The specter of a defeated America remains the single most powerful motivator for national policy. As a country, victory is the only viable option. After two world wars in which America played the role of rescuer (the New World coming to end the bloody folly of the Old), it wasn’t until Richard Nixon portrayed America as “a pitiful, helpless giant” in the Vietnam era that the U.S. had to face the reality that wars are not always won. History is repeating itself almost verbatim today in Iraq. That conflict has been a disaster for five years, yet John McCain’s policy of “no surrender” could carry the day.

America, always proud of its youthful vigor, resists the prospect of maturity. It would be a mature decision to wind up the Iraq war as soon as possible, to oversee a just settlement with the help of the U.N., and to make reparations for the immense devastation we recklessly caused. Something like that is bound to happen, but the underlying fact is that Iraq, like Vietnam before it, was a naked exercise in national pride. The giant had to swagger across the world stage, bringing war where there was no cause. The image of military might was the only cause, while in the shadows the shame of possible defeat exercised its baleful influence. The shadow was doubly powerful because of 9/11, which brought a feeling of national helplessness. Iraq was the exorcism of that feeling as much as anything else.
As with any powerful image, this one can’t be countered with reason. That’s what baffles anti-war movements, then and now. They aren’t listened to on reasonable grounds but instead are vilified as traitors. By definition, it’s anti-American to even hint at defeat.
In the current presidential race, the accusation that Barack Obama isn’t a patriot (which is believed, the latest polls show, by almost 25% of the population) is an anti-war backlash. John Kerry tried to disguise that he was a longtime peacenik in 2004, only to be blasted by an anti-patriot smear in the form of Swift boating. Now Obama must figure out how to quell the specter of the pitiful, helpless giant, extricating us out of Iraq without suggesting defeat and failure. So far he’s relied on realism, flatly telling the public that the war has been a debacle. A large sector of the public already believes this and won’t demonize him, which leaves another sector, unknown in size, for whom the image of defeat isn’t subject to reason. Over the course of the next four months Obama will test whether they can be coaxed into reality or not.
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