The conflict over Frank Miller’s Holy Terror book is a perfect illustration of the problems inherent in the idea–shared across the spectrum–that 9/11 was an event that should have propelled a mass mobilization of American society.
For those of you unfamiliar with Miller, he created Sin City and a host of other critically acclaimed graphic novels. After 9/11, Miller’s normally cynical views about government, state, and country shifted:
For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years. Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don’t all hang together, we all hang separately.
Miller reacted to this by creating a comic book he proudly dubs “propaganda,” responding to Andrew Klavan’s call for a wave of patriotic media that would unashamedly portray the US as the good guy and the enemy (defined vaguely as “global jihad”) as evil. To be fair, it’s doubtful that Miller’s end product really fits the bill of the Sands of Iwo Jima type war film that Klavan envisioned. As Spencer Ackerman argues, it’s very crude, over the top, and bigoted. It’s also representative of a certain stream of thought about Islam that has been quite familiar to anyone reading the news lately.
But if we are honest we can see that bigoted propaganda exists broadly within the international spectrum of wartime propaganda throughout history, which helps serve the function of mobilization and popular support in the “strategic rear.” The reason why it feels so out of place is that the United States is not in a conflict that requires mass societal mobilization. Al-Qaeda is an important threat but not an existential one. During such a time, comic books such as Holy Terror–however regrettable it may be–are commonplace. It is positively tame compared to the anti-Japanese propaganda of World War II and the “kill the Hun” posters in World War I, to say nothing of the Soviet, Chinese, and North Vietnamese propaganda regimes.
But, although the objectionable nature of Holy Terror is unique, Miller is not alone in wanting some kind of popular mobilization.
There’s a certain kind of audience that deeply wishes the US mass-mobilized after 9/11:
Ten years have passed, and there is still much to grieve about September 11, 2001. There are the lives that were lost that terrifying and tragic day: the 2,977 victims in the towers and the Pentagon and on the planes; and the 415 law enforcement officers and firefighters killed, public workers who were justly celebrated at the time as heroes—an impulse we would do well to remember today, as their counterparts are pilloried as pension gluttons and public service is casually denigrated as government bloat. Lost, too, was the chance for a politics built around the kind of social solidarity embodied by those first responders and expressed by the society so moved by their sacrifice. Instead, thanks largely to the administration of George W. Bush, we got a politics of fear that helped launch a long “war on terror,” which in turn gave us a lost decade of American life.
Chances are, if you agree with this paragraph you might also agree with the countless writers who have attacked Bush’s call to “go shopping” after 9/11 instead of mobilizing for some kind of vaguely defined national sacrifice. Of course, I doubt in a practical sense anyone really intended for Americans to start a levee en masse against al-Qaeda, which would have been impossible and largely pointless. Rather, they wanted to use 9/11 to push their own domestic political causes, such as energy independence (which Thomas Friedman name-checks in one column about 9/11). “Sacrifice,” “social solidarity,” and “nation-building at home,” are, thus, code for “my domestic political project.”
There’s a reason why people think 9/11 should have led to the whole of America mobilizing–World War II. In some of the linked columns about national sacrifice and Klavan’s op-ed about wartime culture, World War II is constantly name-checked as an ideal America should have emulated.
All of this is based on the common, idealized, sepia-toned memory of World War II as an exceptional event that brought Americans together–ignoring, of course, the very real ideological, domestic political and ethnic conflicts that distinguished the WWII home front. This to say nothing of the war’s brutal realities for the men who fought it and the moral compromises required (making a deal with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, to point out the obvious) to win.
To be sure, World War II was a just war–it was a war of national survival against a mass-murdering Germany headed by a former corporal with dreams of Napoleonic glory and an imperialist Japan bent on the death and enslavement of millions of Asians they viewed as subhuman. We were right to fight World War II and fight it until the political-military capacity of Hitler and the Imperial Japanese state were utterly destroyed.
Russian soldiers in Stalingrad, American pilots flying through flak and enemy interceptors during the Combined Bomber Offensive, British anti-aircraft gunners in the Battle of Britain, and Nationalist or Communist soldiers fighting a losing battle against Japanese Army forces on the Chinese mainland all understood this instinctively. If we want to understand “the reason why,” all we have to do is look not only at the horror of the concentration camps but the dead of Nanjing, the tens of millions of Soviet civilians murdered, starved, or otherwise killed by the German invasion, and the victims of both Imperial Japanese and Nazi German “scientific experimentation.”
But we do a disservice to the men who fought and died and the leaders who made tough decisions by buying into the Tom Brokaw/Saving Private Ryan version of World War II rather than the story recounted at the strategic level by Williamson Murray or the tactical by Paul Fussell. The danger in this is that we generalize the mass mobilization of World War II and the war’s unlimited objectives to everything–and that’s part of how we end up with the “sacrifice is my domestic political agenda” approach to 9/11 and comic books like Holy Terror.
Mass mobilization involves ugly passions needed to, well, mobilize the masses. It’s nice that Miller and Klavan want to help out, but unless al-Zawahiri gets a hold of a carrier group and some main battle tanks, the GWOT/Overseas Contingency Operation doesn’t need a propagandist to stand in the town square with a megaphone. And trying to use the memory of World War II and the heroism of 9/11 responders to push energy independence plans serves little useful purpose.