American character

The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

I belong to a Google Group whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s. The issues ranged in scope from devising improved tactics for naval, air, and ground operations to assessing the costs and effectiveness of proposed new weapon systems.

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a slightly edited exchange I had with an older member of the group:

Older member (OM):

Does anyone know whether the people of the U.S. were as little involved in the Indian Wars and the opening of the west (some would say stealing) as we seem to be involved with the wars in the Middle East and South Asia.

The greatest asset of our military is its “can do” attitude. The greatest weakness of our military is its “can do” attitude.

Me (Thomas):

I’m not sure what it means for a people to be “involved” in a war. If by “involved” you mean the popularity or unpopularity of the various wars, I have no relevant facts to offer.

But the transient popularity or unpopularity of a war (or any governmental action) shouldn’t matter. If public policy responded to the whims of the “man in the street,” we would be in deep trouble. That’s why there are prescribed processes for making governmental policy. Following the processes doesn’t ensure wise policies, but it beats the alternative of capricious governance.

Our present wars were duly authorized by Congress, and are funded by appropriations made by Congress. Given that the members of Congress are elected representatives of the people, then the people are as involved as they can be under any sensible system of government.

As for the military’s “can do” attitude, decisions about going to war — and staying at war — are the province of civilian authority. When given a war to fight, the only sensible way for the military to approach it is with a “can do” attitude. Does the military’s “can do” attitude color the advice it gives when civilian authority is considering whether to go to war, how to prosecute a war, and whether to persevere in a war? Or are military leaders duly cautious in the advice they give civilian authority, knowing the consequences for their troops and the nation if a war goes badly? I haven’t been close enough to the “inside” — nor have I read deeply enough into military history — to essay answers to those questions.

OM:

I wanted to go a little beyond what might be called the legalities and into the national psyche. The decision to go to war is an awesome political and moral  decision. It has often been said that “old men send young men to war”. In our modern adventures only a fraction of the Country has other than a remote financial involvement in our wars. A small fraction of our Legislative Branch have direct Military Service experience (the smallest in history). An even smaller number has sons or daughters in the Armed Services. We are much moe detached than when the Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their honor, their fortune, and their good right hand. (Quote not quite accurate).

During the Vietnam War the Country lowered its support as the costs and casualties rose. Now we do not have the draft though even so military leaders warn the political entities that we must not lose the confidence of the people even as we seem to drift away from the “Powell” Doctrine. We certainly see the heavy imprint of the Military-Industrial Complex against which President Eisenhower warned. (That speech is still on Wikipedia).

During Vietnam we had the bugbear of the “Domino Theory”. There are some who argue along those lines now regarding threats to Israel and other major American Interests. Can a small special interests group lead American policy?

I was wondering what other precedents in American History might apply. Most of the 19th Century was dominated by America’s Manifest Destiny (and losses were modes). Then came the War to end all wars. Then the Era of Good Feeling punctuated by the Washington Naval Conference, the Great Depression, and then the rise of Nazi Germany and its Axis with Italy and Japan. Have we found a bizarre combination of of Depression and Manifest Destiny with a liberal dose of hubris as we dismantle our Navy having already essentially worn out much of our Armour and still at the mercy of land mines and IED (a form of landmine).

One parallel that seems to track from the 19th Century is the corruption of the Suttlers [sic] that has transformed nicely into the Military Industrial Complex.

Thomas:

I have great difficulty with the concept of “national psyche,” and thus with generalizations about what “we” (as a nation) have done and should do. I cannot describe my own psyche, let alone the psyches of millions of other Americans, dead and alive, who differ from me (often greatly) in nature and nurture.

In any event, you come close to answering your own questions in your third paragraph, where you ask “Can a small special interests group lead American policy?” My answer is a resounding “yes.” Two, relatively small, interlocking groups of strong-willed individuals were responsible for the Revolution and the Constitution, and those groups were bound by two special interests (at least): independence from Britain (not a universally popular idea at the time) and freedom from Britain’s interference in the colonies’ commerce. (The second interest is a “bad thing” only if one view commercial interests as a “bad thing.” Unlike the historians of the Beard school, I do not.)

Various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups have determined the foreign and domestic policies of the United States government from its beginning, and always will do so. There is no escape from such an arrangement, given our system of government — the “legalities” to which you refer. Those “legalities” — and the absence of a national psyche which somehow translates the consolidated wisdom of “the nation” into governmental policy — make it inevitable that governmental policy will be the product of various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups. You (I mean the generic “you” and not you, [OM]) may like the resulting policies in some cases (e.g., if you are a fan of British-style health care you will consider Obamacare a great leap forward) and dislike them in other cases (e.g., if you are an opponent of foreign wars except those that in retrospect seem worthwhile, you will generally oppose foreign wars).

The “dismantling” of the Navy to which you refer is the specific policy of a specific administration (or administrations). It was not the policy of the Reagan administration, nor was it a policy of the Kennedy administration. And, I hope, it will not be the policy of the next administration. In any case, governmental policy toward the Navy is part of a larger set of policies, the combination of which is dictated by the complex interplay of various special interests and the particular psyches of elected and appointed officials. In the present case, the “dismantling” of the Navy arises from a particular view of how to defend Americans and their property and, not coincidentally, also makes certain kinds of domestic government programs more affordable. It should go without saying that the particular view of how to defend Americans (diplomacy, good will, lower defense budgets) finds opposition in millions of Americans’ psyches, as does the present administration’s commitment to various domestic programs. Liberal hawks — to the extent that they still exist — must be having a hard time digesting the present administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies, just as conservative hawks — whose are legion — had a hard time digesting the previous administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies.

As for the military-industrial complex, there is a coalition of interests that can be described broadly by that term, though it is a coalition fraught with internal conflicts and rivalries. If that coalition deserves blame for any excesses in defense spending and misadventures in foreign fields, it also deserves a large share of the credit for the outcomes of World War II and the Cold War.

Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. I say that all political developments reflect the clash, compromise, and collaboration of special interests — and thus cannot be ascribed to a national psyche.