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Post-Vietnam Syndrome: National Identity, War, and the Politics of Humiliation

by Myra Mendible

About the Author

Myra Mendible
is Professor in the Languages and Literature Department at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. She was co-founder of the English program at FGCU and has served as English Program Leader (1997-99); Chair of the Language and Literature department (2008-2011); and Interim Director of FGCU’s Judaic, Holocaust, and Human Rights Studies Center (2011-2012). 
By the Author, Myra Mendible

Race 2008: Critical Reflections on an Historic Campaign

Author: Myra Mendible
Paperback: 230 pages
Publisher: Brown Walker Press
Published on: 2010-05-05
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1599425378

Race 2008 brings together a diverse group of scholars and activists to examine the gendered politics, images, rhetorical practices, and racial/ethnic conflicts that served as a backdrop to this momentous election. It features perspectives marginalized or ignored by mainstream media and political pundits, thus providing alternative, critical insights on the social dynamics fueling campaign rhetoric, grassroots activism, and intergroup conflicts in 2008 and beyond.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

In a victory speech following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush proclaimed it a proud day to be American. The president’s speech officially heralded a new structure of feeling in America, one more suited to an imperial power’s spectacular reemergence on the world stage. It pronounced an official end to the “Vietnam syndrome,” a malaise that had presumably stricken the American psyche for over 16 years.

The war had been the antidote for what ailed us, Bush’s speech assured us, the means to restore the nation’s honor and reclaim its rightful status. Americans could finally trade in the sackcloth of humiliation for the mantle of pride. By God, we had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” (Bush, para. 15).

There are several problems, of course, with this version of history and with the ways that the “we” is constituted in its narrative. This essay is concerned with the extent to which Vietnam consistently plays out in popular memory as a psychodrama of humiliation, casting America in the role of victim and producing certain alignments and associations in the citizenry. Bush’s speech capitalized on a set of assumptions that have long dominated public discourse about the war.

News pundits, filmmakers, and political leaders alike have exploited the evocative power of this humiliation tale, invoking its stock characters and compensatory themes to elicit predictable responses in target audiences. This affective logic binds subjects to cycles of compensatory violence, fueling militaristic strains in America’s political culture and setting the stage for a series of wars and interventions. I hope to show how this humiliation dynamic structures conflicts in ways that short-circuit the consideration of peaceful options.

Historians, military analysts, and sundry critics have written extensively on the ideological roots of the Vietnam War (communism, nationalism); assessed various logistical and military tactics (Nixon’s “Vietnamization,” Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition); and debated why it was lost (media coverage, war protestors, civilian policymakers). Yet there is rarely consensus about anything concerning the War. Perhaps the only conclusion that goes unchallenged is that Americans suffered a “humiliating” defeat. Thus columnist David Gelernter (2004, para. 2) could make the claim that “virtually all Americans agree” that Vietnam was “a national humiliation.” This assumption forms a kind of conventional wisdom about the war’s emotional legacy.

Coined by none other than Henry Kissinger, the term Vietnam syndrome has become an integral part of our political lexicon, shaping attitudes and predispositions more than three decades later. The term aspires to a kind of quasi-psychological legitimacy, but actually reflects a semantic sleight of hand.

The term Post-Vietnam Syndrome was first used to describe the trauma experienced by soldiers who served in Vietnam. Later known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), this condition received attention in 1970 as a result of work by a handful of psychiatrists, especially Robert Jay Lifton and Chaim Shatan, who conducted extensive interviews with Vietnam veterans suffering from flashbacks, paranoia, and other symptoms of trauma. The term “Vietnam syndrome” turns the soldier’s traumatic experience of war into a story of national humiliation.[1]

The psychology of PTSD has been highly politicized, while a ring of scientific authenticity has masked the politics of the Vietnam syndrome.[2] No longer signifying a nation, “Vietnam” functions as metaphor for America’s humiliation. This trope has served US presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, each of whom has relied on its compelling themes to garner support for military interventions and “pre-emptive” strikes.

It frames America’s political rhetoric whenever leaders seek to stifle political dissent at home, “harden” national borders, or rally nationalistic strains in the American character. Recalled in this way, the legacy of Vietnam becomes a story about “our” humiliation, about the “wrong” committed against us. As Vietnam vet W.D. Ehrhart (2001) aptly remarked on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”: “You know, the Vietnam War, we imagine it’s this thing that happened to us when, in fact, the Vietnam War is this thing we did to them.”

This interpretation influences agents in the present, shaping not only how individuals appraise their nation’s history but also how leaders articulate and respond to current security threats. Just as personal memory is filtered through experiences, “official” or sanctioned state memories are adapted to meet prevailing cultural and political exigencies. As Hill and Wallace have argued, “Effective foreign policy rests upon a shared sense of national identity, of a nation-state’s ‘place in the world,’ its friends and enemies, its interests and aspirations. These underlying assumptions are embedded in national history and myth, changing slowly over time as political leaders reinterpret them and external and internal developments reshape them.” (1996, p. 8)

Political attitudes are formed within a cultural context and their prominence and legitimacy are dependent on how broadly they are shared at a particular time. Leaders select and circulate cultural narratives that enhance and promote a favorable national self-image. These stories serve as a critical mechanism of influence at various levels, articulating both cultural and individual psychological processes and providing a system of orientation for self-reference and action (Ross, 1997).

Myths and stories are symbolic structures that help forge collective values as well as individuals’ conceptions about their role in the world. They thus provide a psychological frame of reference in international relations (Prizel 1998; Katzenstein, 1996). As Ignatieff puts it, “National identity is not fixed or stable: it is a continuing exercise in the fabrication of illusion and the elaboration of convenient fables about who ‘we’ are” (1998, p. 18).

Sometimes a nation’s myths are the soil in which seeds of violence take root. They shape the nation’s political culture, forming part of “the attitudinal and behavioral matrix within which the political system is located” (White, 1979, p.1). Emotions play an integral role in this process, for as Sarbin (1986) has theorized, they represent role enactments that are integral to our political and social dramas. In his view, emotional acts cannot be discarded as irrational or anarchic because they follow a social logic that dictates and justifies a course of action.

“Anger roles, grief roles, jealousy roles and so on,” Sarbin points out, “are enacted to further an actor’s self-narrative; and self-narratives, like other stories, follow a plot” (1986, p. 91). The logic is the plot of the story, and actors perform according to its conventions, which “provide a basis for retrospectively criticizing emotional acts as appropriate or stupid, justifiable or unreasonable, foolish or wise” (Sarbin,1986, p. 91).

Stories about America’s humiliation have circulated widely through popular lore and familiar images. They often play out through Hollywood film stereotype of the Vietnam veteran, whose wounded body and psyche sign for the nation’s crisis of honor. Spat upon by ungrateful anti-war protestors, lied to by their presidents, shackled by the policies of civilian whiz kids in Washington, America’s protagonists in these tales form a sad cast of dishonored men, defeated warriors, forgotten sons and husbands. Vietnam veterans’ memoirs further chronicle this emotional legacy, bearing witness to the dishonor that haunts warriors from a mighty nation defeated by small men in “black pajamas.”[3] These images and stereotypes have shaped the nation’s popular memory over time and become fodder for its war machinery.

America’s stories about Vietnam attempt to link the war’s effects into a comprehensible and reassuring framework. As Nigerian writer Ben Okri (1997) points out, when we turn a traumatic experience into a story, we transmute it, make sense of it, and domesticate the chaos.

The Vietnam syndrome is a cultural narrative that “domesticates the chaos” by attributing culpability and accountability, imposing a causal logic onto an otherwise disorienting, violent event. As national myth, its function is to “conceal the reality of painful or perplexing historical situations and to provide illusory but emotionally satisfying solutions for real problems” (Slotkin, 1996, p. 561). The syndrome thus serves a political function, constituting subjects within prevailing discourses of war, identity, and nationhood. Distilling a complex emotional landscape into an index of familiar images, dramatic episodes, and iconic figures, it elicits sympathetic identifications, dissolving the boundaries between personal experience and historical occurrence.

This fusion of public and private memories works to dissolve boundaries, as the slide from the “I” to the “we” involves “both adherence (sticking to the nation) as well as coherence (sticking together)” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 111). Diane Margolis argues that emotions involve the “constant construction, repair and destruction of boundaries around each image of self” (Margolis, 1998, p. 133). They enable us to negotiate our identities and relationships with others, to articulate social boundaries by enacting certain roles in life. Sara Ahmed (2004) extends this idea to argue that emotions align us as subjects with and against others, securing relationships between bodies and actually inscribing borders and surfaces.

Emotions are not “in” the individual or the social, they are an effect that allows us to distinguish an “inside” and an “outside” in the first place, to “produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects.” These transactions of displacement and difference mediate the boundaries between bodily and social space, structuring “affective economies.” Ahmed suggests that “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 10).

Our identification with the nation as humiliated protagonist dissolves the boundaries we imagine exist between private and public spaces, stripping us of the illusion of impermeability or autonomy. The experience invokes the subject’s need to act, even if wrongly, to reclaim agency and sovereignty. As a basis of national feeling, humiliation or its perception exacerbates collective feelings of vulnerability or powerlessness in the citizenry. It can lead to brutal retaliations and mass bloodshed, triggering cycles of violence that can persist for generations. Social psychologist Evelin Gerda Lindner argues that when a group is convinced of their humiliation, “Terror, war, and genocide can result if this belief is fed by ‘humiliation entrepreneurs’ who exhort their followers to exact revenge with grand narratives of humiliation and retaliation” (Lindner, 2006, p. xv).

Yet official versions of the Vietnam Syndrome tell us that Americans had not been spurred into violent retaliation as a result of our “humiliating” defeat. We had not sought new enemies or become entangled in cycles of violence that follow in humiliation’s wake. Instead, Americans had fallen victim to a debilitating “syndrome” of passivity and weakness. Humiliation had made us “soft,” afraid to wield our power or influence on the world stage.

The post-Vietnam generation presumably suffered from what Norman Podhoretz (as cited in Morgan, 1996) diagnosed as a “sickly inhibition against the use of military force” (p. ***) Similarly, Ernest Lefever (1997, p. A1) blamed the Vietnam syndrome on our “culture of shame, guilt and self-flagellation,” which presumably “paralyzed America from using military force abroad.” William Safire, President Nixon’s speechwriter during the War, revived this narrative in a 2001 New York Times piece, referring to the Vietnam syndrome as “that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat” (“Syndrome returns,” para. 4). The syndrome’s symptoms are widely known and accepted as common knowledge: a breakdown of national will, a loss of confidence, and an unwillingness to engage in protracted conflicts abroad. This narrative identifies Americans’ aversion to war as a sign that America had been feminized by defeat, turned into a nation of wimps and pacifists.

Americans’ refusal to exert our will through the use of military force is pathologized as a “sickly inhibition.” A collective distaste for invading other nations is interpreted not as a symptom of the toxicity of violence or as proof that a taste of it encourages organisms to avoid it. Instead, this national saga establishes a causality that makes violence reasonable, moral, and even inevitable. It relies on metaphors of softness, permeability, and passivity, which shape the interpretive judgments we draw from the event.

Metaphors of “softness” attributed to nations draw on gendered associations, for as Ahmed (2004) has argued, a “soft” nation is “too emotional, too easily moved by the demands of others.” This gendered metaphor invokes a need for “harder” borders, for a national body that stands ready to strike, to act — preemptively if need be — to restore or maintain dominance.

A society’s “intensities of feeling” must be examined in the context of the “power geometries” that structure its affective predispositions (Tolia-Kelly, 2006, p. 213). The word “humiliation,” rooted in the Latin humus or dirt, denotes a “putting down,” a spatial metaphor that links the concept etymologically to existing hierarchies: we understand what it means to be “put down” because we know which qualities, values, and roles are ascribed a “higher” place and which are identified as subordinate, inferior, or undesirable.

America’s status as a superpower, its founding myths of exceptionalism, its military supremacy, and the confidence with which its citizens rank theirs the “best” economic and political system on earth — all rank the nation within global power geometries. Americans’ collective self-image is deeply implicated in these power differentials, in the ways we imagine ourselves vis-à-vis other nations. As Doreen Massey argues, “the identity of a place does not derive from some internalized history. It derives, in large part, precisely from the specificity of its interactions with ‘the outside’” (Massey, 1994, p. 169).

Claudia Seymour (2003) explains that identity and self-perceptions provide the lens through which one views others. While identity is a fluid concept, Seymour argues that conceptions of identity influence the process of conflicts and should be examined when investigating the origins, management or prevention of violence.

David Kaiser points out in American Tragedy that, “In the early 1960s, the government of the United States probably enjoyed more prestige than at any time during the twentieth century” (Kaiser, 2000, p. 1). This high degree of status not only informed popular attitudes towards the enemy, but also shaped decision-making at the highest levels of our government.

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon each grappled with the options available to a great nation facing an adversary deemed in all ways “inferior.” America’s prestige, which Secretary of State Dean Acheson called “the shadow cast by power,” had substantive effects (quoted in Sheehan, 1989, p. 443). Perceptions of power distribution or relative positioning can undermine efforts to negotiate nonviolent solutions to conflicts.

For example, American arrogance had a demoralizing effect on South Vietnamese soldiers from the outset, as it predisposed military and civilian leadership to expect an easy win without Vietnamese participation. John Paul Vann’s reference to our allies as “ridiculous little Oriental play soldiers” reflected an attitude that had a detrimental effect on South Vietnamese morale and motivation (Sheehan, 1989, p. 512).

This power differential also made conciliation unlikely, as Kennedy’s attempts to find out if any compromise was possible for the “dangerous mess” he inherited were immediately decried as “appeasement” (Kaiser, 2000, p. 101). Michael Lind argues that “in the aftermath of the humiliations in Cuba and Germany, the Kennedy administration felt compelled to demonstrate U.S. resolve in the Indochina theater of the Cold War” (Lind, 2002, p. 13).

This need to avoid being seen as “soft” also played a role in LBJ’s war-policies. In Johnson’s affective script, one must act aggressively or face humiliation. “If you let a bully come into you’re your front yard one day … the next day he will be up on your porch and the day after that he will rape your wife in your own bed” (as cited in Logevall, 2001, p. 393). Thus in March of 1965, John McNaughton, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s top aide during the Vietnam War, summarized the Johnson administration’s reasons for intervening in Vietnam. His report shows that the dread of humiliation shaped Johnson’s decision-making more than the desire to spread democracy or even the fear of communism.

The reasons for escalating the war were prioritized as follows: 70% to avoid a humiliating blow to our reputation, 20% to keep this area from China, and 10% to bring the people of South Vietnam a better, freer way of life (as cited in Harrison and Mosher, 2007). After Johnson’s massive bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, failed to subdue North Vietnam, McNaughton made the administration’s primary objective clear: “The situation in Vietnam is bad and deteriorating,” he wrote. “The important aim now is to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat” (as cited in Sheehan, 1989, p. 535).

Publicly, LBJ would profess America’s unquestionable superiority as he deployed the first combat unit of marines to Vietnam in 1965, assuring us that “America wins the wars she undertakes, make no mistake about it” (“Remarks,” para. 37). Logevall (1999, p. 393) has argued that, “What [Johnson] really feared was the personal humiliation that he believed would come with his failure in Vietnam. He saw the war as a test of his own manliness … In [LBJ’s] world there were weak and strong men; the weak men were the skeptics, who sat around contemplating, talking, criticizing; the strong men were the doers, the activists, the ones who were tough and always refused to back down” (Logevall, 1999, p. 393).

Blema Steinberg’s Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam (1996) is the only extended study of Vietnam to date that explores humiliation as motivating factor in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Steinberg argues that both leaders exhibited narcissistic personalities which made them highly susceptible to shame and humiliation. “Since the personality of political leaders can have such a profound impact upon the policies of their states,” Steinberg contends, “we need to pay much greater attention to that factor. Cognitive abilities may be important, but, if highly charged emotional states color leaders’ perception of their environment, the outcome will be policies that reflect that bias to the detriment of more reasoned choices” (Steinberg, 1996, p. 309).

Describing the men’s personal and professional backgrounds in some detail, Steinberg goes on to suggest how their conduct of the War reflected the need to restore self-worth, seek a “vindictive triumph” and avoid “losing face” at all costs. As Steinberg points out, “Narcissistic personalities may favor aggressive foreign policies to avoid shame and humiliation for failing to act (Johnson in 1965) or after they have been shamed and humiliated (Nixon 1969-70) [Steinberg, 1996, p. 308]. For Johnson and Nixon, Steinberg argues, “the humiliation of dependency, the humiliation of defeat” represented the “ultimate degradation” (Steinberg, 1996, p. 14). Steinberg’s analysis of personal memoirs, letters, declassified documents and memos offers compelling evidence of both men’s extreme vulnerability to humiliation.

Ironically, the dread of humiliation helped get us into Vietnam, but it was the promise of honor that provided an exit strategy. Nixon’s mantra, “peace with honor,” would be used to justify the loss of thousands more lives. In a 1970 speech justifying the escalation of the war into Cambodia, Nixon implied that by failing to act aggressively, America would be seen as “a second rate power.” Thus he assured us, “[W]e will not be humiliated. We will not be defeated” (Nixon, 1970, “Speech on Cambodia”).

As late as 1972, Nixon’s decision to mine the harbors of North Viet Nam and cut off the flow of supplies to Hanoi, (which Time called the “most momentous military decision” of his presidency), was said to have grown “out of an almost obsessive fear of national and personal humiliation in Viet Nam” (1972, “Nixon at the brink,” para. 3).

The more dependent we are on the valuations of others for our own psychic health, the more vulnerable we are to the coercive force of humiliation. It seems logical to assume that individualistic cultures would produce subjectivities less susceptible to the approval or opprobrium of others, less concerned with maintaining a prescribed “public face” at all costs. Underlying this assumption is the understanding that in “traditional” societies, where rigid “honor” codes are a central feature of social and political life, the dread of public humiliation is more acute than in “modern” individualistic nations like the United States.

William Ian Miller (1993) and others have noted that honor societies employ humiliation as part of a local system of order, using the process to distinguish the honorable from the dishonorable. Honor codes organize and enforce a society’s values; they script “appropriate” group behaviors. In such contexts, one’s worth is often measured by the judgment of one’s enemies.

Americans are therefore likely to come across news articles and commentaries about humiliation as motive in fundamentalist, anti-modern “rogue nations” considered enemy states. Political pundits are quick to ascribe humiliation a central role in honor-based Middle East societies, downplaying its role in the US. Researchers have also pointed to links between Arab or Muslim groups, violence, and humiliation. For example, Neil Altman (2004) has noted the dominant role that humiliation plays in the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.

He argued that psychologically, people fight to avoid “the humiliation of being crushed, overwhelmed by force, and threatened with psychological annihilation.” In the Middle East, Altman concluded, it is not “kill or be killed” but “humiliate or be humiliated.” Similarly, Shibley Telhami (2003), Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, has suggested that “militancy in the Middle East is fueled not by the military prospects of Iraq or any other state but by a pervasive sense of humiliation” (para. 3).

Most Americans would explicitly reject the notion that what others think or say about us is worth killing or dying for. An American husband who murders his unfaithful wife because her deceit humiliated and thus dishonored him is unlikely to be exculpated in a court of law. And though our legal systems do employ humiliation as an aspect of punishment — posting the names and photos of sexual predators online, conducting cavity searches on unruly inmates, etc. — Americans long ago gave up town square hangings and public stoning. But even the most “modern” nations will endorse or commit acts of violence to save face, attributing “irrational” behaviors to their enemies while judging their own extreme actions as both necessary and just.

In “mainstream” US culture, humiliation does not overtly serve as legal or practical justification for violence, yet it is no less instrumental when wedded to notions of honor. In this setting, the concept has, in Miller’s words, “hidden its face, moved to the back regions of consciousness” (Miller, 1993, p. x). The nation’s historical supremacy, often narrated as a mandate from God, makes any potential loss of honor or influence all the more threatening.

America’s dominance among a hierarchy of nations correlates with the high degree of patriotic pride that Americans express as a people. We take pride in the supremacy of our democratic system of government, conceive of ourselves as a fair-minded, egalitarian people, and assume that the “American way of life” has almost universal appeal. Our enabling fictions preserve and warrant this self-image, extolling the virtues of our uniqueness, superiority, and moral authority. These preconditions make the preservation of status and honor figure prominently in our national ego.

But do these attitudes also foster a proclivity towards violence? As motive and impetus for mass violence, humiliation is intimately bound to the vestiges of honor societies. In these social settings, male honor has to be consistently won, reclaimed, and displayed. Miller’s analysis of the Icelandic sagas, for example, demonstrates that in these social settings humiliation was strictly understood as a violation of masculine honor and figured “prominently in social and psychic mechanisms of control” (1993, p.148).

Miller’s study reveals a people who cared “with the totality of their being about the figure they cut and about the respect they elicited. These people could not contemplate self-esteem without the esteem of others” (Preface). Honor codes uphold rigid norms of reciprocity. Miller shows that humiliation functions in these cultures as a kind of “negative gift” that demands repayment. “Honor, humiliation, and the obligation to pay back what one owes,” Miller concludes, are “inextricably bound up with violence” (1993, p. xi).

To date, studies of the relationship between honor, humiliation, and violence in the US have focused on “subcultures” such as gangs, Mafiosi, etc. or on the violence proneness of the American South (Nisbett and Cohen, 1996; Wyatt-Brown, 2001). Bertram Wyatt-Brown, for example, has shown that the ideal of “Southern honor” helped shape the rationale for the American Civil War. In the antebellum South, honor “reinforced hierarchical conceptions of society and guided much public behavior. It assumed and required patriarchal rule within the family and a corresponding deference among women, as well as fierce family loyalty and resentment of all insult.”

Wyatt-Brown notes that the greatest dread imagined by adherents of honor was “the fear of public humiliation.” The ethics of honor were reflected in a social order that valued rituals of violence and shaming: charivari, dueling, and lynch law. Wyatt-Brown (2005) has further argued that the emotional defense of honor’s principles continues with special emphasis in the military culture of the United States.

The more that a social group overvalues pride as a sign of self-respect and worthiness the more dreaded is the stigma of public humiliation. Maintaining a positive self-image is crucial to a citizenry weaned on myths of exceptionalism. It structures our “affective economies,” forging identifications and boundaries that link American identity to Biblical stories of a “chosen people” or a “redeemer nation” charged with saving the world.

When this high opinion of ourselves is disputed or challenged by some external group, our leaders will soothe our wounded egos by claiming that others are simply “jealous” of our wealth and freedom; when such criticisms come from within — as is often the case in a vibrant democracy — dissenters are dismissed as “un-American.” [4] While the myth of individualism endures sufficiently to shape our personal belief in democracy and equal opportunity, our foreign policies express an elitist streak. We have shown a proclivity to endorse violence aimed at preserving the nation’s superior power or prestige.

Seymour Feshbach (1994) proposes that two principal attitudes predispose citizens to war: the first is patriotism, which he explained in terms of emotional attachment and pride. The second is nationalism, defined as a belief in the superiority of one’s nation over others. Both of these attitudes correlate with militaristic attitudes. Baumeister, Smart, and Boden (1996) contend that “aggression emerges from a particular discrepancy between two views of self: a favorable self-appraisal and an external appraisal that is much less favorable.”

Despite the popular notion that low self-esteem causes violence, in their view an inflated belief in the self’s superiority is more likely to trigger violent group responses: the “most severe violence occurs when a group perceives that its superior position is being eroded or threatened by the rise of a rival group” (Baumesiter et al, 1996, p. 26). These researchers point out that “violent, aggressive, and criminal groups tend to share beliefs in their own superiority, ranging from the ‘man of honor’ designation of Mafia initiates to the ‘master race’ ideology of the Nazis” (1996, p. 26).

Throughout our history the myth of American exceptionalism has been called on to rouse the national will, provoke a sense of shared purpose, or justify war. Just as it founded the first settlers’ claims to the land and granted them moral authority over native peoples, it founds an enduring set of moral and political assumptions. Thus Woodrow Wilson could claim with conviction that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty” (Wilson, 1978, p. 443).

Similarly, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, describing America’s role in the world almost a century later, could declare with equal measure, “We stand tall and therefore we can see further…. we are the United States, and we are the indispensable power” (Albright, 1998). And so it is that Donald Rumsfeld (2002) could defend our invasion of Iraq by quoting Thomas Jefferson, boldly asserting that Americans “act not for ourselves alone but for the whole human race” (“US Air Force Academy Speech”).

News commentators indulge in similar pronouncements, with influential journalists such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan asserting the need for the US to exercise a “benevolent global hegemony” based on “moral supremacy and moral confidence” (as cited in Bacevich, 1998). A belief in our own righteousness is so deeply engrained in us as a people that we rarely express moral qualms about breaking the very rules that we expect other nations to follow. It is not surprising that among the 41 to 65 countries covered in each of the World Values Surveys of 1981–82, 1990–91, and 1995–96, Americans ranked first in national pride (Norris, 1999). After 9/11 the intensity of this self-love was even more pronounced.

A University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center survey of 34 countries, released June 27, 2006, found that the US ranked first in terms of overall national pride in their democratic system, their political influence in the world, their economy, their achievements in science and technology and their military (Miller, 2006). Political leaders rarely acknowledge the prominent role that ego plays in their decision-making.[5] By playing on the national ego, leaders exploit the myth of war as curative. Reagan repeatedly drew on the memory of America’s humiliation as a means to justify foreign military interventions and invasions.

“America is back, standing tall, looking to the 80’s with courage, confidence, and hope,” Reagan told us after another presumably righteous war — our invasion of the tiny island of Grenada (Reagan, 1984). Reagan’s remark that the Vietnam War was fought for “a noble cause” had a similarly palliative effect on the nation’s wounded pride. He would announce his re-election campaign four days later and win in a landslide. Also consider how this theme played out in Richard Nixon’s, No More Vietnams (Arbor House, 1985) where he praises Reagan for exorcizing the “ghost of Vietnam,” claiming that “Since President Reagan took office in 1981, America’s first international losing streak has been halted.”

The need to redeem the national ego has been a dominant theme in American politics. In 1975, as a bloody battle was raging and Saigon was being overrun, President Gerald Ford delivered a speech aimed primarily at assuaging America’s wounded ego: “Today,” Ford assured us, “Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.” Harking back to the War of 1812, Ford heartened his audience by noting that “We had suffered humiliation and a measure of defeat” until “the illustrious victory in the battle of New Orleans” served as “a powerful restorative to national pride.”

Ford reassured Americans that the time had come to look toward the future, “to unity, to binding up the nation’s wounds and restoring it to health and optimistic self-confidence” (“Speech on the Fall of Vietnam”). Interestingly, the subject of this narrative suffers not as a result of direct experience (such as surviving carpet bombings, chemical warfare, or the destruction of major cities) but from the loss of status and self-esteem.

Donald Goellnicht reminds us that “Subject positions are not the result of essential determinants but are culturally produced (in relation to other positions) and socially learned, a complex and continuous process” (Goellnicht, 1996, p. 340). The Vietnam syndrome is cultural myth that relies on a splitting of the American subject into antagonistic roles — victims and perpetrators. Critics of America’s policies (those who would accuse our leaders of arrogance) are set in contradistinction to “patriotic” Americans (those who would reclaim America’s righteous status in the world).

Such dissociation invokes a strategic movement away from past indignity and towards a mutual recovery of pride. The revitalized subject that this narrative hails into being is forged in the distance between these imagined selves: one mired in self-doubt, the other aligned with agency and power. Two framing emotions, humiliation and pride, align this subject with the national self: “we” are invited to feel the sting of our humiliation, to recall the memory of our dishonor — only to further enhance the experience of pride that leaders aim to evoke.

Pride, Patriotism, and the Gulf I Redemption

“If shame is the consequence of not living up to what we ought to, then humiliation is the consequence of trying to live up to what we have no right to.” — William Ian Miller

The nation had yet another opportunity to bind its fractured ego with a military victory in the Gulf War. Like Vietnam, Gulf I brought war into our living rooms, but this time managed as a visual testament of American supremacy. As the first so-called “television war,” Vietnam signaled new relationships in the process of postmodern war making. It marked the dissolution of clear boundaries — between combatants and civilians, “secure” territories and “free-fire” zones, but also between direct experience and mediated sensation. Vietnam produced iconic images of horror and defeat — body bags and Zippo raids and massacred civilians, Hueys hovering on rooftops loading terrified evacuees then hastily withdrawing. These images framed collective memories of the war, positioning the American spectator as the subject of a compelling tale of national humiliation.

Gulf I would be different. This time, to borrow a line from Rambo, we got to win. Historian Gerald Linderman notes that following the “humiliation” of Vietnam, “Gulf War seems a model of clarity and success, a war portrayed as being fought with the most efficient weapons and greatest resolve against the vilest of villains” (quoted in Bookman, 2003, p. A19).

President Bush and his scriptwriters turned Desert Storm into an epic tale of redemptive violence. The “enduring justice” exacted by the American military on Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard was justified as “payback” for our humiliation in Vietnam, a cultural myth that leaders roused and exploited. The war unfolded in political speeches and media accounts as the antidote for our humiliation, the “good war” we needed to restore our national pride.

Indeed, mainstream media accounts turned Gulf I into the best kind of war for American audiences — distant, quick, and sensational — a virtual spectacle of US technopower. Ironically, our victory over a small Middle East country in the throes of economic and social deterioration would serve to blot out the memory of our defeat by what Johnson had called a “fourth-rate, raggedy ass little country” (as cited in Tuchman, 1984, p. 321).

Sporting a catchy title and combining the evocative power of Hollywood spectacle and Washington rhetoric, “Desert Storm” played out as a saga of righteous retribution, a visual testament of the nation’s supremacy. It elicited the kind of thrilling catharsis that Americans have come to expect from action flicks and television wars alike. The loss of life for our side was minimal, and television images of Iraqi soldiers retreating in terror provoked more glee than sympathy. [6]

Herbert Kelman (1995) rightfully argues that Americans’ jubilant mood of self-glorification during and after Gulf I is disturbing for its moral implications, as “a decent national reaction” to mass bloodshed should be one of sadness or regret at the human costs of war — “not one of pride and self-satisfaction” (p. 127). Noting the citizenry’s patriotic euphoria in the face of such spectacular military dominance, humorist Lewis Grizzard was moved to remark that Americans should celebrate “a national day of gloating.” Television and film media would help stage and manage the event: “Formulated like a World War II movie, the Gulf War even ended like a World War II movie,” wrote Neal Gabler, “with the troops marching triumphantly down Broadway or Main Street, bathed in the gratitude of their fellow Americans while the final credits rolled” (Gabler, 1991).

Of course, this official tale is not the only one available to us. War photographer Peter Turnley’s pictorial record of Gulf I stands as one testament against this spectatorial fantasy of war. “This past war and any one looming,” Turnley writes in the introduction to his collection, “have often been treated as something akin to a ‘Nintendo game’. This view conveniently obscures the vivid and often grotesque realities apparent to those directly involved in war. As a witness to the results of this past Gulf War, this televised, aerial, and technological version of the conflict is not what I saw…” (Turnley, 2002).

Turnley’s refusal to interpret events through the lens of a narrative that justifies an unnecessary war, positions him as a witness who forces us to see the human face of the enemy. The devastation he witnessed was embodied, the cost of war exacted on the bodies of men, women, and children. Turnley’s photographic testimony compels us to recognize the human cost of this “enduring justice”; the spectator finds it difficult to take vicarious pleasure in this victory, as here the enemy has a face and civilian casualties cannot be easily discounted as collateral damage.

When groups or nations are forced to recognize the humanity of their enemies, witnessing serves to produce competing moral visions and appraisals. Most importantly, recognizing the other’s status as “worthy” victim can move subjects toward the experience of shame. Unlike humiliation, which entails a response directed against an external object, shame involves “a reflection upon the self by the self” (Miller, 1996, p. 42).

In other words, we believe we deserve our shame because of some moral failing or lapse in judgment, but humiliation never entails a victim’s culpability. While we own our shame, we can feel humiliated without having done anything to warrant censure or blame. It is therefore not surprising that the Vietnam syndrome has played such a critical role in deflecting feelings of shame or guilt in the citizenry.

By invoking the logic of humiliation, the story of Vietnam works to deny the shame that might otherwise take shape in the nation’s conscience. As victim, this subject is constituted as innocent and thus spared accountability or blame for negative outcomes.

The well-intentioned victim of this tale bears no moral responsibility for the nation’s actions in Vietnam — or for the deaths of over 58,000 American soldiers and 3 million Vietnamese civilians. Thus Nixon rejected the possibility that the US should feel any shame as a result of our actions in Vietnam or because of the chaos that followed our retreat: “Of all the myths about the Vietnam War, the most vicious one is the idea that the United States was morally responsible for the atrocities committed after the fall of Cambodia in 1975.”

Similarly, after the disclosure in 2001 that American soldiers had massacred civilians at Thanh Phong during a mission in 1969, influential writers like William Safire moved quickly to deflect any sense of shame or accountability. Assuming a sermonizing tone of righteous anger, Safire asks, “Are there no voices left, after that costly loss of life, to reject the Syndrome’s humiliating accusation of national arrogance — and to recall a noble motive?”

Shame compels the self to recognize another’s moral legitimacy. Internalizing blame, it undermines the kind of retaliatory impulse leaders seek in garnering support for war. Thus questions about the rationale for waging war or the cost of victory must always be averted, as these may induce subjects to identify with the “wrong” victim and to confront ensuing feelings of shame. The denial of shame in a community, Thomas Scheff argues, leads to its coded expression. Shame conceptions emerge as narratives of honor, humiliation, and revenge (Scheff, 1994).

In nations that have suffered military defeat, “stab in the back” myths emerge as a defense against shame. Defeat functions in these myths as a “dramatic signal of unworthiness or inadequacy. The stab-in-the-back legend is a justification of self or group: It is not our fault, we are worthy, but we were betrayed. When such a falsehood is enshrined as official history, it can be an emblem of complete denial of shame in a society as a whole” (Scheff, 1994, p. 140).

In the US, the Vietnam syndrome incorporates the stab-in-the back myth as a way to secure the nation’s positive self-image. Deflecting attention from leaders’ misjudgments or policy decisions and towards those who opposed them, the stab-in-the-back motif reassures the body politic, as Nixon did in 1969, that only Americans can defeat or humiliate the United States” (Nixon, “Silent Majority Speech”).

Kevin Baker (2006) suggests that the stab in the back myth “has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America.”

This narrative conjoins two important myths: that America is “omnipotent and incapable of defeat and that any war the U.S. engages in must be noble and heroic. Therefore, if America is defeated, traitorous elites — craven politicians, un-American punks, degenerates, longhairs, pinkos and agitators, and the cowardly elite media — must be to blame” (Baker, 2006). It reconciles the cognitive dissonance resulting from the clash between America’s myths of invincibility and the reality of defeat.

Thus Mark Stein (2004) could remark in a news piece that “The only relevant lesson from Vietnam is this: then, as now, it was not possible for the enemy to achieve military victory over the US; their only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself.” Similarly, Colonel Harry Summers, in his widely respected and often cited analysis of the Vietnam War, attributes America’s loss to the breakdown of national will, as “by every quantifiable measurement there was simply no contest between the United States, the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, and a tenth-rate backward nation like North Vietnam” (Summers, 1995, p. 18).

The Wages of Humiliation: Humility or Hubris?

“George W. Bush promised us a foreign policy with humility. Instead, he has brought us humiliation in the eyes of the world.” — Al Gore, May 26, 2004

Throughout his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush invoked humility and compassion as the defining virtues of his political vision, eschewing the arrogance of nation building and interventionist foreign policies. In a 2000 presidential debate, Bush the candidate rejected an arrogant foreign policy, defining himself as a “compassionate conservative.” “If we are an arrogant nation,” he said, “they will resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” His 2004 State of the Union address used the word “compassion” four times — first in reference to his faith-based initiative and then as the basis of his foreign policy:

The qualities of courage and compassion that we strive for in America also determine our conduct abroad. The American flag stands for more than our power and our interests. Our founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity, the rights of every person, and the possibilities of every life. This conviction leads us into the world to help the afflicted, and defend the peace, and confound the designs of evil men.

Conservative news magazines praised Bush’s turn towards humility. For example, World Magazine, a conservative Christian publication, embraced Bush’s messianic vision, quoting White House official Tim Goeglein saying, “I think President Bush is God’s man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility.” Similarly, the conservative news magazine, Insight on the News, celebrated Bush’s “humility,” which in their view augured a more sophisticated foreign policy approach (Detmer, 2001). The writer goes so far as to proclaim humility a Bush family “ideal that has been engrained in the whole family: Those who are privileged and fortunate have responsibility and duty thrust upon them, but they don’t have to be superior about it.”

Is it our leaders’ humility that invokes “pre-emptive” war as a foreign policy strategy and then justifies its acts of aggression as divinely ordained? Following the US invasion of Iraq, Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, remarked in the Washington Post, “Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others. Indeed, the word ‘empire’ has come out of the closet.” William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, had no problem with this reclamation of empire. “If people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine” (as cited in Bookman, 2003, p. A19).

This unabashed hubris was affirmed by the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which early on deployed religious rhetoric to justify war making. Again, some journalists embraced this myth of exceptionalism, conflating America’s “destiny” with President Bush’s, and by association, with God’s will. Religious language framed the “Shock and Awe” campaign, prompting theologian and best-selling author Jim Wallis (2003) to rally against the Bush administration’s moral hubris. “America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous.”

Bush’s messianic rhetoric also stirred passionate responses among religious groups. The Associated Press reported on February 18, 2006 that representatives of 34 US members of the World Council of Churches issued a statement of dissent to the Bush administration: “We lament with special anguish the war in Iraq, launched in deception and violating global norms of justice and human rights.” The World Council of Churches includes more than 350 mainstream Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches.

The US National Council of Churches responded to reports of US prisoner torture by noting that these acts violated “the fundamental Christian belief in the dignity of the human person.” They rebuked the Bush administration for enlisting God in “national agendas that are nothing short of idolatrous.” Even the Economist opined that in the rush to war in Iraq, “only one thing unsettles George Bush’s critics more than the possibility that his foreign policy is secretly driven by greed. That is the possibility that it is secretly driven by God…. War for oil would merely be bad. War for God would be catastrophic” (“God and American Diplomacy,” 2003, p. 33).

Equally disturbing is the citizenry’s response to degrading “anti-terror” measures and civil rights infringements justified by the “war on terror.” Polls indicate, for instance, that a majority of Americans believe that using torture as a means of extracting information from suspected terrorists is morally justified (Fisher, 2005). Thus we find ourselves in the midst of debates about moral claims that once seemed unassailable: is torture justified under “certain” conditions and for “certain” people? Does the Geneva Convention’s mandate against “humiliating treatment” apply to “enemy combatants”? How much humiliation and abuse legally constitutes torture?

It should not be surprising that in this climate right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh can make light of the Abu Ghraib incidents by comparing the torture to the initiation rites of a fraternity. On the May 4, 2004 Rush Limbaugh Show titled, “It’s Not About Us; This Is War!” Limbaugh deflected any moral qualms in his audience:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it … I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You heard of needing to blow some steam off? (as cited in Media Matters)

Later investigations of detainee interrogation practices would reveal more widespread acts of abuse, such as “regular attacks that left detainees with broken bones” (White, 2005). Declassified accounts from detainees showed that female interrogators repeatedly used sexually suggestive tactics to try to humiliate Muslim men held at military prisons at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

According to military investigators, detainees claimed that female interrogators intentionally violated Muslim taboos, for example, rubbing their bodies against the men, touching them provocatively, or pretending to smear them with menstrual blood. The fake blood was allegedly used on Muslim men before they intended to pray because of their belief that such “contact with women other than their wives diminishes religious purity.” A wide-ranging Pentagon report confirmed the detainees’ allegations. The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon’s findings “indicate that sexually oriented tactics may have been part of the fabric of Guantanamo interrogations” (Leonnig and Priest, 2005, p. A01).

How do we reconcile such acts with the nation’s foundational values? For Limbaugh, as for others who downplayed the sexual humiliation, hoodings, beatings, and deaths of those held at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, these acts are justified as long as “we” are the ones committing them. As Henry Kissinger reasoned, “In the conflict with radical Islam, they want to humiliate us. And we need to humiliate them” (as cited in Woodward, 2006, p. 408).

Neoconservatives who saw the war in Iraq as a necessary force for good often drew their support of such tactics from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, published in 1954, which claimed that force is the only thing that Arabs understand and that humiliation — especially sexual humiliation — is their most vulnerable weakness. In Limbaugh’s response:

…we hear the most humiliating thing you can do is make one Arab male disrobe in front of another….Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got physically injured. But boy there was a lot of humiliation of people who are trying to kill us — in ways they hold dear.

In 2002 George W. Bush determined that prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan were “unlawful combatants” and therefore had no rights under the Geneva Conventions. The prisoners were held in outdoor cages at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where their heads were shaved and they were forced to kneel, their eyes, ears and mouths covered. The shackled prisoners were then filmed being carried on stretchers to interrogation sessions. Their humiliation was broadcast widely for the world to see. Veterans for Peace, among others, expressed “grave concern” that captured U.S. soldiers would be subjected to “unrestrained, debasing treatment, in similar disregard of the Geneva Conventions.”

Their concerns were well founded. In March of 2003, five American soldiers were captured in the Iraqi city of Nasiriya and their images broadcast on Iraqi television. Bush administration officials, news pundits, and many Americans were outraged. Donald Rumsfeld charged that by broadcasting the videotape, Iraqis had violated the Geneva Convention, since “It’s illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating.” U.S. television networks dutifully followed suit by censoring the video, even though just a few days earlier network news media had been awash in images of Iraqi POWs kneeling at gunpoint before U.S. soldiers.

Then in March of 2004, four American security contractors found themselves stranded on a road in Fallujah, a section of Iraq where the Sunni insurgency had been particularly active and virulent. Stuck in traffic, the small convoy was ambushed by armed men who shot the Americans at point-blank range. Their bodies were dragged from the cars by a mob, beaten, mutilated, and then burned. Two charred corpses were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River and left on display for the news cameras that would broadcast the gruesome image around the world. Iraqi insurgents released their own video of the attack, claiming the killings were to avenge the humiliation of Iraqis by US guards at Abu Ghraib prison.

America’s ongoing participation in this tit for tat cycle of humiliation may well be our Achilles heel in the “war on terror.” Expressing her opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had argued, “Extirpating Saddam is about proving how tough we are to a world that thinks we got soft when that last helicopter left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975” (2002, p. 26). But five years later, George W. Bush is no longer able to claim Saddam, WMD’s, or even democracy as rationale for prolonging the war in Iraq.

Thus the need to avert humiliation is invoked again, conjured as a means to deflect questions about negative outcomes or exit strategies. As one representative said recently on the floor of the House, “President Bush is sending 20,000 more American lives into mortal danger, and spending $100 million a day just to avoid the humiliation of admitting that his policy has been fundamentally flawed from the very beginning” (Woolsey, 2007). And so it is that long after Vietnam — long after Grenada, Libya, Panama, and Gulf I, we Americans find ourselves cast in a Sartrean tale of “no exit,” bound to a never-ending story of humiliation and war.


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  1. During World War I, PTSD was known as shell shock, while the term combat fatigue became popular during and after World War II. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) finally recognized PTSD in 1980. See Rensberger, 1972.
  2. For the politicizing of PTSD, see Young, 1995; Scott, 1990; Shephard, 2001; and Satel, 2003.
  3. The traditional peasant dress worn by the Viet Cong became the trademark of the guerrilla fighters among US soldiers in Vietnam.
  4. See, for example, Daniel J. Flynn’s Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness (Three Rivers Press, 2004); or Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (Doubleday, 2007).
  5. A notable exception is Senator J. William Fulbright, who in 1970 remarked, “When President Johnson used to declare that he would not be the first American President to lose a war, and when President Nixon warns, as he did on November 3, against ‘this first defeat in American history,’ they are not talking about the national interest but about the national ego and their own standings in history.” “Vietnam: the Crucial Issue.” The Progressive, February 1970.
  6. The number of Iraqi soldiers killed remains a subject of debate, but official estimates range between 20,000 and 30,000. The range I note stems from a report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force in 1993, “Gulf War Air Power Survey” by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, and may therefore be lower than that reported by other sources. Estimates taken from US military and nongovernmental sources range from 70,000 to 115, 000.


Source: Radical Psychology: A Journal of Psychology, Politics & Radicali; 2008, Vol. 7 Issue 2, p4.