Myths can be innocuous enough, providing pleasure and comfort to believers, for instance, the Jesus birth stories that are celebrated at Christmas or the legends of Abraham and Moses conveying God's promised land to the Israelites.
But myths can have a darker side when they are embraced as religious or ideological truths. A millennium ago, Christian Crusaders slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims to secure the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims, and even today many Israeli Jews resist compromises for peace because of the legends contained in the Torah, or Old Testament.
Other Judeo-Christian myths have contributed to horrendous bloodshed. The crucifixion story in one gospel that of John shifted blame for the killing of Jesus from the Romans to his fellow Jews, contributing to centuries of vicious anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. Most likely, John's story reflected a religious rivalry between early Christians and Jews and was a bid to appease the Romans by lessening their role.
Similarly, over the past century, Zionists who advocated a Jewish homeland in ancient Israel exploited the myth of the Diaspora, the supposed Roman dispersal of Jews from the Holy Land to be scattered throughout Europe. The Diaspora justified the return of European Jews to their "original" home, thus correcting a historical injustice.
However, research by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand and others indicates that the Diaspora never happened, that the vast majority of European Jews originated from the religious conversion of large tribes in Eastern Europe and Northern Africa more than a millennium ago, not from some mass exodus organized by the Romans after Jewish uprisings almost two millennia ago.
The research further suggests that most of the original Israelites remained in the Middle East. They either created strong Jewish communities across the region or converted to Islam. In other words, the Palestinians who have been displaced by the modern state of Israel were likely the descendants of the ancient Israelites, not the European Jews that emigrated after World War II.
In that way, when history replaces myth, powerful narratives can change shifting the sense of right and wrong, often bestowing greater humanity on a persecuted people, whether the Arabs killed by the Crusaders, the Jews persecuted in Europe, or the Palestinians displaced from their land.
There also have been modern myths used to justify political decisions, whether on a grand scale or more narrowly.
For instance, grand theories about American "exceptionalism" have rationalized U.S. imperial interventions around the world, wars and covert actions that would have been condemned as aggression or even terrorism if carried out by some other nation.
A smaller myth, George W. Bush's "successful surge" in Iraq, contributed to President Barack Obama following a similar surge strategy in Afghanistan.
Though the "successful surge" myth in Iraq is now a cherished conventional wisdom in Washington, the actual evidence of why Iraqi violence declined points to many other reasons some predating President Bush's 2007 order to send in more than 20,000 additional troops. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Explaining the Drop in Iraqi War Dead" and "Obama Pleases the Neocons."]
Another Afghan-related myth is the hard lesson supposedly learned from the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan immediately after the Soviets departed in February 1989. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited that experience popularized in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" to explain why the Obama administration must now stick it out there.
Accompanying Gates on a recent trip to Afghanistan, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described how "Gates promised that America would not repeat its disappearing act of 1989. Flying from Kabul to Iraq, I asked him if " he was driven to war because of guilt at abandoning people we had promised to stand by.
""I don't feel guilt about it, but we made a strategic mistake,' he said. "And it wasn't just the Afghans. At almost the same time, we basically cut off our relationship with the Pakistanis. And the mistrust that exists today is a reflection of that action on our part.'" [NYT, Dec. 15, 2009]
However, as Gates well knows, there was no sudden disappearing act. Indeed, as the Soviets began pulling out in 1988, Gates as deputy CIA director was in the middle of policy discussions about what to do next.
The State Department was open to working with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who favored a negotiated settlement to the war, followed by a coalition government involving remnants of the communist regime of President Najibullah and representatives of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen.