"Stabbed in the Back!" from Harper's. (damn, i really need to subscribe to Harper's. them's good writin's).
If the power of the stab-in-the-back narrative from Vietnam is beyond question, it still raises the question of why. Why should we wish to maintain a narrative of horrendous national betrayal, one in which our own democratically elected government, and a large portion of our fellow citizens, are guilty of horribly betraying our fighting men?
The answer, I think, lies in Richard Nixon’s ability to expand the Siegfried myth from the halls of power out into the streets. Government conspiracies are still culpable, of course; ironically, it was Nixon’s own administration that first “left behind” American POWs in North Vietnam. Yet this makes little difference to the American right, which never considered Nixon ideologically pure enough to be a member in good standing, and which has always made hay by railing against government, even now that they are it. What Nixon and a few of his contemporaries did for the right was to make culture war the permanent condition of American politics.
On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.
This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. Far from it. The whole purpose of the war in Iraq—and the “war on terrorism”—seems to have been to foment division and to win elections by forcing Americans to choose between starkly different visions of what their country should be...
Yet still, somehow, Bush’s numbers continued to plunge. What went wrong? How could such an infallible Republican strategy, conducted with all of the right wing’s vast media resources at his command, have failed so utterly? How was it that the story of the stab in the back had lost its power to hold us spellbound?
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What has really robbed the conspiracy theories of their effectiveness is how the war in Iraq has been conducted. Bush and his advisers have sought to use the war not only to punish their enemies but also to reward their supporters, a bit of political juggling that led them to demand nothing from the American public as a whole. Those of us who are not actively fighting in Iraq, or who do not have close friends and family members who are doing so, have not been asked to sacrifice in any way. The richest among us have even been showered with tax cuts.
Yet in demanding so little, Bush has finally uncoupled the state from its heroic status...