Washington Desk January 2002

Councils of War

Every American war has changed our society in ways that were not anticipated. What will be the consequences of the latest war?
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In November the author Geoffrey Perret forlornly wandered the talk-show circuit, finding that discussions of his new biography of John F. Kennedy, Jack, were being bumped by war news. It's a shame Perret couldn't have switched to promoting one of his earlier books, first published in 1989 and now out of print—A Country Made by War, to which the mobilization against al Qaeda gave a new and sudden significance. Along with Special Providence (2001), by Walter Russell Mead, it suggests what the government may start looking like as it moves through the first stages of the current war.

The theme connecting the two books is that the United States and foreign observers alike have badly misunderstood the way it conducts diplomacy with—and, when necessary, war against—the rest of the world. Mead says that U.S. political leaders are typically considered to be rubes in international dealings, certainly when compared with their suave Old World counterparts. The blame for this failing is usually placed on our cowboy heritage, the self-absorption of our politics, the limits of our education system and our media, and other factors that make for an insular and sometimes isolationist mentality.

It's all bunk, Mead says. Through the first fifty years of its history the American nation was more or less constantly at war, or negotiating to avoid war, with European powers; and throughout its history it has ambitiously and successfully advanced military, economic, and ideological interests around the globe. Its armed forces were active in North Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific before Andrew Jackson became President. Marines landed in China and Liberia before the Civil War, and in Korea soon afterward. World War I, which meant either outright defeat or Pyrrhic victory for every other major combatant, laid the foundations for American economic, diplomatic, and, eventually, military pre-eminence—a position that World War II cemented.

Europeans, Latin Americans, Third World leaders, the United Nations, may continually complain about the crudeness and insensitivity of U.S. policy. But its real offense, Mead concludes, is that it has worked so well. "Compared, in sum, with the dismal record of other great powers," he writes, "American foreign policy—with a handful of exceptions, most notably Vietnam—looks reasonably good." What has made America the Great Satan to radical Islam is precisely that it seems too strong.

A Country Made by War took another contrarian approach to America's military image. The United States likes to think of itself as Cincinnatus or as one of the original Minutemen, in Perret's view (or, to use a more recent image, like the Mel Gibson character in The Patriot). That is, we supposedly prefer the rural, peaceful virtues, and take up the sword only when the battle is brought to us—but once provoked, we fight like crazy so that we can return to the plough and the hearth. Every movie about Pearl Harbor incorporates this theme, and it is clearly how the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban began.

Perret argued at great length that preparing for war, waging war, and adjusting to war's aftermath have been not distractions but crucial organizing aspects of American life. Like natural disasters—meteorites, climate change—in biological evolution, war shakes things up. Seymour Melman, an economist who teaches industrial engineering at Columbia University, has for years made a similar-sounding argument about what he calls the "permanent war economy." But Melman views the military influence as an explanation for America's problems; Perret said (to oversimplify) that it was a historic strength.

The list of economic changes made in the name of war is familiar. In some cases U.S. leaders have used military "requirements" as a convenient excuse for things they wanted to do anyway: Dwight Eisenhower called the interstate highway system the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways when he proposed it in the mid-1950s; a hundred and fifty years earlier Thomas Jefferson, though skeptical of centralized federal power, encouraged the establishment of West Point as a way of increasing the nation's supply of engineers. In many more cases war and the interwar military served as tools of national development and industrial policy. The settlers who went west moved into territory cleared of Native Americans by the U.S. cavalry, following maps charted by military surveyors. The domestic steel industry got a significant boost about a century ago from the Navy's determination to build an ironclad fleet. This tradition of industrial development extends to the Pentagon's invention and financing of the original Internet system, and the defense and space programs' nurturing of the semiconductor business.

America's politics and cultural life were also heavily influenced by war. An unintended consequence of the U.S. entry into World War I, for example, was four decades of closed-door immigration policies. Many of the Italian, Greek, Polish, and Jewish immigrants whose families had been arriving in huge numbers before the war scored below normal on intelligence tests, which were first widely used on recruits for the war. Those results were, of course, skewed by the lack of English vocabulary in people who were often new to the language. But the findings played a major part in passing laws in the 1920s that effectively barred legal immigration from places other than Western Europe. And World War II, with its sudden and sweeping technologies and cultural leaps, is widely considered to be the event that made America modern.

Vietnam, with its heavy casualties and bitterly divisive effects on American society, led to the emphasis of the "Powell doctrine" on avoiding engagement when there is any risk of being trapped. Something similar had happened before, Perret reminded me when I spoke with him recently. "After the terrible losses in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War was fought as if it had to be won with really small casualties," he said. "And American losses were negligible in Cuba and the Philippines."

No one knows how long this new war will last, or how much like a "real" war it will turn out to be. But even small and inconclusive wars, as our conversation made clear, have had their effect—on military doctrine, on government institutions, on Americans' sense of their rights and identities. And one can already see the first signs of what some of the lasting effects may be—or at least where to watch for them.

Through the late fall the Bush Administration was necessarily tied up with fast-breaking wartime demands. But in November, in the second and less heralded of his major televised addresses before a live audience, President Bush gave some indications of the longer-term implications of this war. The first speech, on September 20, laid out a rationale for a sustained fight not against Islam but against terrorists and states sympathetic to them. The second, given in Atlanta on November 8, seemed a diminished version of the first. It was treated as unimportant by the broadcast TV networks, only one of which (ABC) carried it live.

Still, what the President said, between the formulaic applause-line thanks at the beginning and the incongruously punchy slogan ("My fellow Americans, let's roll!") at the end, was significant. Without labeling them as such, he identified the most difficult issues his administration was trying to balance: learning patience for a potentially long military campaign; the new position of political parties in the wartime government; and the social and institutional consequences of living with a long-term threat.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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