Losing Mythic Authority

Losing Mythic Authority

Mini Teaser: As a result of America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have lost the global clout we derived from our role in World War II—for good.

by Author(s): Michael Vlahos

Mythic authority also rested on the legitimacy of the United States extending its democratic ideal to the whole world. Thus, in World War II it was "the United Nations", and in the Cold War it was "the Free World." But more than the doublespeak of a "coalition of the willing", it is our continuing support of tyrants that deeply chips away at our authority.

IN WORLD War II and afterwards the United States insisted that its "friends and allies" give up their colonies. In this war we indulged in similar rhetoric, but this time with no action. Now we have given up even on the rhetoric. Our quiet support of some of the world's worst despots is a slow but unstoppable corrosion.

And if American military power is ineffective, then in what manner do we remain strong? Certainly we can "kill anything that moves", and we can land and keep an army anywhere on the planet, anytime. But what if the very use of such power itself has no value?

Perhaps our mythic authority would not be so at risk if it had not been seized upon as the celebrated emotional centerpiece of the administration's war vision. The World War II metaphor became the litany of self-aggrandizing tropes. If 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, our bombers over the Taliban were like B-17s "twelve o'clock high." Our entry into Baghdad was to Paris like sweets and honey to champagne and flowers in gi M1s. When things got tough in Iraq it was suddenly like Iwo Jima; when things got tougher it was the Battle of the Bulge. Completing the Third Reich incantation, our enemies are "Islamofascists." Administration officials label Iran's government "Nazi" and their Quds Force the "ss."

What is fascinating about the administration's persistent appropriation of World War II for six straight years is how cumulative use has undercut the cause. Rather than creating a focal point for putting this war in perspective, it offers instead an increasingly invidious comparison. Were the battles for Fallujah really the Bulge or Iwo reborn? Are Americans who oppose the Iraq War really like the cowards and traitors who would have given up at the first big World War II setback? The Defense Department's "Long War" briefing has even suggested that the Islamofascist-like the Nazi-dream of a super-caliphate is but steps away from evil reality.

The appropriation of World War II's reliquaries and liturgical silver has had the surely unintended effect of desecrating the Good War's allegory. This means that it can no longer be used to claim American national loyalty and energy in the pursuit of new martial enterprises to come. Simply, invoking Iwo Jima or the Nazis no longer works.

The end of a sacred allegory has happened before in American history. There came an ineffable point in the close combat of politics, somewhere in the 1880s, when "waving the bloody shirt" no longer worked. The Republican Party had to search for another claim to unimpeachable authority. They would not find it.

But what the world sees now is the mythic authority of America vested in World War II brought down, used up, utterly without conviction. Suddenly there is no mythic undergirding of American action, and no basis for others to believe in or depend on us.

The Rise of a New Canon?

OUR "MYTHIC" loss is no small matter. It undercuts American world authority in ways that are as hard to measure as they are impossible to deny. Moreover, no European power at the height of the nation-state epoch ever commanded such world-ranging fealty. So in search of comparisons we look back to the mythical realms of Rome and Constantinople.

It is lamentable to lose such an exalted claim: hard on our foreign policy, and also hard on us. Yet there is a paradox here. If we have lost mythic authority, it is also true that the mythic drove us here.

The problem at last with mythic authority is that it is a hard master. More than formal military commitments or treaty regimes, all of which can at some point be renegotiated or even broken, mythic authority must be truly used up before a nation can be said at last to be rid of it. Otherwise it represents a kind of fetish with juju so powerful that its invocation, even its wholesale appropriation, cannot be resisted.

So it was in the weeks after 9/11. World War II-the still-living, greatest volume in America's mythic canon-was our authority-in-waiting for infinite action. And so it came yet again to claim us, locking us in a vise of light and darkness, of struggle and sacrifice, of Civilization and History in the balance.

Losing the political utility of a particular set of literary tropes-even an entire canon in the sacred narrative-is not necessarily a bad thing. In the more forgiving sweep of (lower-case) history it is surely a good thing, because it makes space for a new canon to emerge.

Perhaps it might be tempting to hope the next war will rouse us to the heroic, so that myth may once again spring full-blown from the American brow. But perhaps the time has come to back off, if we can, from world relationships-both allied and adversarial-rooted in a sacred narrative of struggle, revelation and redemption.

Michael Vlahos is principal professional staff in the National Security Analysis Department at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Essay Types: Book Review