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War-Weariness As an Excuse

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Are Americans today war-weary? Sure. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been frustrating and tiring. Are Americans today unusually war-weary? No. They were wearier after the much larger and even more frustrating conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. And even though the two world wars of the last century had more satisfactory outcomes, their magnitude was such that they couldn’t help but induce a significant sense of war-weariness. And history shows that they did.

So American war-weariness isn’t new. Using it as an excuse to avoid maintaining our defenses or shouldering our responsibilities isn’t new, either. But that doesn’t make it admirable.

The March 5 Wall Street Journal featured a letter from Heidi Szrom of Valparaiso, Indiana. She was responding to an earlier letter defending President Obama’s foreign policies against a powerful critique in the Journal by the historian Niall Ferguson (“America’s Global Retreat”). The first letter writer noted Ferguson’s statement that more people may have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East in the Obama years than under Bush, but excused Obama:

True, but it is also equally certain that fewer Americans have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the previous one, and this is what matters more now to a war-weary American public.

To which Ms. Szrom responded: 

According to pundits, the president and letter writers, America is “war weary.” Every time I hear this, I wonder: Did you serve? Did you volunteer to fight oppression in foreign lands? Did your son or brother or husband? If so, then I understand and sympathize with your complaint .  .  . unlike most of those who utter this shopworn phrase.

Perhaps the country’s weariness stems from a reluctance to face unpleasant truths—one of which is that power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. .  .  . History tells us it will only be a temporary reprieve. Our current defense cuts ensure that we will be woefully unprepared to face the next test. We are so weary that we are falling asleep.

Well said. If only Republican elected officials were half as clear-minded and nearly as courageous as Ms. Szrom in taking on the claim that we all need to defer to, to bow down to, our own war-weariness. In fact, the idol of war-weariness can be challenged. A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied. Indeed, events are right now doing the awakening. All that’s needed is the rallying. And the turnaround can be fast. Only 5 years after the end of the Vietnam war, and 15 years after our involvement there began in a big way, Ronald Reagan ran against both Democratic dovishness and Republican détente. He proposed confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding our military. It was said that the country was too war-weary, that it was too soon after Vietnam, for Reagan’s stern and challenging message. Yet Reagan won the election in 1980. And by 1990 an awakened America had won the Cold War.

The next president will be elected in 2016, 15 years after 9/11 and 5 years after our abandonment of Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Pundits will say that it would be politically foolish to try to awaken Americans rather than cater to their alleged war-weariness. We can’t prove them wrong. Perhaps it would be easier for a Republican to win in 2016 running after the fashion of Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1920 rather than that of Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1980.

But what would such a victory be worth? The term “war-weary” (actually “war-wearied”) may have first appeared in Shakespeare. In Henry VI, Part 1 (Act IV, Scene 4), the Earl of Somerset, for reasons of domestic political calculation, resists the entreaty of Sir William Lucy to go to the aid of his fellow English lord, “the over-daring Talbot,”

Who, ring’d about with bold adversity,

Cries out for noble York and Somerset,

To beat assailing death from his weak legions:

And whiles the honourable captain there

Drops bloody sweat from his war-wearied limbs,

And, in advantage lingering, looks for rescue,

You, his false hopes, the trust of England’s honour,

Keep off aloof with worthless emulation.

Somerset fails to rescue Talbot, but grandly states,

If he be dead, brave Talbot, then adieu!

To which Lucy replies,

His fame lives in the world, his shame in you.

Can Republicans do no better than shamefully to emulate Somerset and Obama (“I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me”)? Will no brave leader step forward to honorably awaken us from our unworthy sleep?

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