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Myths and Obama’s War

Myth is often more satisfying than truth, and the apocryphal story of two famous novelists is a great example.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said, “The rich are different from us.”

To which Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

The truth is that they both published paragraphs that could fairly be distilled into the above sentences but they never made the remarks face to face. In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story in The Red Book called “The Rich Boy,” which contained this:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

Ernest Hemingway struck back ten years later in Esquire, with the following from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro:”

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

Those of us born and raised in Indian country but who now live in the United States understand that the Fitzgerald/Hemingway exchange was about privilege and the whole idea of “rich” is context dependent.

Before Columbus got lost, the people now called Indians had no sense of being poor because most of us had all we needed. We like to pretend that there were no empires or aggressive wars or other collective bad conduct and of course that was not the case. Indians are human beings and the Noble Savage is as mythical as the subhuman cannibals the colonists made up to justify theft and rape and murder.

It’s not that we were innocent of evil in the so-called New World. It’s more a matter of proportion. Everybody thinks they are special and so is their tribe. I mean “tribe” the same way our kids mean “posse”---the people we surround ourselves with and therefore identify with, the people like us.

That kind of thinking is adaptive. People who take care of each other are more likely to survive in a dog-eat-dog world and you must survive to have offspring. The impulse to keep your people close and protect them advances your interest in the cosmic sense of which set of humans gets to make the future. That’s so even if you get killed protecting your tribe.

Lots of people are ready to die for a future contribution to the gene pool, but of course they typically don’t stand far enough back to think about it in that way. You protect your child because she’s yours and you protect children because you’ve had a chance to live and they deserve the same.

Sometimes, human choices don’t look terribly noble from the outside, but the smarter human beings make allowances for both mistakes and a different set of influences. Most modern Indians, for example, do not presume to judge the scouts who rode with Custer and gave the famous Indian fighter sound advice he disregarded at the cost of his command and his life.

Taking up for others is normally calibrated by our closeness to them, excepting the great souls among us who seem able to identify with all of humanity—the Buddha, MLK, Gandhi.

Conversely, when we have to fight, we work hard to convince ourselves that our enemies are subhuman. Krauts and Japs, dinks and slopes. Most recently, ragheads and sand niggers and camel jockeys. When I reflect on the similarity of “sand nigger” to “prairie nigger,” I am reminded of both my own history and what it must be like to be called a nigger without any modifiers, the ultimate disrespectful othering. I am forced to admit that “nigger” is as potent a dehumanizing insult as “redskin.”

We humans create verbal “otherings” to prepare those othered for death and, as important, to prepare ourselves for killing them. The motive is to advance people like us over people like them and the differences between us are thought to be significant enough to suppress the thought that we all share the identity Homo sapiens.

H. saps come into existence for reasons mysterious enough that we generate myths, stories that explain who we are and why we exist. Those stories have similar themes but they differ in the details. Some people claim the Golden Rule---“Do unto others”--- is universal.

Much of the world is engaged in a conflict with a set of myths based on a book from which most followers do indeed find a Golden Rule. Most followers would be mainstream Islam. The conflict is with the outfit that calls itself the Islamic State and Arabs who find it reprehensible call Daesh.

What I have written above is for the purpose of showing that I understand the role of myth and the process of dehumanizing an enemy. I have no interest in dehumanizing our adversaries. Or in having what Secretary of State John Hay called in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt a “splendid little war,” referring to the Spanish-American War.

Myth, once more, overtakes the truth, and the description is most often credited to Roosevelt. There are many myths in our Middle Eastern wars, the longest in U.S. history. “Weapons of mass destruction” was one but another even more potent myth was “we must fight them there or we shall have to fight them here.”

It was nonsense, of course. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa was based on objecting to infidel boots on sacred soil in Saudi Arabia. His al-Qaeda organization attacked us for what we did rather than for who we are. It was a disagreement that could have been settled short of war if we were willing to go back where we came from. We were not willing to pay the cost of jeopardizing our petrodollar relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Left wing myth claimed it was about oil. It was not. As Donald Trump points out with outrage, we did not take the oil. It was about the Saudi agreement to price oil in U.S. dollars, creating an artificial demand for dollars and shoring up the dollar as reserve currency for the world.

Daesh is different. They attack us not for what we have done but for who we are. Of course, if we got out of there, our target status would fall substantially below Muslim apostates—Shi’a, Sufi, and even Sunnis who serve governments other than their imaginary Caliphate.

Chances are Daesh will peter out before getting down their kill list to the Americas, but there is no way to get off their kill list other than convert to their peculiar perversion of Islam, which is to Islam as snake cults are to Christianity. In that sense—if they survive—we really will have to fight them here if we don’t defeat them there.

Their prophecies claim that we will come there to fight them. It’s up to us whether to make that myth real. But unless somebody beats them there, we really will have to fight them here. They are not prepared to recognize any national borders but the one between the Caliphate and Dar al-Kufr, the land of disbelief.

The Daesh worldview may be a myth. The fact that they believe it is not. The U.S. is in a peculiar position of warring against Daesh based on an Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda passed right after that organization took “credit” for knocking down the Twin Towers. Daesh broke with al-Qaeda for insufficient brutality, among other reasons.

Daesh would cheerfully accept our aid to kill al-Qaeda. Understanding that bit of weirdness, President Obama asked for a new AUMF against Daesh. Congress is afraid to give it to him, because they are afraid to debate it. There was effectively no debate on the AUMF against al-Qaeda because we were under attack here at home.

Congress will not order U.S. troops to disengage from the war against Daesh for the same reason they will not authorize it. Pure, distilled essence of political cowardice. They fear the debate because video lives forever and they do not wish to produce attack ads for an opponent. Most of them speak only English and confine their overseas travel to resorts and political junkets to safe places. They know nothing of foreign affairs and fear trusting the wrong analysts.

Let me repeat simply and clearly: American GIs are fighting and dying in a war Congress is afraid to authorize and afraid to end. President Obama has determined to fight Daesh in their lair while trying to limit ground engagements. He has asked Congress to authorize that or different actions or, Obama understands, Congress has the power to call the whole thing off.

There are valid reasons to fight over there or to wait and see if they can strike us here, knowing that if they can, they will. It’s a debate we ought to have and I really don’t know how I would come down without hearing the debate. I am convinced that Daesh is our enemy and it will hurt us as soon as it can, but I am uncertain how we should react.

The Constitution places the ultimate authority whether to go to war in Congress. In our time, Congress is populated by cowards who fear taking a position either for or against fighting an outfit that has tortured and killed Americans on video. Congress is paralyzed by political cowardice. And that’s no myth.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.