Christian’s Combat With Apollyon, by H.C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo, circa 1850.
In the middle of the road of life, having left the City of Destruction on his way to the City of Zion, in the depths of the Valley of Humiliation, Christian (who was once called Graceless) meets the foul fiend Apollyon, who had “wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.”
The above print reflects the recurrent image of the devil myth that has haunted American war culture from the days of origin. There is always a devil to fight, a beast to overcome, Beelzebub to defeat, or Apollyon to engage in combat. (more…)
“The Three Archangels and Tobias” (tempera on panel) by Francesco Botticini, 1470.
There are Black Angels, Warrior Angels, Healing Angels; Angels who announce a New Beginning and Archangels. The Trickster Angel of Temperance, who is the Archangel Raphael, stands between the deep waters of the self and the shores of our persona.
In his chalice he mixes the blood of the martyrs and the clear streams of eternal life. He announces a New Dawn in the distant mountains. This is the Trickster who made Abraham change his God rather than sacrifice his son; this is the Angel who stood on the banks of the river and caught the fish that returned Tobit’s eyesight. This is the same Angel who drove the Devil to the far regions of Egypt, and cleansed the world from his influence.
Mark that he did not kill the Devil, for the Devil too is part of all things, but only bound him in chains in a mountain. (more…)
The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.
Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment. (more…)
President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. (Harrywad / Wikimedia Commons)
The senator who opposed the Iraq War is now—as President—engaging in an Iraq War. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is authorizing air strikes in the Middle East. The candidate who lost a presidential race because he opposed, as a young veteran, the Vietnam War is now—as Secretary of State—organizing allies for a war campaign in Syria. The senator who opposed George Bush’s policy of torturing enemy combatants, and who made a mark in his presidential race by singing bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran, is gleeful at last that his advice has been heeded, and that we are bombing someone.
For once again, another barbarous Devil has appeared in the Middle East; yet again, another heinous adversary threatens “American Interests” (read “American Money”) and “National Security” (read “American Power”). The land is plagued by a Hydra Monster; no sooner does the U.S. cut off one head, another one grows in its place. (more…)
Guantanamo captives in January 2002 (photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy).
David Campbell observes that, although not all risks are perceived as serious (regardless of so-called objective factors), they are considered dangers by Americans when they are characterized as “alien, subversive, dirty or sick” (Writing Security, 1998, pp. 2-3). These traits signal the presence of an enemy because they violate the avowed essence of national identity (we are a healthy, clean, and loyal citizenry). The imagined enemy exists within a tradition of interpretation that is shaped by the dynamics of language and that carries over from one situation or context to the next.
The perfect enemy, beyond the specific features listed by Campbell, is represented as opposite to the national self-identity. Such an enemy might be marked as dirty or sick but also as predatory, lawless, and profane. There are many ways to express these themes of danger, but in each case they indicate the threat of an evil and barbaric force to the safety and mission of a chosen people.
Language has its own mythic dynamic that plays into the construction of the perfect enemy. (more…)
George W. Bush passes through the “side boys” after a successful trap aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in a S-3B Viking assigned to the Blue Wolves of Sea Control Squadron Three Five (VS-35) designated “NAVY 1”. President Bush is the first sitting President to trap aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. The President was conducting a visit aboard ship to meet with the Sailors and later addressed the Nation as Lincoln prepared to return from a 10-month deployment to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements.)
“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. (more…)
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Alan Boyce from the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division participates in a dismounted presence patrol through the Beida neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on Feb. 29, 2008. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, U.S. Air Force.
“Terrorist networks currently pose the greatest national security threat to the United States . . . [Al-Qaida] aims to overthrow the existing world order and replace it with a reactionary, authoritarian, transnational entity. This threat will be sustained over a protracted period (decades not years) and will require a global response” (U.S. Department of State).
Terrorism is the scourge of our era. We want to remove the menace. So we resort to war. The logic of war is founded on a lethal concoction of fear, loathing, revenge, and redemption. These are the emotions and desires that make war feel righteous and seem rational, necessary, and even natural in the course of human affairs. They inhibit any inclination to place our trust in less deadly and destructive options. They sustain the war state by operating below the threshold of awareness and self-critique.
The language and imagery of myth can give us access to the emotional foundations of rationalized war. Yet, we relegate myth to past and primitive cultures. Myth, by this way of thinking, is misleading in the contemporary world of reason, science, and technology. (more…)
The NBA wasn’t always ensnared by the wiles of the devil we all carry inside. In the perennial struggle between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in our “agonized womb of consciousness,” (R.L. Stevenson), Mr. Hyde does not always win.
(Now the buzzer sounds, and the Second Half begins.)
Steve Nash dribbling the ball (Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons).
One tries to forget the devilish, mean spirited rhetoric surrounding the passage of the infamous SB 1070 law by the Arizona Legislature and Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. From that dark, vituperative cloud, one scene stands out, one statement that nailed the issue: a very young man, smiling in the way that only the young can smile, holding up a poster that proclaimed: “Hey NASH! JAN Needs To See Your DOCUMENTS.” (Daily Kos)
The message of this tricksterish placard was aimed at Mr. Steve Nash, two-time MVP, heart and soul of the Phoenix Suns, and a Canadian citizen. It pointed out the flaw that ultimately proved fatal to SB 1070 in federal court. (more…)
Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.
Still the question haunted me: why do I stay? It was an echo of a previous interrogation put to me by a senior professor when I interviewed for my present job: If you’re so good, how come you’re here? I have had occasion, living in Arizona, to feel just like Mark Twain’s hero in King Arthur’s court, without that stern Yankee’s talent for humbugging his society into Progress. Seeking relief in the Great American Trickster’s novel, I stumbled upon this passage:
My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags—that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.
And then it hit me. I do not live in Arizona; I live in what the ancient Spaniards called the Kingdom of New Mexico. (more…)
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. (more…)