Roy Scranton, ‘Star Wars’ and the Fantasy of American Violence, in the NYTimes:
“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.
In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.
The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.
Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.
There is no redemption in violence:
The truth is, most Americans understand what our soldiers do very well: They understand that American troops are sent overseas to defend American political and economic interests, wreak vengeance on those who have wronged us, and hunt down our enemies and kill them. There is no gap there. The American military has a job, and most of us, on some level, understand exactly what that job is. The American soldier or Marine is an agent of American state power.
The real gap is between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts.
There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something.
It’s our choice. We make our myths.