Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Fighting a War in Name Only

by Andrew J. Bacevich on Jun 27, 2004

According to George W. Bush, the global war on terror is the central event of our time, comparable to the great struggles of the last century between those who put their trust in tyrants and those who put their trust in liberty. As prior generations confronted the challenges of Nazism and Stalinism, so destiny summons the present generation to confront and defeat global terror. This has become Americas mission to defend the peace through the forward march of freedom.

Yet to peel back the rhetoric is to reveal a different story. By historical standards, the enterprise that Bush’s most ardent supporters have described as World War IV has turned out to be a niggling affair. Bush has asked nothing and required nothing of the Americans. And nothing pretty much describes what we’ve anted up to support the cause.

With the third anniversary of the war fast approaching, the administration has not expanded the armed forces and apparently has no plans to do so. It categorically rejects proposals to revive the draft and thereby ensure equitability of sacrifice. It has left untouched the rituals of consumption deemed essential to the functioning of the American economy. It has studiously refrained from curtailing corporate profits or corporate prerogatives. Through deficit spending, the administration is sloughing that off onto future generations. Old timers will recall when big wars meant rationing and higher taxes.

Thus, for most Americans, the global war on terror has become a little like global warming; we sense dimly that we ought to take it seriously, but in practice we go about our daily routine as if it didn’t exist.

Pass through a major airport, visit a mall or grocery store, shop for a new car do anything you might have done on September 10, 2001 and look for signs that this nation is engaged in anything approximating a great struggle. There are none. 

Which suits President Bush just fine. Real wars — those that engage the passions of the American people energize politics and subvert the established order. Change is the last thing that this administration wants. For despite all of the high-sounding talk, the overriding aim of this war is not to march toward freedom, but to dissuade Americans from peering too deeply at the events of 9/11. Were they to do so, they just might pose discomfiting questions about the competence of our leaders, the organization and purposes of government, the rationale of U. S. foreign policy.

The contrast with World War II is instructive. To fight that war Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the nation. The result was decisive victory. But with victory came other, largely unanticipated consequences. Roosevelt’s crusade to liberate enslaved nations raised large questions about the meaning of freedom at home. As such, it gave impetus to the embryonic civil rights movement. It undermined old notions of a womans place. It affirmed the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. It extinguished old forms of religious bigotry targeting Jews and Catholics. It created a new class of entitled, politically aware, and upwardly mobile citizens sixteen million returning veterans. 

Not all of the wars effects were benign. War delivered Japanese-Americans to concentration camps. Economic mobilization and urban overcrowding produced profiteering, crime, social dislocation, delinquency, and race riots.

But overall World War II reinvigorated American democracy. Small wonder that for those who fought it, the war remained the central event of their lives. Small wonder too that it became for the rest of us the key reference point — events thereafter categorized as “prewar” and “postwar.”

My mother is an 81 year-old veteran. After graduating from high school in 1941, she became an army nurse, serving in Saipan, Tinian, and occupied Japan. Her military service remains the pivot of her young adulthood. Our youngest daughter is today the same age as my mother was then. Sixty years from now will she regale her grandchildren with stories of what it was like to live through the war on terror? The question answers itself. 

Dedicating the National World War II Memorial last month, President Bush quoted Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, a veteran of that conflict: “This was a peoples war, and everyone was in it.” It was and they were. But Bush’s war isn’t and we aren’t. And the difference speaks volumes about the prospects for victory and about the content of our democracy. 

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University and writes for the History News Service.