Trauma, Devil Myth, and U.S. War Culture

An M-198 155mm Howitzer of the US Marines firing at Fallujah, Iraq, during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Photo by Lance Corporal Samantha L. Jones, USMC.

An M-198 155mm Howitzer of the US Marines firing at Fallujah, Iraq, during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Photo by Lance Corporal Samantha L. Jones, USMC.

Trauma, in U.S. war culture, is the emotional shock of the violence of war, which perpetuates terror and hatred of outsiders.  To perceive itself as victim rather than perpetrator of war, the imperial nation stifles its collective shadow and projects it onto chosen enemies.  This recurring dynamic engages the devil myth of American exceptionalism.

The causes and consequences of war trauma are intertwined:  the destruction of war traumatizes and the trauma of repression prompts the violence of war.  Democracy itself is held hostage in this anxious cultural paradigm because of its perceived vulnerability to evildoers.  The boundary between good and evil is sharply drawn so as to proscribe democratic deliberation of alien points of view and to render dissent unpatriotic.

Our forthcoming book (Hunt the Devil:  The Demonology of U.S. War Culture) explores various incarnations of the devil myth, tracing the discourse of the present war on terrorist evildoers back to witch hunts in Salem, Indian wars on the frontier, dictators personified by Hitler, and the recurring red scare.  The devil myth, evident in George W. Bush’s declaration of a global war on terror, has deep cultural roots.  The many images of evil savagery manifested in present and past war rhetoric are incarnations of a displaced anxiety over national identity.

Nicholas Jackson O’Shaughnessy observes that war propaganda is a “fantasy of enmity” in which “we seek self-definition through constructing our antithesis” (Politics and Propaganda, p. vii).  We refuse to acknowledge as reflections of our own traits the very wickedness we habitually attribute to the figure of the enemy.  The imagined foe is our unassimilated opposite, a composite of the characteristics we do not want to recognize in ourselves.

The American devil myth consists of a number of interlaced themes deeply embedded in cultural memory.  In this foundational myth, America is the civilized outpost of a holy people who escaped from an alien world of tyranny and economic hardship; freedom and riches are evident proof of imminent salvation; the ever-present devil is an external force of savagery that can steer the people away from the path of salvation; democracy itself must be circumscribed and postponed until the devil-enemy is finally defeated.

This devil myth, with its projection of evil savagery in the pursuit of empire, is a pernicious but also unstable cultural formation.  It is held together by political ritual.  Its very instability results in a constant pressure on believers to conform.  Yet conforming can create its own complications when the violence of projected evil threatens to consume saints and sinners alike.  Thus, the tragic narrative of good versus evil requires a corrective—an uncommon and seriously comic act of critical reflection, which is the cultural work of democratic tricksters.  The episodic appearance of the trickster figure—that mythic trespasser who breeches the Manichean divide between good and evil at exigent moments—is a necessary but fleeting respite from the tyranny of war culture and its underlying devil myth.  We will have more to say about the trickster myth in our next post.



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