Powerful thing, myth. It can move men to noble deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice. Dangerous thing, myth. It can lead politicians to believe even their own propaganda, and so mislead others. Consider the myth that the war in Iraq is this country's "first pre-emptive war."
The other day, in the midst of various sweeping assertions he made to back up his claim that George W. Bush was the country's worst president ever, at least when it comes to foreign policy, another pretender to that title Jimmy Carter repeated that myth as part of his general indictment of the current president:
"We have a new policy now on war. We now have endorsed the concept of pre-emptive war, where we go to war with another nation, militarily, even though our own security is not directly threatened. If we want to change the regime there or if we fear that sometime in the future, our security might be endangered. That's been a radical departure from all previous administration policies."
Goodness. To call that assertion sweeping would be to indulge in that most un-American of political styles: understatement.
Are we really to believe that this country never before waged war even though our national security was not being directly threatened? What then was the first of this republic's wars, its war for independence? That colonial rebellion, which would last eight long years, began as a disagreement over tax policy, not because our security was threateneddirectly or indirectly.
Skipping lightly over the undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800), the same could be said of the War of 1812, which was a war of our choice. Indeed, at the time it wasn't easy for Americans to decide whether to go to war against France, Great Britain, neither or both.
The Mexican-American War needn't have been fought if this country had been willing to recognize Mexican claims. It, too, was a war of choice, not necessity.
And what about the Spanish-American War? Our national security was scarcely threatened by the decaying Spanish empire, much of which we soon made our own. Nor did we have to put down the Philippine Insurrection that followed for years.
There was considerable hesitation before the United States chose to enter the First World War, too, under a president who had just campaigned for re-election under the popular slogan, He Kept Us Out of War.
Nor did American involvement in the Second World War begin, as it does in the movies, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the United States was being drawn into that conflict long before war was formally declared.
Ever hear of Lend Lease? The British depended mightily on it for war materiel when they stood alone against Hitler. The same generous aid would be extended to Our Fighting Russian Allies when Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. There was the destroyers-for-bases deal with the British, too. And FDR's "shoot-on-sight" order to the U.S. Navy should it encounter any German or Italian warships that dared venture too close to American patrols in the North Atlantic. Or even enter what we considered "our" waters.
It was all part of the undeclared naval war then being waged against the Axis powers. All of those moves were made without benefit of a formal declaration of war.
What about Vietnam? Was it a war of choice or necessity?
Or this country's invasions of various Latin American countries, a habit that amounts to almost an American tradition? The war against Serbia in defense of the Muslims of Kosovo?
The Gulf War? Its peace terms were consistently violated by Saddam Hussein for a decade as he defied one UN resolution after another before the United States finally chose to overthrow him even though he wasn't threatening our security, not directly, not yet.
If only the Western powers had acted against Nazi Germany when it first marched into the Rhineland in 1936 instead of waiting till it was almost too late…. But if a united West had acted so promptly, be sure there would have been those who would have called it an immoral, "pre-emptive" war back then, too.
Only the most simplistic of politicians, or maybe just the most demagogic, would draw a clear line between pre-emptive and defensive wars in order to depict this long, cruel war in Iraq as "a radical departure from all previous administration policies."
The legitimacy of a war in the public mind may depend not so much on the actual circumstances that gave rise to it, but whether it is being won or lost at the time, and at what cost. As the Korean "police action" dragged on and on, it was denounced as unnecessary, as Truman's War, and, yes, as a radical departure from the values and policies of the past.
The one point Jimmy Carter's mythmaking drives home is how easily, in an historically amnesiac society, the innocent can be persuaded that there is something new in American foreign policy or under the sun.