FOR a long time after I came home from the war, fireworks made me jumpy. They sounded like what they are, shrieking rockets and exploding gunpowder, and every Fourth of July set off Alert Level Yellow. I’d crack another beer and try to laugh it off even as the friends I was with turned into ghosts of the soldiers I once knew.
Thirteen years ago, I spent the Fourth of July on the roof of a building in Baghdad that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Our command had suspended missions for the day, set up a grill and organized a “Star Wars” marathon — the three good ones — in an old auditorium. But George Lucas’s lasers couldn’t compete with the light show playing out across Baghdad, and watching a film about the warriors of an ancient religion rising up from the desert to fight a faceless empire seemed, under the circumstances, perverse.
So instead of “A New Hope,” I watched scenes from Operation Iraqi Freedom: tracers, helicopters, distant explosions in a modern city under an increasingly senseless occupation. I could see the United Nations compound that would get bombed later that summer. I could see the memorial to the soldiers who had died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a giant turquoise teardrop sliced in two. I could see Sadr City, the wire-crossed slum that would give birth to Shiite death squads, and the Green Zone, where American proconsuls forged a new Iraq.
I was a Bicentennial baby, born in 1976; “Star Wars” was the first movie I saw, strapped in a car seat at the drive-in. The film must have implanted deep in my infant subconscious a worldview, an idea of justice and the desire to wield a light saber, all entangling as I grew older with the Bicentennial celebrating the American Revolution, another story of scrappy rebels fighting a mighty empire.
“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.
In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.
The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.