A new isolationism is metastasizing in the American body politic. At its heart lies not an urge to avoid war, but an urge to avoid contemplating the costs and realities of war. It sees war as having analgesic qualities—as lessening a collective feeling of impotence, a collective sense of fear and terror. Making war in the name of reducing terror serves this state of mind and helps to preserve it. Marked by a calculated estrangement from war’s horrific realities and mercenary purposes, the new isolationism magically turns an historic term on its head, for it keeps us in wars, rather than out of them.
Old-style American isolationism had everything to do with avoiding “entangling alliances” and conflicts abroad. It was tied to America’s historic tradition of rejecting a large standing army—a tradition in which many Americans took pride. Yes, we signed on to World War I in 1917, but only after we had been “too proud to fight.” Even when we joined, we did so as a non-aligned power with the goal of ending major wars altogether. Before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans again resisted the call to arms, looking upon Hitler’s rise and other unnerving events in Europe and Asia with alarm, but with little eagerness to send American boys into yet another global bloodbath.
In the decades since World War II, however, “isolationism” has been turned inside-out and upside-down. Instead of seeking eternal peace, Washington elites have, by now, plunged the country into a state of eternal war, and they’ve done so, in part, by isolating ordinary Americans from war’s brutal realities. With rare exceptions (notably John F. Kennedy’s call for young Americans to pay any price and bear any burden), our elites have not sought to mobilize a new “greatest generation,” but rather to keep a clueless one—clueless, that is, as to war’s fatal costs and bitter reality—unmobilized (if not immobilized).
Such national obliviousness has not gone unnoticed. In a recent New York Times op-ed headlined “The Wars that America Forgot About,” former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw asked the obvious question: Why, in an otherwise contentious political season, have our wars gone so utterly undebated? His answers—that we’re in a recession in which people have more pressing concerns, and that we’ve restricted the burdens of war to a tiny minority—are sensible, but don’t go quite far enough. It’s important to add that few Americans are debating, or even discussing, our wars in part because our ruling elites haven’t wanted them debated—as if they don’t want us to get the idea that we have any say in war-making at all.