Over twenty years ago, in a song called "Exhuming McCarthy," R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe sang, "look who bought the myth, by jingo, buy America." We often fall in love with certain ways of narrating our national story, and the stories of our wars, until those mythic ways of seeing occlude more complex and often contradictory realities. Marbrook's piece shows how, when it comes to believing our fantasy, we'd rather be like the country singer, who, despite mounting evidence, "that's my story, I'm sticking to it."
War is Based on Bad Intel- a refusal to see things as the enemy sees them
By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)
We like to think we`re myth-proof, but if that were true we wouldn`t need FactCheck.org, would we?
For all our vast array of communications we`re almost as myth-prone as the Middle Ages. I think this is true because myths are by their nature so much more seductive than the truth, which is often complicated and unpleasant going down.
What prompts me to contemplate this paradox is today`s DelanceyPlace.com e-mail. It`s about Prester John, the imaginary Christian king of the East who played such a huge role in medieval thought. (I read DelanceyPlace faithfully, and it often sends me back to the books.) There were pictures of him, anecdotes, eyewitness reports, all bogus. They constituted the top-secret intelligence of the day. And thoughtful people thought they must be true because they came from high places, just as today we trust our intelligence apparatus.
If only Prester John would come to the aid of the beleaguered Crusaders the Kingdom of Jerusalem would finally rest secure in the hands of Christians, where the Christians, at least, believed it belonged. Never mind that en route to the Holy Land these Christians had murdered thousands of Jews and sacked Christian Byzantium. Never mind that the Jews had been dispersed among their enemies. Never mind that Jerusalem was the third holiest city in Islam.
What is so intriguing about the Prester John myth, which undoubtedly fueled further crusading when it arose in 1145 (after the Crusaders had established themselves in Palestine, albeit shakily), is that it so closely resembles the magic thinking of today as the West, cocksure and high-handed, once again messes around in the East, this time in Afghanistan and Iraq, making more and more enemies as time passes.
Who is the enemy? Al Qaeda, which has proven itself capable of reinventing itself in any number of nations and cultures? The Taliban, which derives from Wahhabist thinking in what is now Saudi Arabia? Or simply the vast majority of Muslims who would prefer not to be occupied by foreign troops?
We don`t know. But we`re perfectly willing to pawn our future fighting in places where we`re disliked because we have accepted a handful of lies and half-truths that in the aggregate very much resemble the legend of Prester John: Half-truths that appear to Islam as yet another crusade. Half-truths that appear to Muslims to put a good face on what is in fact a long history of Islamophobia and crusading.
Prester John wasn`t just a lunatic-fringe story. Kings, bishops, popes, scholars, all believed the myth. Just as men and women in suits, carrying briefcases, believe today that we are fighting a necessary and wholly justified war in Afghanistan because it is the wellspring " of Islamic terrorism. Yes, that`s what Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the National Security Council, recently said. He was careful not to voice the more demonstrable idea that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, some of them more considerable than our own.
And he was equally careful not to give voice to the troublesome notion that Islamic terrorism can arise and sustain itself in any number of nations "Saudi Arabia, our putative ally, being the most notable. In so doing, McDonough sounds as plausible as those medieval poobahs who undoubtedly believed in Prester John. And if the high and mighty lords, with all their education and means of communication, believe such nonsense, what are the peasants to believe?
And did the peasants benefit from the murder of the Jews and the pillaging of their properties? Did they benefit from the sacking of Byzantium? Or was it their lords and masters who benefited? There was no great press establishment, no Fourth Estate, in the Middle Ages to challenge the mythologizing of those lords, and there is no Fourth Estate today to challenge the assumptions of men like McDonough, because the Fourth Estate is owned by the very people who benefit from wars: the bankers and the other profiteers.
The Prester John myth served the Christian nobles well, for a time, until Saladin confronted them with the reality of the situation, and then the Mamluk sultan Baybars got fed up and crushed the crusaders. But the nobles had profited. And, paradoxically, so had the entire West, because the Crusaders brought home elements of a civilization far more advanced than their own.
I, Prester John, who reign supreme, exceed in riches, virtue, and power all creatures who dwell under heaven. "
That`s Prester John writing in a bogus letter that enjoyed great currency.
Prester John in his phony letter claimed to rule seventy-two vassal kings and twelve archbishops. He fed 30,000 soldiers each day at tables made of gold, amethyst, and emerald, " he boasted. He maintained a great army dedicated to protecting Christians everywhere, and he had dedicated himself to waging perpetual war against the enemies of Christ. "
Perpetual war against the enemies of Christ. If you get as much e-mail as I do you will undoubtedly encounter very similar language from some sectors of our own society. And as for the Jews, Israel, and all that stuff, well, they`re just pawns in the grand scheme of things. If they convert to Christianity, fine. If not, tough on them. Prester John`s letter sounds like the weapons of mass destruction we didn`t find in Iraq. It sounds like another declaration from Gen. Stanley A. McCrystal, our commander in Afghanistan. It sounds full of it. But it was believed.
Here is an example of the kind of disinformation that fed crusade after crusade. A bishop is speaking in 1217:
"there are more Christians than Muslims living in Islamic countries. The Christians of the Orient, as far away as the land of Prester John, have many kings, who, when they hear that the Crusade has arrived, will come to its aid. "
Oh yeah, and the Afghans hate the Taliban so much that they will pour out of their homes and greet the Americans with open arms as their liberators. We know how that`s working out. But the bishop sounded eminently plausible, and so do today`s hawks in Washington and their generals. Or should we say the generals and their hawks. The relationship of our generals to our chicken-hawk politicians often strikes me as the relationship of the falcon to the falconer.
We like to think we are proof against such simpleminded thinking. But it got us into Iraq, didn`t it? And it has broken our treasury, hasn`t it?
If we were to ask honestly who is the enemy, we would have to admit, at least in part, that we ourselves are the enemy. But the truth is complicated. It goes back to the once-secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in which the British and the French betrayed their Arab allies against the Ottoman Turks. It goes back to their betrayal of Arab yearning to control their own destinies. It goes back to colonialist avarice and mendacity. It goes back to broken promises, back-room deals, oil grabs, and a long list of squalid actions of which no nation should be proud. It was all as self-righteously justified as the Crusades. And there was as much flag-waving then as there is now. And the Crusaders often came home broken and disillusioned, just as we are allowing our heroic veterans to return.
We act as if it all began on September 11, 2001. But it began decades if not centuries ago, and it has as much to do with Christian persecution of the Jews as it does with Islamic expansion. It has to do with schemes, betrayals, greed, genocide, racism, intolerance "and all of it stemming from all three great monotheistic religions, not Islam alone. And every single death is blood on the hands of Muslim, Christian and Jewish extremists alike.
Are we up to the troubling, complicated truth? Or are the mindless simplicities in McDonough`s statement preferable? Are we up to history or do we prefer mythology? If our choice is the latter, our children will go on dying and we will get poorer and poorer.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008.