04 June 2007
Iraq & the Clash of Myths
It is possible that the seeds for the insurgency in Iraq lay, not just the poor execution of the Bush administration's strategy, but, instead, in overlooking the importance of myth in nation building. Creating nation-states has always heavily relied on myth and still does, even in this age of science and technology.
The myth of Iraq as seen by Bush was that America would liberate the Iraqis from an evil dictator and they would celebrate their freedom by embracing capitalism and democracy.
But when it comes to nation building, myth has to make you the hero, not the rescued victim.
I went to Vietnam in 1994. I was working with a group founded by a trio of Vietnamese-Americans putting on a trade show featuring American companies. The group I was with was largely made up of people who fled their homes when Saigon fell to the communists. All of us felt trepidation as we stepped off the plane in Hanoi.
There were so many remarkable things about this trip, but one that stands out was the reaction of these Vietnamese-Americans when we visited Ho Chi Minh's tomb. It was obvious that mingled with their fear was real pride in "Bac [Uncle] Ho." Here was a Vietnamese who defeated two of the most powerful nations in history - sending French and American troops back home in the struggle for independence. Before that – hundreds of years before - they had gained their independence from the Chinese. This contributed to the myth that defined the Vietnamese: a people who resisted foreign occupation even in the face of incredible odds.
One vital contribution to the emergence of nation-states like England, France, and Germany was the cultivation of myth. Stories of national identity gave the individual a sense of national pride and distinction from other peoples. The discovery, in 1455, of Tacitus's Germania from Roman times helped to provide a sense of unity and superiority to a people governed by 300-some different governments. Stories of King Arthur and Charlemagne (one fabricated and one revived) helped to create a sense of national destiny that predated the recent history of division in what became England and France.
Iraqis were never particularly likely to gain a sense of national identity from George Bush's rescue myth. It's hard to found a country on a shared sense of rescued victim. Founding myths have to provide a sense of distinction and pride.
The insurgents are now creating a myth that could feed a strong sense of national identity. How intoxicating to be part of a force that "defeated" the most powerful military in world history? Rather than lead to the embrace of Western culture and institutions, this kind of myth is likely to frame this Iraqi war as proof of the corruption of Western institutions and people who, in spite of their obvious advantages and technological superiority, were unable to overcome the Iraqi people who kept themselves pure of Western influence.
In this time of science, technology, and economic theory, it is easy to dismiss myth as inconsequential and misguided. Yet we need shared stories, we need myths that provide a sense of identity. If a people can't share stories, it's hard to share much else - especially something as ethereal as a nation-state.