The Vietnam Syndrome refers to an alleged reluctance on the part of the United States to use military force after the disaster of the Vietnam War. In a recent article, Tom Engelhardt reminds us that President George H.W. Bush referred to the success of Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 (which evicted Iraq from Kuwait) as helping America to overcome its reluctance to fight wars (a laudable achievement, right?). In Bush’s words:
“It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
Indeed, let’s give thanks to God for overcoming our reluctance to engage in wars of choice thousands of miles from American shores. Wars that debilitate the U.S. even as they spread destruction among the peoples of foreign lands.
Let’s return to President Bush’s phrase and deconstruct it. “It’s a proud day for America.” Proud because the U.S. military, aided by coalition forces, defeated an Iraqi opponent that possessed a third-class military? To use a sports analogy, would the New England Patriots football team be “proud” of defeating a Division III college football team? “By God.” Does God really march solely with American troops? Did America win because its god is bigger than the Iraqi “idol” god, as Christian soldiers like General William Boykin have suggested in the past? “Kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” So it’s a good thing America has “kicked” its reluctance to engage in costly wars of intervention, not only in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, but for “all” time?
Following the example set by Engelhardt in his article, let’s play a game of role reversal here, and imagine Bush’s quotation coming from the mouths of others:
“It’s a proud day for Germany. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Hitler/Nazi syndrome once and for all.” Said by a newly unified Germany after invading Poland in 1991 to reclaim territory ceded in the aftermath of World War II.
“It’s a proud day for Russia. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Afghan War syndrome once and for all.” Said by Vladimir Putin after Russia’s invasion and conquest of Ukraine.
Now, imagine how U.S. leaders would respond to such statements. Would they not be denounced as bombastic? Propagandistic? Delusionary?
One might argue that Desert Storm was an international “police action” in response to Iraqi aggression. OK. How about America’s ongoing war in Afghanistan? The invasion of Iraq in 2003? The destabilization of Libya? An open-ended, and apparently never-ending, “global” war on terror?
The real “Vietnam Syndrome” was not a reluctance by the U.S. to use military force in the aftermath of that war. It was a reluctance to face the legacies and lessons of that war, a failure truly to learn from its violent excesses, a failure to say “no, never again” and to mean it.
By continuing to wage unwinnable wars in regions of marginal interest to the American people, the country is slowly succumbing to this syndrome. The cure is simple: put an end to these wars. Only then can an American president truly speak of taking pride in kicking the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.
In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways. From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them. I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.
The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II. Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity. In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms. That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.
Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active. Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness. Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.
Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor. Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.
Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews. They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely. Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders. Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven. Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.
When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased. Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis. One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers. The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare. Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades. Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.
When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training. The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising. In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.
Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form. Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons. These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training. Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.
Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity. In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright. Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders. In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground. In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.
Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons. In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military. Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation. Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.
The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention. Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.
More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support. Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions. Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid. Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.
Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions. Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively. That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.
America’s thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.
But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the “experts” anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. These blows ripple in unpredictable directions, creating new states of nature that change the ecologies of these societies in fundamental ways. They further generate fault lines that are often contrary to U.S. goals and interests.
Charles Darwin can lend a hand in explaining why this is so. Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution with its idea of “the survival of the fittest,” although Darwin did not use that term when he originally published The Origin of Species in 1859. Indeed, Darwin’s view of evolution was highly complex and multifaceted, as befits a man who studied the natural world in great detail for his entire adult life.
In an earlier, unpublished version of his masterwork, Darwin employed a complex image, known as the “wedge” metaphor, to explain interactions within the natural world that led to species extinction. Here is the way Darwin described “The Struggle for Existence” in his Notebook prior to The Origin of Species:
Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten‐thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape & many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together & all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form & sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar & shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction: beneath the surface we may suppose that there lies a hard layer, fluctuating in its level, & which may represent the minimum amount of food required by each living being, & which layer will be impenetrable by the sharpest wedge.
In his model of the face of nature, Darwin showcases the interconnectedness of all species, together with the way in which changes to that face (the hammer blows) favor some species (wedges) while forcing out others. The hard layer, which represents the minimum amount of food for all, and which Darwin says cannot be penetrated, suggests an ecology that will continue to sustain life even as some species (wedges) are forced out and die off. The face of nature constantly changes, some species perish, but life itself endures.
How does Darwin’s wedge metaphor apply to military action? Consider, for example, U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. They are the hammer blows, if you will, to the face of nature in the region. The wedges are various groups/sects/factions/tribes in the region. The U.S. believes its hammer blows will force out “bad” wedges, driving them toward extinction, which will ultimately improve the prospects of “good” wedges, such as so-called moderates in Syria. But what if U.S. blows (airstrikes and other violent military action) are driving radical sects (wedges) more deeply into the face of nature (in this case, the face of politics and society in the Middle East)? What if these radical sects, like Darwin’s driven wedges, are forcing out rival sects that are more moderate? What if the “jar & shock” of these U.S. military hammer blows is being propagated throughout Middle Eastern societies and Islam in ways that are as unpredictable as they are long-lasting?
Darwin’s complex wedge metaphor should make us think more deeply about the results of blows to complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems. Using military strikes in an attempt to destroy “bad” wedges may have the very opposite effect than the one intended. Instead of being destroyed, such wedges (such as the Islamic State) are driven deeper into the ecology of their communities, helping them to thrive, even as they send out vibrations “in many lines of direction” that harden the new ecology of the region against U.S. interests.
What, then, to make of Darwin’s “hard layer” in his wedge metaphor, which varies in its level but which persists in that no wedge may penetrate it? The “hard layer” represents that which all wedges can’t do without. All species are dependent on a source of food and energy, a source of sustenance to sustain reproduction. Darwin notes that the hard layer fluctuates, and though he doesn’t explicitly state it, those fluctuations must also act much like blows, displacing some wedges while favoring others with effects that ripple across the face of nature.
Rise or fall, the “hard layer” persists, meaning life on earth persists, even as individual species perish. Darwin explicitly states that no wedge can penetrate the hard layer, but here his metaphor breaks down when we consider humans as a wedge. Because humans can and do penetrate that layer. As a species, we do have the capacity to damage, even to destroy, the hard layer of nature upon which all species are dependent. We’re the killer wedge in the wedge metaphor.
Politically speaking, piercing that hard layer in the Middle East would be equivalent to igniting a new Crusade that leads to world war, one involving nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD. Devolution in place of evolution.
Of course, one shouldn’t push any metaphor too far. That said, Darwin’s “wedge” metaphor, in its imagery and subtlety, is more useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of military action than analogies that reduce war to exercises in precision surgery or power politics.
William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.
News that President Obama has doubled the number of American troops (whoops — I mean advisers) in Iraq to 3100 is already a tacit admission of defeat in that troubled region. Let’s recall that the Iraqi security forces the U.S. trained and equipped to the tune of $25 billion simply melted away when faced with serious combat this summer. Their performance put me to mind of the National Rifle Association’s slogan against John Kerry in the presidential campaign of 2004. Kerry had gone bird shooting, mainly it seems to be photographed with a gun in his hand, a necessity for any red-blooded American male (just ask Obama). But the NRA wasn’t fooled (or so they claimed). “That dog don’t hunt,” the NRA said about Kerry. And something about that slogan stuck.
You could say the same of that Iraqi army that the U.S. created and funded and trained and equipped: That dog don’t hunt. Or, it won’t hunt for us. Because that’s not its purpose. That’s not how or even why we trained it. But that’s OK. We’ll just send more American troops to Iraq, and waste more money, further destabilizing the region, making it even easier for radical jihadists to recruit more followers, whether to the ISIS banner or some other Islamist flag (Khorasan, perhaps?).
It’s just incredible how inept U.S. foreign policy is today. If George C. Marshall had been like this during World War II, we’d be speaking German today at the Pentagon, instead of simply misinterpreting Clausewitz.
Of course, Congress will have to authorize funding for the latest U.S. military misadventure. Anyone want to offer odds on Congress actually exercising oversight on our foreign entanglements? A long shot, indeed.
Even as Congress seeks to cut funding to the poor, there’s always plenty of money for military adventurism overseas, no matter how often those adventures fail. When it comes to exercising real oversight, Congress is always a lame duck — so lame that even a dog that don’t hunt (that Iraqi military again) succeeds in bagging billions of dollars from the American taxpayer.
The moral to the story? America doesn’t lack for guns; we lack for brains.
Update: Iraq has “shook up” its military, relieving 26 officers of their commands and forcibly retiring 10 others, even as 18 new commanders were appointed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi among promises of greater professionalism and less graft and corruption. Progress? Time will tell. But what does it say about a military that, in spite of prolonged training and massive infusions of cash from the U.S., was so ridden with corruption that it collapsed when facing its first challenge? Sadly, the need for ever more U.S. advisers and money suggests this is yet another case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Update 2 (written by b. traven)
What is truly tragic is how the back story to the total failure of the Bush-Cheney wars is not reviewed by Obama, the Senate, or the House as this tragedy for Iraq unfolds. Obama just continues to follow the Bush lies by one week saying no “boots on the ground” while his top military people say “yes, more boots” and the next week Obama announces doubling the number of troops with no sense of embarrassment. And the American people stay entranced with baseball, football, and basketball scores.
And you can say you saw it here first. No sooner had General Dempsey said he wanted more troops in Iraq then Obama complied by doubling the force. Now Dempsey has told Obama what he wants even more troops so you can count on Obama complying in a couple of weeks. There’s nothing like doubling down on a failed policy in hopes that the result will come out differently than the last failure. Here’s Dempsey’s new demand as reported in the Guardian of London newspaper:
“The top-ranking officer in the American military said on Thursday that the US is actively considering the direct use of troops in the toughest upcoming fights against the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, less than a week after Barack Obama doubled troop levels there.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, indicated to the House of Representatives armed services committee that the strength of Isis relative to the Iraqi army may be such that he would recommend abandoning Obama’s oft-repeated pledge against returning US ground troops to combat in Iraq.”
President Truman fired the most renowned five star General of his day, Douglas MacArthur for voicing a policy contradicting Truman’s in regard to China. If we had a real president he would do the same with Dempsey, who is certainly no MacArthur.
As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009. I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA. Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen. Not anymore. The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart. And that’s not good for democracy.
I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO. Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind. And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.
Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago. Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.
What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism By William Astore
I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.
We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.
It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.
In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?
Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?
And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?
A Seven-Step Recovery Program
As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:
1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.
2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.
Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”
There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.
3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?
If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.
The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?
4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.
5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.
6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.
7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.
Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.
If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?
Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?
Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.
So, Republicans now control the Senate as well as the House. As we the people endure the forced march to 2016 and the next presidential election, our new political landscape is sure to produce more military escalations.
The reason is as obvious as it is sad. De-escalation of military conflicts is defined, especially by Republicans, as “losing” whereas escalation is defined as “doing something,” as being “decisive,” even when decision is nowhere in sight. Even when military action just makes matters worse.
Once again, as we approach 2016, the Republicans will bash the Democrats as appeaseniks. And the Republicans will be right. The Democrats are appeaseniks — to the national security state.
You can almost guarantee that the hawkish Hillary Clinton — doing her best imitation of Margaret Thatcher — will be the Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, Republican candidates will run to the right of Attila the Hun as they blame Obama for having “lost” both Iraq and Afghanistan (even though both of those countries were never ours to “win”). Dishonest (or disingenuous) the Republicans may be, but they know how to win elections via the Big Lie.
As Tom Engelhardt noted this week, the national security state has built a militarized escalation machine that will execute its function of perpetual war regardless of whom is sworn in as the next commander-in-chief.
As my wife said to me today, our country is in big trouble. Yes, we are, because as James Madison pointed out, perpetual war is the enemy of democracy and freedom.
As for me, I’ll vote for any candidate who has the spine to stand up for an end to perpetual war. Show me a candidate who’s willing to abandon fear-mongering about overseas threats while telling the truth about the threats we face right here at home from America’s power brokers and I’ll show you a candidate worthy of being elected. Either that, or show me a candidate who’s so worried about those overseas threats that he or she takes up arms (I mean literally) in the trenches against the enemy, and I’ll show you a candidate who at least is not a hypocrite.
But I fear 2016 will be the year of Benghazi! Benghazi! and who lost Iraq/Afghanistan/and similar countries we never “found” to begin with.
Did I mention my smarter wife said our country is in trouble?
Over the next four years, historians around the world will grapple with the meaning and legacies of the “Great War” fought one hundred years ago (1914-1918). An epochal event in world history, World War I has as many meanings as it has had historians. Among those historians, Dennis Showalter is one of the very best. In this article, Showalter argues that the war was, in many ways, not “modern” at all. The enormity of the war, to include its enormous wastage, generated primitivism as much as it stimulated innovation. On the Western Front, site of industrialized mass destruction, troops fought with modern machine guns and chemical weapons even as they revived maces and mail armor of medieval vintage.
Most remarkable, as Showalter notes, was the resilience of home front support. As dreams of quick, decisive battles turned into long, murderous slogs of nightmarish proportions, control of events was ceded to military men who saw only one way to victory — exhaustion through attrition and economic warfare. When Germany finally collapsed near the end of 1918, few people were as surprised as the victors or as shocked as the losers. As the victors exulted, the losers licked wounds — and vowed vengeance.
So it was that the “war to end all wars” became just one major act in a never-ending tragedy in a century dominated by war. Even today, warfare in places like the Middle East reflects the poor choices and conflicting promises made during the Great War by the major powers. In fact, what was perhaps most “modern” about World War I was the blowback that plagued its putative victors. Consider, for example, France’s decision to ignore requests in 1919 by a young Ho Chi Minh for greater autonomy to be granted to Vietnamese in French Indochina. France had leaned on Vietnamese labor during the Great War (with as many as 140,000 Vietnamese doing grunt work such as digging trenches), and the Vietnamese expected something in return. They got nothing, a decision that set the stage for Vietnam’s revolt and France’s eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. W.J. Astore
Dennis Showalter on the Paradox of World War I: A Semi-Modern War
The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional) that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.
In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.
Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”
The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.
Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.
Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).