Saul or David?

"David and Goliath" (1888) by Osmar Schindler.

“David and Goliath” (1888) by Osmar Schindler.

In Abrahamic mythology, God enabled his people to destroy evil giants and to occupy their land.  Oversized pagans were ousted from the promised land by a chosen people.  David, not timid Saul, was fit to lead the people, for David was “a man of valor, a warrior” (1 Samuel 16:18 NRSV).  Young David slew the taunting Goliath; King David and his army killed Philistine giants to secure Israel and Judah.

Killing the ungodly Goliath is a parable of the courage that comes from knowing the faithful underdog is victorious over those who have “defied the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17: 36 NRSV).  The parable equates virtue with the strength of courage, evil with the monster’s bluster.  Aggression is symbolically transformed into defense when one fights the Lord’s battle against satanic forces.

The story of David and Goliath is embedded in U.S. war culture.  It projects evil and transforms the world’s most powerful nation into the righteous defender of the oppressed.  Cowering before a bully does not befit an American president to lead the world to glory.

Thus, Obama must not be Saul in critical moments such as the crisis of Crimea.  The prophet John McCain warned that Russia’s Putin invaded Crimea because “Obama Has Made America Look Weak” (New York Times, March 14, 2014).  In the “darkness” of a “brutish” world, “power is worshiped, weakness is despised.”  Weakness provokes the brute, and “vacillation invites aggression.”

McCain projects the darkness onto Putin, the “unreconstructed Russian imperialist and K.G.B. apparatchik,” and portrays the flexible Obama as vacillating instead of leading, withdrawing instead of standing firm, and thereby encouraging other tyrants—in Iran and China—to bully America’s allies “at no discernible cost.” Obama must become David to put an end to “Putin’s imperial dreams.”

The prophet’s moral vision sanitizes an otherwise compromising story of U.S. militarism.  Without benefit of the David myth, U.S. interventions might look more like aggression than liberation, more self-interested and less virtuous, more misguided than realistic—maybe even somewhat diabolical.

Without the specter of Goliath to fix our gaze on the external devil, what might we make of U.S. interventions in our own “backyard”?  In 1901, the U.S. made Cuba a protectorate and acquired Guantanamo naval base.  In 1903, the U.S. helped Panama secede from Colombia to build the Panama Canal, and then occupied the Dominican Republic to control trade routes.  From 1912 to 1933, U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua, and decades later the CIA assisted the Contras to disrupt the Sandinista government.  Haiti was occupied from 1915 to 1934.  The CIA helped to remove Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1955, orchestrated the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1959, and conspired to remove Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.  In 1983, Grenada was invaded, followed by Panama in 1989.

Is this a proud history of righteously defending the oppressed, or are these self-interested American Crimeas?  And what about initiatives beyond America’s immediate sphere of interest, from Vietnam to Iraq and beyond?  Is Putin the only imperial dreamer?


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