“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed . . . All of you—all in this generation of our military—have taken up the highest calling of history . . . Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope—a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘To the captives, ‘come out,’—and to those in darkness, ‘be free'” (President George W. Bush, May 1, 2003, Address Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln).
“Today we honor the warriors who fought our nation’s enemies, defended the cause of liberty, and gave their lives in the cause of freedom . . . Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes—men and women who gave their lives in places such as Kabul and Kandahar, Baghdad and Ramadi . . . This is our country’s calling. It’s our country’s destiny” (President George W. Bush, Memorial Day Address, May 28, 2007, Arlington National Cemetery).
We Americans revere our heroes and, through them, celebrate our national heroism. The hero animates the war state. It is a key mythic figure in the war state’s code of terror. Deciphering its symbolism can help us to understand the emotionally surcharged logic of the war on terror.
The hero is one of mythology’s central motifs. It models behavior that affirms cultural mores, and it associates the national identity with the courageous warrior, crusader, and rescuer. It tells us we are a brave and honorable people, morally inspired, on a quest to overcome evil in the far reaches of the world (to defeat the archetypal devil figure) and to secure universal freedom.
The hero myth is embedded in culture as an original, primitive pattern of human conduct. Carl Jung calls it a “primordial image.” Dangerous situations repeatedly give rise to such an affect-laden fantasy. The image of the hero, as an expression of the shadow archetype, clues us to our otherwise unprocessed attitudes about violence and right behavior. Knowing the powerful presence of the archetype can release a “creative impulse” (The Portable Jung, pp. 39, 42, 44).
Jung explains the hero motif in terms of a cycle of struggle, suffering, and sacrifice. The hero is both a part of and apart from the community. He (or she) is a prophetic figure capable of extraordinary deeds and burdened with a special destiny. The hero fights the forces of darkness. To slay the menacing dragon of evil is to redeem the vulnerable virtues of life. (“The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsious,” in Collected Works of C. G. Jung).
Awareness of the American hero motif can be a precursor to developing a more integrated and balanced identity. It symbolizes contact with consciousness, not consciousness replacing our emotional experience. Recognizing the archetypal hero helps us to acknowledge our shadow—the objectionable part of our national identity—and thus to confront the dark side that we otherwise automatically project onto our enemies.