Who doesn’t love a good story? Who can look down on a tale starring a dashing hero, a mustache twirling villain, with suspense, romance, danger, scares, all wrapped up with a happy ending? Americans in particular can’t get enough of it. Stories like Aesop’s Fables are how we were taught life lessons and fairy tales were how our parents put us to bed at night.
We are even taught history through stories; in the USA, the American Revolution is a perfect example. Noble George Washington and Paul Revere battled the tyrant King George and his treasonous lackey Benedict Arnold. When the war was won, America was freed. Of course this retelling oversimplifies to a great extent, but it makes for a good story so the details are resigned to the footnotes. The American Civil War works even better, though depending on which region you are from you might feel differently as to which side were the heroes and which the villains. This tendency only continues as we watch movies, read books and consume news media. Even non-fiction is still packaged as a “story,” with a beginning, middle and end. History goes on, of course, but it’s much more exciting to read about the winter at Valley Forge than the Articles of Confederation.
The most prominent example of this is the Western, one of two quintessentially American forms of film (the other being film noir). The details may vary but the story remains more or less constant: a hero rides into towns, kills the bad guys and saves the day, kisses the girl, then rides out again. He is a law unto himself, answering to no one except his conscience. Most of the time his skill with a gun is what spells the difference between a happy ending and defeat. Americans want to be that hero, not the guy hiding behind closed doors while the gunfighters face off. As much as the United States is ridiculed for having a “cowboy” mentality, that desire to help people in need has saved a lot of lives around the world, though critics would say it has taken many more.
Because Americans are raised on stories we tend to see the world through that lens. News reporters even use the term “story” for the subject of a new article. In every situation we look for a hero and a villain, and are not satisfied unless that villain receives his or her just desserts. We are undeterred by the fact that in real life black and white morality simply doesn’t exist and never has. Nuance is confusing and details are boring. It is no wonder that the Trail of Tears is ignored while the landing of the Mayflower is celebrated, or that Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday but Juneteenth is not. Americans are far from the only ones who prefer to tell stories in which they are the heroes and things conclude with a happy ending, but we are one of the few countries with the power and will to be the hero of our own story instead of the background character in another. This comes with a cost, however.
Take the Middle East in the 21st century. This is a region in which loyalties and enmities shift with the slightest change. Skillful navigation is required merely to survive, and this makes Americans particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by those who seek to profit from our sentimentality and compulsion to save those in need.
As America stands on the eve of a possible war with Syria, it is good to remember how we got here. When the civil war began there two years ago, Americans were immediately faced with a problem: we knew too much about both sides. Bashar Assad may be a dictator, willing to kill indiscriminately to secure his rule, but the rebels’ ranks are filled with Al Qaeda and other assorted radical Islamists. For every story of a Syrian air force jet bombing a mosque there was one about a rebel eating the heart of a corpse or a child soldier beheading a captive Syrian soldier. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? There are none, and so Americans didn’t know what to do. We wouldn’t pick a side because both sides were in the wrong.
This didn’t stop the rebels from trying to win our hearts, though. Take a look at this photograph: the rebels claim that if the West doesn’t get involved in the Syrian Civil War and help them win their war against Assad, we will have lost our credibility regarding human rights. But if we do, everyone else will accuse us of “imperialist warmongering” and acting as the “world police” again. Not to mention the very real possibility that those same rebels who were pleading for our help one day could launch attacks on us the next, just like in Libya. Articles by Free Syrian Army generals in such magazines as Foreign Policy and the Washington Post failed to untangle this conundrum.
So despite their best efforts, the heartstrings tugging by the rebels has not succeeded in moving the West. The world sat back and watched while 100,000 people died, except for those that helped stir the pot with arms and training. Americans knew that it wasn’t one villain killing innocent Syrians while a rag tag group of heroes tried to stop him. That was too far from reality to be believed. For a democracy to go to war it must be “sold” to the people and the calculus in Syria was off. That is, until it began to look like Assad was using chemical weapons.
We may never know who used chemical weapons in Syria or even if they were used at all but perception is reality and at this time America is acting on the conclusion that the Assad regime committed chemical weapon attacks on Syrian civilians. President Obama is caught in a situation where he must follow through on his declaration that a “red line” has been crossed or else look weak in the eyes of the world. In contrast, the American people do not support an intervention in Syria. If the Obama administration is serious about following through, then the only way to resolve this is that the chemical weapons angle must be played for all that it is worth. It is strange that the deaths of 100,000 people by shot and shell was not enough to spur the West (or anyone for that matter) to take drastic action, but to kill fewer by different means is enough to tip the balance. Assad wasn’t enough of a villain before and so he must become one. Now that the villain has been found, the story of the American heroes riding in to save the Syrian people can begin.
This author cannot speculate on the motives of the Obama Administration and its Western allies, though precedent suggests that American governments are just as likely to use the American love of the story to pursue their own goals as anyone else. The American love of stories is a fundamental part of our society and is responsible for much of America’s optimism and “can do” spirit. But the events in Syria prove that this love of narrative has a downside: it can lead to mistakes. No matter what America decides will happen, a new chapter in the story of the Syrian Civil War is beginning this week. One can only hope that the ending is in sight.