America's Thirst for Total Victory

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the cadets at West Point, and suggested that the United States should get out of the regime-change business.

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

Many readers will be nodding along at this sentiment.

But it reminds me of the drunkard who wakes up with a terrible hangover. With his head throbbing and his stomach churning, he promises: "I'm never touching alcohol again!" And he really means it--at the time.

But friends of the drunkard smile wryly because they know he'll be back on the bottle soon enough.

In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, with thousands of American dead and hundreds of billions of dollars expended, Americans are suffering from a national hangover. We're quite sincere when we say "never again!"

But we'll sober up too, and rediscover our thirst for sending a land army into Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

For one thing, new crises will emerge that may transform the political landscape. A journalist once asked the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan what could blow the government off course.

"Events, dear boy, events," Macmillan replied.

The problem is that once we start drinking, we can't stop. In wartime, Americans usually demand total victory and the overthrow of the enemy regime. If we fight, we fight all-out.

And when international crises happen, the United States usually rides to the center of the action. Since World War II, we have seen ourselves as the world's sheriff, and held an expansive global vision of U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, America's incredible military capacity provides a powerful temptation to grasp the sword. Why should we tolerate the malevolence of tyrants or terrorists when it is within our power to act?

So the desire to use U.S. military force is going nowhere. But that doesn't mean we'll necessarily occupy a country in Asia or Africa. Perhaps we can fight with restraint.

We'll just have one drink--that's all.

The problem is that once we start drinking, we can't stop. In wartime, Americans usually demand total victory and the overthrow of the enemy regime. If we fight, we fight all-out.

But fighting all-out tends to propel large American armies into foreign lands.

It's not hard to imagine how the next war starts. In fact, just two days after Gates spoke at West Point, the Obama administration was in discussion with allies about setting up a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent government aircraft from attacking rebels and civilians.

No-fly zones can be the first steps down an escalatory path. In the early 1990s, the United States introduced no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia. In both cases, the U.S. Army was occupying the country within a few years.

The drunkard's promise to swear off the booze is hard to believe because it's been made so many times before.

In his speech at West Point, Gates quoted General Douglas MacArthur's words from 1949: "anyone who commits the American Army on the mainland of Asia ought to have his head examined."

But only a year after MacArthur spoke, in 1950, the United States committed the American Army in Korea. And a decade later, the Army was fighting in Vietnam. In recent years, we added two more countries to the list--Afghanistan and Iraq. And every time, the war began with broad popular support.

Today, reeling from a national hangover, Americans promise moderation.

But soon we'll drink again from the military cup. And as we joyfully toast the success of American boys heading into Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, we'll look at the handful of anti-war critics, and wonder if they need their heads examined.

Presented by

Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer 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.

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