Crises prompt politicians and pundits to draw deeply from the well of myth. The President turned to the biblical language of evildoers to make sense of the tragedy of 9/11. More recently, the Cold War language of falling dominoes and containment has resurfaced in the face of Russia’s sudden annexation of Crimea. It, too, is mythic at its core.
Indiana’s U.S. Senator Dan Coats, among others, speaks in Cold War terms (March 17, 2014). Hoosiers should care about what happens to Ukraine even though, he observes, it is 5,000 miles away, trade with it is miniscule, it has no energy resources or critical materials, it is a corrupt and unstable state, and only 30% of its population is religious.
Why should we care, then, asks the Senator? Because “conflicts grow from small beginnings,” as in the case of Hitler’s unchecked aggression and other incidents before and after World War II, when policymakers failed to draw the line. Disaster in Ukraine undermines European security and stability, which penetrates to the “permanent core” of U.S. strategic interests and threatens a chain reaction. As the Senator explains:
Ukraine’s conflict with the remnants of Soviet-style aggression threatens the rest of Russia’s bordering nations, nearly all of which were dominated by Red Army presence and force at one time.
. . . . It is no secret that Putin has imperial ambitions, motivated by his pathological insecurities and a quest to restore lost glories. These are dangerous delusions that, if not confronted firmly, will come to threaten us all.
. . . I am even more concerned about America’s place in the world and how inaction will further diminish our international prestige. The United States is increasingly perceived as a spent force.
. . . . This is the moment to demonstrate our nation’s return to the leadership role that the realities of this harsh world have long imposed upon us.
Evildoers, dominoes, and containment are metaphors taken literally in the context of U.S. foreign affairs. They convey the force of primal fear—fear of a cataclysmic event, a collapse of civilization as we know it—and they prompt us to fight to preserve a tenuous world order. In columnist Charles Krauthammer’s opinion (March 27, 2014), “the alternative to U.S. leadership is either global chaos or dominance by the likes of China, Russia and Iran.”
The mythic force unleashed by crisis is primeval Chaos. Chaos is the archetypal precursor to creation. In ancient Greek mythology, Eurynome divided the eternal emptiness into sea and sky so that she might set her feet on something firm enough to dance. Order emerges out of Chaos and conveys a sense of the hand of the divine. To regress into chaos is to reenter a dark, formless, and meaningless void. Chaos is complete disorder, a place without any possible orientation, an absence of divine order, the negation of life.
This spectre of Chaos is the mythic fear that underpins the basic logic of U.S. war culture, whether it applies to Crimea or the continuing crisis of terrorism.