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militarized cultureLong after the Cold War finished and the jejune Mr. Francis Fukuyama declared that history had ended, the strategic legacies haunt us yet. While the Soviet Union has gone, the Cold War may kill us like some rusty ordinance dug still-live out of the battlefields of the Somme.

Although communism exists in backwaters such as North Korea, Laos and Berkeley, and morphed into modern Vietnamese and Chinese National Socialism, historians might give it a formal lifespan of 72 years between Russia’s 1917 Revolution and the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The most cautious historians estimate that communist  governments killed 100 million of their own subjects, averaging around 3,800 people daily: more victims than one 9/11 attack every day for nearly three-quarters of a century. Few could fault Mr. Reagan calling it an Evil Empire.

The strategy and diplomacy needed to defeat the Evil Empire often forced the West to take sides in regional issues that appear unwise or unfair but only in retrospect. Three of many examples abroad may be South Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

South Africa was of enormous strategic importance to the West, partly because it contained the biggest supply of chromium outside of the former Soviet Bloc, and chromium is needed for stainless steel. Driven to it, perhaps, the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) was tightly aligned with the USSR, its (white) policy commissar Joe Slovo was a committed pro-Soviet communist, and so many Western policy-makers who were opposed to this cruel and institutionalized racism felt that they had to turn a blind eye to it in self-defence.  The legitimate feelings of guilt survive but the Soviet break-up, a new generation of ANC leaders, and the wise and saintly Nelson Mandela ended much of the problem globally.

Not so in the Middle East, where European guilt for the Holocaust and America’s blind faith in Israel may have driven Yassir Arafat’s PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) into the Soviet sphere and into terrorism as well. At very least, siding against justice for Palestinian Christians and Muslims (however understandable under the circumstances) cost the West two generations of delay that could have more easily been solved earlier and still keeps the region on the brink of war. In Iran in 1953, the greed of Anglo-American oil companies, and misplaced Cold War fear of elected Tudah Party leftists, led the CIA to install the brutal Shah, toppling the only democracy that Iran ever had.

The founding father of Indian democracy, Mr. Nehru, was mentally colonized by Soviet communism long before his country became independent. This led the West to seek an anti-Soviet bulwark in Pakistan, made the Kashmir problem into a Cold War issue-by-proxy, and in the 1980s led America to help Pakistan’s Islamist dictator, General Zia ul Haq, radicalize the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. The legitimate Kashmiri resistance was eliminated, replaced by Pakistan-controlled Islamist terrorists who together with the Taliban descendants of the most radical Afghan mujahideen now threaten India, Afghanistan, Pakistan itself and Western interests deep into Central Asia. America’s blind-eye to the development of Pakistani nuclear weapons was another Cold War legacy.

The greatest cost to ending the Cold War may be its domestic effect on America, recalling the (ostensibly) French proverb that everyone becomes what he hates the most, and Sir Karl Popper’s opposition to the Vietnam War, not because of what it did to communists but because of its impact on the United States.

Perhaps Britain’s best-respected columnist, the usually ‘small-c conservative’ Sir Simon Jenkins, asks “Why do we still go to war? We seem unable to stop. We find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet we keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain’s borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again our leaders crave battle. Why?”

“Iraq and the Afghan war are costing America $3bn a week,” he continues, ”and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won…Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on “a surge”. Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory that is overtime.”

His answer is President Eisenhower’s, who warned of how the state-funded “military-industrial complex… (could) endanger our liberties and democratic processes”.

Sir Simon wonders “what Eisenhower would make of today’s US, with a military grown from 3.5 million people to 5 million. The western nations face less of a threat to their integrity and security than ever in history, yet their defence industries cry for ever more money and ever more things to do. The cold war strategist, George Kennan, wrote prophetically: ‘Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.’”

Although born earlier, this unholy alliance between state, soldiers and industry remains the most lethal legacy of the Cold War, and not only in terms of lives lost or fortune squandered when America can least afford it.

Keeping a specialized industry at war has contributed to a militarized American culture and a “police-state mentality” that many writers have compared to Wilhelmine Germany. There, national unification led to industrial prowess and a militant-culture was needed to keep Krupp and the others busy.  The glee with which Germany sent her sons into the Great War would astonish anyone but the fans of Fox News (who would be jealous).

Of course, America has been bellicose for a very long time, at least since the Spanish-American War and Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. While Wilson was elected on a peace ticket, he soon rallied crowds to send American boys into the trenches of 1917, recalling Hermann Goering on trial later at Nuremburg: “Why of course the people don’t want war… Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

So, in the 1920s De Silva, Brown & Henderson dance-hit, the “Varsity Drag…gets as much applause as waving the flag,” and they don’t mean waving it for the vision of the Founders, George Washington’s Farewell Address, anything in Tocqueville’s America, ice-cream socials or major-league baseball. They mean global bullying, and wherever possible murdering little brown people. America’s size, self-obsession and blissfully uninquisitive ignorance make empathy difficult, morality uncomfortable and intervention appealing.

But what American bellicosity lacked in the Jazz Age was today’s enormous, powerful and entrenched war-lobby; its supportive politicians of both parties; and its fake-bashful, “aw-shucks-eloquent,” pimps-in-uniform so eager to sacrifice naive soldiers for power, contracts and cash. And perhaps an American public more willing than ever – emasculated by their wives; servile in their employment; impoverished, bullied and micro-managed by their government; they may take vicarious pleasure in seeing their masters apply the knout at home or abroad to anyone else but them for a  change. Russians are said to be like that, for the past 1,000 years, and so maybe we do become what most we hate.

Was it worth the price to win the Cold War and defeat the most murderous ideology in history? While some argue that the USSR would have collapsed by itself, Soviet plans published in the early 1990s showed their generals agitating for a Reagan-era invasion of Western Europe precisely as their economy entered fatal decline. More important is what to do with the troublesome legacies.

For all friends of America and especially conservative optimists, this underscores the political importance of undoing the war industry and its metastasized power, and reversing a cultural battle against militarism which we have been losing for almost 120 years. For pessimists, the coming national bankruptcy and currency collapse, bringing poverty and hunger unseen in the West since Europe in the 1940s, may be the catalyst needed to render overseas bellicosity unaffordable and re-evaluation at least possible.

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6 replies to this post
  1. "For pessimists, the coming national bankruptcy and currency collapse, bringing poverty and hunger unseen in the West since Europe in the 1940s, may be the catalyst needed to render overseas bellicosity unaffordable and re-evaluation at least possible."

    All my ranting about debt and fiscal collapse here at TIC probably puts me in the category of pessimists of which you speak.

    Empires tend to fall apart not because the homefront grows weary of supporting them, but because at some point there's simply no more money with which to do so. Maybe I spend too much time looking at GAO fiscal projections and Medicare/Social Security trustee reports (I figure since my Congressmen aren't reading them, so someone should), but looking at the numbers it's frighteningly obvious something has to give. Paul Ryan's budget plan, however intimidating, is only the beginning of the austerity steps necessary to right the ship. Yet we can't even stomach a serious conversation about that.

    Pessimism? Perhaps. But if someone sees a different road ahead, I'm all ears.

  2. Brother John, many thanks. Sometimes I think that all one need know about economics is Newton's 3rd Law of Physics (equal and opposite reaction). Given what I think to be the size of public and private debt, I cannot imagine how modern Brits or Americans will tighten their belts sufficiently, much less what it will take for the politicians to lead it. Perhaps there's enough wealth on the planet to back the elevator that falls slower than the others, but it's hardly a cause for cheer. Well, one way or another, everyone who wanted smaller government is going to get his wish.

  3. I strongly agree that the military industrial complex is a big problem but I doubt Yasser Arafat was driven to terrorism by American policy. When the Israelis supported Arafat's entrance into Gaza, Arafat proceeded to systematically eliminate and incarcerate local Arabs whoes civil society he proceeded to destroy. Arafat was a murderer of anyone who stood in his way.

  4. Mr.Roth, sometimes I write in haste and repent at leisure! In retrospect, nobody is 'driven' to terrorism for there are always the saintly options that so many choose to follow. And yes, Arafat was ghastly in too many ways (the best that my Palestinian friends can manage is to say that they admired his tenacity, no great praise. All of them, I think, were relieved when he died). But the research of Israeli 'New Historians,' using declassified information, point to intentional removal of Arab populations from the late 1940s, and I believe that America's blind support to Israel has worked against the strength and survival of both nations (I'd call for the phrase 'tough love' but someone might mistake me for Oprah Winfrey). Many thanks.

  5. John? Others? Did I do this right?

    An economist at Boston University calculates that America, public and private, owes 8 times its GDP (once you strip out all the accounting tricks). That means 8 years' worth of national production, or around 100 months' worth. If they borrowed that money at 6%, they'd have to pay 6 month's earnings every year just on the interest, never touching the principal.

    That does not include future spending, which may be 30% a year for government. So, now past interest and current govt annual spending will eat up 9 months a year – without paying off a dollar of the debt. forever. How many families can live for a year on what they earn in four remaining months?

  6. Stephen, it depends on what that BU economist lumped into his debt estimate. Did he include future liabilities for things like Social Security, Medicare, govt. employee pensions? These things don't count as debt technically, but as the recent budget fight in DC showed, future liabilities are a political third rail and, barring a game changer, might as well be debt.

    Your ultimate point is correct — debt service alone will chew up a significant portion of federal spending at some point. I'm not an accountant or budget wonk but I tend to think the problem will be even worse because in order to attract buyers for our debt, interest rate will have to grow significantly. At some point Treasury bonds are no longer attractive at rock-bottom interest rates.

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