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Sunday, April 08, 2007

War as an Expression of National Spirit and Manly Power

War as an Expression of National Spirit and Manly Power
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

Now that Iran has released the British prisoners, and without anyone having to go to war over them, it's possible to direct some sober and critical attention to some of the "advice" being given to American and British leaders by America's neoconservatives. There is a clear, unmistakable theme running throughout their commentary that revolves around the contrasting concepts of power and impotence — usually focused on a need for America to demonstrate how powerful it is and, at the same time, how weak everyone else is.

Glenn Greenwald dubs is it the "Abu Ghraib Theory of Foreign Affairs," but I think he's being a bit too kind in labeling it a mere theory. It's not simply an idea, but the basic underlying principle of neoconservative political policy and should be treated as such: Bush's Abu Ghraib Doctrine of Foreign Affairs. On one hand you'll see the promotion of "manly virtues," almost all of which are related to a willingness to engage in violence and humiliation towards others; on the other hand, you'll see the denigration of everything which makes a culture or nation weak — like, for example, an unwillingness to use violence to degrade and humiliate others.

Newt Gringrich said to a fawning Hugh Hewitt that the goal should be to "to show the planet that you're tiny and we're not." Mark Steyn asked: "Would 'deploring' persuade Tehran to release the sailors while 'grave concern' lets them humiliate them for another few weeks?" National Review's Mario Loyola said: "Iran's humiliating abuse of the sailors provoked outrage in Britain . . . the outrage has manifested mostly in a despondent impotence. . . How sad and humiliating for the British."

Contempt for the British sailors for cooperating began appearing even before they were released. New York Post columnist Ralph Peters called them "wankers" and that U.S. Marines would have "resisted collaboration" to the last. National Review Online contributor John Derbyshire agreed with Peters, deploring the "cowardice" of the British sailors and marines and expressed the hope that they would be court-martialed and given dishonorable discharges.

In both of the above paragraphs, we have a contrast between America being touted as a nation that should use violence to humiliate others, then criticism of Britain for being too weak to do the same. Compare such attitudes about the need to project power and strength to the words written by Thomas Mann in his book Doktor Faustus, an allegory of Germany's intellectual fall and corruption in the 1930s. Here, Mann describes the general spirit in Germany in 1914.

We were long since a great power, we were quite used to it, and it did not make us as happy as we had expected. The feeling that it had not made us more attractive, that our relation to the world had rather worsened than improved, lay, unconfessed, deep in our hearts. ... War then, and if needs must, war against everybody, to convince everybody and to win. We were bursting with the consciousness that this was [our] century, that history was holding her hand out over us, that after Spain, France, England, it was our turn to put our stamp on the world and be its leader; that [this] century was ours.

Throughout all of this, it's important to remember that it's never just about politics — it's also about culture. America is strong so long as its culture is strong and manly; in order to keep America strong, neocons and religious conservative attack internal movements or forces which seem to threaten to weaken America's manly, violent resolve. Americans who dissent or who "abuse" personal freedom threaten the nation's unity. Those who criticize the war are helping America's enemies by attacking America's willingness to use violence to humiliate others.

This is why religious complaints about America's so-called "moral decline" are inextricably linked with political complaints about liberal treason, and both are fundamental to efforts to keep Bush's failed war policies going. In fact, the relationship isn't even one way: just as dissenting forces at home are derided as unmanly in order to promote war, war itself is pursued as part of an effort to suppress political and cultural dissent at home.

Anatol Lieven, in America Right Or Wrong: An Anatomy Of American Nationalism, quotes the above passage from Mann because it sounds remarkably like something which an American today might feel. Here, Lieven explores some of the disturbing parallels the above attitude has with the spirit of some in contemporary America:

[T]he heightened culture of nationalism in the European countries prior to World War I was in part the product of deliberate strategies of the European elites to combat socialist movements and preserve their dominant positions by mobilizing mass support in the name of nationalism. But the resulting nationalism was a cause for which the sons of these elites, the officer corps of old Europe, sacrificed themselves in uncounted numbers and with sincere faith.

Self-sacrifice is admittedly not a thing for which America’s right-wing nationalist elites have shown much appetite; but their discourse has some sinister echoes of their European predecessors. This is especially true of two linked obsessions: with cultural and moral decline, and with domestic treachery. Both have very old cultural, racial and religious roots; both were reshaped, strengthened and perpetuated by the Cold War; and both have attained new force as a result of 9/11.

So, conservative elites pump up nationalist feeling and embark on foreign wars of aggression, at least in part in order to preserve their political, cultural, and social dominance as well as to combat populist movements at home. In Europe, this helped lead to the demise of the conservative elites; in America, conservative elites seem to have learned their lesson and have been avoiding participation in their wars since the 1960s at least.

The importance of decrying a “cultural and moral decline” cannot be understated: it plays a fundamental role in agenda of the Christian Right as well as neoconservatives generally. Without the belief that both America and Christianity are experiencing a decline — a decline that includes a loss of manliness — neither fundamentalism nor conservative evangelicalism would be nearly as attractive. The Christian Right needs to preach that there are serious moral problems in order to convince people that it has the solutions. Neoconservatives need to preach that there are problems of character and virility in order to convince people that they have the solutions.

This image was originally a recruiting poster for the Marines. The title here is the same as the original, with the bottom reading "Fly with the U.S. Marines." I altered the face, of course, as well as adding some manly enhancements.

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