America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace

June 11, 2015 Topic: Security Region: United States Tags: WarDefenseAmerica

America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace

After decades of being at war, the United States has come to the point where it can’t live without it. 



HERE IS where Junger, and many other pundits and scholars, are mistaken. In reality, we don’t want peace. We’re not just entranced by war. We have come to a point where we fear we can’t live without it. War has become a means to deal with our fears, while our fears have become a justification for more war. War no longer punctuates our history. It has become a deep-seated part of who we are and how we define ourselves. Even if only a fraction of Americans participate in war, too many segments of our society now see war as essential for the good of all. Thus, former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel can speak of “nonstop war” with few Americans flinching at such a prospect or even considering more peaceful alternatives. In short, we have become more afraid of peace than we are of war.


Since at least the end of World War II, this vicious cycle of fear feeding war has become a mainstay of American life. Throughout the Cold War, military professionals and civilian policy makers alike spoke in apocalyptic terms, with one Eisenhower administration official even contending that “acceptable norms of human conduct” no longer applied. National-security strategists, embracing the containment of Communism as a matter of blind faith, deemed it perilous to move off a permanent war footing. Peace was no longer possible.

In the process, the very purpose of war became distorted. American policy makers, while parroting Clausewitzean principles about war’s relation to political ends, increasingly tended to see war as an end unto itself. One 1950 propaganda poster, published by the Defense Department’s Office of Public Information, tellingly depicted a resolute Uncle Sam holstering an ivory-handled pistol. “Why We Fight,” the placard declared. “For all the things we have.” War was now indispensable, not just for defending against the evils of Communism but also, and just as crucially, for preserving the American way of life, a way of life dependent on maintaining a material advantage over the rest of the world.

Though scholars like Sherry may have perceived a glimmer of hope as the Cold War ended that the United States might renounce the militarization to which it had become accustomed, Americans found it too unnerving to kick their addiction to war. Even throughout the 1990s, as American soldiers engaged in “peacemaking” and “peacekeeping” operations across the globe, U.S. foreign policy was becoming ever more militarized. The September 11, 2001, attacks simply confirmed for many Americans what they already knew. Talk of peace was naive at best, mortally threatening at worst.


THUS, PERHAPS we should not be startled that peace never comes. (Is it possible we don’t want it to come?) The gravest threat looms continuously on the horizon, which recedes as you advance toward it. Even before the last American convoy left Iraq in December 2011, senior officials in the Obama administration already were speaking of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region for fears that American absence there might feed regional instability. China, anxious over what looked to be a new American policy of containment, stoked further fears simply by contesting U.S. notions of unimpeded access around the globe. Easily dismissed were critiques that this new policy might actually compound Beijing’s insecurities, feed China’s aggressiveness and, ultimately, undermine regional stability. A fresh danger to national security demanded a recommitment to military preparedness.

Our national infatuation with war has exceeded what might be considered pragmatic preparedness. Though economic and security considerations should rightfully inform any nation’s foreign policy, larger anxieties seem to govern the United States’ relationship with the outside world. In a deep sense, we are afraid of no longer being the indispensable nation. The result is what the philosopher Kelly Oliver calls “paranoid patriotism.” Even as President Barack Obama was telling the West Point graduating class of 2014 that not every problem has a military solution, he felt compelled to trumpet America’s unique responsibility to lead. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the president declared.

To maintain this exceptional status at all costs, however, has made us suspicious of any state, any entity that might challenge our self-affirmed global position. Consequently, our paranoid patriotism feeds our addiction to war. We are afraid the symptoms of withdrawal might do irreparable damage to the body politic.

So afraid have we become that when our allies seek to curtail their defense spending, we cry foul. In March, U.S. Army chief of staff Raymond Odierno said he was “very concerned” about the falling proportion of Britain’s national wealth devoted to the military. “As we look at threats around the world,” Odierno maintained, “these are global issues and we need to have multinational solutions.” Our sense of vulnerability now extends to our allies’ shores. Not only must we be perpetually at war, but we also demand that our allies follow suit and embrace our fears. Maintaining America’s special place in the world is a multinational effort.

Sustaining American exceptionalism also requires support from our own armed forces, and here institutional anxieties feed our larger national fears. Notwithstanding media attention on the stress and psychological strain that a decade of war has placed on U.S. soldiers, the military has surely profited greatly from being at war. Media outlets after 9/11 proclaimed that veterans were the “real 1 percenters” whose acts of selfless courage have afforded them a special place in our society. Promotion rates soared among the military ranks, yet when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, numerous officers clamored over being forcibly separated from a downsizing army that no longer required their services. War might be traumatic, but it provides job security.


HAS THIS persistent fighting made us any more secure? Certainly we don’t feel that way. After more than a decade at war, we seem more afraid than ever. Perhaps, then, the time has come for us to challenge our fear-based assumptions about war, conjectures that have trumped thoughtful discussion about global responsibilities, national resources and the utility of force in the modern era. 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.

Part of this reflection should include a reexamination of how we evaluate threats to our national security. The rise of the Islamic State, for instance, has engendered alarmist calls for action, with U.S. senators and congressmen citing the group’s supposed goal of the “destruction of the United States of America” as a rationale for increased military force abroad. Yet does the Islamic State truly pose an existential threat? Its claims of being “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate” do not equate to capabilities. And, as Graeme Wood recently suggested in the Atlantic, our ignorance of the Islamic State should not propel us into yet another Middle East incursion. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself,” Wood claimed, as a new overseas occupation would confirm suspicions of U.S. interventionism and bolster recruitment for the group’s ranks.

Fear borne of ignorance, however, has been a staple of American life for decades. In truth, Hagel erred when he suggested that “thirteen years of nonstop war” was “unprecedented in the history of this country.” In reality, we have been at war for a long time, in large part because we have been afraid for a long time. That fear, more often than not, has been disproportionate to the threats posed by our real and imagined adversaries. Was domestic Communism, for example, truly a menace to the consumer-based American way of life in the 1950s? It seems we can gain perspective here from a society fetishizing its fears to the point of national hysteria.

Of course, mobilizing fear and paranoia is politically useful. Senator Joseph McCarthy burnished his anti-Communist credentials and made a career by attacking “high men in this government [who] are concerting to deliver us to disaster.” Domino theories and Munich analogies provide a sense of paternalistic authority and political conviction for those who peddle them. Conscious of the dangers to the Republic, they alone protect the nation from those less prudent and more naive. Only the weak, we are told, do not act in places like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, of course, Iran.


PEHRAPS IT is time for us to reconsider this notion. Perhaps it is fear and cowardice, not courage, which promote conflict. While care is needed when connecting individual tales to national psyches, two memoirs from the Vietnam War era are instructive here. In his fictionalized autobiography The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien recounts standing on the Rainy River, beyond which loomed Canada, with his conscription notice in hand. Hating the war (“Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons”), O’Brien contemplated crossing the northern border and dodging the draft. In the end, fearing ridicule, fearing the law, fearing losing his parents’ respect, O’Brien returned home. “I was a coward. I went to the war.” Compare this attitude to that of Jack Todd, whose searing chronicle Desertion tells the tale of a star track athlete at the University of Nebraska who could not accept his nation’s call to serve in Vietnam. “If you wanted to believe in the war, the one thing you could not do was think.” Todd thought hard, deserted and ultimately renounced his citizenship. His memoir is one of the most courageously honest accounts of the turbulent Vietnam era.