Newsletter #61: Challenging the Myths of American Militarism w/ Nadia Abu El-Haj

By Michal Schatz

How do nations mythologize themselves in the painful wake of defeat? Wolfgang Schivelbusch poses this question in The Culture of Defeat, a conceptually generative cultural history that explores how the post–Civil War US South, post-1871 France, and post-1918 Germany respectively processed their failed exploits. For a 2003 English translation, Schivelbusch added a few short paragraphs to the epilogue about 9/11 and Americans’ maniacally pro-war response. A German independent scholar who splits his time between Berlin and New York, Schivelbusch looked on post-9/11 America at a remove, seeing the US response to the attacks as part of a long, historic arc of military defeats dating back to the Vietnam War. “Could it be,” he asked, “as with the French cries for revanche at Sadowa, that America’s post–September 11 war fever is really a response to an earlier and unresolved defeat?”

Listening to part two of The Dig’s interview with Nadia Abu El-Haj, I was reminded of Schivelbusch’s suggestion. If Abu El-Haj analyzes the way US veterans make sense of their role in the unjust violence of America’s criminal wars, the question of how this reflects in America’s national myth-making today closely follows.

I was never taught about the Vietnam War growing up. My Florida public school history curriculum didn’t go beyond World War II. When I asked adults whether we had won in Vietnam, I was met with obfuscating answers, most often that the US was not defeated but had chosen to withdraw our troops — why we decided to withdraw the troops was not part of the story. It is obvious to me now that the US did lose that war. But as a country, we have never really reconciled ourselves with that defeat.

Americans’ conception of the country’s role in the world relies on a contorted logic that requires both serial victory and unambiguous moral purity. Confronting the war in Vietnam, as with those in Afghanistan and Iraq, shatters the self-image such a logic conjures — contrary to popular imagination, most US military adventurism is not quite storming the beaches of Normandy. Schivelbusch wondered in his epilogue whether the Vietnam debate, buried for a few decades under the rubble of Reagan and Soviet collapse, had been excavated by the 9/11 attacks. One could say that 9/11 unearthed and amplified the anxieties of defeat in which that debate was rooted, but as Dan’s conversation with Abu El-Haj makes clear, there is no space in the American public sphere for reckoning with US militarism.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

This month marks the twenty year anniversary of the United States’ criminal invasion of Iraq. A peculiar feature of the immediate post-9/11 discourse, Abu El-Haj reminds us, was the emphasis on the idea that the Twin Towers attacks were particularly egregious because they targeted innocent people. Iraq was thus sold to Americans as a righteous war, nevermind how tenuous the evidence and inconsistent the logic for its launch might have been. Today, the US is faced with two more unacknowledged defeats and scrambling, across the political spectrum, to reassert a sense of America as global moral protector. As Abu El-Haj points out in the interview, Ukraine’s war against Russia has offered proponents of American militarism a seamless transition into a new righteous war that might resurrect the myth of the US military’s moral superiority. The memory of the US’s criminal invasions and subsequent defeats can always be forgotten through new conflicts.

Further Reading and Listening If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely check out Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book Combat Trauma. For a firsthand, critical account of America’s War on Terror, check out Lyle Jeremy Rubin’s book Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body.

There are also a number of pieces being published to commemorate the twenty year anniversary of the US’s invasion of Iraq. Check out, for example, Spencer Ackerman’s recent piece in Rolling Stone. Our three-part interview with Ackerman (parts one, two, and three) also offers helpful, in-depth analysis of and background on the War on Terror.