Do Americans Love War?


Of course not, goes the traditional answer. Americans have always been reluctant warriors. "Of all the enemies to public liberty," wrote James Madison in 1795, "war is, perhaps the most to be dreaded." Our literary heritage is full of anti-war classics like Ernest Hemingway's A Farwell to Arms. U.S. military campaigns have often been unpopular, sparking protest movements. Americans didn't love fighting in Korea in the 1950s, or Vietnam in the 1960s -- and neither do they enjoy battling insurgents today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Absolutely, Americans love war, responds Andrew Bacevich. As the author of the recent Washington Rules puts it, we've "fallen prey to militarism." Enthralled by the sword, Americans have a "penchant for permanent war." After all, the U.S. defense budget almost matches the rest of the world's military spending put together. Many of America's wars were popular -- at least at first. In 2001, around 80 percent of Americans backed the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two years later, about seven in 10 Americans supported the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

But neither of these views is completely right. The truth is that we do love war -- but only a certain kind of war. To understand what this kind is, sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and look toward the Capitol.

Behind us is a marble Abraham Lincoln, architect of the crusade to free the slaves and save the Union. Straight ahead lie the fifty-six pillars and the giant arches of the World War II Memorial, signifying America's common purpose, when the greatest generation united to crush evil. Anchoring the military vista, at the far end of the Mall, is a statue of Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. A triumphant tale unfolds before us, with World War II bookended by the Civil War titans, Lincoln and Grant.

This is the type of war we love, where we fight for decisive victory, regime change, and the noblest of ideals -- in short, a magnificent crusade. "Good" wars like the Civil War and World War II produce epic heroes like Grant, MacArthur, and Patton, and stirring anthems like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

But if we broaden the view from the Lincoln Memorial, our peripheral vision reveals a less comfortable military narrative. Over on the right, 19 men, cast in stainless steel, slug their way uphill, shivering under ponchos, commemorating the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The campaign started out so gloriously -- like World War II all over again. U.S. troops liberated South Korea, and then marched into North Korea to overthrow the enemy regime. In the fall of 1950, Jimmie Osborne even released a celebratory record Thank God for Victory in Korea.

But Osborne sang too soon. China suddenly intervened and sent U.S. forces hurtling back down the peninsula. President Harry Truman abandoned the goal of decisive victory, and fought instead for a draw.

We don't love this kind of war, where the objective is less than unconditional surrender. Why should Americans, as the saying went, "die for a tie"? The glue binding together public support for the Korean War came unstuck.

Meanwhile, over to the left on the Mall, there is an even darker vision of warfare. A sunken black wall memorializes the campaign in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. Vietnam was a nation-building mission, where we stabilize foreign lands, oversee elections, or fight insurgents.

We don't love nation-building at all. Instead, we usually see it as a failed quagmire, whether in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq. We even dislike nation-building when we succeed -- like the recent stabilization of Bosnia and Kosovo. These missions rarely produce heroes. And instead of the "Battle Hymn," we sing protest songs like Country Joe McDonald's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag."

The trouble is that America's military future may lie, not in our blinkered view of idealized war, but in our peripheral vision of uncomfortable conflict. Modern technology is so destructive that we can't always battle for regime change. We might have to fight more wars like Korea, and fewer like World War II. And the challenges posed by rogue states, failed states, and terrorism, will likely lead the United States down the path of nation-building again.

Tomorrow's wars may be far from a love affair.

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,, and on NPR.
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