The Myth of “King David” Petraeus and Iraq

His colleagues call him “King David” because of “his intellect, ego and ambition,” according to NPR News. That’s General David Petraeus, who is testifying before Congress this week, using his vaunted intellect to try to persuade the nation that the reduction of US troops in Iraq should “pause” from July until an uncertain date—probably until a new inhabitant arrives in the White House, with a war mess on his or her desk that may prove impossible to clean up.

Despite renewed violence in Iraq, the General has some chance of success in Washington, because the story he is telling there is not likely to be evaluated only in literal terms. It’s the stuff of myth. And given a choice, most people will choose (however unconsciously) a satisfying myth over a frustrating and disappointing literal reality. Just look at the surprising success John McCain is enjoying in the polls, though he shamelessly brandishes a pro-war policy, based on a myth of “no surrender” in front of an anti-war public.

If Petraeus hopes to sell his (and now McCain’s) mythicized plan to Congress and the public, he would do well to leave as much of his ego and ambition as he can back in Iraq. That may be tough after the New York Times, hardly a supporter of the war, ran a puff piece on his prospects for becoming president. If we are lucky, Petraeus’ prospects will come and go as quickly as Norman Schwarzkopf’s. Only political junkies may remember that for a few months (or was it only weeks?) during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Schwarzkopf was anointed by the media as a future president.

From the biblical King David to “Stormin’ Norman,” generals have always been the stuff that myths are made of. Of course if they want to be super-sized and then mythicized, they are supposed to win wars. “King David” Petraeus is being mythicized while his chances of achieving anything that could remotely be called a victory seem mighty dim, at best. But that, too, is a common pattern; a way for the home-front media to boost morale during wartime, by making “our side’s” war leader seem so much larger than life that he, and we, are bound to be winners.

I suspect it happened back in 11th century BCE Judah too, when “the media” were probably itinerant bards, singing “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands” before the last anti-David forces had been firmly subdued. If we haven’t seen reports of our own King David slaying his tens of thousands in Iraq, that may be because the counting process is fitful, bashful, and largely off the record. Out of sight, out of mind. If we knew the real numbers, we might all go out of our minds.

That’s a far cry from the days of the Vietnam War, when another mythic General, William Westmoreland, made his reputation by inflated “body counts” that flashed in charts on network news shows every night. (My students still get pretty shocked when I tell them about those colorful scorecards over the anchorman’s shoulder.) Westmoreland may be the best analogy to Petraeus. He, too, was raised to the stature of mythic hero before victory was achieved, in a vain effort to boost support for a war that could not be won.

But before I run this metaphor of the general as mythic hero into the ground, I must stop to acknowledge that the premise of my metaphor—the biblical King David as a figure of “myth”—risks stepping over the theological line into heresy. A quarter of a century ago, I re-read the biblical texts about David and decided that my grad school professors had missed a key point: We will never know anything about the historical David (even whether he ever existed). In all good conscience I had to teach the material to my own students as legend, or even as myth.

My grad school professors had taught me one thing well: If I was going to deny the possibility of historical certainty about any figure or event in the Bible, I had better think long and hard before I chose between the categories of “legend” and “myth.” The former was acceptable in liberal theological circles. But the word “myth” was still a red flag that could get even liberal Christians and Jews snorting like the mad bulls of “pagan” iconography.

After all, wasn’t the whole point of King David’s loyalty to Yahweh to stamp out the local heathen practices based on polytheism? And polytheists were the purveyors of myth. To promiscuously mingle myth and Yahwism was to deny the absolute difference between the benighted heathens and the worshipers of the one true God, the religious revolutionaries who would move humanity beyond the heathen folly into the enlightened era of monotheism.

That was the story I was raised on as a budding young scholar. Today it is more acceptable in liberal theological circles to apply the category of myth to David and other once-literalized figures and events. Those who make that move might see the view I was raised on (“legend” okay; “myth” taboo) as itself a quaint myth of a previous academic generation. But it’s a hotly debated move. When applied to the Bible, the word “myth” is still a loaded and contentious term that can bring even sophisticated theological minds to verbal blows.

The controversy carries over quite directly into analysis of US foreign policy. The words of our top general in Iraq (the words I’ve described as myths) are those that the president says will determine his war policy. The words of the Republican candidate for president, which I’ve also labeled as myth, may become the policy of the White House next January. Many Americans may find it just as impious and dismissive to treat the president that way as to treat the Bible that way, for they link the two sources of authority in all sorts of (often unconscious, some might even say mythic) patterns.

From another angle altogether, my professors of comparative religion and theory of the study of religion taught me to be careful about myth. In those fields, too, the word “myth” was a bone of contention, chewed on endlessly by competing scholarly forces; not for theological reasons, but mostly because no one could say exactly what the word meant, or should mean, or might mean. A word with so many competing definitions could end up with no meaningful definition at all. Indeed, by now some scholars of religion have decided that it’s best to jettison the word altogether.

I have long carried that lesson over into my analyses of contemporary issues of war and peace in America, hesitating to use the term “myth” because of its imprecision. But now I’m tending to think that the advantages of using it outweigh the disadvantages. It has long been painfully obvious that empirical reality plays far too small a role in the current debate about our Iraq policy. Even those of us who follow the Iraq war fairly closely have the devil’s own time figuring out what the empirical reality is.

A few stellar analysts do manage to draw a plausible picture by assembling disparate pieces drawn from dozens of sources, but they must devote day and night to doing it. They too are mythic figures, making Herculean efforts. And even they admit that far too many of the pieces are missing to draw a complete picture.

The vast majority of Americans are left with the paltry fragments of literal truth provided by the mainstream media, fragments held together with the all-powerful glue of mythic motifs that stretch back to early Greek and biblical times, and even further.

It is urgent that more and more Americans come to recognize the immense influence that non-literal, non-empirical perceptions exercise on our policy debates and policymaking process when it comes to war (as well as nearly everything else in the political realm). That educational step is crucial if there is to be any hope of getting the public debate onto a more rational, reality-based track. Calling the irrational, non-empirical factors “myth,” no matter how crude the term, may be the best way to get their attention.

Then, of course, we run afoul of the other problem with the word. If I say that the biblical King David, or the testimony of “King David” Petraeus before Congress, is largely myth, most people think I mean it is a fiction, an out-and-out falsehood. So I have to introduce them to that staple of Religious Studies 101: A myth is not a lie. It’s a story people tell to express their deepest values and broadest understandings of reality. It may incorporate some indeterminate amount of empirical truth, but that’s beside the point. The myth tells us what can count as truth in the culture that embraces the myth.

That’s a tricky point, and sometimes in my rush to make more important points about the urgent war debate, I simply overlook it, as I have in my latest piece on the subject, where I discuss the mythic dimensions of the Bush administration’s “surge” plan. I’m starting to get more comfortable with that too. “Myth,” like any other word, is just a tool to get a job done.

Right now the urgent job is to alert people to the irrational factors in the domestic debate about the war, since those irrational factors get people killed every day. And come November they may get a Republican elected as president who seems bent on keeping up the killing till some mythic, and probably chimerical, denouement called “victory” can be achieved.

So just as scholars are getting more and more comfortable stepping on theological toes and using the word “myth” when they teach about the Bible, I’m getting more comfortable using the word when I teach and write about the wars of our own time. If, along the way, I can help steer a few people toward a more sophisticated understanding of the word “myth” that will be merely collateral benefit.