Militarism and Nationalism
U.S. citizens mark their annual celebration of patriotism, the Fourth
of July holiday, they might do well to also ponder the specter of
two other "isms" that threaten the Republic's durability and strength
raised by two important books published over the past year.
Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by Financial
Times columnist Anatol Lieven, warns that the U.S. polity is
turning its back on the civic patriotism of the "American Creed"
of liberty, the rule of law, and political egalitarianism in favor
of an "American antithesis," a radical and vengeful nationalism
that recalls the worst tendencies, and mistakes, of Wilhelmine Germany
just before World War I.
New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War,
by retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, contends that the country's
recent love affair with force and exaltation of the soldier threaten
both the military institution, as policymakers expect it to solve
ever more problems, but also the republican ideals on which the
U.S. was founded.
all the enemies of public liberty," Bacevich quotes former President
James Madison as writing in 1795, "war is perhaps the most to be
dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual
by Oxford University Press, both books offer some of the most trenchant
and original criticism of the trajectory of U.S. foreign and military
policy that has surfaced since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March
their analyses of that trajectory – and the larger social and cultural
trends that underpin it – would not be unfamiliar to left-wing analysts,
the two authors could not possibly be confused with the "blame-America-first"
crowd that has been scapegoated so frequently by the U.S. Right
since the Vietnam War.
Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and career soldier,
used to write for the neoconservative Weekly Standard and
National Review, while Lieven, a British subject who has
more recently sought to revive the "ethical realism" of the post-World
War II era, betrays a deep affection for the U.S., gained in part
from a year as a high school exchange student in Alabama. Both write
from a deep sense of concern about where the United States is headed.
Lieven, now based at the New American Foundation after several years
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two kinds of
nationalism have long wrestled over the country's soul – a civic
nationalism, or "American thesis," based on universalist principles
of the Enlightenment and that animated the Declaration of Independence
229 years ago, and the far more aggressive and exclusivist nationalism,
or "American antithesis" that harks back to the Protestant Reformation
and the religious wars that it sparked.
the thesis is optimistic by nature and extols reason and the rule
of law, the antithesis in many ways is anti-modern, radical, deeply
alienated "from the supposed ruling elites and dominant culture,"
and even paranoid. Through most of U.S. history, it has also been
deeply racist, not just toward blacks, but toward most minority
groups, including Catholics and Jews.
the two nationalisms share, however, is a sense that the U.S. "is
exceptional in its allegiance to democracy and freedom and is therefore
exceptionally good," in Lieven's view. And because America is exceptionally
good, it both deserves to be exceptionally powerful and by nature
cannot use its power for evil ends.
belief in the fundamental goodness of America – which actually runs
from the first Pilgrims straight through Woodrow Wilson to George
W. Bush – naturally reinforces everything that many Europeans and
much of the rest of the world find objectionable about U.S. foreign
is namely its moral absolutism, messianism, and a contempt for history
that can have grave consequences, particularly when it is held by
the world's sole superpower after a period in which it triumphed
over "evil" – first the Nazis, and then the Communists during the
if not most U.S. citizens, combine the two kinds of nationalism
in varying degrees and proportions in themselves, although, with
the "southernization of the Republican Party" since the 1960s, "the
party has tended increasingly to embrace and become identified with
the antithesis," even while it extols the myths of the American
thesis, according to Lieven.
process has been boosted over the past 30 years by two groups, in
particular: the Christian Right and its Christian Zionist leaders,
such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; and the neoconservatives,
who have played a key role both by cloaking the angry and exclusivist
outlook of the far Right in the universalist rhetoric of the "American
Creed" of democracy and freedom (thus attracting support from internationalist
liberals who should know better) and by mounting a sustained attack
on mainstream Republican realism as immoral.
the most controversial but ultimately persuasive section of the
book, Lieven argues that the same two groups have done much to tie
U.S. policy to Israel's right-wing governments in much the same
way that Slavic nationalists tied imperial Russia to Serbian radicals
on the eve of World War I.
as American nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist version
of Israeli nationalism," according to Lieven, "it … plays an absolutely
disastrous role in U.S. relations with the Muslim world and in fueling
stresses that there have been periods in U.S. history – most recently
during the McCarthy era – when the U.S. antithesis has gained the
upper hand in the body politic, but each time, the pendulum swung
back saving "the nation from falling into authoritarian rule or
a permanent state of militant chauvinism."
however, he is less optimistic, warning that another devastating
terrorist attack could provoke a permanent state of siege and that
the continuing stresses on the middle class in coping with globalization
and economic change could swell the ranks of the antithesis' angry,
aggrieved, and aggressive.
director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University,
is similarly concerned about the fate of the Republic and likewise
sees the Christian Right, whose own much-requited love affair with
the military after the Vietnam War is detailed in the book, and
the neoconservatives as bearing heavy responsibility for "creeping
militarism." Both are subjects of entire chapters.
he stresses that blaming a particular sector or group, or even Bush
himself, misses the bipartisan and cultural nature of the phenomenon.
Hollywood, a generation of "defense intellectuals," particularly
neocon prince Richard Perle's mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, and the
Democratic administrations of Jimmy Carter ("the Carter Doctrine"
to protect the Persian Gulf) and Bill Clinton, have all made important
contributions, according to Bacevich.
writes with real anger about the role played by former Secretary
of State Colin Powell first in promulgating the doctrine that bears
his name – a doctrine that encapsulated all the bitter lessons of
the Vietnam War – and then in acquiescing in its wholesale abandonment
over a period of 15 years.
key moment, according to Bacevich, came in the early 1990s when
the collapse of the Soviet Union – Washington's only peer rival
– should have brought about a major reassessment and reduction of
Washington's global military posture.
first Gulf War – and the interests of the military-industrial complex
and its ideological fellow-travelers – put paid to any such possibility,
and, in the wake of Desert Storm, it suddenly seemed that the armed
forces, fully recovered from Vietnam, could do just about anything
it wished, and, given technological advances, in ways that appeared
on television to be more or less bloodless, at least for the home
distance between "coercive diplomacy," as in Kosovo, and preventive
warfare, as in Iraq, is not as great as some Democrats would like
the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power,"
he writes. "The skepticism about arms and armies that informed the
original Wilsonian vision, indeed, that pervaded the American experiment
from its founding, vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives
alike, became enamored with military power."
result: "To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans
have come to define the nation's strength and well-being in terms
of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of
(or nostalgia for) military ideals," according to Bacevich, who
writes as a very knowledgeable, if very worried, insider on the
military's own thinking from the disaster of Vietnam to the anticipated
disaster of the open-ended "global war on terror."
a reading of the two books makes clear, the nationalism and militarism
addressed, respectively, by Lieven and Bacevich are in reality closely
related, but the book's distinct perspectives and insights make
them a particularly compelling combination – especially for a July
Lobe [send him mail] is Inter Press
Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service