Friday, February 05, 2010

The American experience of war


John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has some interesting remarks on an article in the American Conservative which critiques the recent faith that the USA has shown in military solutions. The author of that article, Andrew Bacevich, said, "Contra Kristol, force is an 'instrument' in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument." (Maybe he is a conservative!) Quiggin comments:

First, it’s important to remember that, for a very long time, America’s standard experience of war was that of near-continuous advance towards victory. For everyone else involved, the Great War involved years of pointless slaughter, with thousands dying for every yard of mud gained or lost. The US entered late and its forces immediately turned the tide of battle. World War II was similar – by mid-1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor the Allies were advancing on every front.

Paradoxically, as these two cases indicate, the US faith in force reflects a long history of aversion to foreign wars, going back to the Founders. The US had its share of bellicose nationalists, but compared to nearly all previous states, where success in war was taken as the primary measure of greatness, the US in the 19th century stands out for its pacific nature. But on the relatively rare occasions when the US went to war, it usually did so under (perceived and sometimes actual) conditions of necessity and with the unqualified commitment that entailed.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Europe finally tired and sickened of war, the US went in the opposite direction, taking military power to be a standard instrument of national policy. Sixty years of failure have not shaken this new faith in force.

There's more here.

Image: Japan surrenders. As Bacevich says, this kind of unambiguous ending of a war is a rarity.

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