In 2006, even as the Bush administration’s misadventure in Iraq was coming unraveled, the Pentagon issued a quadrennial review promoting its “Long War” strategy. The struggle, it said, “may well be fought in dozens of countries simultaneously and for many years to come.”
The generals turned out to be right in ways they did not foresee but that now plague the Middle East and have created new burdens for Washington. Pentagon leaders are now whispering to favored national security reporters that endless war is harder than they promised.
The problem is that distant adversaries are no longer so scared of US military might. They have figured out how to avoid the traditional battlefield, where they would surely lose in the face of superior American firepower. They know that irregular warfare can sow rampaging fear among comfortable US citizens, whose government is bombing their villages (the United States has been bombing the Middle East off and on since 1991; Iraq is still a favorite target).
Americans call this irregular warfare “terrorism” and see themselves as innocent victims of incomprehensible, mindless violence. But this is what our enemies know: The United States trashed the international rules of war a long while back with its own irregular terrorism, which includes the Army’s Special Forces and the CIA’s secret armies, the sponsored overthrow of selected governments we don’t like, and the assassinations of unfriendly leaders through drone strikes and by other means. When American bombs kill defenseless villagers, we write it off as “collateral damage.”
The United States cannot win these conflicts, yet it cannot easily get out of them, either. Why not? Because America’s governing elites have declared us the “indispensable nation,” an exceptional status not mentioned in the Geneva Conventions. President Obama has tried to back away from our aggressive posture, promoting diplomacy over armed conflict and making important progress in some areas. But he’s also tried to have it both ways. One day he talks softly, the next day he’s swinging the big stick, personally supervising individual assassination by drone—arguably a crime when soldiers do it. Right-wing warriors ridicule the president’s limp leadership, but what will they say when one day a foreign power decides to murder an American leader?
Why not victory? That was the battle cry of right-wing politicians when the United States was knee-deep in the big muddy of Vietnam. Their complaint is being recycled by the current generation of chicken hawks. Despite our disaster in Vietnam, the United States has continued to misuse its awesome killing power, often not to conquer adversaries but to persuade their leaders to change policies. That’s why modern US wars are so prone to failure: Our violence is tailored diplomacy.
Obama is guilty of this misconception, but so are the GOP hawks. When the president boasts about the nation’s military dominance, as he did in his last State of the Union speech, he’s really invoking our nation’s nostalgia for World War II—the glorious past when America stepped up and took on the role of singular global power.
The bellicose Republicans who sneer at the president are essentially peddling their own nostalgic version of false bravado. Limited war may seem to be smart politics in the short run, especially when Americans are freaked out by terror attacks. But the war whoops draw the country into one more battlefield, and then another, until patriotic fervor is exhausted. What Americans want is peace, not another confused war on yet another ambiguous battlefield.
The American people are pro-war so long as it happens somewhere else. When the war comes home, military doctrine has failed. This is, essentially, the predicament that faces our military institutions, though the failure rightly belongs with the politicians. The long-term implications of this abuse of military power are far more threatening to America’s future than any rogue terror groups. Most politicians don’t want to talk about this contradiction. They stick to familiar bromides about America’s obligations to the world. They moon over generals and soldiers, as well as the military contractors who make these wars possible with their advanced weaponry.
History tells us that what brought down mighty empires of the past was hubris—the confusion of weakness for strength. Might America be next? Cheerleaders insist that the United States is exempt from the lessons of history, but don’t count on it.
We are now governed by an obsolete militarism that does not serve the national interest. The obsession with arming ourselves for World War III is backward-looking, and so, too, is the madness of deploying forces in hundreds of overseas bases. The warrior nation goes looking for trouble in other people’s neighborhoods. Sure enough, we sometimes find it.
Our over-reaching military doctrine suggests masculine insecurity among military planners—a crisis of virility, so to speak. If America looks weak, then the Pentagon must keep pushing for more and smarter guns that will bolster our national self-confidence. On the home front, this feeling of inadequacy is expressed in the new “open carry” laws. It’s not enough simply to own a deadly weapon; a real man needs to wear his “piece” holstered on his hip. He needs to take it everywhere, so no one can doubt that he’s a tough character.
The point is, American culture and politics are drenched in warrior celebration. Faith in military might is deeply grounded in the national psyche. After the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we began to see patriotic rituals staged at baseball games and other public events to thank the returning veterans and their families, including the dead and wounded. But thank them for what? For their service and sacrifice, of course. It would have been offensive—unpatriotic—at those commemorations if anyone had talked about the utter failure of these costly wars. Yet even in defeat, the authorities stick to cloying triumphalism and tell stories of American goodness that people long to hear.
The national dilemma boils down to this: We cannot tell ourselves the truth about who we are and what we have become. In the history of nations, that failure has often led to tragedy.
Brooding on the American predicament, I began to grasp that our situation threatens to resemble the tragic fate of Samson, the legendary biblical warrior. Samson’s struggle was portrayed in Samson Agonistes, the epic drama by 17th-century English poet John Milton. I first read Milton’s work in college, long ago. Re-reading it now was a disturbing experience.
Samson was the Old Testament giant said to have slain a thousand foes with the jawbone of an ass. When he was captured by the Philistines, however, the mighty warrior was shorn of power—they cut off his hair, the source of his God-given strength, and plucked out his eyes (“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon”).
“Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,” Samson laments, in Milton’s great poem. The fallen Samson is rendered “eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves / Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.” Samson’s agony was never being able to escape his own habits of violent mind and thought, and his prison was “the dungeon of thyself.” The hero ended badly: Samson pulled down the temple and destroyed the Philistines, but also himself.
The United States, I decided, is trapped in America Agonistes. The country could still avoid Samson’s fate, but to do so it has to let go of its egotistical presumptions. The delusion of being all-powerful and always virtuous is a dangerous road.
America has to back away from self-righteousness and ignorance because, sooner or later, rival nations will become powerful enough to ignore US intimidation. They will devise methods and weapons to push aside the myth of US invincibility. They will target our obvious weaknesses, including economic ones. This warrior nation finances its arsenal by borrowing abroad. What happens if China decides to stop lending?
The United States has to discard the superpower’s strategy for peace before it is too late. Obviously, that’s not going to be accomplished by the 2016 election. It will require a generation or longer, in the best circumstances. What we can do now is start a serious conversation about how to escape our warrior agonies. That is, we start telling ourselves the truth.
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I was in kindergarten when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States mobilized to fight World War II. War is a terrible thing, my mother explained, but she assured me that America would win. For small boys like myself, that war was truly glorious, if no one in your family got killed. We built models of American fighter planes and cheered the newsreels reporting on US victories. We scanned the skies over Ohio for enemy bombers and collected tin cans for the “war effort.” We didn’t learn about the Nazi death camps until after Hitler was defeated.
I experienced American military institutions up close many times across the years, but by lucky timing, I never got shot at myself. Unlike the chicken hawks who talk tough but never wore the uniform, I actually served in the Army. My brief tour was in the 1950s, between wars (Korea and Vietnam). Life in our multiracial barracks was a new experience for most of us—North and South, white and black. We got along more or less because the drill sergeants told us we had to.
Later on, as a young newspaper reporter, I covered intense political crises that confronted the military during the Vietnam War. The antiwar movement, the long trial of Lt. William “Rusty” Calley for commanding the massacre in the village of My Lai—those events helped formed my perspective. Like so many young people, I was antiwar. Yet I retained an abiding respect and selective admiration for the military as a social institution.
As the years went by, my disgust swelled for the increasingly deranged assumptions of what passed as defense strategy. But I came to recognize the virtuous strengths of the military organization—virtues society needs, beyond preparing for war. I described this potential in some detail in my book Come Home, America (2009). My notion is that the military can and should somehow become more integrated with society—not through restoring the draft, but by using the military’s skills and rigorous performance standards to meet large domestic challenges. In time, this could transform the military and make it more useful.
Other than fighting wars, what could the military do for America? From my personal experience, I would say quite a lot. In some ways, it already does accept social change and sometimes leads it. By presidential order from Harry Truman, the armed forces became integrated long before the rest of society (and now tackles gender stereotypes).
The great achievement of the volunteer army is the military’s expertise as a teacher. High-tech weaponry is not for dummies. The armed services do training and education at a very sophisticated level. They know how to teach by disciplined repetition. They know how to select capable students.
I have seen this up close at various military installations. On a destroyer off the Atlantic Coast, I watched a 22-year-old kid from Los Angeles, Petty Officer Eddie Ramirez, repairing the jet engines that powered the ship. He told me he had signed up for the Navy’s “Seaman to Admiral” program but didn’t really aim to become an admiral. “Number one, I want an education,” he told me. “Number two, it’s like payback time. The Navy did for me. I’m going to do for the Navy.”
The military, in other words, provides a ladder of upward mobility. The opportunity promotes ambition and loyalty, gratitude and fierce identity, within the ranks.
At their best, the military services make and keep an unwritten social contract with men and women in uniform—top to bottom. Loyal troopers agree to follow the orders from command. The services agree to take care of the troops and their families. Indeed, the great irony of conservative American politics is that the armed services actually operate a paternalistic subculture that has strong resemblances to socialism. Housing, healthcare, clothing, entertainment, and education are provided without charge to the workers and retirees. In return, soldiers agree to take life-threatening risks on behalf of the larger society.
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The nation is now in need of another antiwar movement, but this time its approach should be different. Instead of trashing the military, antiwar activists should study the institution’s virtues as a social organization and imagine how those skills and organizational assets could be adapted to correct some of the nation’s domestic failings, including growing inequality.
Naturally, some old soldiers as well as old peaceniks would resist mixing military with domestic obligations, but I’m hoping they will be able to see this is a necessary alternative to the tragic fate of Samson, the warrior. A defense strategy that simply pursues messy new wars is a dead end for the country. The United States is not going to disarm, but it desperately needs a plausible exit from the irrational status quo.
Number one, the new politics must forsake wars fought not to win but to teach diplomatic lessons. Wars should be engaged only if the nation is truly attacked and directly endangered. That was the condition that compelled America to fight and win World War II. None of our subsequent wars have met that standard. A lot of old solders agree: Don’t go to war unless you truly must, unless you have no choice but to seek victory.
Number two, reforming US military posture can help to restore international laws and limits on war-making—the universal principles that America helped to create after World War II. American invasions since then as well as the secret tactics of our Special Forces and our drone killings have helped to undermine those old rules and have badly tarnished our values, degrading what was one of America’s highest achievements. We Americans have a moral obligation to help restore the principles.
The United States has a compelling moral burden to address its own grave errors and insure they are not repeated. This difficult task is one of the key moral issues that can unite the military with peace advocates.
Think of it this way: Imagine that a rival military power arises in the world with the influence and the authority to demand a contemporary version of the war trials that followed World War II. Would American leaders be in the dock, accused of war crimes? What would they say in their defense?