The Riptide of American Militarism

tags: foreign policy, military history, militarism

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He has taught at the Air Force Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. His personal blog is BracingViews.com. He can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.


A friend of mine was recently doing research in the papers of Matthew Ridgway, the celebrated general of both World War II and the Korean War. There, he came across a 1940 statement from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  Created by scholars as World War I was ending, originally to advise the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, the CFR typically offers presidents a somewhat broader range of opinions than they usually get from senior military officers and other Washington insiders.

As Americans wrestled with the possibility of finding themselves in a second looming world war, what advice did the CFR have for then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940?

“For Germany and Italy, especially, and for Russia and Japan, to a somewhat lesser extent, military power has come to be the ultimate raison d’être of the state, while war itself is regarded as a natural and ennobling process in the international struggle for existence. The non-totalitarian world, on the contrary, still clings to a philosophy in which military power is regarded as a necessary attribute, but not a primary goal, of the national sovereignty -- a philosophy which considers war as an aberration from what should be the peaceful norm of human development... If we fail to produce an alternative to the use of force in the totalitarian philosophy, if we fail to demonstrate that our international society holds more hope for a peaceful and profitable future than theirs, then the United States (and other like-minded nations) will be forced into a defensive type of attitude which makes no converts and holds no friends.”

Such statements make me nostalgic. Remember when America was part of the “non-totalitarian world”? Remember when our presidents didn’t boast of having the greatest military in all of history? Remember when our generals didn’t speak proudly of engaging in unending “generational” wars as if they were the ultimate test of our mettle? Remember when we truly saw war as an “aberration,” something both undesirable and antithetical to democracy? Remember when our most basic urge was, if humanly possible, to swim vigorously away from war’s storm clouds toward the shores of “a peaceful and profitable future”?

Yes, in December 1941, the American people did finally begin to mobilize in a big way and march off to war, however reluctantly, and, in the end, they did decisively defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But also remember how quickly, in the wake of that war, Americans expected that their vast wartime military would be demobilized (and indeed it would, however briefly). 

Yet here’s the sad thing: for Americans, World War II, like its prequel, proved to be anything but a war to end all wars. In its aftermath, new rumors of war emerged. Far too quickly, the U.S. found itself in a riptide of never-ending war (whether “hot” or “cold”) and preparations for yet more of the same, all of which pushed us ever deeper into the colder waters of militarism.

Such an oceanic current is a tricky thing.  Caught up in war’s version of the same, from the Cold War to today, Washington has embraced the challenge with ever more weaponry, ever more troops and bases across the planet, ever more military spending, violence, and war.

Nineteen years into a new century, with its forever wars on terror still ongoing across startlingly large stretches of the planet, the U.S. military is now turning as well to preparations for future wars with its so-called peer competitors (China and Russia). No surprise, then, that the country seems to be drowning in militarism and exhausting what’s left of our democratic spirit. It has, in almost any imaginable sense, been swept up in a riptide of militarism.

As in the actual ocean, so in the ocean of militarism, such currents are escapable, but only by using the strokes of a functioning democracy that, in this Trumpian age, seem increasingly less available to us. Collectively, we would have to swim calmly on a course parallel to that rip current, evading its undertow of relentless violence, until we finally escaped its pull. Only then could we turn and swim vigorously toward something generationally meaningful: a shared commitment to averting and ending the all-too-real horrors of today’s forever wars.

Read entire article at Tom Dispatch

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