March 17, 2014

GLICK | The War Mentality, Revisited

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As yet another Ithaca winter begins to thaw, the crisis in Ukraine has refrozen our geopolitics somewhere in the mid-1980s. Our campus, it seems, has been transported through time; lecture halls that recently housed speaker series on the post-American world and the ubiquitous War on Terror now play host to symposiums, such as a panel discussion this past Friday, that once more establish the Russian Federation as an antagonistic force in global affairs. This has been part of a broader trend in which we as a nation have jumped at the chance to return to the morally unambiguous structure of the Cold War conflict. After over a decade of covert battles against terrorism littered with civilian casualties and Constitutional inconsistencies, we are naturally drawn to the familiar and satisfying dynamics of a clash between the American champion of liberty and a villainous Red Menace. When it comes to rhetoric, at least, the Cold War was not so bitter a pill to swallow.

Of course, this reversion to a Cold War worldview is ultimately misguided; Vladimir Putin — however dastardly he may be — no longer stands at the helm of a global superpower capable of challenging American hegemony in jungles and deserts thousands of miles from Moscow. His gambit to annex Crimea is the ploy of a petulant nationalist afraid of losing yet another Soviet relic to the (comparatively) prosperous European Union. Even if Putin orders a full-scale, revanchist invasion of Ukraine, disastrous as it would be, he will not likely order his troops to march westward to Warsaw, Prague or Berlin. The Iron Curtain is still in ruin.

This, of course, has not prevented Republicans in Congress from denouncing President Obama’s fairly aggressive response to this crisis — which includes sanctions against Russia, firm refusal to accept the Crimean resolution and a NATO pledge of support for Ukraine’s interim government — as inadequate to the Cold War 2.0 with which he is now faced. The avalanche of GOP opprobrium, despite the fact that it undermines a sitting president as he deals with a major international crisis, has had its highlights. Chief among them, for me at least, was Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) criticism of an article the president wrote on America’s “war mentality” in 1983. While he was still at Columbia.

The article, “Breaking the War Mentality,” is itself a fascinating window into the mind of Barack Obama. If any of McCain’s criticism is legitimate, it is that the article exposes a frank and de-politicized voice of the president-to-be, who articulates a modern disconnect from war that, if conveyed tomorrow at a White House press conference, would probably result in impeachment hearings.

“The more sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience,” the undergraduate Obama writes. “But the taste of war — the sounds and chill, the dead bodies — are remote and far removed. We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experience down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.”

It is far more gritty prose than “hope and change,” for one thing. On a deeper level, however, Obama’s admitted disconnect from “the taste of war” makes him a president — and a man — uniquely suited for our modern era.

It is far more gritty prose than “hope and change,” for one thing. On a deeper level, however, Obama’s admitted disconnect from “the taste of war” makes him a president — and a man — uniquely suited for our modern era. There has been no “home front” in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns; the vast majority of Americans have not confronted the evils of war in the same way they did during WWII or even Vietnam. We are desensitized, and thus may not act so easily to stave off further bloodshed.

Conservative pundits have used this article to reinforce Obama’s naivete and harmful passivity towards Russia. What I gleaned from the article, however, was that the President was (and presumably still is) operating within a geopolitical universe in which all-out war between superpowers is both inconceivable and apocalyptic. His favorable treatment of pro-disarmament campus groups, Arms Race Alternative and Students Against Militarism, never reaches treasonous heights of moral equivalency or defeatism. Rather, it is a far-sighted recognition that the generations born into a world wherein traditional warfare has become Armageddon has a burden to rectify “distorted national priorities” that are formulated, in part, on assumptions that do not apply to the nuclear age. Obama’s critics, by lambasting his stance in 1983, would return us to the theoretical foundations that supported our foreign policy in 1943.

President Obama is the first president to have been born at the end of the Baby Boom Generation; he is the first to have come of age in the post-Vietnam haze of disillusionment with war. His philosophy does not mirror the conservative tropes of McCain and others, who still perhaps view Russia as not simply a regional destabilizer, but as our once and future arch-nemesis. This is not a worldview for the 21st century in which our greatest threats will, in no scenario, emerge from rival nation-states.

For all of us at Cornell struggling to make sense of a world that suddenly seems too much like the one in which our parents grew up, the young president himself has some words of direction: “Indeed, the most pervasive malady of the collegiate system specifically, and the American experience generally, is that elaborate patterns of knowledge and theory have been disembodied from individual choices and government policy.” We cannot let our collegiate instinct to distill real-world events into neatly presented theories allow our discussion of the Ukrainian crisis to culminate in an intellectual resumption of the Cold War. Our generation, too, has a duty to acknowledge the absolute impermissibility of a war between major powers without having experienced such a war for ourselves. For, as President Obama wrote three decades ago, “there are some things we shouldn’t have to live through in order to want to avoid the experience.”