It was on a business trip to Texas recently that I finally realized how deeply American culture is mired in wars and heroes. While Congress was deliberating a resolution to attack Iraq, I was facing a slice of Americana across a table in Austin, where government officials from Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, and New York had gathered, among others, for a conference on telecommunications.
During the icebreaker, as the representative from Tennessee began to argue with our host from Texas about who Davy Crockett really belonged to, I was dumbstruck for two reasons: (a) I couldn’t believe that middle America still defined itself by its war heroes; and (b) like many immigrants, I wasn’t sure who Davy Crockett was, except a name in my children’s textbooks.
That mystery was soon solved however, when we were taken on a tour of the Texas State Capitol. At the entrance stood Davy Crockett in majestic marble, above a plaque describing him as a Tennessee adventurer and an Alamo martyr. His fame, the fine print hinted, was as much due to his exploits as due to America’s need to create heroes!
Standing on the steps of the Texas State Capitol, and overlooking George Bush’s erstwhile residence, therefore, I finally understood why America was going to war with Iraq.
American folklore, I realized, has always thrived on war.
And every American war has its heroes; Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln at Gettysburg, General Patton in the Second World War, Oliver North in Libya, Norman Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War.
Americans want to forget Vietnam, precisely because it failed to create any heroes.
The tendency to manufacture heroes was evident in America’s treatment of Sept. 11, when the New York firefighters conveniently emerged as American idols, even though their lives had been lost, due as much to their heroism, as to a failure of communications.
The fact that they were white, male, and young helped reinforce the legend.
So the media chose to distract public attention away from the root cause of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and on to images of the heroes. And Americans chose to worship them, instead of facing the awful possibility that their government’s foreign policy might in some way have been responsible for this latest episode of blood and gore.
The best American heroes, it turns out, are dead ones.
But many immigrants like myself couldn’t help wondering why the hundreds of fellow expatriates who had perished in the towers received so little publicity.
In popular imagination, American heroes have always represented the struggle between the good and the evil, the native and the foreign, the white and the dark.
At the Alamo, America’s enemy was Mexico, for example, while, in the Civil War, it happened to be the seemingly foreign Southern confederacy. In the Second World War, it was Japan, as alien as any culture could be to America.
But many immigrants like myself see America’s armed conflicts, not in black and white, but in gray tones. Take the war with Mexico, for example. Could you fault that country for fighting a people who had occupied its territory unlawfully?
Sadly, middle America, long habituated to the cowboys-and-Indians media model of the world, is unable to probe the moral ambiguity of American military involvements overseas.
At a time when America’s idols of the last decade have been revealed to be Wall Street thugs like Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, and Bernie Ebbers, America is desperately in search of new heroes.
So the U.S. is yet again embarking on a war against a dark enemy. It just so happens that this time it has found one so foreign and so evil, it might well have been the creation of a Hollywood scriptwriter.
No doubt heroes will be manufactured out of this conflict too.
And they will no doubt be male and white.
But as an immigrant mom of two teenage sons, I cannot help wondering who the real casualties in this war will be. Will they be black and Hispanic and Arab and Asian? Will they be the sons of mothers like myself; drafted by Saddam or Bush, depending on where they happen to have been born. Will they die, not to become heroes, but to be forgotten, except by their mothers?
To tell you the truth, I prefer my son to be a living nobody than a dead hero.
I just don’t know how to make our politicians understand that.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|