Inoculated for a While?

Friends are always accusing me of being overly Pollyannaish, of relentlessly seeing the bright side when the dark side is much more likely to prevail. So take these observations with whatever rations of salt seem appropriate.

Nonetheless, I do think it is possible that the foray into aggression in the Iraq war might just have soured a significant number of Americans on future wars, perhaps to the point of making it significantly more difficult for our leaders to sell us on the next war.

I understand many of the objections. If President Bush is reelected, he is likely to view it as a validation of his handling of the vaunted War on Terror and a mandate for future wars. Candidate Kerry, while raising an uncomfortable question from time to time about the way President Bush and his minions exaggerated us into war, so far seems committed to “staying the course” and has even talked about committing more troops to Iraq. And however war-weary many Americans seem right now, there is something about a war that seems to stir the combative juices of many or even most Americans, and it might not be all that difficult to gin up support for another adventure, especially if there is a significant terrorist attack against Americans or on American soil.


In spite of all these considerations, however, I still think it possible that the neoconservative enthusiasts will find it considerably more difficult to drum up support for the next target in the vaunted Axis of Evil, whether it be Syria, Iran or some other country. The full costs of the war in Iraq are far from being calculated completely, but they are already starting to be higher than many Americans want to bear.

There’s the matter of military morale. This war has significantly sapped it. People who signed up for the reserves or the National Guard have been called up for extended periods of active duty that have been extended yet again. More than 5,600 former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserves who thought their enlistments were finished (though there always was a chance of being recalled) are being forced back into active duty because they have skills the military has decided it needs again in Iraq. “I’m worried … worried for them, for asking very few to exert an enormous sustained effort for the good off all of us,” said Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

All this is having an effect on people, especially military families and those who know them. Few towns have suffered as much as Junction City, Kan., next to Fort Riley, which has 38 wooden crosses in the town park and 8,000 of the post’s 11,000 soldiers deployed for at least some stretch since last March. But it is becoming obvious that the top civilian and military leadership seriously miscalculated and underestimated the number of military personnel that would be needed to carry out the mission in Iraq. That has meant keeping people in harm’s way for longer than had been expected, for reasons that seem less and less apparent now that Saddam has been toppled from power.

Thus we have stories like a recent one in the L.A. Times, “Doubts and Duty Tug at Marines,” about Marines on the front lines “on edge, tired, uncertain, frustrated, all at once – even as they congratulate themselves on the gains they believe they’re making.” Marines are tough, of course, but the story suggests strongly that quite a few are wondering whether they want to re-up when decision time comes around again.

As John Sears, a Navy chaplain at Al Asad base puts it, “This generation fighting this war was raised on The X-Files. If anyone grew up to be cynical, it’s them. What’s our goal here? Winning hearts and minds. Well, if they know the hearts and minds at home don’t stay in it, how can we win here?”

So we have more and more talk of a draft.

The fundamental problem here is that Americans have not been raised to think in terms of empire and of making one’s fortune in lengthy overseas deployments or assignments. For all its faults and shortcomings, the United States itself is still the place that offers the best prospects, at least for most Americans, of making a pleasant and prosperous life for oneself. It was different during the halcyon days of the British Empire, when many Brits understood that options on the tight little island were more limited than those in overseas civilian, military and business postings.

Americans (by and large) want to go in, win quickly, and return home. Few genuinely relish the idea of lengthy deployments overseas, or of coming to terms with other cultures. If that’s a shortcoming, it’s a shortcoming that makes overseas empire-keeping more troublesome to contemplate for Americans than it has often been for empires of the past.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).