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Seduced By War: Remembering Where Our Legacy Resides

I am concerned about a culture that has been seduced by war. I am concerned about a culture that salivates over the raw power of military hardware but shows little sustained interest in the military virtues of courage, loyalty, honor, fidelity and justice. I am concerned that our civilian leaders seem to have forgotten what many of our great generals and admirals including George Washington, Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower always knew: that it is not America’s military power that makes us great. It is our greatness that makes us powerful.

What makes us a great country is not that we can go anywhere in the world and kill anyone we want. Well, anyone we can find. What makes us great is that we work hard; we tolerate differences; we have room for faith and science. We are great because in the end we know that a healthy, prosperous and happy society not only endures, but needs, diverse opinions, cultures, lifestyles, fashions and beliefs.

What was supposed to be the elixir that would cure the national malaise following the turmoil of the ’60s and restore our faith in American power has turned out to be, perhaps, an even more difficult circumstance to reconcile. Iraq was a broken and depleted country in 2003, having already lost one war to the US, having been subject to crippling sanctions from the UN and having fought to a draw with Iran after a devastating war that lasted ten years. At the same time the U.S. stood alone as the most preponderant military power.

...that it is not America’s military power that makes us great. It is our greatness that makes us powerful.

No one disputes the fact that in 2003 the United States possessed the best-trained, best-equipped and probably the best-motivated fighting force the world has ever known. By our own accounting, we were spending more for military preparedness than the rest of the world spent combined. And in this case, we cannot blame foot-dragging politicians, “traitorous” movie stars or unwashed, long-haired hippies for what has happened. And yet, here we are, wondering where we are: wondering how we got here; wondering if we can find the way forward, wondering if there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

In his long awaited testimony, General Petraeus warned us that we must not “rush to defeat.” A more cynical reading of the General’s words might lead us to think that he was suggesting a more slow and measured pace to defeat. Whatever the outcome, we can be certain that some will call it “victory” and some will call it “defeat.” It will not be a defeat for the men and women that we sent there. We asked them to find weapons of mass destruction. They found that they were not there. We ask them to capture a dangerous tyrant. They did. We asked them to protect the government that resulted from fair elections. They did.

What has been defeated is the idea that we can reshape the world to our liking with military hardware. What has been defeated is the naïve assumption that there are no limits to the use of force. The notion that war, essentially a tool of destruction, can be used to construct a nation has been defeated. We expected more from the use of force than the use of force could deliver.

We must shoulder the responsibility as a nation and as a culture. We would do well to rethink our fascination with force and rededicate ourselves to the compassion and openness that are the ultimate sources of our greatness. If we must speak of defeat, let it be for an idea that one can force the world, or even a small poor part of the world, into one’s idea of what it should be.

Andrew Murray is professor of peace studies and director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa..