You call Bush's with-us-or-against-us stance a jihad. What do you mean by that?
We use overtly religious language. It's the same language the Islamic radicals use, both to sanctify the cause and demonize the enemy. That's not uncommon. In war, we raise the conflict to a battle between light and dark. That's part of endowing the conflict with the mythic quality it requires to propel it forward.
What religious language have you heard Bush use?
The speech he gave at Ellis Island, the last line was taken directly from the gospel of John. Probably much more than the public realizes, he has repeatedly used biblical language and metaphors to explain the event. And of course this is very dangerous.
Dangerous because we believe we can carry out the will of God. That's a step away from viewing ourselves as God. That puts you in the same class as those arrayed against us. You fail to see the divinity in the other. You fail to recognize your own sinfulness, your own cupability. Rheinhold Niebuhr said we must always act and then ask for forgiveness.
As [St.] Paul pointed out, we look through a glass darkly-it's not in our power as human beings to fully understand God's will, and how God works on Earth. We lose our humility. In a broader sense, we fail to understand how others see us because we've exalted ourselves, and in that exaltation have pushed the other down.
By speaking about the conflict this way, we rob ourselves of the ability to critique what we're doing. Everyone speaks in cliches handed to them by the state. You can see it in "the war on terror." It's not a war, and we're not fighting terror--you can't fight an idea. It's only when we can recover a common language with those who oppose us that we can talk of peace.
If you look at modern industrial conflicts, it hard to endow them with moral qualities. War can become inescapable, or inevitable, but it is still a disease. Sometimes you have to ingest that disease to save the corporate body of the nation, the way a cancer patient accepts poison into their body. But if you're not aware of how dangerous it is, and what the essence of the substance is, it can kill you. War begins with the annihilation of the other, but very easily it can end with self-annihilation.
Don't we sometimes simply need these myths as anesthesia, to get us through the disease?
It's the nature of all states, in peacetime and wartime, to lie. If you look at the reasons LBJ gave for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, they were lies. The same was true in the First World War. So yes, myth is necessary to make society and soldiers go into the war. But we have to be extremely vigilant, because those lies can thrust us into unnecessary wars.
The current debate is about whether Saddam is a threat, and if we invade, can we build a new Iraqi state. Those seem to be fairly realistic points. What myths do you see in play here?
If there's a credible threat from Baghdad, we, like any nation, will protect ourselves. But there is no threat. It's pre-emptive: "We have to do this before something happens." Saddam has some bad stuff. When I went in with the Marines after the war, I watched them blow up dumps of chemical and biological weapons. If he feels he's going down, he might use what he has to strike back. So we may become less secure, not more secure.
We've folded in ourselves since 9/11. We've created alliance, this troika with Sharon and Putin and us. This has colored how we're viewed in the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. Because of the mythmaking, we have no concept of how we're looked at, and, with a great deal of justification, we're really detested.
How do we avoid war?
I agree with Freud. I don't think war will be eradicated. There are periods when eros [the life instinct] is ascendant and when thanatos [the death instinct] is ascendant. At the end of the Vietnam War, we were chastened as a people and a nation, and we began to ask questions about ourselves. We began to accept responsibility for things we had done. We became a better nation because of our defeat. But during with the invasion of Grenada during the Reagan administration, war became popular again. Then we had the Gulf War, and war became fun. Until we're bloodied and humbled, the death instinct will rule.