An enthusiasm for military adventures is by no means limited to either pole of our political spectrum. At least since the First World War, and America’s entry on to the international scene as a world power, our foreign relations have been characterized by a missionary spirit that intermittently turns belligerent. And this spirit has hardly been restricted to a single national party.
Perhaps I should indicate before proceeding further what seems to me an at least minimally justifiable reason for applying force. Those who are defending their homeland or region from invasion are taking up arms for good reason. This would pertain to a wide range of situations, whether we’re describing the Spanish guerrillas who resisted Napoleon’s occupation of Spain or local residents and soldiers who tried to keep Sherman’s army from overrunning and sacking Georgia and South Carolina. In neither of these cases were the defenders choosing to make war on others. They were fighting defensively and were certainly not seeking to brutalize or kick around unwilling subjects. I am also not targeting here the attitudes of a traditional military class. Military elites have been inculcated with martial values and a sense of service. This kind of training may or may not deserve our praise, depending on how it’s applied, but military classes are not the subject of today’s comments.
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What I am looking at is the messianic depiction of the US as the bearer of a world mission that we are obliged to pursue in the face of opposition both domestic and foreign. When I was in college studying American history, “mainstream” historians presented the Civil…