- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

The other day National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez went to see Oliver Stone’s new movie “World Trade Center” and remarked:

“It’s about our love of family, and the work we’ll do for them, and the joy they bring us. It’s about the irreplaceable, incomparable bond between a man and wife. It’s about the united outrage we feel when Americans are murdered. It’s about why we fight.”

This prompted the following letter: “For the record, and unless I am somehow uninformed, I think it fair to state that you do not fight, you never have and, hopefully, never will have to. You are not a member of any of the branches of the armed forces, nor a reservist. You are not, and I am fairly sure, have never been engaged in a combat situation. Your contribution to this war is limited solely to your ability to exercise the skillset provided by your liberal arts education in the pages of the National Review.

“It does a tremendous disservice to your readers and is extraordinarily disrespectful to the millions of men and women around the world who are in uniform and fighting and dying for their countries.”

What a bizarrely wrongheaded attitude. Aside from anything else, I wonder if the gentleman (if that’s the word) understands how freakish it would strike every previous generation of Americans (and, indeed, almost every other society in history) to berate a blameless young lady for not grabbing a rifle and heading to the front. And, if the issue is “extraordinary disrespect” to the troops, it’s utterly self-defeating to argue only active-duty servicemen get proprietorial rights in a war.

In fact, the notion “fighting” a war is the monopoly of those “in uniform” gets to the heart of why America and its allies are having so much difficulty in the present struggle. Nations, not armies, go to war. Or, to be more precise, nations, not armies, win wars. America has a military that cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but so what? The first President Bush assembled the biggest coalition in history for Gulf War One, and the bigger and more notionally powerful it got, the better Saddam Hussein’s chances of surviving it became. Because the bigger it got, the less likely it was to be driven by a coherent set of war aims.

War is not like firefighting: It’s not about going to the burning house, identifying what needs to be done, and doing it; it’s not a technical solution to an obvious problem. And, if you think it is, you find yourself like George Bush the elder in 1991, standing in front of the gates of Baghdad and saying, “Er, OK. Now what?”

Some people look at the burning house and see Hezbollah terrorism; others see Israeli obduracy, or a lack of American diplomacy, or Iranian machinations, or a need to get the permanent Security Council members to send peacekeepers, or “poverty” or “despair” or an almighty pile-up of abstract nouns.

You can have the best, fastest state-of-the-art car on the road, but, if you don’t know where you’re going, the fellow in the rusting ‘73 Oldsmobile will get there and you won’t. It’s the ideas that drive a war and the support they command in the broader society that determine whether you’ll see it through to real victory. After Korea and Vietnam and Gulf War One, it shouldn’t be necessary to state that.

No one can argue with U.S. military superiority. America has the most powerful armed forces on the planet. The Pentagon is responsible for 40 percent of the world’s military spending, and outspends the next 20 biggest militaries combined. It’s responsible for almost 80 per cent of military research-and-development spending, which means the capability gap between it and everyone else widens every day. So why doesn’t it feel like that?

In Iraq, the leviathan has somehow managed to give the impression that what previous midrank powers would have regarded as a little light colonial policing has left it stretched dangerously thin and bogged down in an almighty quagmire. Even if it were only lamebrain leftist media spin, the fact it’s accepted by large numbers of Americans and huge majorities of Europeans is a reminder that in free societies a military of unprecedented dominance is not the only source of power. More important, significant proportions of America’s enemies believe the spin. In April 2003 was Baby Assad nervous that he would be next? You bet. Is he nervous now?

We live in an age of inversely proportional deterrence: The more militarily powerful a civilized nation is, the less its enemies need fear its full force ever being unleashed. They know America and other Western powers fight under the most stringent self-imposed etiquette. Overwhelming force is one thing; overwhelming force behaving underwhelmingly as a matter of policy is quite another.

So even the most powerful military in the world is subject to broader cultural constraints. When Kathryn Lopez’s e-mailer sneers that “your contribution to this war is limited solely to your ability to exercise the skillset provided by your liberal arts education,” he accidentally put his finger on the great imponderable: whether the skill set provided by the typical U.S., British and European education these last 30 years is now one of the biggest obstacles to civilizational self-preservation.

A nation that psychologically outsources war to a small career soldiery risks losing its ability even to grasp concepts like “the enemy”: the professionalization of war is also the ghettoization of war. As John Podhoretz wondered in the New York Post the other day, “What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?”

That’s a good question. If you watch the grisly U.S. network coverage of any global sporting event, you have no doubt who your team is meant to be: If there are plucky Belgian hurdlers or Fijian shot putters in the Olympics, you never hear a word of them on ABC and NBC; it’s all heartwarming soft-focus profiles of athletes from Indiana and Nebraska. The America media have no problem being ferociously jingoistic when it comes to the two-man luge.

Yet, when it’s a war, there is no “our” team, not on American TV. Like snotty French ice-dancing judges, the media watch the U.S. skate across the rink and then hand out a succession of snippy 4.3s — for lack of Miranda rights in Fallujah, insufficient menu options at Gitmo.

Our enemies understand “why we fight” and where the fight is. They know that in the greater scheme of things the mosques of Jakarta and Amsterdam and Toronto and Dearborn are more important territory than the Sunni Triangle. The U.S. military is the best-equipped and best-trained in the world. But it’s not enough, it never has been and it never will be.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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