America as a Reluctant Warrior

Most Americans see their nation as essentially peace-loving, a reluctant warrior that fights only when fanatical enemies force it to. But measured by its actions rather than its self-image, the United States is a warrior nation more than any other major modern power is.

Since 1898, it has entered 10 conflicts most people recognize as wars, and only twice—in World War II and the recent Afghanistan war—directly in response to major attacks on its people or forces. And except in the world wars, America’s foes have been vastly inferior militarily, economically, and in other ways—hardly bullies poised to take over the world.

Few Americans love war in some bloodthirsty way. Americans yearn for what war presumably brings if not for war itself—the power and pride it may yield or the internal cohesion it presumably brings.

If presidents have exercised “wag the dog” reflexes, they have done so at their own peril. The roots of American war-making go far beyond presidential calculation (or miscalculation). They lie in America’s global ambitions and the threats that others pose, but also in a political culture which makes war the nation’s primary imaginative framework.

How have Americans reconciled their self-image as pacific with their embrace of so much that pertains to war? Success in avoiding war’s destruction has helped. War has occurred far from their shores through ever-advancing technologies of antiseptic cleanliness, as least for Americans, and recently with welcome brevity in Gulf War I.

The storehouse of national imagination that is war now features empty shelves and troublesome products. That the “war on terrorism” will re-stock it seems doubtful.

[Excerpt from “The Long Term View” by Professor Michael Sherry]

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