Essay — From the May 2016 issue

American Imperium

Untangling truth and fiction in an age of perpetual war

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Republicans and Democrats disagree today on many issues, but they are united in their resolve that the United States must remain the world’s greatest military power. This bipartisan commitment to maintaining American supremacy has become a political signature of our times. In its most benign form, the consensus finds expression in extravagant and unremitting displays of affection for those who wear the uniform. Considerably less benign is a pronounced enthusiasm for putting our soldiers to work “keeping America safe.” This tendency finds the United States more or less permanently engaged in hostilities abroad, even as presidents from both parties take turns reiterating the nation’s enduring commitment to peace.

To be sure, this penchant for military activism attracts its share of critics. Yet dissent does not imply influence. The trivializing din of what passes for news drowns out the antiwar critique. One consequence of remaining perpetually at war is that the political landscape in America does not include a peace party. Nor, during presidential-election cycles, does that landscape accommodate a peace candidate of voter consequence. The campaign now in progress has proved no exception. Candidates calculate that tough talk wins votes. They are no more likely to question the fundamentals of U.S. military policy than to express skepticism about the existence of a deity. Principled opposition to war ranks as a disqualifying condition, akin to having once belonged to the Communist Party or the KKK. The American political scene allows no room for the intellectual progeny of Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, Dorothy Day, or Martin Luther King Jr.

Illustrations by Steven Dana

Illustrations by Steven Dana

So, this November, voters will choose between rival species of hawks. Each of the finalists will insist that freedom’s survival hinges on having in the Oval Office a president ready and willing to employ force, even as each will dodge any substantive assessment of what acting on that impulse has produced of late. In this sense, the outcome of the general election has already been decided. As regards so-called national security, victory is ensured. The status quo will prevail, largely unexamined and almost entirely intact.

Citizens convinced that U.S. national-security policies are generally working well can therefore rest easy. Those not sharing that view, meanwhile, might wonder how it is that military policies that are manifestly defective — the ongoing accumulation of unwon wars providing but one measure — avoid serious scrutiny, with critics of those policies consigned to the political margins.

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is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,just out from Random House.

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