Americans consider themselves rugged individualists who by nature resist the coercion or imposition of any arbitrary external power. This self-definition of Americanism is represented in numerous ways in American popular culture. The symbol of that independent attitude has been well represented by the Texan rattlesnake and the phrase ‘don’t tread on me.” Literature and popular science fiction have conveyed a similar message. In the Star Trek series, Commander Jean Luc Picard and the Starfleet crew encounter the vastly technologically superior war machine of the conquering Borg. These inter-galactic colonialists claim that their way of life is immensely superior and constitute a liberation-by-integration, thereby raising “the quality of life of all species.” The Borg’s message is quite to the point: “all resistance is futile.” Yet, the response conveyed by the French born Jean Luc and his comrades is simple enough as well: in the face of overwhelming force, resistance is an imperative and death is preferable to conquest or submission. Thus, the American ideology of defiance was voiced.
Yet, one thing is what we claim to believe and what actually guides the country’ s foreign policy. American military doctrine of “Shock and Awe” assumes that instilling fear of death will achieve “rapid dominance” over the adversary. The doctrine was first elucidated by Harlan K. Ullman, professor at the US War College. A corollary of “Shock and Awe,” also enunciated by the professor, is that the United States can ‘turn the lights on and off’ of an adversary as we choose” and no choice will be left “except to cease and desist or risk complete and total destruction.” Or so goes the “logic.”
On April 11 the Washington Post reported that Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Batallion, 5th Marine Regiment, from outside the city of Fallujah stated, “What is coming is the destruction of anti-coalition forces in Fallujah. . . . They have two choices: submit or die.” For the American Marine commander, in a Borg-like fashion, resistance is also futile.
Perhaps it will be too much to ask of US foreign policy makers or military commanders and strategists to learn the history and culture of the country they help invaded. It might be too complicated or disconcerting to understand the roots of Iraqi nationalism. A simpler solution, perhaps, would be to watch and understand Jean Luc Picard’s reasoning for organizing resistance against the Borg: “I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We have made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done.”
Yet, the sources of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds are limitless. We should know by merely paying attention to our own imagined cultural archetypes. History tells us as much. Defiance has many names: self-respect, honor, courage, pride, revenge, nationalism, self-determination, religious calling, soul power, liberty, family, neighborhood, community and, of course, choice.
In the long run overwhelming technological military coercion is no match against a people fighting for its own independence. The American Borg’s resources, military doctrine and efforts will be futile when battling against a population who believes in the subversive standard of “give me liberty or give me death.”
Nelson Valdés is professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and visiting professor at Duke University.