945. Its factories were bashing out destroyers, aircraft carriers, fighters and tanks at a terrific pace. The rest of the world was on its knees, exhausted and with broken infrastructure. If the US dreamed of global conquest, it could have had it within 5-10 years, had it pressed its exponential advantage over much of the rest of the world. The nation opted instead to press its soft power across the world, saving its hard power for a Soviet conflict it hoped to avoid entirely.

After seeing the pictures of Abu Ghraib, or of the disfigured children born amidst the depleted uranium dust of Fallujah, it may seem fantastical for non-Americans to think of the US as a country which uses its power uniquely for good. But the culture of mid-20th century America revolves around telling each other – and the world – that we are the good guys. We freed Paris. We stopped Hitler. We went on to become the bulwark of liberty in the face of Soviet totalitarianism.

The things we did along the way to defending liberty – financing death squads in Central America, carpet bombing innocents in Cambodia during our most famous intervention in a civil war – all those things are excused in the 20th century American mind because of the way we characterise our actions in WWII and the Cold War.

Myth 3 : America can win wars.  Americans of the 20th century have a peculiar mindset about war because of our history of “winning” armed conflicts. While the rest of the world knows the shifting borders, uneasy truces and horrific bloodshed that is the only outcome of most wars, American history features a number of clear-cut successes.

  • The Revolutionary War – We beat the world’s biggest empire despite the odds and founded our nation.
  • The Civil War – As long as you are from north of Virginia, it represents total victory against slavery and the salvation of “a house divided.” (South Carolinians, of course, have a different narrative.)
  • World War II – It ended with Hitler dead, Hirohito capitulated, and global fascism stopped in its tracks. We won.

Those who came of age after World War II thus see war as a winnable thing – and winnable by the “good guys.” This didn’t work out in Vietnam as planned – but many people excuse this failure as all part of defeating the Soviets, which came to fruition in 1989. Even as America enters a new and complicated century, the myth of the winnable war prevails.

Outdated myths have been damaging American war efforts

Every nation has myths. Most are based in truth, albeit with significant omissions that are glaringly evident to people from other countries. A culture’s myths, images and symbols are still useful, even if not completely accurate, because they serve to unite people in a common journey.

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Phi Beta Iota:  It is naive to believe that these myths are actually driving US leaders.  The lack of intelligence with integrity is “root.”  Corruption and treason go hand in hand.  To make decisions on the basis of who pays to be heard; to ignore solid secret intelligence warning and context; to commit the blood , treasure, and spirit of the public for private gain — all of these are fundamental.  Syris is not about myths.  Syria is about Israeli control of the US Congress and Wall Street profit from war.  Until public intelligence in the public interest achieves critical mass, America the Beautiful will continue to be looted and victimized by those who commit high crimes and misdemeanors “because they can.”