Learning From the History of American Militarism

How does a country remain at war without end? Understanding the answer to that is a crucial part of bringing the forever war to an end and building a foreign policy that is not defined by domination and interference in other nations’ affairs. Marilyn Young (1937-2017) was an exceptional historian of U.S. foreign policy, the author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, and, as Mary Dudziak and Mark Philip Bradley put it recently, the "preeminent historian of war’s place in modern American history." Young studied what drove the frequent American recourse to war and how the wars have changed the US over the decades. Dudziak and Bradley have done a great service for scholars, antiwar activists, and all anti-imperialists in editing a new volume of important essays by Young, some of them not previously published. The book, Making the Forever War: Marilyn B. Young on the Culture and Politics of American Militarism, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in better understanding the history of American wars and why the US has remained at war in one form or another for decades.

As Dudziak and Bradley note, Young believed that "the core driver of the forever war is the repeated failure to learn lessons of the past." One way to avoid learning lessons from the past is simply to forget it. In "Hard Sell: the Korean War," Young shows how the Korean War, often called the "forgotten war," was already being forgotten while hostilities were still going on. She observed that by late 1952, "the war became invisible to everyone except those who continued to fight it," and so there would be no learning from that experience. It was the start of an era of unconstitutional wars waged by the president, and it was forgotten except when a president needed a convenient precedent to justify another intervention. Just as there would be no serious rethinking of the assumptions behind later unnecessary wars, Young found that the "larger goals of US foreign policy and its warfighting practices remained largely unexamined" in the wake of the armistice. The US will always fail to learn when it makes no effort to do so.

One of the other causes of persistent US interventionism and interference in other countries is what Young described in her essay "The Age of Global Power" as "the inability of many Americans to envision other countries as countries in their own right." Young continues, "Thus the United States is able to operate without awareness of the way in which even minor exercises of US power affect the lives of others, sometimes without even remembering that anything happened at all." We see this all time, whether it is the devastating impact of US sanctions that are casually "slapped" on a targeted state, or the lasting effects of a coup sponsored by our government in Iran or Chile, or our government’s support for mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66.

The victims of these policies remain largely invisible to the American public at the time when these things are happening, and they are mostly forgotten later. It is not all that different with the foreign victims of the wars, whose names are mostly never remembered and whose deaths are rarely counted when calculating the costs of the wars. Pro-war ideologues even have the gall to describe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "relatively low-cost" because the number of American fatalities is small than it was in earlier conflicts, because they simply will not include the dead from the countries in question in their equation. As long as the US doesn’t really see the people in other countries as people, it becomes very easy for political leaders to sell the next war, which will no doubt be sold to the public as a war to "help" some of the very people that it will kill.

Occasionally supporters of endless wars will slip up and admit that the US is engaged in a kind of imperial policing of the world, but for the most part there is great resistance to defining the US as an empire. In her essay "’The Same Struggle for Liberty: Korea and Vietnam," Young says this is "a persistent American dilemma: how to acquire, manage, or subcontract an empire without naming it, or better, in the name of the right of self-determination for all people." The US has acted as an empire for much of its history, and it has felt the need to deny that imperialism or to justify it for just as long. Much like the assumption that the US can’t ever really be the aggressor against other countries, the belief that the US can’t be an empire no matter how many countries it tries to dominate by force is a pernicious denial of reality. It is practically impossible for the US to learn from the failures of its imperial debacles when Americans cannot accurately talk about what has happened.

Perhaps one of the biggest drivers of forever war is the belief that the US should be able to impose its will in distant parts of the world no matter what. In the essay "Bombing Civilians," Young discusses the bombing campaigns in Korea and Vietnam: "But what the wars in Korea and Vietnam demonstrate is that immediate massive bombing does not really differ from gradually escalating bombing. It only raises the level at which bombing begins. At the heart of both policies is a genuinely mad conviction: that American power is such that it must prevail in any situation in which it has declared an interest, that the only obstacle to its triumph is the lack of determination to use that power." The US takes decades to walk away from its failed wars because our leaders do not want to admit that there are things beyond the power of the United States. Today there is still a widely shared conceit that the US can kill its way out of political problems, and the "war on terror" seems likely to continue into its third decade. Young rightly concluded that "America’s twentieth-century faith in the language of violence has not changed."

The US fails to learn the lessons of past wars because it ignores the reality of other countries and its own imperialism, and it remains at war forever because it cannot accept the limits of its power. Marilyn Young did an outstanding job of diagnosing what ails the United States. It is up to the rest of us to seek to correct the errors she described.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.