The current popularity of George W. Bush and the course he is pursuing overseas owe a lot, quite obviously, to the events of Sept. 11. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and striking back at our terrorist antagonists has been cathartic for most Americans. The extreme patriotic fervor of the past few months suggests, however, that other factors are at work. It is as if the stage had been set for the emotional commitment to military action some time before the curtain went up.
Americans, in short, were psychologically ready for a war &emdash; almost any war. That an armed response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was clearly justified does not alter this fact. Historians have written eloquently of the shared emotional release that accompanied the start of World War I &emdash; the near euphoric sense of satisfaction that pent-up national antagonisms, martial instincts, and competitive juices could be at last relieved after long years of peace, and that confident nationalistic pride built up over a decades-long arms race could finally find expression. Something like this was operating in the United States in late 2001.
I'm reminded of two crudely lettered signs I saw while driving along rural roads near home in the days after bombs began dropping over Afghanistan. One belligerently proclaimed, "America rules; let's get it on!" The other cheerfully declared, "Now it's America's turn," and urged passing motorists to honk their horns in solidarity. These were not expressions of concern, foreboding, or regret. Quite the reverse; it was the World Wrestling Federation gone a-soldiering.
The horrors of war, including its inevitable "collateral damage," have evidently been forgotten. A quarter-century has passed since the jungles of Vietnam exacted their grisly toll, and in the interim the Grenada, Panama, and Persian Gulf campaigns neither cost enough to discourage militarism, nor satisfied the periodic blood lust that seems an integral part of the human condition. During the extended Cold War, moreover, the likelihood of mutually shared nuclear destruction put a damper on the use of the military option by either of the great powers.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, things have radically changed. America stands unchallenged as the world's only superpower, and any war it engages in is bound to end successfully. That makes armed interventions thinkable once more; it allows for the use of war (paraphrasing von Clausewitz) as an instrument of political relations in international affairs -an extension of diplomacy by other means.
Tied to this new reality is the nature of our contemporary military establishment. Unlike Cold War days, America now maintains a strictly volunteer armed force. Those who fight our battles are professional careerists who, for the most part, gladly accept their role. The modern US soldier is a far cry, socially and psychologically, from the reluctant draftee who fought in Vietnam and whose friends and neighbors ultimately turned against the carnage of that war. Today, most home-front Americans can vicariously share in the thrill of military success without suffering personal or familial loss. This makes it infinitely easier for our political leaders to play the war card.
It needs to be said, however, that the apparent predisposition to embark on an open-ended war against terrorism, with all the uncertainties implied, arose from more than just the baser human instincts. Generational factors have also played a role, as well as a more positive, even noble, desire on the part of people to be lifted above the dreary routine of mundane everyday life and the squalid scandal mongering of our time. To put it simply, after a decade of following the dollar and peeping in bedrooms, Americans have developed a hunger for heroes and heroism. This is especially true for baby boomers and those younger, whose common experience has included few overriding national challenges.
The yearning for great deeds and important causes began, ironically, with the mass media, which also did so much to create the ethical and moral vacuum that needs filling. Over the past several years, a steady parade of war movies (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Gettysburg, Black Hawk Down) and now television series (Band of Brothers) have played on the theme of sacrificial heroism by Americans under arms, particularly "the greatest generation." Reinforcing the mood created on screen have been a plethora of memoirs from the World War II years and the celebratory war writings of prolific popular historians like Stephen Ambrose, who even managed to resurrect the forgotten exploits of former bomber pilot and presidential peace candidate George McGovern (Where was he in 1972, when McGovern needed him?).
Perhaps most singularly responsible for the wistful pining after a war experience has been NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, whose reverential tome The Greatest Generation launched the current wave of nostalgia for "the good war" and its veterans. Forget that the generation of the Founding Fathers was probably a greater generation. Forget as well that the so-called greatest generation not only conquered depression and fascism, but also brought us the scourge of McCarthyism and the quagmire of Vietnam. Forget all that, because patriotic heroism is the message present-day Americans need and want to hear.
It's not a bad message, but it carries within it the seeds of danger. For one thing, political leaders can play to it, turning an honest emotion into a vehicle to support unwarranted military adventures abroad. There are already signs that the Bush administration, for example, is exploiting patriotic feelings to buttress approval for a wider, globalized war against suspected rogue states and terrorist "evildoers," real or imagined.
Regrettably, it's a short step from emotional veneration of the heroic past to uncritical flag-waving in the less black-and-white present. The resultant my-country-right-or-wrong mindset justifies belligerent rhetoric, unilateralism, and pre-emptive strikes; it reinforces the notion that if foreign countries don't police themselves to our satisfaction, we will do it for them; it enhances the belief that the American system, in all its particulars, is the only permissible system; and it encourages the suspicion that international neutrality is a sign of weakness, or worse &emdash; that those not fully with us are our potential enemies. There is a word that describes such an attitude: arrogance.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.