The American military is, as William Langewiesche writes in this issue's cover story, a behemoth. The armed forces of the United States spend $300 billion annually, and employ 1.4 million active-duty soldiers and 1.3 million in the National Guard and the reserves. The United States currently deploys some 260,000 military personnel overseas—about 50,000 on ships, and the remainder on bases in 141 countries.
This is the force that maintains the Pax Americana—a peculiar sort of peace. It is peculiar because it is not, in the conventional sense, imperial. America seeks a world in which American interests are paramount, but it does not covet anyone else's land, nor does it wish to subjugate any other peoples. The United States is deeply interested in extracting wealth from other lands and peoples, but in our enlightened time it is understood that the efficient way to do this is through commerce, not through the old, costly, dangerous, and tedious business of conquest, colonization, plunder, and taxation. AOL-Time-Warner-Disney-God will eventually get everybody's money, and no one will have to get shot.
In this happy state of affairs the American military's main role, most of the time, is simply to be very large and to be there, rather in the manner of a celebrity's bodyguard—to stand around in a tight T-shirt, occasionally flexing a bicep and giving the fisheye to wise guys. On the face of it, this would seem like good work if you can get it—certainly much less of a strain on the nerves than actually fighting.
Yet the cry from the military is constant: maintaining the peace around the world is too large a job, too difficult; the strain is in fact terrific. Langewiesche, who is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, set out to study this apparent paradox. He used as a case study the NATO-led peacekeeping deployment in Bosnia. This is a small mission, requiring fewer than 4,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground at any one time. It is also, in military terms, a safe mission; no one has ever seriously tried to attack any of the NATO forces in Bosnia, and American forces have never engaged in combat there. Nevertheless, this is the mission that the military points to as a source of systemic strain that is causing a depression of morale and a decline in combat readiness.
Langewiesche examines and explains the reasons for this in a comprehensive and compelling report, "Peace Is Hell," beginning on page 51. His analysis, rooted in extensive reporting in Bosnia and at Fort Stewart, Georgia, is an important contribution toward an understanding of the American role, and the limitations of that role, in a sole-superpower world. His report is concerned with the hardships and anxieties inherent in the job of world cop, but it is curiously optimistic. The problems that bedevil the U.S. military are like a rich man's worries: they come with being too big, too wealthy, too protected, and too little challenged. They are the problems that come with being the only giant left at the end of a hundred years' war.
That long conflict comprised two global hot wars, two regional hot wars, and nearly half a century of cold war, and it is astonishing that it ended as it did—not in totalitarian triumph, not in atomic armageddon, but in a world where peace on a large scale reigns, where all the totalitarian systems of thought and most of the totalitarian regimes are vanquished, where free-market democracy is accepted as humanity's best hope and America as that democracy's essential protector. It could so easily have gone the other way.
A second feature in the October issue is a reminder of this. In "JFK's First-Strike Plan," Fred Kaplan reveals, through previously undisclosed documents, how seriously—very seriously—President John F. Kennedy, during the 1961 Berlin crisis, considered attacking the Soviet Union with a "limited" nuclear first strike. That moment in history, until now largely overlooked, was a point at least equal in danger to the later, and much more storied, Cuban missile crisis. What JFK considered—in great detail and in formal security sessions—was the single most dangerous idea of the nuclear age: the idea of a winnable nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Kaplan reports on what may have been the only time any American President seriously studied this option. That study revealed that a limited first strike might destroy all or most of the Soviet state's ability to retaliate (with a supposedly acceptable Russian casualty level of fewer than a million deaths); of course, the failure of a first strike to do the job would leave the United States open to devastating retaliation. JFK blinked, thank God. But no one knew he had blinked, thank God again. And so now we are free to enjoy the problems of peace.