[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: A Mythic Reality
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Tue Sep 7 11:27:15 PDT 2004
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A Mythic Reality
September 7, 2004
By PAUL KRUGMAN
The best book I've read about America after 9/11 isn't
about either America or 9/11. It's "War Is a Force That
Gives Us Meaning," an essay on the psychology of war by
Chris Hedges, a veteran war correspondent. Better than any
poll analysis or focus group, it explains why President
Bush, despite policy failures at home and abroad, is ahead
in the polls.
War, Mr. Hedges says, plays to some fundamental urges.
"Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including
ours," he says, "is the passionate yearning for a
nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone
is able to deliver." When war psychology takes hold, the
public believes, temporarily, in a "mythic reality" in
which our nation is purely good, our enemies are purely
evil, and anyone who isn't our ally is our enemy.
This state of mind works greatly to the benefit of those in
One striking part of the book describes Argentina's
reaction to the 1982 Falklands war. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri,
the leader of the country's military junta, cynically
launched that war to distract the public from the failure
of his economic policies. It worked: "The junta, which had
been on the verge of collapse" just before the war,
"instantly became the saviors of the country."
The point is that once war psychology takes hold, the
public desperately wants to believe in its leadership, and
ascribes heroic qualities to even the least deserving
ruler. National adulation for the junta ended only after a
humiliating military defeat.
George W. Bush isn't General Galtieri: America really was
attacked on 9/11, and any president would have followed up
with a counterstrike against the Taliban. Yet the Bush
administration, like the Argentine junta, derived enormous
political benefit from the impulse of a nation at war to
rally around its leader.
Another president might have refrained from exploiting that
surge of support for partisan gain; Mr. Bush didn't.
And his administration has sought to perpetuate the war
psychology that makes such exploitation possible.
Step by step, the fight against Al Qaeda became a universal
"war on terror," then a confrontation with the "axis of
evil," then a war against all evil everywhere. Nobody knows
where it all ends.
What is clear is that whenever political debate turns to
Mr. Bush's actual record in office, his popularity sinks.
Only by doing whatever it takes to change the subject to
the war on terror - not to what he's actually doing about
terrorist threats, but to his "leadership," whatever that
means - can he get a bump in the polls.
Last week's convention made it clear that Mr. Bush intends
to use what's left of his heroic image to win the election,
and early polls suggest that the strategy may be working.
What can John Kerry do?
Campaigning exclusively on domestic issues won't work. Mr.
Bush must be held to account for his dismal record on jobs,
health care and the environment. But as Mr. Hedges writes,
when war psychology makes a public yearn to believe in its
leaders, "there is little that logic or fact or truth can
do to alter the experience."
To win, the Kerry campaign has to convince a significant
number of voters that the self-proclaimed "war president"
isn't an effective war leader - he only plays one on TV.
This charge has the virtue of being true. It's hard to find
a nonpartisan national security analyst with a good word
for the Bush administration's foreign policy. Iraq, in
particular, is a slow-motion disaster brought on by wishful
thinking, cronyism and epic incompetence.
If I were running the Kerry campaign, I'd remind people
frequently about Mr. Bush's flight-suit photo-op, when he
declared the end of major combat. In fact, the war goes on
unabated. News coverage of Iraq dropped off sharply after
the supposed transfer of sovereignty on June 28, but as
many American soldiers have died since the transfer as in
the original invasion.
And I'd point out that while Mr. Bush spared no effort
preparing for his carrier landing - he even received
underwater survival training in the White House pool - he
didn't prepare for things that actually mattered, like
securing and rebuilding Iraq after Baghdad fell.
Will it work? I don't know. But to win, Mr. Kerry must try
to puncture the myth that Mr. Bush's handlers have so
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