The River of Lethe was a mythical river the dead were required to drink from so that they would no longer remember their past lives on Earth. Sometimes it was also known as the river of oblivion and its purpose was to allow us to enter the domain of the dead without desire for our previous lives and without regrets. From a cultural perspective we might say our current news cycles and movies offer the same benefits.
Here’s an example: how many of us watching the largest grossing war movie in U.S. history, American Sniper, missed the conflating of Iraq with Al Qaeda and 9/11? Director Clint Eastwood had no problem compressing time and leaping directly from 9/11 to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), eliminating years of history in a single scene. This handy amnesic device allowed U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper in the movie) to announce his unvarnished conviction that he is protecting US soldiers and fighting Islamic evil by shooting Iraqis defending their country against our occupation. Since no mention is made that we were, in fact, an occupying force, there is no ethical dilemma—and frankly no real drama. The story Eastwood tells is a convenient fairy tale, but it hardly touches on the realities during our invasion of Iraq for the Iraqis, or the Americans, for that matter.
Neither is any mention made of the actual cause celebre for the war, those curiously disappearing WMD, but as with the inconvenience of labeling our troops as occupiers, rather than liberators, so too with this omission. No WMD found, no problem. We’ll draw a line straight from airplanes flying into the trade center towers to an American sniper taking out an Iraqi kid and the intervening years of protests to prevent the war, the millions around the world who marched against the reckless adventure won’t even get a historical footnote—much less a short scene in the movie, which, given Americans memory and lackluster appetite for historical accuracy may be the only history lesson they receive.
There are more complex historical problems should we have the patience to learn them. How many folks know, for example, that Saddam Hussein worked for the CIA in 1959, when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim? Or for that matter how many realize that on November 1, 1983, the secretary of state, George Shultz, was passed intelligence reports of “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” by Iraq and that despite this, 25 days later, Ronald Reagan signed a secret order instructing the administration to do “whatever was necessary and legal” to prevent Iraq losing the war to Iran. In December of that same year, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld was hired by President Reagan to serve as a Middle East troubleshooter. Mr. Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and passed on the US willingness to help his regime by whatever means necessary, even if that meant turning a blind eye toward the use of chemical weapons against Iran. The US was also willing to restore full diplomatic relations. A few decades later, we used the threat of those same chemical weapons to invade Iraq and fracture the country along underlying sectarian lines like a frag grenade. All of which, by the way, was predictable and was predicted by Middle Eastern scholars like Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, whose opinions were actively ignored. To this day, it’s doubtful if the leading luminaries of that invasion (Bush and Cheney, et. al.) understand the distinction between Sunni and Shiite and the circle of hell they unleashed with their arbitrary invasion. Certainly, they make no amends for the useless carnage of either Americans or Iraqis, or the billions wasted in destroying that nation on the pretense of fearing Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, which, a few decades earlier, we were happy to ignore.
Now, a decade in the future of these events, Eastwood offers us a breathtaking look at the war through the eyes of a sniper employed by the Empire’s army without apologies or reference to our long history in that region. And naturally, Americans being Americans with little or no interest in their own history or their place in the world are enthralled by this new wounded hero project. It’s an infantile cycle that is surprisingly resilient through our successful and less successful adventures at home and abroad. We saw the same pattern in ‘remembering’ our role in Vietnam. It turns out there is a simple formula for resolving conflicts that leaves millions dead and wastes billions in treasure: focus on us, not them. Agree that the war is primarily an American tragedy. As Christian Appy puts it in referring to our so-called Vietnam syndrome in a recent Nation article, “Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves. […] the war had been disastrous mainly because it had weakened an American sense of pride and patriotism.”
“…our own veterans were the greatest victims of the war and their wounds were largely a consequence of their shabby treatment by antiwar protesters upon returning from the battle zone to an unwelcoming home front. Indeed, it became an article of faith that the most shameful aspect of the Vietnam War was the nation’s failure to embrace and honor its returning soldiers.”
Thus, those who worked so hard to prevent and stop the war become the focal point of blame for its failure.
Hannah Arendt once wrote that the totalitarian government always starts by colonizing the individual’s imagination. In her book on Eichmann, she notes that Eichmann had done evil not because he had a sadistic will to do so, nor because he had been deeply infected by the bacillus of anti-Semitism, but because he failed to think through what he was doing. His thoughtlessness, his lack of imagination allowed the Nazis to carry out their murderous tasks. The phrase she coined to describe this was the ‘banality of evil’. It encompasses two things really: that evil itself can be found in the most mundane and daily tasks of our lives, that it isn’t necessarily represented solely in the black mask of Saddam Hussein or the stink of his torture chambers, or in the sights of Chris Kyle’s rifle. The other notion is that evil can be passive as well as active, that it isn’t limited to the actions of Nazi generals and can include political hacks as well as bureaucratic functionaries, in other words, evil can be systemic; it can flow out of career climbing and intellectual sloth as much as malevolence and action. In Arendt’s view, when a country or nation commits a horrendous crime, we are all on notice; all of us are in the driver’s seat to a certain degree.
This makes living consciously in the postmodern age quite the challenge and makes the desire to drink deeply of our culture’s river of Lethe all the more tempting. After all, if the Vietnam war was a mistake, if the Iraq war was a mistake, if we were invaders and not liberators, if our soldiers were reviled and not embraced by the Iraqis or Vietnamese, doesn’t that make us essentially colonialists and occupiers? This is a painful recognition. Most of us prefer not to deal with it, though each of us bear some responsibility, too. Movies like The Deer Hunter show the physical and psychological wounds suffered by Americans because of the war, leaving out the horrific casualty count in Vietnam or the genocide later perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge that would never have happened without our massive bombing campaigns. American Sniper focuses on the wounded American hero as well, but it also rewrites history which helps to justify our actions. We can suggest, like Chris Kyle, that it was necessary, that we were just doing our jobs, protecting our ‘homeland’, securing our borders, keeping our neighborhoods safe and retaliating for 9/11. None of this is true, of course. But the point of the movie isn’t about getting at the truth, it’s about assuaging our feelings, helping us ‘get over’ Iraq, like we ‘got over’ Vietnam.
There’s a tragicomic YouTube that Adam Koresh has put together in which he interviews American moviegoers after they’ve attended American Sniper. They are all universally overwhelmed, teary eyed, or just silent and thoughtful.
“He’s a real hero,” one of moviegoers opines.
Koresh doesn’t let him get away with this simple formulation, though. What do you mean by ‘hero’? he asks.
The moviegoer suggests that he’s a hero because he’s willing to go to such great lengths to protect his fellow soldiers, and by extension, his homeland.
But, Koresh asks, seemingly baffled, weren’t the Iraqis also protecting their homeland?
The questioning, a classic Socratic technique, is applied again and again, frustrating the moviegoers’ simple assertions and forcing them to think, if for just a few seconds, about what they’ve actually watched, about the unspoken narratives they have unwittingly accepted as true.
Koresh is relentless. One woman gets so discombobulated that she insists that she will support our soldiers no matter what they do. Even if the war is unjustified, even if we are invaders, even if the Iraqis defending their homeland have a right to do so, she’ll still defend our soldiers and their mission.
Because they are our troops and I will always support them, regardless.
One suspects this woman’s reaction could be applied to quite a few of our citizens. I’m sure many good Germans at a certain ignominious points in their history held the same blind loyalty. American Sniper just makes it easier for us to be good Germans, eliding history, giving us a cause and effect that does not exists in order to present a more seemly version of reality in which the people we kill are incontestably bad; and our own motives in the Iraqi disaster are incontestably pure.
In Felix Cornelius’ Bumper Sticker Culture, he notes that during war, one way to jettison our moral precepts against murder is to no longer imagine your enemy as a fellow human. That’s one reason Hannah Arendt writes that in order to work, totalitarianism colonizes the imagination. War, too, is a kind of totalitarianism, as is the militarism that makes war possible, no matter how short-lived. It abstracts humans from their concrete presence, and replaces them with ideological representations and abstractions: words like ‘enemies’ or ‘evil’. In this context it’s not curious at all that the Pentagon has probably the worst record for using concrete language of any bureaucratic institution on earth. Abstraction and ideologies pour water into the river of Lethe. They help us to forget the human face, the quite simple human needs that drive most people. They let us kill another human in the name of an idea.
A friend of mine recently sent me a link that applied Jungian analysis to the September 11 attacks. One of the insights, perhaps not even that remarkable, is that during war, or the ‘release of aggression’, the feeling of justification is important and individual moral judgments tend to be swept aside to be replaced by group standards. Control then becomes external rather than internal; what is good or bad is decided by the group or the leader, not the individual. In short, the imagination is colonized. “We see this mechanism in all forms of political violence, witch-hunts, and the persecution of minorities and heretics. In a country such as the USA with powerful communications and media, there is a tendency for the cultural psyche to strongly affect individual attitudes.”
In a totalitarian society, one of the tricks is to keep control always situated on the leader or the group and specifically out of the hands of the individual. That’s what Orwell brilliantly portrayed with his description of group ‘hates’ in 1984–an externalized enemy –nebulous, un-locatable and ‘evil’ becomes the focus for all psychic energy and also, conveniently, is the source of most of the problems in their society. The focused hatred also allows for a pleasant comparison with Big Brother, for if the enemy is all evil, then Big Brother is all good. In a frightening way, this closely parallels another set of psychological behaviors that occurs in a war where each party tends to see itself as right and good and the other as all bad. Negative components of the self are typically projected onto the other side–these negative components are sometimes referred to as ‘shadow’ components based on Jung’s idea of the shadow or essentially the underside to our personalities: those disavowed or socially disapproved behaviors we are all capable of but do not do–these grow more powerful the more we deny their existence. When we project them onto others we actually give them a portion of our power. What’s always surprised me is how huge Bush managed to make a relatively inconsequential man–Osama Bin Laden. With the pursuit of Saddam Hussein, it’s as though our nation had projected all its negative, disavowed behaviors onto the face of one man, an ex-CIA thug with a fondness for fuchsia, apparently.
Our enemy du jour is ISIS. ISIS or the Islamic State is an outgrowth from our failed adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan, known principally in the West for its unseemly habit of beheading its enemies, a practice our longtime ally, Saudi Arabia, still happily employs. It is also ruthless, wealthy and growing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but ISIS in many ways shares attributes with our own endeavors. It is media savvy (at least in terms of their constituency), more than willing to sacrifice civilians in their various causes and concerned with making money while they make war.
The fact that ISIS is an outgrowth of AQI that would never have existed if we had not invaded Iraq does not seem to be understood. Here’s a short primer: AQI was a direct response to the invasion of Iraq and the disbanding of the Ba’athist leadership—military and otherwise– under Saddam consisting mostly of Sunnis. Maliki, a Shi’a or Shiite was appointed leader of Iraq, a move that dramatically heightened sectarian tensions and led to the civil war that ravaged Iraq along Sunni/Shiite lines. Ex-Baathist took up arms against both the US occupation and Maliki leadership of Iraq. AQI morphed into ISIS that now wishes to proclaim an Islamic caliphate across a large swath of the Middle East and portions of the Balkan states and Spain.
The details of this morphing are instructive. CBS News recently traced the formation of ISIS back to a U.S. military prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, one of the largest, and one of the toughest, American prisons in Iraq. As the civil war/insurgency raged across the country, Bucca’s numbers swelled. And according to a CBS News investigation, at least 12 of the top leaders of ISIS served time at Camp Bucca, including the man who would become the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
U.S. officials who worked at Bucca told CBS that they were concerned that prisoners were becoming radicalized. The prison has been described as “a pressure cooker for extremism.”
“An unexpected and powerful alliance was formed between the Islamic extremists and the Ba’athists loyal to Saddam Hussein, who were angry at losing power.” It was a marriage of convenience.
“You put them together and you get a mixing of organized military discipline with highly motivated, highly active ideological fervor, and the result is what we have today,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who spent time in Iraq and who know works with the Soufan group.
“I mean, there were other circumstances, but the toxic brew of Bucca started this recipe.”
“I think it’s undeniable that one of the main causes of ISIS’s explosive growth after 2010 was Bucca. It’s where they met, it’s where they planned.”
“Everybody could see what was happening but nobody could do anything about it,” Skinner said.
In fact, western publications are speculating that ISIS is so efficient militarily precisely because they are led by ex-Ba’athist officers.
But ISIS is different from AQI in one important sense. It has captured ground and held it, and already claimed a de facto caliphate reaching from Syria to Iraq. Graeme Wood, writing in the Atlantic about ISIS notes that what was once best described as an insurgent fighting force might now be more accurately described as an army. “Within the region, around 56 million people must navigate between the armies of the rival militias, warlords and national armies that are barely distinguishable from one another.” They may not be overjoyed with the resulting sharia law under ISIS, but they can at least enjoy some stability.
The sad part is none of this had to happen. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. As Noam Chomsky put it, the relationships between the religions at that time were “like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile. For a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.”
Historically, Saudi Arabia’s peculiarly strict version of Islam, Wahhabi Salafism is what lies underneath Al Qaeda and ISIS ideology: a kind of fundamental Islam on steroids. Think of the Christian Identity movement or the Dominionist who still cling to a belief in the ‘end times.’ How did this cult-like tribal strain of Islam become so powerful? Oil money, and enthusiastic Western support. Britain, before the US, had typically preferred radical Islamism to secular nationalism. Better a radicalized version of Islam that approaches fascism than a self-determining nationalist state—much easier to control and you don’t have to worry about the unseemly socialist occasionally getting elected—like Mossadegh in Iran, Nasser in Egypt or Qasim in Iraq—many of whom were disposed by Western agents, either through revolution or assassination. And when the US took over, it essentially took the same stand that Britain had. Now Saudi Arabia is the most radical Islamic state in the world. It makes Iran look like a tolerant, modern country by comparison, and, of course, the secular parts of the Arab Middle East even more so. The brand of Islam it subscribes to, Salafism also, not incidentally, zealously proselytizes. Saudi Arabia uses its huge oil resources to promulgate strict Islamic doctrines throughout the region as well, establishing schools, mosques, clerics, all over the place, from Pakistan to North Africa. ISIS also provides such services as it expands its geographic hold imposing their harsh version of Islam on the areas they conquer.
One other thing. Like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, ISIS followers believe fervently in the “end times.” They believe that their activities will help bring the end times on, and they are quite eager to embrace their oblivion for the better glory of their god.
In his Atlantic piece, Graeme Wood wonders what the appeal of such a cult-like religion might be. In answer he stumbles upon George Orwell’s famous observation about fascism:
Fascism is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
Nor, Wood adds, should we underestimate Islamic State’s appeal. “That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model.”
The River of Lethe is for the dead. For the living, to remember correctly, to see actions in their historical context isn’t just a minor convenience to be jettisoned when the story line requires something simple and familiar, especially when dealing with religious fanatics. After all, the Chris Kyle solution, bombs and bullets, will only reinforce their vision of divinely ordained mission. Malala Yousafzai, who famously survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban had this suggestion for dealing with ISIS and radical fundamentalism in general:
“The best way to fight terrorism is to invest in education. Instead of guns, send books.”
Malala was nearly murdered because she decided to receive an education in Afghanistan. Perhaps that’s not as “heroic” as Chris Kyle’s blind loyalty to a military whose motivations and raison d’etre he barely understands, but it’s considerably more effective in the long run. Certainly, ISIS would like nothing better than to fully engage the West in their determined lemming run toward the end of time. But their strength lies precisely in their ability to appeal to Muslims around the world who see in their struggle something pure and consonant with their faith. Should we give them such an advantage? After all, the Ba’athist officer corps that gives ISIS its tactical edge might be less inclined to march off into oblivion if they had a home and an Iraqi leader that didn’t promise to exterminate them. This was how we easily invaded Iraq in the first place, by essentially bribing Saddam’s officer corps. Our mistake was later to disband them without any hope for jobs or positions in our neoliberal’s version of Iraq, essentially guaranteeing an insurgency that has mutated into civil war and destroyed Iraq and torn apart the larger Middle East in less than a decade.
Just as important, Malala’s advice is good for the West as well. The first step in changing a course that has gone disastrously wrong is learning how we got there.