On July 16, in a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the “central question” for the defense of the United States was how the military should be “organized, equipped — and funded — in the years ahead, to win the wars we are in while being prepared for threats on or beyond the horizon.” The phrase _beyond the horizon_ ought to sound ominous. Was Gates telling his audience of civic-minded business leaders to spend more money on defense in order to counter threats whose very existence no one could answer for? Given the public acceptance of American militarism, he could speak in the knowledge that the awkward challenge would never be posed.
We have begun to talk casually about our _wars_; and this should be surprising for several reasons. To begin with, in the history of the United States war has never been considered the normal state of things. For two centuries, Americans were taught to think war itself an aberration, and “wars” in the plural could only have seemed doubly aberrant. Younger generations of Americans, however, are now being taught to expect no end of war — and no end of wars.
For anyone born during World War II, or in the early years of the Cold War, the hope of international progress toward the reduction of armed conflict remains a palpable memory. After all, the menace of the Axis powers, whose state apparatus was fed by wars, had been stopped definitively by the concerted action of Soviet Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. The founding of the United Nations extended a larger hope for a general peace. Organizations like the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists reminded people in the West, as well as in the Communist bloc, of a truth that everyone knew already: the world had to advance beyond war. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called this brief interval “the Second Enlightenment” partly because of the unity of desire for a world at peace. And the name Second Enlightenment is far from absurd. The years after the worst of wars were marked by a sentiment of universal disgust with the very idea of war.
In the 1950s, the only possible war between the great powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, would have been a nuclear war; and the horror of assured destruction was so monstrous, the prospect of the aftermath so unforgivable, that the only alternative appeared to be a design for peace. John F. Kennedy saw this plainly when he pressed for ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — the greatest achievement of his administration.
“In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, smaller wars have “locked in” a mentality for wars that last a decade or longer.”
He signed it on October 7, 1963, six weeks before he was killed, and it marked the first great step away from war in a generation. Who could have predicted that the next step would take 23 years, until the imagination of Ronald Reagan took fire from the imagination of Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik? The delay after Reykjavik has now lasted almost another quarter-century; and though Barack Obama speaks the language of progress, it is not yet clear whether he has the courage of Kennedy or the imagination of Gorbachev and Reagan.
In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, smaller wars have “locked in” a mentality for wars that last a decade or longer. The Korean War put Americans in the necessary state of fear to permit the conduct of the Cold War — one of whose shibboleths, the identification of the island of Formosa as the real China, was developed by the pro-war lobby around the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Yet the Korean War took place in some measure under U.N. auspices, and neither it nor the Vietnam War, fierce and destructive as they were, altered the view that war as such was a relic of the barbarous past.
Vietnam was the by-product of a “containment” policy against the Soviet Union that spun out of control: a small counterinsurgency that grew to the scale of almost unlimited war. Even so, persistent talk of peace — of a kind we do not hear these days — formed a counterpoint to the last six years of Vietnam, and there was never a suggestion that another such war would naturally follow because we had enemies everywhere on the planet and the way you dealt with enemies was to invade and bomb.
America’s failure of moral awareness when it came to Vietnam had little to do with an enchantment with war as such. In a sense the opposite was true. The failure lay, in large part, in a tendency to treat the war as a singular “nightmare,” beyond the reach of history; something that happened to us, not something we did. A belief was shared by opponents and supporters of the war that _nothing like this must ever be allowed to happen to us again_.
So the lesson of Vietnam came to be: never start a war without knowing what you want to accomplish and when you intend to leave. Colin Powell gave his name to the new doctrine; and by converting the violence of any war into a cost-benefit equation, he helped to erase the consciousness of the evil we had done in Vietnam. Powell’s symptomatic and oddly heartless warning to George W. Bush about invading Iraq — “You break it, you own it” — expresses the military pragmatism of this state of mind…
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David Bromwich, the editor of a selection of Edmund Burke’s speeches, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters, has written on the Constitution and America’s wars for The New York Review of Books and The Huffington Post.
Copyright 2009 David Bromwich