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“War” Sells

“War” Sells

American politicians successfully use military force metaphors to marshall action against a great variety of problems. American Presidents have declared a “War on Poverty,” a “War on Crime,” a “War on Drugs,” and most recently a “War on Terrorism.” None of these “wars” are winnable in the fashion that real wars, say World War II, are. That real war ended decisively in August 1945 with a million American soldiers, including my father, preparing to invade Japan, and with atomic bombs destroying two Japanese cities. The Emperor said no more, and the war was over with surrender documents signed on an American battleship.

The “war,” “defense,” and “military” labels have sold well with the American public and with its elected representatives, and we even had our interstate highway system justified as a “defense” project during the Cold War.  There’s good science behind those appeals: renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson argues in his new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” that “public support is best fired up by appeal to the emotions of deadly combat, over which the amygdala is grandmaster.”  As one result, the military’s massive consumption of the country’s resources has too often been outside the scope of public debate. The United States now spends far more on military manpower and hardware than any countries, accounting for nearly 45% of total world military spending. As a result, the United States air force has about high-tech 2,200 fighter aircraft and our navy has a 280-ship fleet, including ten very expensive active aircraft carriers. No other nation has more than one aircraft carrier.

The public justification of these expenditures, leaving aside the large economic benefits that “defense” money brings to a great many Americans, is that they are necessary to protect important American interests, including access to Mideast oil. Political objectives are the basic justifications for having and using military force, and recent experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, such as a disturbed American soldier massacring 16 Afghan civilians in his own night mission, strongly suggests that great competence in killing people does not necessarily win friends, or even persuade a target population to act as we want them to. I once hoped we had learned that lesson in the Vietnam War, but we didn’t.

I just read an article, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment,” in the journal “Foreign Affairs” which powerfully challenges our assumption that American military dominance, and the costs it entails, is worth it. The authors plead a case for “retrenchment,” and argue that “the United States’ undisciplined spending habits and open-ended foreign policy commitments are catching up with the country.” Their strategic assessment is “In essence, the United States has fallen into a familiar pattern for hegemonic powers: over-consumption, overextension, and over-optimism.”

Once again, hopes for solutions run into the realities of a broken American political system. The Foreign Affairs article suggests that “even if the foreign policy community unanimously subscribed” to a policy of retrenchment, it might well fail against against lobbying groups and election realities that “reward lucrative defense contracts and chest-thumping stump speeches.” I think that sensible military retrenchment is a possible silver lining to the country’s recent plunge towards going broke, with budget hawks now loud and active in Washington. And my bet is that American voters will state, if given the choice, that they prefer social security benefits above an eleventh aircraft carrier or another $10 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Image by Rob Shenk from Great Falls, VA, USA (F-22 Raptor  Uploaded by Diaa abdelmoneim) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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