In the 1940s and 1950s, when the generation of men now ruling over us were growing up, boys could disappear into a form of war play — barely noticed by adults and hardly recorded anywhere — that was already perhaps a couple of hundred years old. In this kind of play, there was no need to enact the complicated present by recreating a junior version of an anxiety-ridden Cold War garrison state (though you could purchase your own H2O Missile, a water-powered toy “ICBM” in imitation of the sort just then being prepared by adults to pulverize the planet). For children in those years, there was still a sacramental, triumphalist version of American history, a spectacle of slaughter in which they invariably fell before our guns. This spectacle could be experienced in any movie theater, and then played out in backyards and on floors with toy six guns (or sticks) or little toy bluecoats, Indians, and cowboys, or green, inch-high plastic sets of World War II soldiers. As play, for those who grew up in that time, it was sunshine itself, pure pleasure. The Western (as well as its modern successor, the war film) was on screen everywhere then.
When those children grew up (barely), some of them went off to Vietnam, dreaming of John Wayne-like feats as they entered what they came to call “Indian country”; while others sallied off to demonstrate against the war dressed either in the cast-off World War II garb of their fathers or in the movie-inspired get-ups of the former enemy of another age — headbands and moccasins, painted faces, love beads (those previously worthless baubles with which, everyone knew, Manhattan had so fraudulently been purchased), as well as peace (now drug) pipes. Sometimes, they even formed themselves into “tribes.”
As it turns out, though, there was a third category of young men in those years — those who essentially steered clear of the Vietnam experience, who, as our Vice President put it inelegantly but accurately, had “other priorities in the ’60s.” Critics have sometimes spoken of such Bush administration figures as “chickenhawks” for their lack of war experience. But this is actually inaccurate. They were warriors of a sort — screen warriors. They had an abundance of combat experience because, unlike their peers, they never left the confines of those movie theaters, where American war was always glorious, our military men always out on some frontier, and the Indians, or their modern equivalents, always falling by their scores before our might as the cavalry bugle sounded or the Marine Hymn welled up. By avoiding becoming either the warriors or the anti-warriors of the Vietnam era, they managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology. They were, in a sense, the Peter Pans of American war play.
So no one should have been surprised that, when George Bush declared his global war on terror, he also swore to get Osama bin Laden in this fashion: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West… I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’” Of course, that “poster” came not from any real experience he had in the West, but directly from the thrilling cowboy films of his childhood. So did his John-Wayne-like urge to “hunt” the terrorists down, or “smoke ‘em out,” or (for Iraqi insurgents) “bring ‘em on.” From that same childhood undoubtedly came the President’s repeated urge to dress up in an assortment of “commander-in-chief” military outfits, much in the style of a G.I. Joe “action figure.” (Think: doll). It’s visibly clear that our President has long found delight — actual pleasure — in his war-making role, as he did in his Top Gun, “mission accomplished” landing on that aircraft carrier back in 2003.
It’s not surprising either that a critic who spent real time up close and personal with top Bush administration figures, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson, would accuse the President of “cowboyism.” Nor should it be strange that various neocon writers close to this administration and in thrall to the same spirit should lovingly quote American military men who also believe themselves out on some Western frontier. Robert Kaplan, for instance, cites one officer as saying, “The red Indian metaphor is one with which a liberal policy nomenklatura may be uncomfortable, but Army and Marine field officers have embraced it because it captures perfectly the combat challenge of the early 21st century.”
Many things have changed in our world in recent decades. For one thing, hundreds of years of history have more or less disappeared into the entertainment/media maw. In films like Dances with Wolves, which came out at the time of the first American war in Iraq, the Indians have turned all warm and fuzzy and are now the veritable Ewoks of our planet. In the meantime children on their floors and in their video games still shoot down innumerable evil ones ready to ambush them, but so many of them are now off this planet: demons, supervillains, mutants, and aliens. They are surely the first generation in memory to pass a full childhood without fighting old-style Indian Wars on their floors or playing “cowboys and Indians.” And yet the paradigm of the frontier and of the Indian Wars settled deep into the American soul. So again, it should not be surprising that the now officially grown up boys, who have the power to make war on the world, should still imagine themselves in their beloved movies of long ago and that the framework of the Indian Wars, however suppressed and transformed, remains in some fashion deeply with us.
This is the secret frontier dreamland of our rulers, with nightmarish consequences for us all.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]