…preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.
As the distance between soldiers and civilians has grown, Americans have become less troubled with the idea of permanent war. As early as 1995, the historian Michael Sherry documented the militarization of American life, a decades-long trajectory originating before World War II in which “war defined much of the American imagination” and “the fear of war penetrated” American society. Though Sherry ended on a guardedly hopeful note—that Americans might “drift away from their militarized past”—more recent critics, like Bacevich, have denounced our society’s increasingly comfortable relationship with war. Extending Sherry’s analysis beyond the events of September 11, Bacevich persuasively maintains that the seduction of war overpowers rational thinking on the possibilities and, more importantly, limitations of military power abroad. Instead, we instinctively equate American superiority with military superiority…
Given the experience of American wars since 1945, perhaps we should reconsider how well U.S. military efforts solve overseas problems. More serious consideration of what’s attainable from our wielding of power might compel us to challenge our notions of the advantages war supposedly offers.
While it’s true America’s schizophrenic tendencies toward both fearing the world and desiring to remake it in its own image contribute heavily to this permanent war footing, a lack of constraint on our leaders is an equally important ingredient. The Constitution clearly states the method by which the Republic is to go to war: via a declaration of such by Congress. It has been so long since this was actually done (1941, to be exact) that most people today have no expectation of the President actually seeking such a declaration. Oh, sure, there are the occasional figleaf “Authorizations for Use of Military Force” in which the legislative branch essentially hands the current sitting
emperor President a blank check to go kill people somewhere else on the planet. Sometimes even that doesn’t occur. The question of war or peace is the most serious one any nation can face. Rather than entrusting power to a single individual the Founders placed it in the hands of the people’s representative body, where it was to be deliberated, not just rubber-stamped. If Congress were doing even part of its job, we wouldn’t have a President admitting 12 months into another new series of combat operations that there’s essentially no strategy – that we’re just winging it! If a war is necessary, it certainly deserves more focus and attention than that!
Aside from the Cold War nuclear standoff, America hasn’t faced an existential threat since 1941. Americans don’t consciously think about that, but they instinctively realize it. That’s why World War II is sometimes called the ‘good war’ (i.e. we knew what was at stake), while all the conflicts since — with the telling exception of Desert Storm — have had considerably less public support. That public has failed, however, to hold its leaders accountable for the profligate way they spend American blood and treasure abroad. Sure, there were protests about the Iraq war — but they were motivated (and financed) largely by those seeking partisan advantage, not by a grassroots sense that this was an unnecessary foreign adventure.
Sadly, that is our track record over the last 70-plus years: a series of unnecessary foreign adventures. Because the people refuse to demand a less bellicose footing, the powerful interests that are served by war continue to hold sway. War remains, as Smedley Butler wrote, “a racket,” where the well-connected reap the benefits, the State continues to grow in power, and everyone else pays the piper. Considering our porous borders and inability (or unwillingness) to control physical access to our country, the Orwellian term “Defense Department” (wherein we account for more than a third of all military spending in the world) has to be one of history’s biggest misnomers. We, the people, need to demand better.
Something to consider, as our leaders continue to poke the Russian bear and twist the Chinese dragon’s tail, all while doubling down yet again in a Middle East that is the world’s largest geopolitical quicksand bog…