The new United States … not so much a nation as a religion

Self-appointed as God’s chosen people, Americans refuse to believe they can fail in Iraq, writes George Monbiot.
The Guardian (England), via The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), July 31, 2003 (Opinion)
http://www.smh.com.au/
George Monbiot

[From RNB's editor: A memo to Mark Kellner, inviting him to deal with the issues addressed, rather than shoot the messenger.]

‘The death of Uday and Qusay,” the commander of the ground forces in Iraq told reporters on Wednesday, “is definitely going to be a turning point for the resistance.”

Well, it was a turning point, but unfortunately not of the kind he envisaged.

On the day he made his announcement, Iraqi insurgents killed one US soldier and wounded six others. The following day, they killed another three; over the weekend they assassinated five and injured seven.

On Monday they slaughtered one more and wounded three. This has been the worst week for US soldiers in Iraq since George Bush declared that the war there was over.

Few people believe that the resistance in that country is being coordinated by Saddam Hussein and his noxious family, or that it will end when those people are killed. But the few appear to include the military and civilian command of the US armed forces.

Are we really expected to believe that members of the US security services are the only people who cannot see that many Iraqis wish to rid themselves of the US army as fervently as they wished to rid themselves of Saddam? What is lacking in the Pentagon and the White House is not intelligence (or not, at any rate, of the kind we are considering here), but receptivity. Theirs is not a failure of information, but a failure of ideology.

To understand why this failure persists, we must first grasp a reality which has seldom been discussed in print. The US is no longer just a nation. It is now a religion. Its soldiers have entered Iraq to liberate its people not only from their dictator, their oil and their sovereignty, but also from their darkness.

As Bush told his troops on the day he announced victory: “Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope – a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘To the captives, come out, and to those in darkness, be free.”‘

So US soldiers are no longer merely terrestrial combatants; they have become missionaries. They are no longer simply killing enemies; they are casting out demons.

As Clifford Longley shows in his fascinating book Chosen People, published last year, the founding fathers of the US, though they sometimes professed otherwise, sensed that they were guided by a divine purpose. Thomas Jefferson argued that the Great Seal of the US should depict the Israelites, “led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”.

George Washington claimed, in his inaugural address, that every step towards independence was “distinguished by some token of providential agency”. Six weeks ago, Bush recalled a remark of Woodrow Wilson’s. “America,” he quoted, “has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind.”

Gradually this notion of election has been conflated with another, still more dangerous idea. It is not just that the Americans are God’s chosen people; America itself is now perceived as a divine project. Since the attacks on New York, this notion of America the divine has been extended and refined.

In December 2001 Rudy Giuliani, New York’s mayor, delivered his last mayoral speech in St Paul’s Chapel, close to the site of the shattered twin towers. “All that matters,” he claimed, “is that you embrace America and understand its ideals and what it’s all about. Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of your Americanism was … how much you believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion.”

The United States of America no longer needs to call upon God; it is God, and those who go abroad to spread the light do so in the name of a celestial domain. The presidency is turning into a priesthood.

So those who question Bush’s foreign policy are no longer merely critics; they are blasphemers, or “anti-Americans”. Those foreign states which seek to change this policy are wasting their time: you can negotiate with politicians; you cannot negotiate with priests. The US has a divine mission, as Bush suggested in January: “to defend … the hopes of all mankind”.

The dangers of national divinity scarcely require explanation. Japan went to war in the 1930s convinced, like Bush, that it possessed a heaven-sent mission to “liberate” Asia and extend the realm of its divine imperium. It would, the fascist theoretician Kita Ikki predicted, “light the darkness of the entire world”.

Those who seek to drag heaven down to earth are destined only to engineer a hell.

George Monbiot is an author and a columnist with The Guardian

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