Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, 2008

Over at The Belmont Club (one of my very favorite blogs), I found this post on an article at the Clairmont Institute's site, regarding the "American mind for war." On this Memorial Day (or what's left of it at this hour), it got me thinking about the dynamics among the American public and the military which serves and discomfits it.

The article is actually a review of the book The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War, by Brian Mcallister Linn. Sounds intriguing, and I have placed it on my (absurdly long and rapidly growing) queue. In brief, the American Mind for War holds that the mass of the American public jealously guards the highly desirable quality of its peacetime life and, though quick to anger, is generally loath to surrender the comforts of that life to the horrors of war. Once drawn in, however, the author contends that the US' wars have tended to unfold in describable ways:

Because of this American mind for war, America's conflicts have fallen into two broad types: professional wars and citizen wars. Professional wars were small wars fought by the volunteer standing military, in which professionals were left alone to do their job. Citizen wars, on the other hand, drew in the American public—through conscription, mass voluntary enlistment, or direct attacks on the population—and thus had to be won quickly. That is not to say the American mind for war is amoral, but rather that morality, like so many other aspects of American thought, is pragmatic. If wars can be won by bombing military targets with as few casualties as possible, Americans will seize the chance. If wars can be won by capturing capital cities or winning decisive battles without involving civilians, wonderful. But if not, the American mind for war dictates that attacks grow steadily more devastating to enemy armies and then enemy populations until they have no choice but to give up the fight. The sooner the war ends in victory, the better-for everyone, but especially for us. It is brutal logic, but logical nevertheless.

If the circumstances of Vietnam and the current conflict have created disaffection among Americans, it is because they violated the American mind for war. The draft made Vietnam a citizen war, but the United States could not ramp up the brutality because of the threat of escalation to a conventional or nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The conundrum of Vietnam short-circuited the American mindset for warfare so totally that it sent spasms of discontent through American society and culture that can still be felt, well beyond even strategic after-effects like the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine and Vietnam Syndrome.

The current war is disconcerting in its own ways, because the precipitating incident on 9/11 did draw the civilian population into the war. Then the initial rhetoric from just about everyone about the Global War on Terrorism linked the conflict to great citizen wars of the past, and the American public became engaged emotionally. Yet the country did not mobilize in any meaningful way. Whatever their feelings about Afghanistan and Iraq, the citizenry never felt the pain of separating from their peacetime lives. The military has fought the war with the professional force that has kept the brutality to a minimum—probably even to the extent that it has hampered their fighting effectiveness. This feels like citizen war, but it is being fought like a professional war, which drives the American mind for war half-mad [emphasis added].

Many opponents of this War (whether referring to particular theaters of operations --like Iraq and Afghanistan-- or to the Long War as a whole) often observe that the general population is not being asked to sacrifice, and conclude that this is a cynical manipulation by power brokers in the Bush Administration. The reasoning goes that, if this were truly a meaningful National pursuit, then they would have been called to do more than live their lives, go shopping, etc. Since they are not being called to do so, then, the War must be seen as an attempt to quietly hijack the Republic in the service of some shadowy nefarious ends (typically involving the "Military-Industrial Complex"), while lulling the populace into a false sense of normalcy, deviously annealed by periodic injections of fear.

It seems to me that a far more parsimonious explanation for the way this War is being conducted is that our highly professional, all-volunteer military is judged to be quite sufficient for the tasks at hand, and that their efforts on our behalf are best served through the preservation of a free, prosperous, vibrant society at home. Much as Vietnam was prevented from ramping up to a Total war (in the mold of WW2) by the threat of confrontation with the USSR, so this Long War's potential escalation is checked by the fact that the success of Western Civilization itself amounts to a powerful strategic weapon in the clash of ideologies in which we are engaged. Any escalation which undermines that success and the example it provides for the people who labor under the yoke of our foes' dark visions effectively removes that weapon from our arsenal, and so makes victory more difficult to attain. We have tasked our professional military with shouldering the bloody burdens of liberty, while we tempt our enemies with its fruits.

And, with extremely few exceptions (disproportionately trumpeted by a hostile press), the members of that military have hoisted that burden with a professionalism and grace and humanity which cannot help but be noticed by any with clear eyes to see. So effectively have the warriors of our conventional military and Special Operations Forces interdicted and crushed and generally thwarted the murderous designs of our foes, that we can continue to enjoy the luxury of peacetime prosperity here at home (and make no mistake: temporary economic slowdowns aside, we are fabulously prosperous by any reasonable calculus). Some mistake this peace for the norm, and rail against those who would pierce it with rumors of war. They have the luxury to do so because others toil to keep the monsters at bay.

As I sit in my little slice of the American Dream, clicking away on my shiny new laptop, I choose, rather, to take these moments to reflect on the immense debt I owe to those who man the ramparts in my stead. Self-sacrificing but not stupid, patriotic but wide awake, they place their bodies between myself and those who would see me dead or enslaved. It hardly seems adequate to tap some appreciative words on this keyboard, or to buy them a beer, or to proudly volunteer some of my professional time, or to answer back whenever I hear them maligned. But, since they are off doing all the heavy lifting, I suppose this will have to do for now.

5/27/2008 9:27AM - Edited for clarity and flow.

1 comment:

Mr.Hengist said...

Brian Mcallister Linn wrote, "The sooner the war ends in victory, the better-for everyone, but especially for us." I'd contend that, given the American mindsets for war he describes, the sooner the war ends in victory, the better is is for everyone, but especially for them. If WWII is the template then it would have been better for the Axis to have surrendered before their countries were crushed, whereas by that point, although American losses were frightful and escalating, American industry was ramped up and gaining momentum. Even given the horrific losses we suffered in our push to the Japanese mainland, the main assault was shaping up to be one that would have annihilated the Japanese as a people had they not surrendered. Nevertheless, this template seems to be less applicable in the American wars that followed.

At any rate, I've also read the critiques from anti-war Liberals that the American populace has not been asked to sacrifice. I always found that argument to be rather odd, in that it's often accompanied by the woeful lamentation of the excessively high monetary costs and military casualties we've suffered. Let's leave aside the historical comparisons in terms of our losses in the GWOT vs., well, every other war in which we've fought, or the kill ratio (how many of our side are killed by the enemy vs. how many our side of the enemy), both of which are very much in our favor. Again, that's from an historical perspective, and not to say that casualties are a favorable thing per se. Also leave aside also the low percentage of our GNP this war has cost us as compared to previous wars.

What's stuck me as odd is the juxtaposition of the two ideas - that we should suffer, and that we've suffered too much. My speculation is that while the second criticism is historically unjustified it's also somewhat subjective, whereas the first criticism is disingenuous. By way of example, recall that during the 2004 political campaign there were dark rumors and accusations spread that the Bush Administration was going to bring back the draft. Those rumors were almost entirely unsubstantiated, although there was a "secret" bill to bring back the draft. That bill, however, was not authored by Republicans; it was authored by Democrats. It was a deeply dishonest and shameful political ploy in which Democrats authored the bill and then turned around and scared voters into thinking it was a "secret" plan of the Bush Administration to bring back the draft.

It's my opinion that Liberal complaints that we Americans haven't sacrificed enough is in much the same vein, in that they do want us to suffer more - so that they can use that as a basis for arguing that we should end our sacrifice by ending the war.