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.

Even if no one can predict the exact course of this military action (especially after the sudden fall of Kabul), the one thing that can be predicted is the effect on military doctrine: the war will be seen as strengthening the case for precision bombing. Every engagement, in fact, is seen that way.

Interpreting the effects of bombing is a much more politicized matter than interpreting the effects of ground combat, whose success always relies on surprise, unit cohesion, deception. Since the dawn of air power the lines of argument have been essentially the same. Look, we can do tremendous damage, the bombing advocates say. Yes, but will that actually make the enemy quit? the other side asks.

The strongest case for bombing is, obviously, Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. But that took two atomic bombs, and documents released in Japan after the war revealed that even after the second bomb much of the Japanese command wanted to fight on. When the war was over, the members of the Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that Allied bombing of Germany had been surprisingly ineffective in stopping Nazi war production. In every U.S. engagement since then initial reports have emphasized the precision and effectiveness of the bombing, whereas later assessments have found that the bombing, precise or not, was nowhere near as important as it initially seemed. Air doctrine, however, has continued unchanged—partly because it is driven by procurement budgets, but that's a different story. This pattern was clear in the Gulf War, with the famously misleading first-week videos of smart bombs all hitting their targets dead-on. It applied in Kosovo: the initial military interpretation was that heavy NATO bombing had forced Slobodan Milosevic to give in; but when the Serb army left the field, it appeared to bring out more undamaged equipment than NATO had thought was there in the first place. Only a handful of tanks and artillery pieces had actually been blown up. In Afghanistan the combination of U.S. bombs and Northern Alliance soldiers seemed to be rapidly effective in disorienting and weakening the Taliban and allowing the ground troops of the Northern Alliance to rout it from the major cities. If dubious past results shored up a bombing strategy, just imagine what an actual success might do.

In his Atlanta speech Bush also talked briefly about politics, saying that it was time to "put needless partisanship behind us." That left room for "needful" partisanship—and for the possibility of a political shift that could work to the Republicans' disadvantage no matter how successful their prosecution of the war.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "Politics as Usual" (October 3, 2001)
In America, history shows, war does not override the calculus of politics.

The elder George Bush's defeat in 1992, after his heroic status as a war victor less than two years earlier, is a political fact hanging over this administration. In the conventional view, two things went wrong: the election took place during a recession, and the Republican Party's right wing was angry because Bush had broken his "Read my lips" pledge not to impose new taxes.

If the current recession were driven purely by the business cycle, the current George Bush might have little to fear. Before the terrorist attacks even the darkest estimates were that a recovery would begin in a year or two. But wars have frequently changed economic assumptions. The Civil War rushed the North toward industrialization; spending for Vietnam brought on a decade of inflation. The question now is whether the war against terrorism will postpone that expected recovery long enough to handicap incumbents (to say nothing of the rest of us) by 2004.

From the archives:

"Beyond the Information Revolution" (October 1999)
The author uses history to gauge the significance of e-commerce—"a totally unexpected development"—and to throw light on the future of "the knowledge worker," his own coinage. By Peter F. Drucker

"The Computer and the Economy" (December 1997)
Will information technology ever produce the productivity gains that were predicted? By Alan S. Blinder and Richard E. Quandt

Economists are now sizing up just how much was really new about the New Economy of the late 1990s. For instance, a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute concludes that most of the apparent jump in U.S. labor productivity since 1995 has come in a handful of industries—mainly retail stores (notably Wal-Mart), wholesalers, and securities brokers, many of which used computers and the Internet to cut overhead and work more efficiently. Most of the rest of the economy ticked along essentially unchanged.

What seems certain is that almost none of the economy can tick along as smoothly for the foreseeable future. The essence of New Economy thinking, whether expressed by Alan Greenspan or by a twenty-five-year-old looking for start-up capital, was that "frictionless" commerce and information flow would make everybody richer. Everything that has happened in response to terror, from microwaving bulky envelopes to allowing extra time for travel, can be thought of as friction for the economy. Wartime spending can add a stimulative boost, but the deadweight of combating terrorism can greatly delay a recovery. The last time Western economies encountered comparable friction was in the early 1970s, when the price of oil suddenly rose. Eventually that stimulated the growth of new, fuel-efficient industries, but for nearly a decade it slowed things down.

If his father paid the price for alienating the right wing back when Newt Gingrich was still on the rise, George W. Bush could suffer for trying to please the right while wartime circumstances move the public to the center.

This new war is a miracle for Democrats still concerned about their dovish post-Vietnam taint. Nearly all of them are for it, in contrast to just over a decade ago, when bitter arguments preceded the vote to authorize war on Iraq. Even the elite campuses are generally pro-war. Reaction to the attacks has drawn Democrats to the center with the rest of the country. In the center, people support the military as it fights al Qaeda, and they support government-funded efforts to keep the nation safe and strong.

"September eleventh brings to the fore issues that no one is in favor of 'privatizing,'" Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, who served as Secretary of the Treasury during the last year and a half of the Clinton Administration, told me recently. "National defense, protection against terrorism, maintaining public health, putting out fires: inevitably these will lead to greater appreciation of the need for a strong, capable government, although"—and here he switched into the "adding the qualifier" mode he learned in Washington—"this appreciation will not and should not lead to a suspension of criticism with respect to government's excesses." We don't mind the government as much as we usually do, that is, when it's the FDNY, the NTSB, and anthrax experts from the NIH and the CDC—and we don't want minimumwagers running the Border Patrol.

The Republicans in the House have not seen things this way. Their vote against making airport security screeners federal employees, after the Senate had unanimously passed the measure, made that clear, and so did their support for tax cuts in a "stimulus" program that will probably have no stimulative effect during the coming downturn. "There was a time right after September eleventh when we were able to get a number of important things done with almost a summitlike process," Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, told me recently. "I think everybody performed well, and we got those things done because they had to be done, in an emergency. It was an unusual moment. I knew it would not last. And the minute the Speaker [Dennis Hastert] ran out of gas for being able to pressure the Tom DeLays and the Dick Armeys to keep up some collaborative spirit, we got back to business as usual."

But aren't Republicans also heading toward the middle? "Well, the vote on airline security is instructive," Gephardt said. "You had the hundred-to-nothing vote in the Senate. Sixty [House] Republicans or so basically signed on to that bill. But when all was said and done, you got like seven of them. The President was manning the phones with Cheney. We're in the middle of this event, and they're spending a lot of time to help the right wing of the party on this vote! I understand their problem—this is a very dominant group, very sure of their views."

Banking on support from the wing of his party led by Armey and DeLay, Bush is calculating that the fundamental suspicion of government, itself a product of the war in Vietnam plus the War on Poverty, will not be changed by this war—that the post-Ronald Reagan strategy of running against government will keep winning. I bet he's wrong, but we'll see.

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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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