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War as a Spectator Sport

Posted on Mar 14, 2014

By Richard Reeves

U.S. Army/Spc. Steven Hitchcock

Sad to say, the most telling commentary on world affairs these days seems to come from comedians. The latest is Jimmy Fallon, the new "Tonight Show" host, who responded to Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the news that Russian soldiers were moving into Crimea:

"‘You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.’" ... Pause ... "We stopped doing that, like, months ago."

I mean, or he meant, who are we kidding? Why are we in Afghanistan? Why were we in Iraq? Why were we in Vietnam? Lebanon? Panama? Honduras and Nicaragua? Grenada? Cuba? I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

Americans, or at least American leaders, used to worry that we were a helpless superpower because we didn’t always get our way around the world. We didn’t always send in the Marines, or we sent them in and failed.

Hopefully, Fallon is right. If invading smaller countries is the mark of a superpower—us, or just as stupidly, Putin’s Russia—we should be glad that so many Americans finally seem to be sick of it. A defining moment of that illness, for me at least, was the introduction of a 30-year-old Army Ranger, Cory Remsburg, by President Obama during his State of the Union message in January.

Remsburg, a courageous young patriot by any standard, is partly paralyzed, blind in one eye, with a titanium plate in his head after surviving a bomb blast in Afghanistan—on his 10th overseas deployment. Ten deployments! Our lawmakers, senators and representatives, stood and applauded and applauded and applauded. Why? Sympathy. And guilt. The same reason many Americans say "Thank you for your service" in airports.

Men and women like Remsburg are indeed the few, the proud, the brave.

The fact that they are the few is a national disgrace. They are volunteers, twice over, both as enlistees and for racking up that many deployments. Our proud volunteer Army is kind of invisible in camouflage except if they are in your family or in chance encounters. The truth, I think, is that our soldiers, sailors and airmen are like professional football players—low-paid, of course—and war has become a spectator sport. Our worldwide National Football League.

Military service can be a great thing in terms of building character and learning skills—leadership among them—and a path out of poverty for some. That eases our consciences, since we are not part of it. Those leaders applauding their heads off in Congress love it.

The Congress has been relieved of the politically dangerous task of declaring war, substituting tough rhetoric for tough decision-making. The last time they actually voted for war was after Pearl Harbor.

The dirtiest trick Richard Nixon pulled on the nation was ending the draft and a civilian army to tamp down protests by young people during the Vietnam War. He disengaged politicians and the rest of us from our young countrymen in uniform, leaving other presidents and super patriots to charge or creep into unwinnable wars.

And it doesn’t really affect the rest of us, except when we feel a twinge of sickness. Polls are showing now that we as a nation are war-weary, and some in Washington are worried about rising isolationism. But Americans are not isolationists. As David Brooks has written, analyzing polls in The New York Times, more than three-quarters of us want more engagement with the world, economically, culturally and educationally.

I would argue that what’s going on now, the turning away of eyes from the damage we are doing, is not isolationism at all. It is realism. It is sanity.

If our leaders still think we should try to be the policemen of the world—punishing bad guys and fighting for justice everywhere—they should vote on it. War, the worst of all political policies, should be a last resort and a national effort. It is neither these days.



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