Selective hero worship in the war on terror

Tony Smith

Susan Faludi The Terror Dream, Carlton North, Scribe Publications, 2008 (368 pp). ISBN 9-78192121-592-6 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Artists have been quick to highlight the paradoxes in government responses to terrorism. Irish songwriter Kieran Halpin has protested about the bombing of Baghdad, the use of torture, and other actions that seem to contradict the traditional image of the United States as the epitome of freedom and democracy. In one song Halpin (2005) asks:

Where are you now, bold Davy Crockett?
Where are you now, brave Superman?
We need your honour and your glory,
We need some help to understand.

These rhetorical questions juxtapose the tactics used in the Bush Administration’s war on terror and the values imbued in pop icons who championed the cause of the weak.

Military campaigns that exploit heightened patriotism contain their own imperatives. If critics accept the terms of the discourse created around wars, they often find that rational debates are impossible. In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi takes a scholarly approach to those questions about the war on terror that have elicited an instinctive response from artists. A feminist stance allows Faludi to understand how traditional American values have been used to justify militarism, chauvinism, and misogyny since the attacks of 11 September 2001—or 9/11 as it is widely known. Faludi identifies such a long history of selective use of heroes that the current panics seem all too familiar and perhaps inevitable.

Faludi tells of one hero whose exploits challenged the national stereotypes. Hannah Duston, a settler woman who was kidnapped by local Indians in 1697, emerged from the wilderness after slaying some of her captors. A statue of Duston had her with tomahawk in one hand and a bunch of scalps in the other, but mythmakers of the time wanted to represent weak women needing the protection of strong men, and so images of Duston were modified to remove signs of her resolute independence. The original statue was placed on an island seldom frequented by visitors, and a later version removed the scalps from her hand. Duston apparently took the scalps knowing that unless there was evidence of her capability, the authorities would assume that some male had rescued her (pp. 225ff, 238ff). Faludi documents a long list of similar distorting actions by post 9/11 mythmakers.

The Terror Dream is not an attempt to compose a complete picture of American response to 9/11 and will no doubt be attacked for over-generalising. Of course, many American men questioned the dominant rhetoric of the response and other analyses are possible, for example from perspectives of race or partisanship. It is true also that some elements of the war on terror, such as the military campaign in Iraq, have become so unpopular that the whole policy might be reconsidered. However, Faludi’s aim is quite specific. She provides an important alternative perspective to that given by conservative media and encouraged by the Bush Administration and explains in devastating detail how the response has been especially misogynistic.

Military campaigns that exploit heightened patriotism contain their own imperatives.

Faludi taps directly into a long tradition of feminist critiques of militarism. When the conditions of war seem to contain their own justification, effective critiques must reject the assumptions cited by their supporters. During the cold war and nuclear arms race for example, feminists were able to identify the psychological failures underlying policy at a time when the logic of nuclear deterrence seemed inescapable (see, for example, Caldicott 1986; Enloe 1988; Thompson 1983). Faludi reveals that the US terror dream holds women responsible for the country’s vulnerability and exploits the myths of the male hero and the female victim. Faludi relates the US response to the 9/11 crisis in terms of ‘the centuries-long evolution of our character as a society and of the mythologies we live by’ (p. 13). The book has two parts, ‘Ontogeny’ and ‘Phylogeny’, metaphors from the ‘recapitulation theory’ once used in biology and especially embryology. In the first part, Faludi explores the nature of those aspects of American character that led to this specific response and in the second explains the historical strain that developed these tendencies in the ‘wilderness experience’.


Perhaps an inability to grasp the enormity of the events of 9/11 explains why ‘American cultural presentations’ in the immediate aftermath managed only to ‘replicate, not delve’ (p. 3). Faludi found a ‘disconcerting number of post-9/11 web sites that pondered the twin towers’ collapse as a symbol of the nation’s “emasculation”’ (p. 9). Thus the response became displaced into ‘a sexualised struggle between depleted masculinity and overbearing womanhood’ (p. 9). Soon after 9/11, many media outlets announced that the attacks spelt the ‘death knell of feminism’ (p. 21). Fundamentalist preachers blamed pro-choice feminists for causing God to withdraw his protection. Feminists had made American males and the military weak and their multicultural attitudes had allowed the infiltration of Muslim extremists.

The response to the attacks would require restoration of traditional family values. Not just avowed feminists but any woman who questioned the popular, patriotic paranoia was vilified and silenced. Feminist and liberal women were purged from national media. Faludi cites research that measures the visibility of female opinion-makers before and after 9/11 and is pessimistic about the opportunity for female scholars to ‘influence the national public agenda’ (p. 37). While initially it seemed that the campaign on terror might espouse the cause of Afghan women’s oppression by the Taliban, the issue faded, and in Iraq, women were discussed in familiar ‘sex-coded rescue language’ (pp. 40, 43).


The response required heroes and, when these were difficult to find, created them. To position the New York firemen as heroes meant ignoring the extent to which they were victims at ‘Ground Zero’. They were lauded as being ‘robustly, dreamily masculine’ by conservative Camille Paglia and women reputedly lusted after them. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan celebrated the return of normal gender relations in which women should no longer emasculate men by attempting to be independent (pp. 74, 76). Although some three-quarters of the casualties were male, photos of firemen were invariably listed under the heroes and saviours while women were depicted as victims and survivors.

Faludi taps directly into a long tradition of feminist critiques of militarism.

While it is true that more women than men were widowed by the attacks, the media images were almost entirely of grieving females. Widowers were largely ignored. Most widows advanced the stereotype as ‘models of all-American housewifery’: they were expected to care for the children of their heroes and cherish the memories of their husbands (p. 93). In order to preserve the sex-differentiation between hero and victim, it was necessary to expunge the roles of females at New York’s twin towers. When the National Organisation for Women’s (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund sought to correct the record by making a film about Women of Ground Zero, they were condemned for cynicism. The ‘conservative punditry’ accused NOW of misusing funds that were intended to help widows and orphans and NOW battled to correct a vicious ‘feminists-taking-the-food-out-of-the-mouths-of-babes fable’ that circulated for months (pp. 82–83).

Anyone questioning the protection afforded by the ‘cowboy-in-chief’ and his administration was quickly dropped from media lists. The widows known as the ‘Jersey Girls’ for example, had the temerity to question President Bush’s decision to keep reading to a school class after learning of the attacks (p. 107ff). Their persistent questioning led to the establishment of the 9/11 Commission to conduct an official inquiry with the power to force witnesses to answer honestly. For their rationality they were vilified in the conservative media and when they joined the anti-Bush campaign, were condemned as biased ‘Democrat hackettes’ (p. 113).

While men were encouraged to be real men, women were also being told their place by the purveyors of imagery—and homemaking products such as white goods. Predictions of a marriage and baby boom and a ‘nesting trend’ were not realised, but they did succeed in ‘darkening the image of the sexually liberated single woman’ (p. 125). Vogue magazine announced that the new female fashions would be ‘distinctly non-aggressive’ (p. 137), while in popular culture, the proliferation of ‘tough guy’ programs prompted the New York Times to write of ‘neanderthal’ television (p. 139). Faludi presents two excellent case studies of the packaging of individuals to illustrate these generalisations. President Bush was marketed as ‘President of the Wild Frontier’ while the rescue of Jessica Lynch, ‘captured’ and hospitalised while serving in Iraq, came to symbolise the best of US military heroism.

In the second section of the book, Faludi provides historical explanations for the immediate appeal of the terror dream and its unquestioning acceptance. The myth of the frontier has been strongly influential in the formation of American values, and the images of external threats and reliance on manly protection are ever present. Two aspects of this myth seem especially significant. In the first, Faludi notes the ubiquity of the filmic images from The Searchers starring John Wayne. The plot concerns a young girl kidnapped by hostile Indians and the campaign to retrieve her. A central theme is the feeling of impotence endured by the men close to the girl, and the rescue or perhaps recapture of the hostage restores their virility. Any subtleties in abduction stories, such as genuine affection developing between hostages and their captors are expunged. As in the case of Hannah Duston, it was not imagined that women could perform any of the rescuing feats. Another popular assumption has been that captives in such situations should willingly die rather than form any sexual attachment with the heathen.

The myth of the frontier has been strongly influential in the formation of American values.

The second strong narrative concerns the coincidence of external threats to settlements with ‘witch-hunts’. Witches, mainly female, were pursued with religious fervour. It was widely assumed that external attacks on New England settlements succeeded because witches acted as a fifth column consorting with the devil. As in the case surrounding abductions, the men who ran the settlements would not contemplate the possibility that their protection had been inadequate.

Faludi’s presentation of the historical precedents for the chauvinistic responses to 9/11 is so convincing as to be depressing and pessimistic. There seems to be such a strong current running in American culture that it will not easily be changed. Faludi asks ‘What if we hadn’t retreated into platitudes and compensatory fictions? What if we had taken the attacks as an occasion to “confront the truth”?’ (p. 295). Faludi offers no really compelling answers.


The American response to 9/11 had profound global implications. President Bush proclaimed that all countries faced a choice of being with the United States or against it. Australia under the Coalition Government led by Prime Minister Howard was an enthusiastic ally. While the hunt for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan during 2002 had bipartisan support, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 divided the community. The aims stated for the invasion were ambiguous and subsequently proved to be based on deception.

Carl Ungerer (2008, p. 5) has assessed the impact of 9/11 and the 2002 attacks in Bali which killed scores of Australian. He says that terrorism was ‘elevated from the margins of the foreign and security policy debate to the centre of the government’s international agenda overnight’. He suggests that 9/11 provided a ‘moment of illumination’ (p. 20), but only within the Australian foreign policy community. Australians generally show low levels of interest in foreign affairs, perhaps because they do not think they have sufficient expertise in this policy area. Indeed, with security driving the agenda and dictating foreign policy demands for secrecy and reductions in accountability are less conducive to community input.

Faludi laments the lack of self-examination in the United States, but perhaps distance from the events afforded Australians greater opportunities for objective assessment. While there was a popular wave of sympathy and support for the United States, there were also calls for more sophisticated interpretations of the 9/11 terrorism. In an early response, John Carroll asserted that these events ‘beyond the domain of good and evil’ (2002, p. 103) required self-assessment. Moral philosopher Raimond Gaita suggested that a kind of pacifism makes better sense than reprisals that ‘encourage further terrorism’ (2003, p. 112).

Governments tend to exploit the victims of terrorism to justify their tough actions. British-Australian academic John Tulloch was badly injured in the ‘7/7’ London transport bombings in 2005 but he did not accept victim status in the ways that the media formulas and the government rhetoric preferred. Tulloch (2006, p. 9) described the ‘months spent rebuilding my physical, psychological and intellectual identities’ after the attacks. Clearly such a task is more complex that watching a government try to eradicate terrorists without examining the causes of the phenomenon. Tulloch found ‘many encouraging things about our democracy, all differing from the routine rhetoric we get from politicians about democracy, freedom and terror’ (2006, p. 9). Another Australian injured badly in the London blast, Louise Barry, told the Australian Prime Minister that she doubted the war in Iraq made Australians safer and during the 2007 election campaign, she and Sam McMillan whose American husband had died in the military campaign in Iraq appealed for an end to the Australian military commitment there (GetUp 2007).

Australians need help to understand the phenomenon of terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Australian women were largely missing from national debates. Men in uniforms gave press conferences and were questioned by mostly male defence reporters. The experts consulted by media were mostly male strategic analysts and scholars of terrorism. Normal politics was suspended and priority was given to the warrior response. After 9/11 when they relied on US outlets for footage and again after Bali, Australian media tended to produce sex-differentiated images of passive female victims and active male heroes, but there was no suggestion here that these circumstances played to a broader misogynist agenda. In her book Fear and Politics, former Labor senator Carmen Lawrence argues that ‘the survival of our democracies depends not on our ability to hit back at terrorists, but on our capacity to think for ourselves’ (2006, p. 127). This advice seems especially important given that retaliation is the response most likely anticipated by the perpetrators of terror. When Lawrence opposed the Iraq war, she was accused of supporting terrorists, but the same accusations were directed at anti-war males, including the then Labor Leader of the Opposition Mark Latham.


Despite the general national scepticism about the claims of politicians and the many specific expressions of doubts about the ‘war on terror’ Australians certainly need help to understand the phenomenon of terrorism. The immediate resort to retaliation and military responses might provide some emotional satisfaction, but greater care is needed in formulating longer term strategies. Successive governments have justified the Australian military presence in Afghanistan by referring to the likelihood that the Bali bombers trained there. Unfortunately, that will still be true in fifty or a hundred years.

Ultimately, the utility of Faludi’s critique will be judged in broader terms than its exposure of a masculinist bias in the campaign against terror. By identifying the closed minds of decision-makers in politics and the media, Faludi demonstrates that post-9/11 policies have been wrong, weak and ineffective. They have been wrong in principle and unethical, weak because they have avoided the hard task of undertaking a deep investigation of the causes of the terrorist attacks, and inefficient because resources have been wasted on campaigns that have been little more than gestures designed to placate the shallowest demands for action.

In the United States, in particular, patriotism has been invoked to silence dissenters and characterise them as pro-terrorist. In this context, Susan Faludi’s critique of the response to the attacks of 9/11 is especially important. By exposing the misogyny that is sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit in the arguments used to push the US campaign, Faludi shows that potentially more effective strategies were, and are being neglected. She writes that:

The myth of American invincibility required the mirage of womanly dependency, the illusion of a helpless family circle in need of protection from a menacing world. Without that show of feminine frailty, the culture could not sustain the other figment vital to the myth, of a nesting America shielded by the virile and vigilant guardians of its frontier. As the pageant of domesticity played out on the lifestyle page, the spectacle of virility unfolded on the political stage. It would prove just as chimerical. (Faludi 2008, p. 145).

The exposure of such damaging currents in American life is not particularly surprising. The most disturbing aspect of Faludi’s book is her use of the concepts of ontogeny and phylogeny. There is such a strong element of inevitability in these evolutionary analogies that it seems unlikely that there will be an awakening from the terror dream any time soon.


Caldicott, H. 1986, Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War, Bantam, New York.

Carroll, J. 2002, Terror: A Meditation on the Meaning of September 11, Scribe Publications, Melbourne.

Enloe, C. 1988, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women’s Lives, Pandora, London.

Faludi, S. 2008, The Terror Dream, Scribe, Melbourne.

Gaita, R. 2003, ‘A Last Resort’, in Why the War Was Wrong, ed. R. Gaita, Text Publishing, Melbourne.

GetUp 2007, GetUp Newsletter, 13 November [Online], Available: http://www.getup. [2008, May 30].

Halpin, K. 2005, ‘Letter to America’ in A Box of Words and Tunes, PRS/MCPS Reg.

Lawrence, C. 2006, Fear and Politics, Scribe Short Books, Melbourne.

Thompson, D. (ed) 1983, Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb, Virago, London.

Tulloch, J. 2006, One Day in July: Experiencing 7/7, Little, Brown, London.

Ungerer, C. 2008, ‘Introduction: Australian foreign policy after 9/11’, in Australian Foreign Policy in the Age of Terror, ed. C. Ungerer, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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