A recurring theme in the American telling of history is that the bad guys do bad things for no reason at all. The general plot is that things were going along just fine and then all of a sudden, for no reason at all, the bad guys started doing bad things. Inevitably, the good guys, which will always be the Americans, were forced to break away from minding their own business to save the world from badness.
The Great War was probably the first run at this form of mythmaking. According to legend, America was trying hard to stay out of the war in Europe, then for no reason at all those very bad Germans started preying on American ships. Finally, those evil Germans sunk a perfectly innocent passenger ship called the Lusitania. The fact that it was stuffed with munitions is conveniently omitted from the tale.
Of course, the Second World War is the full expression of this myth. In the Pacific, the great yellow menace decided out of the blue to attack Hawaii. America was at peace and for no reason at all the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. In Europe, America’s peace plan created by Woodrow Wilson was working perfectly, but then for no reason at all those very bad Germans declared war on the world.
The important elements of the story are always the same. America is the innocent bystander, doing its best to mind its own business. The villain is not just the aggressor, but they have no justification for their actions. Whatever reasons they have are dismissed as irrational or evil. The final element is that America must reluctantly swing into action to save the world from the bad guys.
This sort of stuff makes sense after success. The winners get to tell the story of their victory and that always means mythmaking. The only example we have of the winner declaring themselves the villain and the loser being cast as the morally superior party is colonialism. In America that means the natives are the innocents and the paleface is the bad guy. This tale, however, is not written by the actual victors in the fight, but the winners in the 20th-century culture war.
This now-standard form of American mythmaking is not just a post hoc justification, but a justification for future action. The crusades against Islam were framed the same way by the neocons running foreign policy. Instead of mythmaking to explain past action, it is mythmaking to justify one of their schemes. American must reluctantly attack some country, in order to avoid being forced to do it later.
In their booklet The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, Bill Kristol and Larry Kagan used this exact framing to argue for the invasion of Iraq in the second Bush administration. Preemption is the claim that it is morally justified to attack another country if it can be argued that the target country could one day be a threat to American interests or the interests of American allies.
It is fair to say the entire crusade against Islam was framed as a reaction by America to actors suddenly doing things for no reason at all. Saudi terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center for no reason at all, so America reluctantly attacked and occupied Afghanistan. Saddam could possibly have thought about getting nukes for no reason at all, so America invaded Iraq and deposed the ruling regime. The same narrative was ready for Iran, but the clock ran out on the Bush administration.
Now we are seeing the same arguments with regards to Ukraine. America is being dragged into this conflict against its will because Russia, for no reason at all, has invaded the sacred lands of Ukraine. Members of Congress are being marched out in front of the cameras by their neocon handlers to tell us that we have no choice but to risk nuclear annihilation over Ukraine.
Of course, there is never any mention of the endless meddling by Washington or the meddling in other former Soviet republics on the Russian border. According to the myth, America has been minding its own business and for no reason at all the Russians launched this bloody war against innocent civilians. Even if they have a reason, it is Russian disinformation and only Putin puppets believe it.
It is clear from the massive public-relations campaign put on by the American media that they were sure the old myth of America would work again. Everyone dutifully started chanting “Keev” and donned the colors of Ukraine. The big social media platforms swung into action to suppress dissent. Everyone assumed this was going to work and the public would rush to support a war with Russia.
The fact that this has not happened, despite the bombardment from the mass media, suggests the myth of America as reluctant warrior has run out of road. Most Americans are willing to accept Ukraine as the victim and Russia as the aggressor, but they draw the line at acting on it. Even the mouth breathers who consume conservative talk radio have started to question the flag-waving.
At the end of the Cold War, the hope was that America could go back to being a normal country again, instead of the savior of the world. Instead, it was a generation of pointless wars of choice cooked up by neoconservative nutters with an ancient grudge against humanity. Like a drug-resistant virus, they have infested the foreign-policy establishment, leading to one disaster after another.
Their final act may very well be destroying America’s image of itself as a positive force in the world. That will be a difficult thing for people to accept, especially the older generations, but it will be a small price to pay if it means the removal of this carbuncle from the face of the country. If humiliation in Ukraine means America turns back to normalcy, then the end of that myth will be worth it.
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