American Exceptionalism remains one of the innermost ideas shaping our national identity and still lies behind all of the war stories used to justify US foreign policy. Exceptionalism has been a part of American culture since the very first European settlers landed.
At its core, exceptionalism places America outside of normal history into a category of its own. Our initial “escape” from history followed two interrelated tracks: one was the religious radicalism of the Puritans, the other was the frontier experience. Both paths were the warpath.
The early settlers believed that they were “chosen” – blessed by a special relationship to their God. They viewed their “errand in the wilderness” as a holy mission destined to bring a new and better way of life to the world. God’s judgment on their progress was revealed in the bounty of a harvest or the outcome of a war.
Exceptionalism was not a free-floating idea but was forged into a lasting culture by the frontier wars aimed at the elimination or assimilation of native people and the conquest of land. America’s frontier history produced a lasting mythology that popularized empire and white settler culture while cloaking their many contradictions.
I know it is hard to believe that the Puritans are still camped out in our minds. The old religious radicalism has taken modern form in the liberal-sounding belief that the US military is a “force for good (read God) in the world.” The double-edged sword of exceptionalism traps us into repeating history: our high moral standards and special role in the world gives us license for wars and aggressions. It is the liberal elements of exceptionalism that are most seductive, most difficult to wrap our heads around, and the most effective at winning our consent to war.
On the one hand, we have the “hard” exceptionalism like that of the Cold War (New and Old) and the War on Terrorism. These war stories revolve around a rigid binary of good and evil. After 9/11, in scores of speeches, George W Bush repeated the mantra that there were “no gray areas” in the struggle between good and evil.
On the other hand, “soft” exceptionalism takes a slightly different tack by appealing to the liberal in us. Stories of rescue, protection, democracy and humanitarian efforts assure us of our goodness. Obama mastered this narrative by claiming the US had a “duty to protect” the weak and vulnerable in places like Libya.
These two strains of war stories are the narrative one-two punch, winning our consent to war and empire.
Here is how war propaganda works: if authority figures in government and media denounce foreign leaders or countries or immigrants as an evil threat and repeat it thousands of times, they do not even have to say, “We are the chosen people destined to bring light to the world.” They know that millions of Americans will unconsciously refer to the exceptionalist code by default because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. Once made brave by our exceptional character and sense of superiority, the next moves are war, violence and white supremacy.
The Vietnam War, and the resistance to it, profoundly challenged all existing war stories. At the heart of this disruption was the soldier’s revolt. Thousands of US soldiers and veterans came to oppose the very war they fought in. An anti-war movement inside the military was totally unprecedented in US history. The war-makers have been scrambling to repair the damage ever since.
Following the defeat of US forces in Vietnam, the elites shifted gears. The idea that the US could create a new democratic nation – South Vietnam – was an utter illusion that no amount of fire-power could overcome. In truth, the US selected a series of petty tyrants to rule that could never win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people because they were the transparent puppets of American interests. The ruling class learned a lesson that forced them to abandon the liberal veneer of “nation-building.”
Ronald Regan tried to repair the damaged narratives by recasting the Vietnam War as a “Noble Cause.” The Noble Cause appealed to people hurt and confused by the US defeat, as well as the unrepentant war-makers, because it attempted to restore the old good vs. evil narrative of exceptionalism. For Regan, America needed to rediscover its original mission as a “city on a hill” – a shining example to the world. Every single president since has repeated that faith.
The Noble Cause narrative was reproduced in numerous bad movies and dubious academic studies that tried to refight the war (and win this time!). Its primary function was to restore exceptionalism in the minds of the American people. While Regan succeeded to a considerable degree – as we can see in the pro-war policy of both corporate parties – “nation-building” never recovered its power as a military strategy or war story.
Excerpted from: ‘The Empire Is Running Out of War Stories. Or is it? Will American Exceptionalism Rise Again?’.
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