Conspiracy Theory, Fears of Betrayal and Today’s Anti-War Movement

Jerry Lembcke is professor of sociology at Holy Cross College and the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and CNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s last Great Myth.

Philion: What drives you to have a concern about conspiracy theory in American culture and anti-war movements? Why should we be concerned about it?

Lembcke: Well, I think conspiracy theory is a great diversion from what we need to be thinking about and the way we need to be thinking about problems in the country. Two things: it points people to conclusions that are way too simple and it contributes to our avoiding real problems. If we take 911 for example, Americans went very quickly to the conclusion that there was one man responsible (namely Osama Bin Laden), that he had a network of people, and that he masterminded all of it. So, it followed, he has to be the culprit to be hunted down and made answerable. The media, far from exempt from vulnerability to conspiracy theories, was very ready to pick this up. It’ll take a long time for people to consider the media’s role in this. But, if you go back to soon after 911, Al Qaeda is put forth as this organization with a Bin Laden at the head. You would think, to read press accounts, which were, of course, parroting the Bush administration, that Al Qaeda was a full blown military organization with a hierarchy of credentialed leaders, officers (“Bin Laden’s lieutenants” is a favorite phrase), and the like. In reality, it really was no such thing.

There was a British journalist named Jason Burke who wrote an article in Foreign Policy, with the headline “Al-Qaeda – a meaningless label”. At about that time (2004), he had a book coming out, titled Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, in which he described it as a network of networks, which is a vague amorphous identity. Of course, the bad news is that it made a very elusive, mercurial target for the Bush administration as it mounted a propaganda campaign to mobilize public opinion for a war. Better for it to have us believe there is something more material, more organizationally identifiable, an Al Qaeda as an organization. Despite the fact that a prominent establishment foreign policy journal like Foreign Policy ran Burke’s piece, day-to-day mainstream coverage continued to legitimate the idea of Al Qaeda as a military organization.

I began by saying that conspiracy theory acts as a diversion, which I think was Burke’s point too. The real point is the widespread animosity toward US foreign and economic policies around the world. But the American people can’t see that, don’t see that, because we’re so focused on this mythical problem of Al Qaeda.

Philion: Of course, this conspiracy theory orientation in American politics isn’t something that emerged with 911, right?

Lembcke: I think it’s something that’s very deep in American culture. There’s sort of a Protestant puritan ideology that is central to American culture: “Bad things happen because of bad people.” God holds individuals responsible for bad things that happen. So, morally, ethically, legally, a good society has to act in accord with that principle. We have to find individuals to be responsible for bad things. The simplicity in that is that social reality is much messier. There’s lots of contingency in social reality. There are multiple causations, factors that converge to motivate people to do things, and the simple answer isn’t always the right answer. Right now we have an administration that is influenced by this fundamentalist ideology, they adopt this perspective and it resonates with the American people because it’s very longstanding in American culture. Periodically throughout history it’s revivified in historical events-certainly in the 20th century-which stir a fear of left wing conspiracies that are often alleged to have some religious (often Jewish) overtones.

Philion: Racial ones as well …

Lembcke: Yes, racial ones as well.

Very central to the idea of conspiracy is the idea of secrecy. The line between conspiracy and group planning is really the line of secrecy. The power of conspiracy theory is the fear of the unknown. People we don’t know are said to be carrying out actions against us in secret and in ways that deceive us through ‘trickery.’ And the roots of that in fundamentalist Christianity are very deep. Satan presents himself in the New Testament and Old Testament as good. Ultimate evil masquerades as good, hides, and tricks us. We can’t know it, so we’re at risk because of what we don’t know. That’s very central to the form of Christianity and the powers-that-be that established this nation and dominated its culture for 400 years.

That becomes a subtext of much of our political culture. And there are times in our history when that subtext becomes text, comes to the surface and drives our culture. It doesn’t take much at a time like 911, when emotions are running high, for political leaders to make vague references to shadowy figures that we don’t know. That encourages the thinking that runs in the direction of conspirators and conspiracy. In the case of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the fact that it’s a non-Christian religious movement with very strong anti-Christian overtones has enough resonance with the same things that anti-Semitism brings to the surface. It enables a bonding between the religious and political sentiments.

Philion: The Left is supposed to provide a structural critique, one informed by an analysis and a politics that is different from this, but conspiracy theory seeps into the Left also?

Lembcke: It does. I’ve said that conspiracy theory emanates from right-wing culture. But in times of flux, when the Left is floundering and lacking a sense of direction, people who are of the Left are not invulnerable to these theories; they can be attracted to them. The people the Left is trying to recruit and appeal to are sensitive to these things. The political right, like the Left in America, finds fault with the government. The Right in America is very libertarian. It believes in the free market, government free society, or at least local/small government. Again, it’s the fear of the unknown.

If you live in rural Iowa where I grew up, Washington DC is unreachable, inaccessible, and unmanageable. So the central/federal government becomes the source of your fears. Political movements that give expression to those fears and that target the government as the problem in your life resonate with people influenced by those fears.

The far right feels the government is the Achilles heel, the soft spot in American culture. It’s where evil and evildoers can make inroads into American culture, a sandbox for evil because it’s beyond the reach of ordinary Americans. For the far right, the central government is the port-of-entry for foreign alien influences. So, during the McCarthy years, where did McCarthy say the communists were? Everywhere, yes, but the greatest amount of damage they were said to create was in the government. So McCarthyites contended the communists had to be rooted out of government. The John Birch Society took that line well into the Vietnam era. Communists in government, Birchers argued, were the cause of America’s problems, stirring up trouble; the war in Vietnam was (they claimed) perpetrated by communists in the government to create disturbance and chaos in American society, which Communists could “take advantage of to destroy American society.”

Now, if we just start right there, people on the anti-war Left were opposed to the government at that time, too; they opposed the US government’s prosecuting and the US military’s carrying out of the war in Vietnam. So, if you look at it very superficially, you can see how Left and Right can speak to each other on these kinds of issues. You can see how they can confuse each other; how people who maybe have come to their antiwar views from the political left can think the Right’s views are just as good.

Philion: That then leads to the challenge, to people like you, and other leftists who criticize conspiracy theory, such as Noam Chomsky, Chip Berlet, and Michael Albert: is there a way the left can engage with conspiracy theorists? Is there a need to disengage from them or make a harsh critique of them? In other words, what’s really at stake here? Is the conspiracy theory movement manageable at all, as it were? Or do such groups continue to pose a barrier to progressive left organizing in the antiwar movement?

Lembcke: Well I think conspiracy theory is a barrier to progressive organizing. It doesn’t mean it’s an insurmountable one. There are currents and counter-currents on these issues. On the one hand you have people like a Cindy Sheehan coming from the left who seems to be wooed by a conspiracist agenda. Chip Berlet wrote an article 5, 6 years ago called “Right Woos Left”. I think that dynamic’s still in play. I think there are still too many people on the left who are wooed by this.

Philion: Over a month ago there was considerable upset about’s “General Betrayus” ad in the New York Times. Most of the media ‘discussion’ revolved around the theme of propriety and respect for the military. But you’ve suggested that the way ‘betrayal’ exists as a leitmotif in the anti-war movement and the population in general is what makes their ad’s frame problematic. Can you explain?

Lembcke: What’s interested me most about the affair was that MoveOn was assuming that this betrayal-themed ad would resonate with its left-of-center constituency–and, given that it was the political right and mainstream media rather than the Left that reacted critically to it, it appears they were right. That’s troubling because the specter of government betrayal as an explanation for costly wars of expansion is itself an emanation of Rightist political culture.

Philion: And you’ve written that the betrayal narrative for lost wars reached an apogee in the post-Vietnam years–the 1980s and ’90s in particular.

Lembcke: The American anti-war movement is not of a single mind on this theme, however. Columnist Eric Alterman warned in the October 15 issue of The Nation magazine that the Bush Administration is preparing to blame the loss of the war in Iraq on home-front treachery, reviving the German stab-in-the-back legend that led to the rise of fascism in the inter-war period, and the myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans that fed the rise of Neo-conservatism era.

Philion: So you’re suggesting that some on the anti-war Left–MoveOn, for example–embrace what is essentially a Rightist leitmotif, the betrayal thesis, while others on the Left–Alterman–see through that and warn us away from it.

Lembcke: Right. The problem is that these voices within the anti-war movement are not speaking to one another. Alterman is not speaking directly to MoveOn to say, “Hey, you’re giving voice a Rightist view that can have a very pernicious effect on the movement.”

Philion: And you think that there are receptive ears in the American middle and the political left to what MoveOn is pitching?

Lembcke: Absolutely. Just as popular culture rendered the war in Vietnam to a war on the home front–all but eliding the Vietnamese from the story–Hollywood is rescripting the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to appear as conflicts between Americans set mostly in America. Films like The Valley of Elaw, Rendition, and Lions for Lambs are all about Americans at odds with other Americans. In Lions for Lambs by the way, the enemy “Talies” (for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan) are reduced to blinking cursors seen on a computer screen–we never see or hear them as living human beings.

Philion: And what about the Left?

Lembcke: Well, since the dispatch of troops to Iraq in the spring of 2003, the most vocal wing of the anti-war movement has aped the Right’s support-the-troops rhetoric, making “the war” all about the people sent to fight it rather than the politics and economics of the war itself.

The war in Vietnam ended with public discourse about the war displaced by discourse about the people sent to fight the war; means and ends reasoning got collapsed. When the means of war became the ends of war, the soldiers and the POWs become the national concern. The current war in Iraq picks up where Vietnam left off; the public discourse about Iraq in 2003 was not about Iraq, it was about supporting the troops sent to fight the war. Cindy Sheehan gives a face to that; she’s the booster rocket for that when her son Casey is killed and much of the anti-war movement falls in behind that. The public discourse about the war today is overwhelmingly dominated by the issue of PTSD and the treatment of the veterans of the war. Every major news network has done a special or more than one special on the damage done to soldiers.

The Boston Globe recently did a four part series on it, and what there is in that, I think–and I can only assert this at this point–is a resonance with a betrayal theme.

Some leading voices in the anti-war movement seem to feel that what will really move Americans is not the material stuff, the political economy of war or even the loss of life and limb per se. It’s that someone ‘lied’ to us about this war, someone sent my son off to war and now they don’t care about him. There’s an assumption that sentiment and emotion move people and particularly the sentiments surrounding betrayal, which goes right back to conspiracy theory.
There are links missing there in the way I’ve said that, but what people who are part of that wing of the antiwar movement are really upset about is that someone in government lied to us. For them, the war is about ‘we were deceived’, and ‘we got into this war because of deception’. And that’s the playground of Left and Right.

Philion: It’s a game that doesn’t allow a Left perspective on war.

Lembcke: No, it does not. The alternative to that is what has been displaced, which does help end wars, namely the politicization of those who have been sent to fight the war. The focus on veterans as victims of ‘betrayal’ displaces from focus on veterans as political actors. I mean how many television specials have there been on Iraq Veterans against the War? It’s a growing political movement and the media all but ignores it. And if they don’t ignore it, they merge it in with a narrative of damage done to these people by the war; they pathologize it.

Now, returning to the role of conspiracy theory in the anti-war movement, the flirtation of Sheehan with this conspiracy theory business is really kind of scary because there are a lot of people around her who are very vulnerable to this. I have friends who are going to say to me “Cindy Sheehan says this, what do you say now?” I have friends I’ve been arguing with about the ‘911 inside jobs’ business for several years now. Once people get locked in on that idea, it’s really hard to move them.

Philion: Recently on the Left Business Observer on-line discussion list (LBO-Talk), there was a discussion about a concrete question, namely what to do about conspiracy theorists who show up at local anti-war meetings. What to do if you’re running the meeting and someone from the 911 Truth organization, say, wants to make 9/11 conspiracies the focus of the meeting. How does one handle this during meetings? In the discussion, this generated a number of responses from those who thought such a thing was not terribly desirable for developing a Left understanding of the war. The consensus seemed to be, among others, ‘keep’em busy with minor tasks and get everyone to agree the focus of the meetings and activity is ‘what’s the best, i.e. most effective, way to end the war’ instead of, say, ‘why did the Twin Towers fall?” And then what happens is people stay focused on the important matter of how to get people out to stop the war. Whether 911 was a conspiracy, which conspiracy best ‘explains’ 911, etc. distracts from this goal.

Lembcke: Well, I think keeping focus on how to end the war, that’s the key. In a similar vein, I run into this at meetings and public discussions where PTSD and ‘betrayal of soldiers’ come up. People will object, “You haven’t said anything about PTSD or the soldiers at Walter Reed.” My response is I say we have to focus on the veterans and soldiers as key actors in ending the war, not as victims. Of course as a society we need to take care of casualties of the war, but our goal at this meeting is to end the war. And that usually works. I suppose it’s similar to the problem that the 911 Truth angle presents to antiwar meetings you mentioned.

Philion: What was interesting from the discussion on the LBO-talk discussion list was that none of the people in the discussion proposed that such people be kicked out of the meetings (nor would I). The consensus seemed to be, instead, that such persons and their issues shouldn’t be allowed to become the focus or the face of the movement. That on-line discussion seemed to tell me this discussion you and I are having about conspiracy theory is one that is not just ‘academic’, but a very practical one for the Left in the antiwar movement. Conspiracy theory is a very real problem from the vantage of the Left, at a time when the anti-war movement is already so much captured by those who don’t have a left analysis of the political-economic causes of this or any war, much less capitalism.

Lembcke: I think the war is about development rights in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the former Soviet Republics. It’s about commodification of culture, economic life in that part of the world, modernism versus traditionalism, and versus socialism. And, yes, it’s about oil, but not just oil. Oil as metaphor, it’s not just oil.

STEPHEN PHILION is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, teaching social theory, sociology of race, and China and Globalization. His writings can be found at his website. He can be reached at: