The Dangers of Militarism
Posted by Shadi Hamid
I finally read Robert Kaplan’s rather intriguing pro-militarism piece in The Wall Street Journal, from last week. Kaplan makes what seems, at least in the first few paragraphs, a somewhat sensible argument. But, on closer inspection, it is also a dangerous one. Liberals, always looking for new ways to reaffirm their “toughness,” are at greatest risk of falling for this type of ra-ra martial posturing. Kaplan’s argument is that while we may “love” the troops, in a kind of pitying condescension, we no longer honor the troops for what they do, that we see them more as victims than heroes. He is referring to “traditional heroism, of the kind celebrated from Herodotus through World War II.”
Kaplan is a nationalist, not in the liberal internationalist sense, but more in the Greco-Roman sense of idealizing the nation – as a territory, as a sacred ground to be defended - rather than the ideas, or ideals, the nation purports to hold. Kaplan, like many on the Right, longs for something worth fighting for. But in place of a cause (causes, after all, change and inevitably lose salience), he has resorted to honoring the fight itself, the very act of being a warrior. There is something primal about this, and one gets the sense in some of his other work that one of the few things he envies the Muslim world for is its (purported) willingness to sacrifice and die for something, anything.
The fact of the matter is that the kind of heroism Kaplan longs for is intimately tied, if not in intent then in effect, to the kind of militarism that has plagued, to great detriment, the post-9/11 American psyche. Apparently, this more than momentary lapse hasn’t been enough for Kaplan. He wants more, even though the last six years have, not surprisingly although perhaps ironically, coincided with one of the most precipitous declines in American power and influence in recent memory.
In any case, Kaplan answers his own question, saying that “feeling comfortable with heroes requires a lack of cynicism toward the cause for which they fight.” This cynicism, however, is precisely what protects us from dashing unprepared into wars of choice. We certainly could have used more cynicism in 2002-3, in the run-up to the Iraq war. And, still, we can use more of it now, in light of the recent Iran resolution passed by congress, an incredibly inane piece of legislative stupidity, which sounds to me and many others like the very dangerous declaration of intent it most certainly is and its Republican authors want it to be. If this cynicism, which in my view is the very lifeblood of democracy, translates into loving the troops rather than “honoring” them, so be it. Of course, we shouldn’t even begin to accept Kaplan’s definition and usage of the word “honor.” To honor is not to, and shouldn’t be, to suspend judgment, reason, and our willingness to criticize our own actions. In Peter Beinart’s words, “it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional.” This – the understanding that while we may be good in some abstract sense, we are not, and cannot be, inherently good – I suspect, is the major point of distinction between liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives.