Americans fought in many wars from 1776 to 1941. But it was World War II that lured our nation onto Team Violence. (More)

Terrorism and Team Violence, Part I: The Perfect War

This week Morning Feature considers David Wong’s thesis on terrorism and “Team Violence.” Today we begin with how World War II lured our nation onto Team Violence, both in policy and in popular opinion. Tomorrow we’ll see how the fall of the Soviet Union made it easier to stay committed to Team Violence. Thursday we’ll see that President Bush’s response to 9/11 was exactly what Al Qaeda wanted. Friday we’ll conclude with whether last week’s horror in Paris will keep us locked in this deadly dance, or see us finally stop the music.

“The terrorists aren’t on the side of Islam. They’re on the side of bombs.”

I’ve referenced David Wong’s outstanding essay on terrorism and Team Violence several times over the past few days. If you haven’t yet read it, you should. But here’s the key passage:

When a bunch of terrorists blow up a school or shoot up an office full of cartoonists, do you think it’s because they don’t know we have guns and bombs and drones? You think they do what they do because they believe we’re “too weak to strike back” and that we thus need to “show them how strong we are?”

Holy s–t, dude, these people can read the damned news. They know exactly what we’re going to do: We’re going to overreact. We do it every time. That’s why they do it. So stop, step back, and understand something that most of America doesn’t:

They do what they do, because they know we’re too weak to resist striking back.

Our knee-jerk, bomb-dropping reflex is our weakness. They are trying to exploit it, because retaliation bombings are how they recruit more terrorists to their side. And please note that when I talk about their “side,” I’m not talking about Islam, or even Islamic terrorism. Their “side” is what I’m going to henceforth call Team Violence[.] The bully doesn’t fight because he wants to win; he fights because he wants a world in which everything is resolved by fighting (note: The bully himself doesn’t realize this). It doesn’t matter if he loses – the moment you chose to fight, his side already won, and the world becomes more like the world he wants to live in.

It’s the same here – the terrorists aren’t on the side of Islam. They’re on the side of bombs.

And when the U.S. responds with bombs – or worse, sends an army to devastate and occupy someone else’s homeland – we join Team Violence. Or more accurately, we renew our decades-long commitment to Team Violence.

“Manifest Destiny”

I know what you’re thinking. The U.S. was born in war and we’ve been fighting wars ever since. Here’s a timeline of our wars from 1776 to 1899 …

… and here’s a timeline of our wars since:

Most of those were wars of imperial expansion or, as school history books usually teach them, fulfilling our ‘Manifest Destiny.’ And most school history books leave out the wars that don’t fit that self-serving description: our occupations of the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience”

Yet despite that almost uninterrupted history of fighting wars, World War II brought a fundamental change in U.S. policy. We began building the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, and sixteen months later the U.S. military had a huge and permanent home. Both the size and the permanence reflected a shift that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address:

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in the newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

In building the Pentagon and establishing what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” the U.S. became a lasting member of Team Violence … not only ready for war, but often looking for any excuse to launch or join one.

“Defending the use of violence as if it’s sacred”

I’m hardly the first to make this argument. After the fall of the Soviet Union, President Bill Clinton advocated for a “peace dividend,” shifting resources from military to domestic needs. President Eisenhower made a similar argument in his 1953 ‘Chance for Peace’ Speech. Then and since, every such argument ran headlong into the “What About Hitler?” rebuttal, as David Wong explains:

I can already hear it, from outside my window: “But what about Hitler?”

There is a particular form of bad argument everyone uses any time we’re accused of having some kind of unproductive or destructive habit: we simply remember one perfect example of when that destructive thing worked, and then hammer that example over and over again like a club. It’s our magical Staff of Shutting Down Criticism.
Not just those three words – they’ll have crafted a perfect narrative that says A) Hitler was a perfect evil defeated by good; B) Hitler could only have been stopped by war; C) The “appeasers” who wanted to avoid war were the true villains of WWII; and D) Any discussion of what factors allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place is irrelevant obfuscation. Therefore, if you protest the use of violence against any group, ever, you are effective pro-Hitler.

It should go without saying that even if I concede all of the above, that doesn’t necessarily apply to any situation that has come along since, let alone all situations. So the more important question for that person is, why do you have a knee-jerk reflex to roll out the Hitler example any time the need for violence is questioned? Why is it that you even feel a touch of anger when doing it? Why do you feel the urge to be dismissive or snide in the process, implying the questioner is weak or naive? Why are you defending the use of violence as if it’s sacred to you?

And that sense of sacredness is grounded in the mythology of World War II.

“A myth which enshrined their essential purity, a parable of good and evil”

That wasn’t merely another war, or even in Studs Terkel’s sardonic phrase The Good War. For Americans, it was The Perfect War. As the myth goes, Americans didn’t want to fight World War II until Japan attacked us in “a day that will live in infamy.” But once forced into it, we waded in and kicked Evil’s ass. It also pulled our economy out of the Great Depression, and turned our president into “the leader of the free world.”

As Mark Weber writes at the Institute for Historical Review:

Whatever doubts or misgivings Americans may have had about their country’s role in Iraq, Vietnam, or other overseas conflicts, most accept that the sacrifices made by the US in World War II, especially in defeating Hitler’s Germany, were entirely justified and worthwhile.

For more than 60 years, this view has been reinforced in countless motion pictures, on television, by teachers, in textbooks, and by political leaders. The reverential way that the US role in the war has been portrayed moved Bruce Russett, professor of political science at Yale University, to write:

“Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology … Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a ‘good war,’ one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. Except for a few books published shortly after the war and quickly forgotten, this orthodoxy has been essentially unchallenged.”

That’s why so many now compare ISIS to Nazi Germany. It’s not simply a matter of transitive immorality: If ISIS = Evil and Nazis = Evil, then ISIS = Nazis.

Instead, that comparison, like President Bush calling Saddam Hussein the new Hitler, invokes The Perfect War to confirm our commitment to Team Violence.


Photo Credit: John F. Knott, 1918 (Wikimedia)


Happy Tuesday!