Quiet Home Front

The New York Times ran this article about how the War on Terror has demanded very little sacrifice on the part of Americans. Here’s the gist:

The Bush administration’s rallying call that America is a nation at war is increasingly ringing hollow to men and women in uniform, who argue in frustration that America is not a nation at war, but a nation with only its military at war.

From bases in Iraq and across the United States to the Pentagon and the military’s war colleges, officers and enlisted personnel quietly raise a question for political leaders: if America is truly on a war footing, why is so little sacrifice asked of the nation at large…

“Nobody in America is asked to sacrifice, except us,” said one officer just back from a yearlong tour in Iraq…

“For most Americans,” said an officer with a year’s experience in Iraq, “their role in the war on terror is limited to the slight inconvenience of arriving at the airport a few hours early…”

This issue has been eating at me for years and I believe that the nation will have to get on a war footing in order to defeat our current enemy. The internal debate that I have is whether the absence of shared sacrifice is attributable to poor leadership or changing times. Has the United States reached a tipping point, an age of decadence where even a primitive outside threat is enough to expose weaknesses and divisions within us and trigger our decline and fall?

There’s no doubt that in the days after Sept. 11, President Bush did a lot to create a dichotomy between civilian and military life. The idea was that the military was going to take care of things, and we should get back to our normal lives. He seemed more concerned with making sure people would still shop at the Pottery Barn than he was in telling people what they could do to help the war effort.

There is an argument to be made for how normalcy could be a part of the war effort. One of the aims of terrorism is to disrupt day to day life. Returning to normalcy in the wake of the attack may have been the best way of thumbing our noses at the terrorists, showing them that we wouldn’t be intimidated and convincing them that their efforts are futile.

There is also the argument that we need a strong economy to support our military, and since two-thirds of the economy is based on consumption, going to the Pottery Barn is indirectly supporting our military.

But the enemy we face is unlike any other we ever have. While militarily weaker, our enemies are willing to blow themselves up in order to maximize the death toll they inflict on us. We may luck out and defeat them by being half-assed. But it’s much more likely that defeating them will require that our entire nation is unified behind that very purpose.

As my friend Jerry, a West Point graduate, put it to me in an email on this subject, “As a veteran of the mid-90s military, I can tell you that the civilian/military dichotomy already existed–Bush just missed a one-of-a-kind chance to remove it.”

To Bush’s defense, he is governing in a media-saturated age, under fire from organizations such as the ACLU and Amnesty International.

In World War II, you had prominent Hollywood filmmakers, such as Frank Capra, making movies on behalf of the war effort. To some of today’s intellectuals, it may be a sign of the triumph of artistic freedom that today we get to see Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” instead of a modern version of Capra’s World War II films, which to them are cheesy patriotism. But whether they like it or not, it was the spirit embodied in those Capra movies of that old-fashioned, cheesy, patriotism, that enabled us to defeat the Nazis.

As a long-term optimist, I have faith in the character of America and believe that we will eventually be fully mobilized into action. But as a short-term pessimist, I fear what will have to happen to get us to that point. If Sept. 11 didn’t do the trick, what will?

2 thoughts on “Quiet Home Front”

  1. One of my history professors said that the modern age of the nation-state began with the institution of the levee en masse in August of 1793. With the institution of conscription, wars engaged entire nations, not just armies; thus, the major conflicts of the twentieth century owed much to a pattern developed in the eighteenth. If this is true, then one might say the nation-state passed into its post-modern phase in July of 1973, when the draft bill expired and the United States began transitioning to an all-volunteer force.

    While ending the draft was a politically brilliant move by Nixon, it also boded ill for the health of the democratic nation-state. When they didn’t have to worry about being forced into the service themselves, many ordinary Americans stopped caring about what their military was being asked to do in their name.

    This, then, is the post-modern world we are living in: as Andrew Bacevich writes, serving one’s country has become “strictly a matter of personal choice,” little more than a drab option in a dizzying array of bright potential careers. Given that fact, should it surprise anyone that there is such a rift between the civilian world and the military one? Or that the military is being stretched to the breaking point, whipped nearly to death by its civilian taskmasters with nary a protest from the public that is supposed to be overseeing everything?

  2. Wow, I could not agree more, with both the post and the comment. It’s fascinating what Jerry’s history professor says about the post-modern nation state. Another interesting resource for this topic is the philosopher Michael Sandel. What do you think of mandatory military service, like what they require in Israel?

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