American’s Fascination With War
There is a fascinating piece — part book review, part essay — written by Michael Nelson in The Chronicle of Higher Education, examining the history of Americans’ fascination with war for pretty much most of our history as a nation.
Nelson discusses six books in the essay, but he singles out three for closer attention. They are:
- Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew J. Bacevich
- Reasons To Kill: Why Americans Choose War, by Richard E. Rubenstein
- The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart
The occasion for all three books’ publication, Nelson writes:
… is the start of the 10th year of continuous (and at least seemingly endless) war by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and—factoring in what the Times estimates is “roughly a dozen” secret military campaigns against terrorist groups based in other countries—around the world. Add those to the list of previous wars and military operations during the past 30 years: Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Bacevich, Rubenstein, and Beinart agree that war has been a prominent feature of American life for a very long time. They just disagree over how long and, by implication, how deeply embedded war is in America’s identity as a nation. Unfortunately, as pessimistic as each of them is about the future (pretty pessimistic), their outlook may not be gloomy enough.
Bacevich regards the start of the cold war in the late 1940s as the beginning of an era of perpetual war in which, for the first time, “military might emerged as central to the American identity.” The “Washington rules” that he says dominate the nation’s elected government and permanent security apparatus are based on a “credo”—namely, that the United States alone must “lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.”
Rubenstein sees the U.S. addiction to war as going back much further than that:
… He cites a study showing that even in colonial times, “there was either a declared war or a conflict for 79 of the 179 years from just before the founding of Jamestown until 1785, nominally the end of the Revolution.” Rubenstein also mentions research by the political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, who in their 2004 book Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force, record 111 “militarized interstate disputes” that the United States initiated from 1812 to 1992.
Rubenstein argues that a proclivity to war sank deep and enduring roots in American soil for two small reasons and one big one. The first small reason is the early settlement pattern that made Scots-Irish immigrants—warriors for more than six centuries in defense of their native land against the English—the dominant ethnic group in the southern frontier; the second is the “Billy Budd syndrome,” in which Americans have long been “blinded by uncritical trust in authority,” even when it leads them into unnecessary wars against countries like Mexico, Spain, and North Vietnam. The big reason is that Americans are a religious people who won’t fight unless convinced that their cause is just but who are easily persuaded that lots of causes are just. Those include “self-defense” broadly construed, an “evil enemy,” “patriotic duty,” and their “unique virtue” as “liberators and peacemakers, not selfish imperialists.”
Nelson does identify a major gap in all three books:
… With the partial exception of Bacevich’s Washington Rules … all of them neglect or underplay the importance of two critical Vietnam-era decisions: the replacement of the draft-based army with the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) and the roughly simultaneous expulsion of Reserve Officer Training Corps units from many elite campuses. Taken together, those decisions have made the nation’s inclination to war and other military action greater than at any time in its already war-saturated history.
[…]How have these decisions made the United States even more prone to war than Bacevich, Rubenstein, and Beinart think? First, both the volunteer forces and the ROTC expulsions turned the military’s recruiting gaze southward, to the region of the country (still rich in Scots-Irish ethnicity and culture) most supportive of the armed forces as an institution and of war as an instrument of national policy. In 1968 ROTC had 123 units in the East and 147 in the South. Just six years later, Southern ROTC units outnumbered those in the East by 180 to 93. Alabama, with one-fourth the college population of New York City, has 10 ROTC units compared with New York’s two. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out last month in a speech at Duke University, “With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success.”
Forty percent of enlisted men and women are now Southerners, and the officer corps speaks with an even stronger Southern accent. As a consequence, like the South generally, the military has moved rightward into the Republican Party. “Reversing a century and a half of practice,” laments the University of North Carolina military historian Richard H. Kohn, based on surveys he helped to conduct, “the American officer corps has become partisan in political affiliation, and overwhelmingly Republican.” In his new book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, Jason K. Dempsey reports that in 2007 Republicans outnumbered Democrats 49 percent to 12 percent among senior officers. At West Point, Dempsey found, “enough officers overtly endorse the Republican Party that many cadets apparently conflate an identification with the Republican Party with officership.”
Second, the end of the draft and ROTC’s banishment from many elite campuses mean that a steadily declining share of those in Congress and the upper reaches of the executive branch have served as either officers or enlistees. Until 1995 the percentage of veterans in Congress was consistently higher than in the country as a whole. Since then it’s been lower—around 30 percent and shrinking.
The result: Fewer and fewer of the civilian decision makers who now send troops into battle know what war is like. Apart from the moral queasiness this ought to induce, there is a tangible consequence. Feaver and Gelpi show statistically in Choosing Your Battles that throughout American history, the government’s likelihood of initiating the use of force has consistently gone up whenever the percentage of veterans in Congress and the cabinet has gone down.
Feaver and Gelpi also report that although the military is typically reluctant to use force, if compelled to do so, it “argues strenuously that the force should be overwhelming and decisive.” This argument, when presented to policy makers who have led entirely civilian lives, almost always prevails. The theme that shines through Bob Woodward’s new insider account of Obama’s Wars, for example, is that despite sustained and even heroic efforts by the president, he was unable to make the military give him realistic options in Afghanistan that didn’t involve committing more than 30,000 additional troops.
Finally, the all-volunteer force, by eliminating any real possibility of conscription, has severed the connection between passive disapproval and active opposition to war. Support for the war in Iraq in public-opinion polls fell farther faster in the mid 2000s than support for the Vietnam War ever did. But antiwar opinion in the Vietnam era turned into antiwar protest in ways that more recent antiwar opinion has not. Astonishingly, after President George W. Bush’s war policy was rebuked by the voters in the 2006 midterm election, he was able to deploy an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq with scarcely any organized opposition in Congress or the country. Nor did Obama’s own “surge” in Afghanistan generate effective protest of any kind. It is inconceivable that antiwar college students would have remained politically inert if there was any chance that they would be drafted to fight in the wars they oppose.
The full article is here. I highly recommend it.