[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Myth and the Neoconservative View of the United States Military

Bill Janus

--Bill Janus
Bill Janus

According to Homer, Ares, the Greek god of war, was hated by his parents, Zeus and Hera. Homer portrays Ares as a cowardly, bloodthirsty cripple who is a curse to humanity. Together with his attendants Strife, Terror, Trembling, Panic, and Eris (discord), he brings little that is ennobling, instead only offering misery and destruction. With this description of Ares, the Greeks issue a cautious forewarning to all those who choose eagerly and arrogantly to invite him into their presence. In short, nothing good comes from the presence of Ares.

Societies use myths and legends to help their members understand their world and form a national identity. The Greeks had stories surrounding the gods of Mount Olympus; the Romans, the tale of Romulus and Remus. Yarns about Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, and Betsy Ross both entertained and served as a foundation for molding a common self-identity for citizens. Whether explaining a nation's origins or offering a better understanding of national character, the making of historic myths is important and universal.


Some of the most closely guarded and cherished elements of folklore surround the military and war making. It seems the human species is almost genetically programmed to be fundamentally attracted to ritualistic celebrations of blood, death, and destruction. Epics of war, both theatrical and written, enjoy tremendous popularity, and it is common to dedicate statues, highways, and high schools to military legends. Despite the warning of Ares, stories about battle-hardened heroes still stir greater attraction in the human imagination than a story about a peace maker. It is a phenomenon that applies to all cultures throughout recorded history. Unfortunately, this human characteristic also has too much influence in determining the thinking and policies of neoconservatives in the U.S. By advocating concepts such as preemptive wars as a means to securing peace, rather than employing diplomacy or police actions, neoconservative influence has led the U.S. down a dangerous path of armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and potentially, with Iran.

Historic trends often determine the spirit of martial myths, a sort of overall balance sheet of victories and defeats. In Great Britain for example, the heady idea of "Rule Britannia" evolved over a long period of time after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It took the pyrrhic victories of two World Wars and a fiasco at the Suez Canal in 1956 to see it finally modified into a much more modest martial identity by the early 1960s. On the other hand, after three partitions of Poland in the late 18th century by its neighbors Prussia, Austria, and Russia, most Poles embraced the notion of romantically fighting against long odds, battling against powerful and evil foes, only to lose the struggle in the end. The experience of World War II especially seemed to confirm the validity of this legend. These are rather humble myths: the first, of lost empire and past glory, and the other, of how cruel a mistress war can be.

Today's narrative of America's martial past is decidedly more confident and robust. Most Americans correctly believe that the U.S. helped defeat Germany in World War I. But they also exclusively credit the U.S. for fighting and winning a two-front war against Nazi Germany (never mind the contributions of the Soviet Union) and Imperial Japan. Despite the anomaly of Vietnam, it is, the public believes, only the U.S. that defeated the Soviet Union and won the Cold War in the end (again, never mind the contributions of Eastern Europeans and Russians who opposed communism). Americans correctly recognize that the U.S. has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. No other nation on the planet even remotely spends as much money on its military as the U.S. does. Including monies allocated to privately outsourced services, the U.S. spends approximately three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year on its armed forces./1/ Finally, it is the U.S. that has the world's most modern military with all kinds of sexy and horrifying smart weapon systems at its disposal that can rain a storm of "shock and awe" against its feeble and backward foes.

The power of the U.S. war machine is all encompassing. Even self-described peaceniks and pacifists often describe the United States as a super-power, the world's only super-power in fact. One can be a fierce critic of America's foreign policy, like Noam Chomsky, and still see it as a terrible adversary on the battlefield or when foreign intrigues unfold. There are some Left-Wing thinkers such as Chalmers Johnson, the author of the so-called Blowback Trilogy (Sorrows of Empire, Blowback, Nemesis), who offer a more skeptical assessment of U.S. military power, but for the most part, in the national consciousness, America is the home of winners, not losers.

Those on the Right, especially neoconservatives, also regard America's military as irresistible. Unlike most Americans, however, the level of their hubris is greater by many magnitudes of order, and some of them see the American character as being intrinsically militaristic-imperialistic, not civilian-republican. The U.S. is a garrison state. According to the most extreme neoconservative orthodoxy, Americans must merely have the will to mobilize its bottomless wealth of martial courage, its can-do attitude, its economic, political, and material power, and its positive moral character. As Robert Patterson, a vociferous neoconservative, stated, the American military is the repository of the authentic American identity that has "martial values, discipline, uniformity, physical courage, and moral strength derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage."/2/

Any evil, undemocratic regime that stands in America's way can be crushed by the mighty U.S. armed forces that embody these true American values. No nation can withstand the inevitable spread of the American way of life across the globe as there are no limits to American power. Lip service can be paid to tired, almost anachronistic clichés like the "fog of war," but war is really easy and predictable for Americans as long as they recognize that the key is to have the will to win wars. America has "the greatest military history has ever known,"/3/ and as long as the American public patriotically and unflinchingly gives the military its moral support, it has "toe-to-toe, tank-to-tank, jet-to-jet dominance based on overwhelming numbers and lethal force" over any opponent./4/

But what if America suffers setbacks on the battlefield? Who is to blame for such an unexpected turn of events? How can almost barbaric Third World enemies frustrate a huge array of futuristic smart-weapons? Can the credit be assigned to America's backward and relatively disorganized opponents who fight her with inferior and antiquated weapons? Absolutely not, according to those on the Right who embrace the myth of a militaristic America that is omnipotent. Instead they blame the American Leftist and peacenik who frustrate and confuse the will of ordinary Americans to exercise their power in the cause of good around the world. It is a "Fifth Column" composed of the media, academics-intellectuals, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and "deep pockets" (charities, anti-war groups, wealthy Leftists) that prevents the U.S. military in particular to achieve the victories that are due it./5/ They accomplished their nefarious endeavor during Vietnam,/6/ and of course, they are seditiously at it again in the current "War on Terror." Patterson claims, "The truth is that today wars cannot be won solely on the battlefields, and they can most definitely be lost off of them. This is why the Left represents the single greatest obstacle to U.S. success in the War on Terror."/7/

Where does such neoconservative thought come from? Obviously, the popular, almost natural promotion and acceptance of America's alleged and legendary garrison state spirit is one cause. Also, one can make the argument there is an intellectual foundation to this martial element in neoconservatism, and it can be traced back to Leo Straus. Straus began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1948, and he is said to have critically inspired today's leading and influential neoconservatives. Men such as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Max Boot, and Norman Podhoretz are the contemporary vanguard of the neoconservative movement. Despite the Iraq debacle, they still exert tremendous authority in Washington. All of them have access and close ties to George W. Bush, and especially Dick Cheney. They also exert significant sway within the entire Republican presidential candidate field. For example, Podhoretz is Rudy Guiliani's chief foreign policy advisor, and Boot, Kagan, and Kristol have received significant praise from nearly all the Republican contenders, especially Senator John McCain.

Along with some other neoconservative luminaries, Podhoretz, Kristol, and Kagan co-founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997. At the time, it was the leading neoconservative lobbying group in the country, and it brought the ideas of Strauss and his acolytes to the attention of the wider American public. According to its founding statement of principles, the group demanded that the U.S. have a national "policy of military strength and moral clarity" that should include "a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."/8/

Kristol and Kagan charged in 1996 that despite the U.S. enjoying global "strategic and ideological predominance," Americans were "confused" about the necessity to exercise this power:

In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness [unwillingness to use this power]. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order./9/

Although Kristol and Kagan do not explicitly identify who or what is responsible for confusing Americans back in 1996, Kristol does in 2007. It is "the antics of congressional Democrats...[that] so weakens the administration as to undercut our mission in Iraq." For Kristol, the war is being won, but congressional legislation, investigations, and timetables for troop withdrawals result in "good news in one place [on the battlefield]...offset by misfortune elsewhere [in the democratic process]."/10/

Max Boot argues that the U.S. needs "to be more assertive and stop letting all these two-bit dictators and rogue regimes push us around and stop being a patsy for our so-called allies."/11/ Yet the two-bit dictators still "push us around," even after 9/11, and why? Because of peace groups like Human Rights Watch and other "sickos" who make Americans "complacent" about the need to win the War on Terror with their rhetoric and propaganda./12/ For Boot, the U.S. should "unambiguously...embrace its imperial role,"/13/ and it should acknowledge that "democracy [can be exported] through the barrel of a gun."/14/

According to Podhoretz's most recent book, World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism, the U.S. is clearly winning the war in Iraq, but Leftists are leading the U.S. toward defeat with their "malaise" and appeasement just as they did in Vietnam. Radical Islam poses a Holocaust-like threat to the security of America, Podhoretz contends, but the mistakes of Munich in 1938 have either been forgotten or are purposely ignored by the Left. A threat that is at least equal to the menace of Nazism must be met with aggressive resolve and military action because diplomacy and negotiation with "Islamofascists" is a fool's dream./15/ Podhoretz's influence over Guiliani's foreign policy position is clearly evident in Guiliani's recent article in Foreign Affairs. In it, Guiliani speculates that the war against "radical Islamic fascism" will be "long," and he argues that the war must be conducted "on the offensive." Of course this war will be a challenge to the U.S. military, but the greatest challenge will be posed not by the enemy but by the American public. It is a Vietnam redux: "Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress.... But America then withdrew its support."/16/

Vietnam plays an especially critical role in the overall narrative of the neoconservative myth. Two recent books, Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken and Lewis Sorley's A Better War, offer the foundation to this storyline. Both texts paint a picture of military victory and success in Southeast Asia (although for different reasons) that was deliberately ignored by anti-war politicians and media elite. According to Moyar, Ngo Dinh Diem, the American-backed ruler of South Vietnam, would have successfully stopped the Vietcong insurgency if the U.S. public had been patient, ignored media accusations that he was a tyrant, and just given him a chance to finish the job. Diem's hard-nosed policy of ruthlessly using re-education centers and clearing out rural hamlets of civilians by sending them to fortified encampments was working. But in the end, with U.S. approval, he would be overthrown and assassinated in 1963, and the military and political progress that was made in Vietnam was forever lost./17/

Sorley also sees defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. The tactics and strategies of General Creighton Abrams, who took over as commander in June, 1968, from General William Westmoreland, receive the credit for winning the war, for the U.S. Westmoreland's "search and destroy" missions that curiously look similar to the tactics employed by Diem, and that Moyar claimed was winning the war, were replaced by something called "clear and hold." Instead of destroying Vietnamese villages as a way to crush the insurgency, villages were captured and fortified against communist take-over. The Vietnamese peasantry remained in the countryside. For Sorely, the new tactic was a wild success. Nevertheless, influenced by anti-war agitators, the American people withdrew support for the war, and in 1970, the Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The war was lost./18/

Without a doubt, the policies and words of George Bush echo neoconservative thought. Just days after the attacks of 9/11, Bush declared that America was embarking on a "crusade" against terrorism and radical Islam. Although White House spokespersons soon afterward explained that Bush had misspoken, the general impression was that Bush was very sincere in his use of the term. The weeks after 9/11 saw much tough talk emanate from Bush and his associates: Osama Bin Laden was going to be found "dead or alive" by the U.S. military, and allies and foes were given an ultimatum that in a world where America was going to use its military to secure peace and law and order, they were either "with us or against us." They needed to choose what side they were on quickly, and the stakes and consequences of their decision were high. There was no room for diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise in a stark black and white world where problems would be solved via bold and aggressive action. Our moral authority and clarity would cut through sophistry and equivocation. Civilians, ambassadors, and the United Nations had their crack at ending world terrorism and failed. It was now time to use the military option and put an end to terrorism.

According to Richard Clarke, Bush's chief counter-terrorism advisor on the National Security Council, the decision to invade Iraq was made only hours after 9/11./19/ The original justification for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein's regime was building weapons of mass destruction that would be eventually used against democracies around the world. However, after no such weapons were found in Iraq, the rationale for the invasion morphed into spreading democracy. This literally was an attempt at spreading democracy through the barrel of a gun.

Bush's experimental, brawny neoconservative foreign policy has not gone well for the U.S. military. Bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has suffered 4,355 deaths and 38,335 casualties,/20/ sometimes fails to meet recruiting goals, and is forced to send reserve forces for three or more combat tours of 15 months' duration. With undermanned, overstretched, and traumatized forces, these are hard times for the Pentagon. Bush, however, has consistently asked Americans to persevere and put this war in his historic perspective.

Calling himself a "wartime President" in a speech he delivered in August 2007 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, Bush called on Americans to stick with the "War on Terror." According to Bush, democracy was taking root in Iraq, the security situation was improving, and terrorists were on the run, yet he cautioned that the Iraq conflict was far from over. This would be a long clash that would test the resolve of Americans. The American military needed time and support from the American people to complete its mission: "I'm confident that we will prevail. I'm confident we'll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known--the men and women of the United States Armed Forces." Japan, Bush said, once used the strategy of "suicide attacks destined to create so much carnage that the American people...[would] tire of the violence and give up the fight." But the American people did not, and the U.S. military was victorious. During the Vietnam War, however, the public withdrew its support and the war was lost. While not detailing exactly why opinion turned against the war, Bush cited examples of anti-war intellectuals, politicians, and individuals from the media whose rhetoric "gathered some steam" in the court of public opinion. And so the U.S. military pulled out of Vietnam.

According to Bush, the Vietnam experience is critical today: "The price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' [sic] and 'killing fields.' There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today's struggle - those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that 'the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.'"/21/

Bush makes the classic neoconservative argument. It was not the Vietnamese who defeated the U.S. military, and it was not the U.S. government that was responsible for spreading chaos, violence, and instability to Southeast Asia with its military operations; the ultimately successful anti-war voices within the U.S. were responsible for these events. According to Bush, this mistake cannot be repeated in the "War on Terror": "Our troops are seeing progress that is being made on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?"/22/

Much neoconservative thinking mirrors Leon Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution in a myriad of ways. Writing in 1906, Trotsky argued that the Russian proletariat, allied with the peasants and urban poor, would transform Russian society into a Marxist state through two revolutions, a bourgeois and later working-class revolution./23/ Once seizing power, revolution then needed to be exported to the rest of the world because Marxism could not survive isolation in a hostile international order that was bent on destroying it in Russia. "Counter-revolution," however, always lay in the shadows, ready to reverse and destroy this inevitable Marxist state of the world. Evidence that counter-revolutionary forces existed could simply be found in the non-existence of a historically mandated Marxist state. The counter-revolutionaries in 1906 were Russian liberals. Constantly looking for ways to corrupt the masses with nationalism, religion, and acts of sabotage, they looked to sap Russia of the revolutionary zeal it needed to possess in order for Marxism to be victorious. Trotskyites knew what was best for the self-interests of the Russian people, even if the people themselves did not know what it always was.

It is sublimely ironic that neoconservative thought is a doppelganger to this element of Trotskyism, an ideology some neoconservatives once identified as a threat to America. It shares Trotsky's messianic vision for its ideology, free-market capitalism. The U.S. has an obligation to free the world's masses from whatever oppressive regime it deems to be part of the "axis of evil." Of course, according to neoconservatives, when given a free choice, every human in every culture desires to live in a democratic free-market system, a system that is superior to any other on our planet. However, one should not make the mistake of underestimating the threat posed by Islamofascism to democratic free market-capitalism because these fanatics hate our freedom and prosperity. They potentially have access to weapons of mass destruction, and the only good defense against them is to go on the offense. And finally, the threat from Leftists is probably the greatest obstacle to the establishment of global democratic capitalism. Leftists with their pacifist and defeatist ideas work to frustrate authentic American martial values that are necessary to defend and spread global democratic capitalism.

Ultimately, the neoconservative narrative rests on two critical myths. The first is the idea that U.S. society has always embraced and identified with a militaristic-imperialistic weltanschauung. The second is the notion that a mere will to power is only necessary to overcome any and all obstacles or problems America faces.

The flimsiness of these twin myths is astounding. If the success of war-making were singularly determined by military variables, then yes, the neoconservatives probably would be correct in their assessment that there is no limit to American power across the globe. But war-making is not so simple. There are critical social, political, and cultural variables that also help determine the outcome of warfare.

The spread of the American state across the plains, the Rocky Mountains, and to the Pacific and beyond is clear evidence that the U.S. has been an imperialist state. Currently, the U.S. has 737 military bases scattered across the globe./24/ Despite these facts, and what seems to be a natural human inclination to worship war-making, is it fair to say that a majority of Americans have ever had an authentic militaristic self-identity? In his written farewell address to the American people, President George Washington counseled the U.S. to "avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty."/25/ Back in 1796 he probably had little to worry about if one measured American militarism with the debatable performance of colonial militias during the Revolutionary War that often avoided engaging the British on the battlefield./26/ Although it was a better fighting force than militias during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army still was mostly composed from the poorest third of the colonists, and it contained a large percentage of "drifters, servants, British deserters, captured loyalists, convicts, and drafted substitutes."/27/ This does not appear to be an Army of eager warriors composed from the best of American society.

The experiences of the Revolutionary War begin a rich American tradition of avoiding military service. In the War of 1812, the New England militia refused to turn out. During the Civil War thousands purchased substitutes, and the Union issued thousands of bounties to encourage enlisting. In World War I, 11 percent (340,000) of draftees never reported to induction centers./28/ Rush Limbaugh, a loud espouser of neoconservative ideology who regularly claims that the U.S. has a martial identity, avoided going to Vietnam because of anal warts. In fact, such use of questionable medical exemptions has been common. For example, one Civil War surgeon wrote complaining, "They come fortified with elaborate certificates from sympathizing friends, kindhearted family physicians, stupid quacks, and the learned homeopathist who has testified to the appaling infirmity of 'paralysis of the scrotum.'"/29/

Even those men and women who have joined the military have not always done so out of patriotism and an attraction to military discipline. For instance, a soldier in the Army of the Potomac remembered that his comrades enlisted "for various reasons. Some had the 'Wanderlust'; others...a taste for adventure.... Some had joined from sheer necessity, or inability to find any other occupation to support themselves,...a very common cause."/30/ The cartoons of Bill Mauldin in Stars and Stripes and the dispatches of Ernie Pyle during World War II plainly show that the typical American GI was far from a gung-ho warrior who craved battle and dying a hero on the battlefield. These soldiers were simply doing their job, and they sought to go back home as soon as possible to their family, friends, wife, or sweetheart.

Avoiding the draft, protesting war, and preferring to stay home, have always been part of the American tradition. The experience of Vietnam is not an exception, and Leftists certainly are not the cause for why most Americans through history seem to have rejected a militaristic outlook on life.

The myth of the will to power on the other hand, while romantic and seductive, rarely has proven itself a practical philosophy in the annals of history. The most blatant and famous practitioner of this element of Nietzschian thought was Adolf Hitler. Believing that the German Volk by sheer will could overcome the material, economic, and demographic might of his opponents led Hitler to launch a world war, fight a desperate and losing battle at Stalingrad, and continue to hope for a military victory at a time when Berlin was ringed by Soviet armies, and the U.S. and British airforces rained a shower of bombs across the city. Hitler was oblivious to the destruction his policies had on ordinary Germans, and in his last days alive, he even deemed it necessary that Germans should be annihilated because they had failed to demonstrate the will to power that was necessary in order to win the war./31/ Relying on will to alter facts is probably the only way available to escape a "reality-based" universe, something a member of the Bush administration declared in a notorious interview the administration transcends./32/

Hitler's trust in the will to power probably was born from his experiences of living under the Imperial German government, and during the First World War. Hitler and the Nazis were the main espousers of the famous "stab-in-the-back" thesis which arose in Germany after World War I. The polemic attempted to explain why Germany had lost the war, and it certainly did not lose the conflict on the battlefield. The culprits were Socialists, democrats, and Catholics who were brought into the government on October 1, 1918, and who ultimately signed the armistice on November 11, 1918, and the Versailles Treaty. This legend tried to salvage the reputation of the German military, Imperial elites, and German conservatives who had begun and lost the war, and besmirch the Weimar Republic and all German Leftists, pacifists, and democrats.

The history of this myth is curious and relevant today. The decision to invite the political opponents of the Imperial government was made at a meeting of the German Supreme Command on September 29, 1918. Led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, who by this time were practically running the German government, the meeting was ostensibly promulgated in order to inform the Kaiser that Germany needed to sue for a cessation of hostilities with the allies. Both generals concluded that the military situation was hopeless, and that the war needed to end as soon as possible before the German army was destroyed, and allied forces entered into Germany as an occupying force. Both men also believed that their democratic opponents probably could negotiate better terms of surrender with the allies than they or the Kaiser could. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and so a humiliating treaty was forced upon a defeated Germany. But the narrative Hitler and his ilk advanced claimed that somehow days after this meeting, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff recovered their will to continue the war, a war they suddenly and correctly believed once more could be won./33/

Ludendorff himself is recorded as saying on the day Leftists assumed control of the government that politicians would be brought into the government "whom we have to thank for bringing us to this pass. We shall therefore see these gentlemen come into the Ministry. They must make the peace that has now to be concluded. They must now eat the dish which they have prepared for us."/34/ The gentlemen in question were Leftists, pacifists, democrats, and anti-militarists. It was not the men who had ruled Germany since its founding in 1871 or who had begun the war, had directed it for more than four years, and who were responsible for losing the conflict; instead, it was a group of individuals who had never guided the ship of the German state who capitulated prematurely and seditiously to the allies.

How could Hitler and other Germans have rationalized such a self-serving and delusional narrative? In many ways the birth of the German Imperial state rested upon the foundation of the myth that the German military was invincible. Otto von Bismarck's successful wars against Denmark, Austria, and France forged a united Germany in 1871. It seemed that no state could resist the military power of the German people. One could even point back to Frederick the Great's (1712-1786) time as evidence to the invincibility of the Prussian-German war-machine. Certainly the Kaiser's government and other Right-wing lobbying groups promoted such a legend throughout the build-up towards World War I./35/ A plausible argument could even be made that Germany was winning the war in September of 1918. The Brest-Litovsk treaty had just been signed with the Soviet Union in March 1918, gaining Germany huge swaths of territory in Eastern Europe. The entire Western front also was being contested on enemy territory. Hitler was sincerely dumb-founded when the armistice was declared. His beloved German army could not have lost a war it was winning.

The only foes who could bring this about were internal Leftists who stripped Germans of the will to continue the fight./36/ Is this myth of a German armed forces that was irresistible as long as the German people fully embraced their militaristic national-identity that much different from the myths advanced by today's neoconservatives in the U.S.?

Waving flags, sporting "Support the Troops" bumper stickers, chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" at sporting events, turning out in droves to see the recent film The 300 (where a Western power, the Spartans, defeats a much larger army of Persians), and spiritedly singing the national anthem as ways of identifying with the military, in no way demonstrates that America is a garrison state or that Americans possess the Nietzschian will to overcome any and all national obstacles. Many in the U.S., just as all humans, seem to be attracted to such rituals of blood and glory, but the vast majority of Americans are not genuinely militaristic. Most Americans did not volunteer for the armed forces after 9/11, and current calls for a draft are seen by pro-war politicians as a tactic for ending all public support for the "War on Terror." The day after 9/11 President Bush urged Americans to go out and shop! It appears that there is little political capital in asking Americans to make any sacrifice at all to win this war. Legislating a draft or raising taxes to pay for current military adventures is a sure ticket to political oblivion. As to the stuff that American wills are made of, currently 32.9% of Americans are overweight, and they even lack the will to lose 20 or more pounds./37/ How could such an overweight nation even begin to make-up a determined army of battle-starved warriors?

Yet Americans have little to be ashamed of, because no Western society in history has ever been authentically militaristic. There are some historic candidates who vie for the label, but most fall short to some degree. For example, the Prussian general Von Clausewitz counseled that commanders should never take their armies through woodlands. It was his experience that his famously warrior-like Prussian soldiers easily deserted their formations when provided the stealth forests offered. The recent film, Letters from Iwo Jima, based on the letters of Japanese soldiers stationed on Iwo Jima, suggests that soldiers in the reputedly fanatical Imperial Armies of Japan were no different from the G.I.'s Ernie Pyle described. Even the ancient Spartans, who began indoctrinating their children for war at the age of seven, when faced by truly dangerous Persian invasion in 480 B.C., only sent 300 soldiers to Thermopylae. Priority was given to celebrating their Carneian festival, not fighting the Persians. In some ways, King Leonidas also told his citizens to go and shop when confronted by an enemy.

Where does this habit of sacralizing violence, but not necessarily eagerly participating in it, originate? It is a powerful phenomenon that refuses to diminish its impact on human history. It certainly will play a role in affecting U.S. foreign policy into the foreseeable future, long after the already fading influence of neoconservatives disappears in Washington. Author Barbara Ehrenreich offers a fascinating and compelling anthropological explanation in Blood Rites. She points back not to the human experience as hunter-predator, a relatively recent phenomenon in human evolution, but to our much deeper memory of when we were a scavenger-prey animal. The archeological record clearly demonstrates that for much of our existence, we were a weak and feeble species that was food for terrifying predators. Like ungulates today, humans could only defend themselves collectively, seeing weak members picked off, and thus satisfying the appetites of hungry predators and giving the survivors temporary respite from danger. The trauma of seeing companions ripped apart in the jaws of a big cat, for example, was unimaginable for survivors, but it was a sacrifice that secured their continued existence. This experience helps explain the popularity of blood sacrifices, be it human or animal, that were practiced by all cultures for thousands of years. These sacrifices both exorcised primordial traumas and appeased frightening evil forces. Blood sacrifices are no longer practiced today, but are they substantively different from the rituals that surround the military presently? Think of the religious pomp associated with memorials for unknown soldiers who sacrificed their lives to safeguard their brothers and sisters safely back home. It is the stuff of legends. According to Ehrenreich: "we are drawn back compulsively, in both nightmares and moments of fun, to that primordial encounter with the devouring beast.... Rituals and other sorts of spectacles [war] that replay the possibility of being eaten [killed] are one way of celebrating what must have been, for our entire species, a terrifyingly narrow escape."/38/

If Ehrenreich's thesis is correct, it is unlikely that neoconservatives understand the ancient origins of their martial mythology, despite the obvious political benefits they enjoy as a result. However, their intellectual rationalization of war as a means to secure peace does not dwell deep in the bowels of the subconscious. Their deliberate solution to the current terrorist threat is identical to the NRA's solution to domestic crime, only it is applied on a global scale. Weapons of mass destruction do not kill humans, only evil regimes and individuals kill humans. So the application of international law and the elimination of all (including America's) weapons of mass destruction is not the solution to terrorism, the prosecution of war against these malcontents is. Just like the vigilante who kills the home intruder without relying on police or gun laws, the U.S. uses preemptive war to keep the homeland safe, rather than trusting "unreliable" international organs, laws, or agreements.

Al-Qaeda is a criminal organization. But by declaring war on it, al-Qaeda was legitimatized and made an equal of the U.S. government. A declaration of war is at its essence an acknowledgment that one's opponent is a peer. The Bush administration may try to have its cake and eat it too by arguing that detainees at Guantanamo are "unlawful enemy combatants," but this is a farcical designation that flies in the face of its own loud pronouncements. Osama bin Laden and similar rogues are simple murderers, and they should have been treated as murderers, not given the status of a head of state. Each day bin-Laden profits politically from defying Bush and the entire U.S. armed forces. Bin-Laden's cachet would dramatically be more humble if the Bush administration had described him as just a thug on the lam.

After 9/11 the U.S. enjoyed the support and sympathy of practically the entire world community. Just a fraction of the money used to prosecute the debacle which is the Iraq war would have erected the greatest man-hunt the world has ever known, safeguarded all nuclear materials in Russia, and secured U.S. borders against the entry of cataclysmic weapons. The world community, a sincere coalition of the willing, was ready to help America in these efforts. Yet the Bush administration automatically dismissed internationally coordinated police efforts and understanding as impractical. Such a dismissal was proven wrong when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq after the invasion. The United Nations-sponsored sanctions and inspections against Iraq worked. International cooperation would have worked again in catching bin-Laden and putting an end to al-Qaeda.

Obviously, capturing bin-Laden and smashing al-Qaeda is only half the story of how to end international terrorism. It is true that sometimes the police do not always catch the criminal, and it is true that new criminals always lurk around the corner. The final long-term step to put an end to life-threatening terrorism must also include the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, biological, and chemical. The Bush administration has done absolutely nothing on this front, and it is unpardonable. By not striving to forge world-wide agreements that once and for all would eradicate the existence and proliferation of civilization-ending weapons materials, the Bush administration assures a perpetual "War on Terror." Perhaps it welcomes this for the military-industrial complex, and for its political fortunes?

Unfortunately, there are precious few examples where collectively nation-states have successfully diminished the number of, or abolished entire weapons systems. Ironically, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came closest at the 1986 Reykjavik summit in getting rid of all nuclear weapons. But does this mean that efforts should cease to accomplish this goal? It is the only way to make the world safe, and the only way to prevent a rag-tag group of fanatics from acquiring a nuclear device. Al-Qaeda could never build such a sophisticated mechanism from scratch. Finally, eliminating all weapons of mass destruction also assures that today's friends, who do have such weapons (such as Pakistan), will not be tomorrow's life-threatening enemies.

On June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C. Coming on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the brink of Armageddon, Kennedy challenged humanity to find a way that would end the threat of global annihilation permanently, not temporarily. Advocating the pursuit of peace, he acknowledged the power of militaristic myths clouding human objectivity and judgment, lamenting, "I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war."/39/

The "War on Terror" has not brought us peace and stability, and it never will. Instead, the "War on Terror" has only ushered in an era of extreme violence, chaos, and anarchy. It is time to remember the story of Ares. Approaching war with hubris is almost always a recipe for disaster.


  1. Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 7.[Back]
  2. Robert Patterson, War Crimes and the Left's Campaign to Destroy the Military and Lose the War on Terror (New York: Crown Forum, 2007), 20.[Back]
  3. Ibid., 206.[Back]
  4. Ibid., 208.[Back]
  5. Ibid., 8.[Back]
  6. Ibid., 9.[Back]
  7. Ibid., 218.[Back]
  8. "Project for the New American Century, Statement of principles," 3 June 1997, http://newamericancentury.org/statementofprinciples.htm.[Back]
  9. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996.[Back]
  10. William Kristol, "Idiocy in DC, Progress in Baghdad," Weekly Standard, 26 March 2007, quoted in "William Kristol Profile," http://rightweb.irc-online.org/profile/1254.html.[Back]
  11. Interview with Joshua Micah Marshall, "Practice to Deceive," Washington Monthly, April 2003, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0304.marshall.html.[Back]
  12. Max Boot, "Keeping Iran in Line," Los Angeles Times, 7 March 2007, http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/1228207261.html?dids=1228207261:1228207261&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Mar+7%2C+2007&author=MAX+BOOT&pub=Los+Angeles+Times&edition=&startpage=A.21&desc=MAX+BOOT%3B+Keeping+Iran+in+line%3B+The+louder+the+alarm+over+war+with+Tehran%2C+the+better+Bush%27s+strategy+works.[Back]
  13. Paul Crespo, "A New Age of American Imperialism," Miami Herald, June 23, quoted in "Max Boot Profile," http://rightweb.irc-online.org/profile/1042.html.[Back]
  14. Quoted in Jerry W. Sanders, "The Great Debate of 2008," The Nation, 19 November 2007.[Back]
  15. Norman Podhoretz, World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism (Doubleday, 2007).[Back]
  16. Rudy Guiliani, "Toward a Realistic Peace," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007.[Back]
  17. Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge, 2006).[Back]
  18. Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (Harvest, 2007).[Back]
  19. Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press, 2004).[Back]
  20. http://www.icasualties.org/oif/ (accessed December 8, 2007).[Back]
  21. George Bush, "George Bush Attends Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, Discusses War on Terror" (speech, Kansas City Convention Center, Kansas City, MO, 22 August 2007, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/08/20070822-3.html.[Back]
  22. Ibid.[Back]
  23. Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects.[Back]
  24. Johnson, Nemesis, 5.[Back]
  25. George Washington, "Farewell Address," Independent Chronicle, 26 September 1796; available at http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/farewell/text.html.[Back]
  26. Wayne E. Lee, "Early American Ways of War: A New Reconnaissance, 1600-1815," The Historical Journal 44.1 (2001): 269-289.[Back]
  27. Richard H. Kohn, "The Social History of the American Soldier: A Review and Prospectus for Research," The American Historical Review (January 1981): 557.[Back]
  28. Ibid., 558.[Back]
  29. "Extracts from the report of Dr. J.F. Hall," 1st District New Hampshire, June 15, 1865, quoted in Kohn, "Social History," 558.[Back]
  30. Myers, Ten Years in the Ranks U.S. Army (New York, 1914), 37, quoted in Kohn, "Social History," 558.[Back]
  31. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: nemesis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).[Back]
  32. Ron Suskind, "Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush," The New York Times, 17 October 2004.[Back]
  33. Michael Geyer, "Insurrectionary Warfare: The German Debate about a Levee en Masse in October 1918," The Journal of Modern History 73.3 (September 2001): 464-465.[Back]
  34. Michaelis, Schraepler, and Scheel (eds.), Ursachen und Folgen. Vom deutschen Zusammenbruch 1918 und 1945 bis zur staatlichen Neuordnung Deutschlands in der Gegenwart, vol. II, 324, quoted in A.J. Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 5.[Back]
  35. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire 1871-1918 (Providence: Berg, 1993).[Back]
  36. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: hubris (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).[Back]
  37. http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/index.htm (accessed December 8, 2007).[Back]
  38. Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites, Origins and History of the Passions of War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997), 76.[Back]
  39. Quoted in James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 286.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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