This article deals with a very important ideal of American self-perception: the West. The American West is not only a place in time but also a source for identity because it is linked to the founding of the United States. By Christian Mieß
Regarding the individual, also certain behaviors and political attitudes derive from this ideal. These fundamental aspects have long lasting impacts and have to be taken into account in every respect, especially when we talk about American policy. To underline the approach, two events are to be put under perspective:Custer“s Last Stand and the attacks of 9/11.
A fundamental experience
There exists a stereotype of American culture that is far more important than one might presume: the West. The American West does not only consist of legends of cowboys and Indians, but also it is equally characterized as a place where civilization and wilderness collide. It is a place of recreation, which stands in total contrast to the modern world. For the individual, the West is a fundamental experience, idealized by a picture of overgrowing oneself and acting heroically in a hostile environment. Also a certain sense of mission is cultivated through this picture. This sense of mission, or the so-called „manifest destiny“ involves the subjection of savagery and the forthcoming of civilization. So on the one hand we have a deep admiration for wilderness, but on the other hand there is also the want to tame, or civilize it.
From the founding of the first colonies until the end of the 19th century, the westward expansion on the North American continent played a major role for society. Today, the West, as an identityforming momentum, still exists. The West survived in legends, in film and in literature. Listen carefully and read attentively, then you will find key expressions like „high-noon“, „man against man“ or „playing Cowboys and Indians“ everywhere. Still today, big parts of language are soaked in metaphors and similes that refer to the ideals of the white settlers who conquered the West. Over time, the aforementioned aspects became deeply rooted in U.S. society. Since the West is such a vital part of American identity, it is of crucial importance to any approach of today“s politics. To understand this part of the American mind, one event in the American history of the West needs special emphasis: Custer“s Last Stand. This event reflects the ideals of the West in the perfect sense.
9/11 and the Recall of History
In 1876, General Custer and his 7th Cavalry were defeated at Little Bighorn as they attacked a meeting of Indian tribes. No soldier survived this event that was perceived as a serious threat to all ideals the United States stood for. Just 100 years after the founding of the United States, no one could understand how the „savage“ tribes defeated a seemingly superior nation. In the perception of the white settlers, General Custer and his army died as martyrs in the fight against savagery. They were stylized almost Christ-like. In the public opinion at that time, civilization itself was at stake. The events also led to the mobilization of public support for military spending to fight the Indians. Scholars argue if this event is maybe overestimated, but they are certain that this symbolic fall of the 7th Cavalry fastened the eradication of the Indian culture in the end. The Last Stand became a fixed motive, which has experienced quotation ever since.
There are stunning parallels between the events of 9/11 and Custer“s Last Stand. Also the 9/11 events are used as justification for war. More than ten years after the end of the Cold War the terrorist attack of 9/11 was a shock to the United States. President George W. Bush made it clear very fast: With this assault, civilization was at stake – again. „Savages“ offended the home of the free. Although the sympathy for war decreases every day, in the beginning the public opinion was to hunt down those terrorists at any price. Still, the current administration uses strong language, enriched with meaning and identity-forming metaphors. This way, it is possible to keep up support for war because nearly every American can feel committed to it. Just to mention one example, have a look State of the Union Address from January 2006. President George W. Bush talks about an „ideological war“ the US finds itself in and referring to the history he asks: „Will we turn back, or finish well?“ All in all, this has to leave the image that the United States once again has to overgrow itself and act heroically in a fatal environment to fulfill their manifest destiny.
Basically there are two main factors to deal with: As I showed in the preceding paragraphs, there exist certain aspects, which provide identity. Any attempt to change the basic self-perception of heroism and manifest destiny is doomed to fail because it roots too deep and therefore is not negotiable. On the other hand, in these times this particular part of identity can be used to justify war, anytime and anywhere. But how can this situation be changed? It is the task to demystify the events of 9/11. As long as the defense of one nation is directly brought together with the defense of a particular way of living, the war cannot be won, nor be brought to an end. A first responsible step of the government could be, not to create a culture of fear and ignorance while activating core American values. This leads to a biased perception of reality and marks critics as un- American at the outset.
Although you cannot totally equate the Last Stand with 9/11, you do see parallels in the outcomes of those events. Both events were tragic and were (ab)used to mobilize means for the „defense of civilization“. In both cases the American people feared the loss of what they had created. One difference between the events at Little Bighorn and 9/11 lies in the international interlinking of today“s globalized world. Now, the proclaimed war against terror has impacts far beyond the borders of the United States. Thus it is fought not only by military means, for example, civil rights can be withhold in the name of the war against terror even outside U.S. territory. Back in 1876, also Custer fought a war to bring civilization to wilderness. What people at that time didn“t take into account was that there existed maybe different varieties of civilization.
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