A warmonger, by definition, is someone who promotes war—urges it, stirs it up. Warmongering is especially foreboding when it comes from a person who is the Commander-in-Chief’s political advisor, chief strategist, senior counsel, and foreign policy guru. Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief, observes that, “Trump considers Bannon a savant and is allowing him to shape his presidency and especially his foreign policy.”[i](more…)
“The Hell,” mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In times of trouble, I do not consult the Bible. I visit the astonishing and still very relevant Devil’s Dictionary by the bewildering Ambrose Bierce. Its word definitions—compiled during the last half of the nineteenth century—are cleansing, illuminating, and especially joyful during times when our minds are full of signs (indeed the certainty) that the prophesied and long-awaited Apocalypse is upon us.
Observe, for example, its sober definition of ABSURDITY = A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion. Take heed, all those who labor in “new” universities and houses of learning, of the dictionary’s stern proclamation of the decadence of such institutions: ACADEMY = A modern school where football is taught.(more…)
“The finding of Don Juan by Haidée” by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the early twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw took on the “frightful responsibility” of composing a Don Juan play. His immediate sources were “a very great play” (Moliere’s Dom Juan), and “a very great opera” (Mozart’s Don Giovanni). But he understood that the spirit of the Spanish hero is that of a mythological trickster.
In a brief exegesis of the first Don Juan play (El burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, 1583-1648), Shaw explained:
The prototypic Don Juan … was presented, according to the ideas of that time, as the enemy of God, the approach of whose vengeance is felt throughout the drama, growing in menace from minute to minute. 
Shaw rejects the notion of Don Juan as a vulgar “libertine,” and makes clear in Man and Superman that his John Tanner (Juan Tenorio) is one “in the philosophic sense”:
Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts … finds himself in mortal conflict with existing institutions.
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…)
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…)
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…)
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…)
Faust and Mephisto in Fausts’s study, engraving by Tony Johannot after “Faust” by Goethe (1845-47).
“When did you compact with the Devil?” So does the Reverend John Hale storm in his fierce inquisition of the slave Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Under threat of being whipped to death, she replies:
He say, “You work for me, Tituba, and I make you free! I give you pretty dress to wear, and put you way high up in the air, and you gone fly back to Barbados!”
Pacts with the Devil have an ancient lineage. An early example of a diabolical offer refused is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. In the desert, the Devil offers the Messiah “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,” if only Jesus would worship him. (4:8) (more…)
Mephistopheles in the Sky (1828) by Eugène Delacroix
In January 2010, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 100,000 people, TV evangelist Pat Robertson attributed the calamities that Haiti had suffered throughout history to the fact that Haitians had sworn a pact with the devil long ago. (citation) In doing so, Robertson was the latest in a long line of Christian preachers and political leaders (dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus) who have perceived devilish, demonic, or thoroughly evil characteristics in the non-Christian spiritualities of the Americas. Robertson went on to compare the seeming prosperity of the Dominican Republic (for tourists only) with the poverty of Haiti. (more…)
“The Angel of the Lord Preventing Abraham from Sacrificing his Son Isaac” (1616) by Pieter Lastman.
In the (Brome) Abraham and Isaac play (15th century) of the English Religious Theater, Isaac exclaims when confronted with Abraham’s purpose:
“Now I would my mother were here on this hill!
She would kneel for me on both her knees
To save my life.”
Like Iphigeneia at Aulis, Isaac eventually consents to the sacrifice. But when Abraham raises his hand to strike his son, an Angel appears and takes “the sword in his hand suddenly” (A.C. Cawley, ed., Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, 1967). In René Marqués’ allegorical play Sacrificio en el Monte Moriah (1969), Sara (Isaac’s mother) masquerades as the Angel, tricking Abraham into believing that God wants him to substitute a ram as a burnt offering for the boy. (more…)