This is one of those pieces I probably shouldn’t write, but it’s been gnawing away at the back of my mind for… good lord, close to two decades. And I’m tired of holding it back.
Years and years ago, I read one of the more fascinating and troubling novels I’ve ever read — Larry Beinhart’s “American Hero.” It was later optioned into a movie, and became the legendary “Wag The Dog” — but man, was it bastardized in the making. They took the core concept — a president engineering a war for political gain — but turned it into a comedy.
The original novel was no comedy. It was dead serious, and it named names. In the book, dying Republican operative and genius Lee Atwater came up with one last scheme to help President George H. W. Bush win re-election. He talked about how a war — quick, relatively bloodless, and with a clear bad guy — could give him a lock. It took a Hollywood producer to put together the whole package. And they even found a way to persuade Saddam Hussein to play along — guarantee his regime would stand, and he’d become a hero to the Arab world for standing up to The Great Satan.
And the most disturbing thing? This was the only fictional novel I’d ever seen with over 100 footnotes.
Anyway, one of the key points was how Atwater would persuade Bush — a fundamentally decent man — to do something like engineer a war. And the rationale was one that has stuck with me. I don’t know if I buy into it, but damn if it isn’t something worth thinking about.
From 1952 through 1992, every single American president was a military veteran — and, with the exception of Carter, a World War II veteran. (And from 1960 to 1980, they were all Navy veterans.) Since then, both Clinton and Bush II were also products of the Viet Nam era. Obama is the first president since… good lord, I can’t think of one — who was pretty much completely divorced from war.
The theory put forth in the book is that America needs wars, every now and then, to produce leaders. That war forces the truly capable to the forefront, that it is a crucible where our younger generation is tested and learns the hard lessons that seeing combat — or, at least, living through war — teaches.
It also tends to remind us, collectively, that freedom isn’t free, that liberty is not the natural state of man. That most of history consists of people oppressing, exploiting, enslaving, and slaughtering each other, and how our current state is not destiny, but was deliberately created by some very intelligent and committed people — and we need to constantly work to preserve that.
I think that is the real message — or, at least, one interpretation — of Jefferson’s statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” It’s not an exhortation, it’s a warning of an actual necessity — if we want to preserve that tree, we will need to defend it. We must defend it against those who would cut it down, and be willing to die if necessary.
In that sense, Beinart’s rationale makes a very disturbing sense. If we go too long without a war, or some other threat, we grow complacent and lazy. We begin to take our freedom for granted, and we lose a bit of the drive and… well, magic that makes America what it is.
We end up, quite frankly, an “entitlement nation.” Or, as Obama thinks of them, “my base.”
Sorry, this was supposed to be a meta piece, bigger issues than today’s transient politics. That just slipped out.
Anyway, we’re now seeing a lot of veterans of the first Gulf War get up in age where they’re taking on significant leadership roles. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have given us a bumper crop of younger veterans, who will keep the lessons of those conflicts with them — not the arguments for or against the wars, but the actual experiences learned on the battlefield — for the rest of their lives.
And I think that is a good thing for the country. Of our 42 presidents, only 12 had no military experience, according to Wikipedia. But they also note that Franklin Roosevelt had been Secretary of the Navy, Herbert Hoover was a Guide for the Marines during the Boxer Rebellion, Taft was Secretary of War during Theodore Roosevelt’s second term, and both John Adams and John Quincy Adams were tangentially involved in the Revolutionary War. That leaves just Van Buren, Cleveland, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Clinton, and Obama who made it to the presidency completely apart from the military.
This is the kind of thing that comes to my mind when I hear talk about “the cost of war,” “avoiding war at any cost,” “war as the last option,” and other similar sentiments. It’s terribly un-PC to discuss the benefits of war — but they are quite real.
Beinart was not completely off base when he put that argument into Lee Atwater’s mouth.