Over and over again we hear that Americans have lost their traditional willingness to use military force in places like Syria and Iran for a simple reason: They are war weary. This is often stated as an obvious, undeniable truth connected to the winding down of two long wars in Afghanistan (begun in 2001) and Iraq (begun in 2003). Yet, few bother to see if this is actually true and, if so, what it means for the United States.
If the connection were that simple, how can we explain American behavior after World War I and World War II? For the United States did not even enter World War I until April 1917, 32 months after the war started, and seriously engage in combat until September 1918, only two months before the end of the war. Its 55,000 battle losses were far less than 1% of total fatalities (9.5 million) suffered in the war. And none of the war was fought on American soil but rather it devastated significant areas of northern France, Eastern Europe and even part of Turkey.
Yet, with minimal casualties and no property losses, the United States, not even joining the League of Nations conceived of by President Wilson, happily retreated from the world back to isolationism) and lapsed into the joyful isolationism of the Roaring Twenties.
The reverse happened in World War II. There the United States suffered the trauma of Pearl Harbor, the death of 300,000 men in combat, over one million injured, full scale military mobilization (12 million men conscripted into the military), and civilian rationing. The United States was engaged in a global war for three and a half years in Asia, Africa and Europe, and over five million men deployed abroad in combat. There were almost daily American bombing raids for years over Germany while American and British forces launched the greatest amphibious invasion in history at Normandy in June, 1944. American naval forces supported island hopping operations against the Japan while an American-British task force invaded Italy, and the war ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs over Japan – and all this did not promote war weariness.
Instead, after the longest, bloodiest and most protracted foreign war in its history, the United States, intensely war weary, leapt out of isolationism into becoming a global superpower with bases all over the world and two years later fighting the Cold War, especially in the Korean War (36,000 fatalities) and Vietnam War (56,000 fatalities).
By comparison, the recent wars in Afghanistan (began 2001) and Iraq (began 2003) have barely impacted the United States, Its 6,500 fatalities constitute not 1%, not even .1%, but an infinitesimal .002% of the population, or one fatality for less than one in every 50,000 Americans. Unlike earlier wars, the soldiers were not recruited from the population but belonged to a volunteer army. And the cost of the two wars, while high ($150 billion dollars/year) came to barely 1% of the GDP.
Triumph of personal impressions
Americans are discouraged not so much by an alleged "war weariness" but by numerous other problems such as slow economic growth, terrible rollout of Obamacare, concerns about an Iranian nuclear threat, immigration, and declining American competitiveness in the world. As a result President Obama's popularity has cratered to the high 30s and low 40s.
Even more telling, in his new book "Duty," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, observes that "the president doesn't trust his commander" (Gen. David H. Petraeus), "can't stand" the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out." The triumph of personal impressions over classic security policies mars key areas of American foreign policy.
The notion of "peace making" has led to seeing "favoritism" towards Israel as costing us too much in the region. The historical argument that American involvement in the Middle East is a modern day phenomenon ignores our entanglements in the region back to the Barbary Wars. Poorly thought-out axioms, such as making peace with our enemies and not our friends, lead to mistakenly viewing Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as potentially constructive partners once they are brought into the political tent.
Finally, let us look beyond the American experiences with war weariness. Surely, Russia, after losing 27 million dead in World War II, having 25 million people living in holes in the ground after the war, massive economic devastation (taking ten years to rebuild) and almost one million civilians starved to death in Leningrad alone, represented the ultimate case of war weariness. And yet, Russia not only won the war but within two years launched a global Cold War with the United States that lasted 40 years.
Americans need to remember that while wars are not intrinsically desirable, they are needed to protect the values we cherish. The famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz aptly declared that "if we read history with an open mind, we cannot fail to conclude that, among all the military virtues, the energetic conduct of war has always contributed most to glory and success."
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.