Warfare as Counter-Humiliation
Richard A. Koenigsberg's Commentary on Mendibles “The Erosion of National Self-Esteem”
“Citation” means that the ideas of one scholar build upon and develop the ideas of another. Richard Koenigsberg’s comments below grow out of Myra Mendible’s essay, “The Erosion of National Self-Esteem” (published a few months ago). The issue of the Newsletter in which Mendible’s piece appeared is reproduced directly below the commentary.
If the war in Vietnam persisted because some American leaders wished to avoid “national humiliation,” what can we say about—how can we understand—the American war against Iraq that began on March 19, 2003?

In State of Denial (2006), Bob Woodward recounts how Michael Gerson, Bush’s chief speechwriter, asked Henry Kissinger why he had supported the Iraq war: “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger answered. “In the conflict with radical Islam, they want to humiliate us. And we need to humiliate them.”

The American response to 9/11 had to be more than proportionate—it had to be larger than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq war needed to send a larger message: “We’re not going to live in this world that they want for us.”

Once we let go of the endless, convoluted “foreign policy” declarations and explanations, this is what the war in Iraq came down to: counter-humiliation, or counter-destruction.

Some people “over there” did something to “us”—and we had to do something back to “them”. The United States needed to inflict punishment. The fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 was beside the point.

The war against Iraq was initiated in the name of revenge—against people “over there” who had humiliated the United States. The scope and ferocity of the 9/11 attacks would be multiplied by 100.

The campaign against Iraq was intended to instill “shock and awe.” The reason for the war is contained within this metaphor: to shock the world (demonstrate how ruthless America is); and to put everyone in awe of the United States of America.

Many of us intuitively understand this. Yet debates revolve around “real” reasons. Perhaps this fantasy—that foreign policydecisions are undertaken in the name of rational considerations—is the most destructive delusion of them all.

“The Erosion of National Self-Esteem”
Part II of Myra Mendible’s paper
Post-Vietnam Syndrome: National Identity, War, & the Politics of Humiliation
An excerpt of Myra Mendible’s paper appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
For a complete list of Library of Social Science’s essays and papers, please click here.

The mission of Library of Social Science is to reveal the sources and meanings of collective forms of violence—by publishing writings by the world's greatest thinkers on this topic. And to provide a space of freedom for the presentation and discussion of new insights and theories.

Myra Mendible is Professor in the Languages and Literature Department at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers.

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, linking American identity to Biblical stories of a “chosen people” charged with saving the world.

When this high opinion is 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, dissenters are dismissed as “un-American.”

Despite the popular notion that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister contends that 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”.

Book by Myra Mendible
Race 2008: Critical Reflections on an Historic Campaign

For information on ordering through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

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.

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. “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’ perceptions, the outcome will be policies that reflect that bias to the detriment of more reasoned choices”.

Describing the men’s personal and professional backgrounds, 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).

For Johnson and Nixon, Steinberg argues, “the humiliation of dependency, the humiliation of defeat” represented the “ultimate degradation”. 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”.

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”.

Americans are 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”.

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.

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?

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. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, for example, has shown that the ideal of “Southern honor” helped shape the rationale for the American Civil War. He 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.

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, 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.”

Despite the popular notion that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister, Smart, and Boden (1996) contend that 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”. 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”.

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”.

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”. 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”).

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.

“America is back, standing tall, looking to the 80’s with courage, confidence, and hope,” Reagan (1984) told us after another presumably righteous war—our invasion of the tiny island of Grenada. 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 (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.”

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.