“I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s none other than “the Filipino Monkey,” now doing voiceovers for the Pentagon!

More bad melodrama in the Gulf, I’m afraid. And war with Iran is still a no-go, but the bellicose among us keep trying. It’s nothing new. The recent bizarre non-incident between U.S. warships and Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz — apparently Pentagon-edited for media consumption to create the illusion of provocation — has been justifiably compared to the bogus 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, which became the pretext for 10 years of war in Vietnam, but it evokes historical patterns that run deeper than four decades.

The basic elements of the hackneyed plotline are simple: Innocent Americans, minding their own business — the U.S. warships were, after all, in “international waters” — are waylaid by a savage and unscrupulous (and, if possible, non-white) enemy, who proceeds to commit an outrage that cannot be overlooked, and the enemy is efficiently dealt with. The key is that, regardless of our own heavily armed belligerence, we see and portray ourselves as the underdog, fighting off the savages only because we have no other choice. And God, yet again, is on our side.

“As the enemy bore down without warning from the peripheries of human existence, whooping and screeching, burning and killing, the viewer, inside a defensive circle of wagons, found himself behind the sights of a rifle,” writes Tom Engelhardt in his excellent 1995 book, “The End of Victory Culture.” He is describing the quintessential myth of the nation’s becoming — our march of destiny, in constant danger from the treachery of savages — as it was served to the American public over and over again by the entertainment industry.

“It was, then,” he goes on, ”with finger pressing on trigger that American children received an unforgettable history of their country’s westward progress to dominance. In this tale, you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns.”

The movie-myth version of reality is imprinted more deeply than ever on the nation’s consciousness, and we fit our news into its convenient categories of understanding whenever possible. We’re collectively poised to feel threatened, take offense and lash out at our perceived enemy with unimaginable firepower. And when the news doesn’t quite fit into these mythical categories, we’re prepared to make it fit. It’s as though the agents of the national war economy can no longer help themselves. To my mind, this is far more frightening than whatever did in fact happen in the Strait of Hormuz last week.

What happened was this: Three U.S. Navy ships, passing within a few miles of the coast of Iran — the narrow strait is some 50 to 100 miles across, and contains a shipping lane but no truly international waters — were approached by five Iranian speedboats. A few routine words were exchanged over the din of the engines.

Remarkably, this was sufficient “to remind us all just how real is the threat posed by Iran,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the next day. “We will defend ourselves and our ships, and we will do so with deadly force if need be.”

And President Bush, who was then in the Mideast to “promote peace,” talked about “serious consequences” if Iran attacked innocent U.S. warships.

That we could be on the brink of the war Bush wants was underscored by the video the Pentagon released to the media, which featured the disembodied threat quoted above — “You will explode after a few minutes” — issued as the speedboats approached.

The subsequent reporting reflected the gravity of the matter, at least until the whole scenario began unraveling. Iran released its own video of the incident, in which no such warnings could be heard. Then the Pentagon acknowledged that, uh, well, the verbal threats came from elsewhere, possibly onshore, and may have been the work of a heckler whose radio invective directed at U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf was legendary. U.S. sailors referred to the guy as, ahem, “the Filipino Monkey.”

That such nonsense could ever lead to war should warn us not simply that the crisis of leadership dubbed, in the Vietnam era, “the credibility gap,” is still with us (duh), but that war is far too easily triggered in the public mind. Even if LBJ hadn’t lied about a North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin (not only was the destroyer not attacked, it was in the area belligerently, provoking trouble), my God, the hell we wrought bore no relation, in its magnitude of destruction, to the minuscule provocation we used to justify it.

We are not the underdog. Nor are we innocent. Nor are we minding our own business in the Strait of Hormuz.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.