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Hullabaloo


Thursday, June 05, 2014

 
They don't even bother to pretend there's a great cause anymore

by digby

Heroic leadership then:



Heroic leadership now:


It must be noted that Franklin Roosevelt only faced an epic depression and an unprecedented world-wide conflagration so one can easily understand why he wouldn't have felt the need to fearmonger the public in order that the government have virtually free rein to expand its powers. Such threats are nothing to what we are dealing with today what with a relative handful of religious fanatics who like to blow themselves up and the scourge of rampant Bahamian drug smuggling.)

Such grandiose, self-serving rhetoric by today's leaders, spies and warriors sounds even more breathlessly absurd today than it sounded when they spoke in these terms after 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq war. James Fallows reminds us of what that was like in this New York Magazine interview with Frank Rich

What was the mood like in D.C. in the lead-up to the invasion?

In my conscious lifetime, it was the most exultantly pro-war that I can recall. The prevailing mood was a William Randolph Hearst–type production. It was not just disagreement on the merits of doing this, it was dismissive ridicule of the weakness of the people who weren’t with the program. [If you were against the war] it was a sign that you shrank reflexively from the use of force, that you were a symptom of America’s long slouch into fearfulness around the world, that you were dismissive of the moral claims of the Kurds or others in Iraq. If you were tough as a thinker and decision-maker, if you were brave about America’s role in the world, and if you were properly sensitive to the moral claims of the people Saddam Hussein had abused, then the logic of history and the times led you not to just support the war, but to embrace it...
He goes on to point out that many liberal hawks were reflexively pro-war and discusses how support for military action is often a political proxy for "strength", something many Democrats have been nearly desperate to prove for decades. As we watch the Bergdahl saga unfold it seems unfortunately clear that has not changed, despite the debacle of the Iraq war and the discrediting of the neo-conservatives who insisted it was necessary.

This piece by Chris Hayes remains as perceptive today as it did when he wrote it in 2006. He noted this the tendency among the political leadership and the media to turn terrorism into an existential threat even more powerful than that posed by Hitler and the Japanese Empire. He traces this emotional need (and I'd tie it to stunted egos as well since it hasn't abated) to be the Even Greater Generation (or maybe, more modestly, the Just as Great Generation):
Examining the cultural mood of the late '90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it "changed everything." But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come--the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
"Nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality" is exactly right. And it was there for anyone who cared to look that a deep, primal yearning for a Great Cause like WWII lay at the heart of the compulsion to turn what should have been considered a very manageable threat to a nation which boasts the most powerful military empire the world has ever known into a righteous existential struggle between good and evil. From the moment the planes struck the tower, along with the natural horror and dismay, was a palpable excitement among too many Americans. It was so overwhelming that it soon became obvious that there would be no hope of thinking the next steps through in any rational fashion.

The opening days of the war erased any doubt as embedded media celebrities outfitted in stylish military desert garb raced across the desert with the troops as if they were on a mission to liberate Tobruk from Rommel in 1941. The  government  propaganda machine cranked up to high gear with non-stop images featuring the statues of tyrants tumbling and tales of spunky female POWs firing until her bullets ran out to avoid capture. These stories were manufactured it later turned out, but anyone who grew up with Hollywood's version of World War II could have seen these were moldy scripts of a bygone time long buried in the national  sub-conscious.

There were moments that provided what Americans really yearned for in that period: that sense of can-do invincibility, the idea that we only use our power for good. But even then they were tempered by the phoniness of it all, the lurking truth that this was a war of choice being waged for obscure reasons --- and that 9/11 was an expression of a new challenge that could not be met with all of our expensive weapons and our technological capability. It felt less and less like the Big One and more like a Last Hurrah. After Abu Ghraib and all the revelations of black sites and torture memos and expanded surveillance there could be no more delusion that this was a reprise of The Good War.  It was revealed as that puny, uninspiring vision Keith Alexander trumpets in the quote above.

In truth it's rather unsurprising that there are people in the world who want to kill Americans. Power breeds resentment regardless of its benevolent application. And it's another reason why we might want to be extra careful about the torturing/invading/indefinite detention sort of thing we've been doing these last few years. It tends to justify such hatred in the eyes of a lot more people than otherwise would hate us. It should be obvious that we will never be able to kill every terrorist and even a full blown surveillance state will not be able to keep Americans 100% safe. All we'll do with these actions is destroy ourselves. Even the best of people with the best of intentions fall prey to the temptations the power this nation can offer. It's why "trust us" is so dangerous --- people like General Keith Alexander need us to say no.

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