The archetypal myth of the underdog is not always so explicit as David slaying Goliath or so blatant as Rocky Balboa defeating Soviet boxer Ivan Drago on Christmas Day in Moscow. Sometimes the myth is veiled but equally compelling.
Walter Pincus’ recent report in the Washington Post on the “Islamic State’s Bloody Message Machine” is a case in point. The story in paraphrase goes like this:
The Islamic State is a barbaric enemy, but it has developed a 21st century global media platform that gives it superpowers.
Its propaganda spews forth in social media, pamphlets, magazines, billboards, t-shirts, and baseball hats. The message machine includes professionally staged videos of beheadings and a captive British journalist criticizing the US bombing campaign. Video games are used to recruit more jihadists.
“The Islamic State PR team has a big advantage when it comes to the propaganda war” in a region of the world that is “hospitable to anti-West and particularly anti-U.S. messaging.”
These slick barbarians get away with calling the U.S. president a “mule of the Jews.” Americans “will pay the price,” they taunt, for meddling with Islam.
The U.S. has been out maneuvered on foreign terrain. It must rely on unreliable Iraqis and Syrians to win not only the ground war but also the propaganda war.
The mythic underdog is the character in the story expected to lose. He’s the good guy, not the imperialist with the biggest military budget and the most sophisticated weapons. The expected winner is the foreign giant, the personification of evil savagery. Justice prevails when the little guy surprisingly beats the big guy.
Stories like the one Walter Pincus tells do powerful symbolic work. They transform the enemy into the giant and assign the U.S. the role of underdog, which helps to sustain an incessant war of terror.