The Mythic Lure of the No-Fly Zone

03/22/2011 07:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For us opinion poll junkies, it's the logical gaps and inconsistencies that are most revealing. In a CNN poll released on March 21, 70% of Americans favor imposing a no-fly zone in Libya. When CNN last polled, on March 11 - 13, only 56% approved. How to explain that jump in just one week?

Here's my guess: A week ago fully 14% of respondents said they had "never heard of" Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi! By now, you can bet nearly all of them have heard of Gaddafi. And what they've heard is hardly complimentary. Add those 14% to last week's 56% who wanted a no-fly zone, and you've got exactly this week's 70%.

If the Pew Research Center finds anything like 70% support for the no-fly zone in its next poll, that will be a much bigger change in public opinion than what CNN found. In Pew's poll taken March 10-13, only 44% supported a no-fly zone. But speaking of logical inconsistencies, in that same poll a paltry 16% approved of "bombing Libyan air defenses." So nearly two-thirds of those who supported a "no-fly zone" had no idea what the term means. They wanted to do the impossible: impose a no-fly zone without bombing air defenses. There's no reason to think the CNN sampling, which gave higher support for the no-fly zone, was any better informed.

It's not news to discover that the public is ill-informed and illogical. It would be something new, though, to understand what does shape public opinion. As a historian of religions, my answer is summed up in a single word: myth.

In the last week, the mass media have restored Gaddafi to the role of the evil maniac we love to hate -- a role he had played until 2003, when he temporarily became a good guy for helping us wage our war against terrorism. Which goes to show that mythic consciousness is like a mental theater: We don't see the actor, but only the character he plays.

The only permanent good guy in the U.S. mass media is the U.S. itself, represented on the mythic stage by "the nation's finest," our military forces. Precisely because they are portrayed as our "finest," their very blood takes on a mythic aura of purity and sanctity. To shed it is a sin, unthinkable except in the most extreme circumstances. Libya obviously doesn't qualify. Hence the nearly universal consensus against using ground forces.

So the good guy must prevail with no loss of life. Enter the magical "no-fly zone": a war that's imagined as totally painless and risk-free (at least for us) because it's fought wholly -- and for many, it seems, holy -- from the air. It's a magic victory akin to the sacred thunderbolts thrown by Zeus, Ba'al, and all the other mythic gods of the air.

Now, though, by the magic of television, we get to watch it in real time, with all the thrills that any video game could provide. And as in a video game, we get to participate vicariously in the daring deeds and ultimate victory of the ethereal good guys.

Control the air and you control everything; that's a very old fantasy. In the United States, it goes back at least to Benjamin Franklin's vision of winning wars by dropping bombs from hot air balloons. We have a rich history of science fiction images of aerial bombardment exterminating the enemy with no loss of American life.

Fantasy first turned into actual policy planning in the late 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt directed his administration to prepare for a European war fought on the ground solely by European troops, with the U.S. offering only naval and air power. Even though the U.S. eventually used massive ground troops, the fascination with aerial bombing only grew during the war.

The Cold War solidified the myth that victory comes from the skies and the skies alone. The military's postwar research, proving the limited effectiveness of bombing from the air, made little public impression against growing visions of U.S. bombers and missiles ruling the skies just as absolutely as any Zeus or Ba'al.

This was the blueprint that Richard Nixon used during his Vietnamization campaign: As the number of U.S. ground troops fell, B-52s roamed the skies all across Southeast Asia -- but to no avail, of course, in the end.

Just a few days before the Obama administration opted for a no-fly zone in Libya, Hillary Clinton was still cautioning about its pitfalls. The no-fly zone over Iraq "did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground and it did not get him out of office," she recalled. Though the White House soon ordered her to change her tune, her point remains true: A no-fly zone won't be a magic cure-all in Libya either. The myth of victory from the air has never been enacted with empirical success.

But myths are not tested by empirical standards. Invulnerable to falsification, they are notoriously difficult to shoot down. And myths hold sway over elite leaders just as much as the masses. All are entranced by the media spectacle and the fantasy of omnipotence. Every day the spectacle continues, we can expect the percentage who support the no-fly zone to rise. It's not easy to resist the temptation of vicariously playing God.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. A longer version of this column was posted on History News Network.