Academic journal article Parameters

Faith in War: The American Roots of Global Conflict

Academic journal article Parameters

Faith in War: The American Roots of Global Conflict

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: War has become a form of secular religion for many Americans in the modern era. Much of our deployment of military power during the last 50 years has rested on a set of absolute beliefs about the overall utility of war. In the process, policymakers and citizens alike maintain an enduring faith that the United States, via its military forces, has the power to transform societies abroad.

Religious fundamentalism. For at least the last decade and a half, countless Americans have relied on this one phrase to help them interpret violence across the globe and most certainly in the Middle East. More often than not, the words "religious" and "Islamic" become easily conflated, convenient aphorisms explaining what drives contemporary conflict. Many Westerners tend to view Islamic fundamentalism as a medieval, if not primitive, outlook; its adherents as not simply lagging in social and cultural development but turning their backs on the modern world. In the process, the lines between identity groups blur. Whether Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or the Islamic State, religious zealots--militants who have forsaken not only modernity but also Western values and the civilized world--are "savages" who kill apostates, Muslim and Christian alike, to purify the world. (1)

If subversive Islamic fundamentalists selectively interpret the sacred text of the Quran to justify violence, is it possible Americans are equally discriminatory when defending their own, seemingly moral, obligations for waging war? (2) In truth, much of America's deployment of military power during the last 50 years, even back to the early twentieth century, rested on a set of absolute beliefs, convictions amounting to a sort of secular fundamentalism. Policymakers and citizens alike possess an enduring faith that the United States, via its military forces, has the power to transform societies abroad.

While less religious in its call to arms than militant Islamic extremism, the devotion to reforming the world order in the American image still has strong theological underpinnings. Senator Albert J. Beveridge illustratively exclaimed God had "marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world" in the late 1890s. (3) Over a century later, Chris S. Kyle, the American Sniper, deployed to the Middle East to fight against "fanatics" who "hated us because we weren't Muslim." According to one account, Kyle, like many soldiers, was "deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism." (4)

Such devotionals suggest many Americans feel war is not a necessary evil; it is simply necessary. This obligation to wage war rests on the conviction that nearly all American interventions abroad are both politically and morally justifiable. Even when questions are raised about legitimacy, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Americans' faith in the transformative capacities of US military power is hardly dented. Thus, at the close of 2015, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham could argue proper military strategy would enable the United States not only to destroy the Islamic State quickly but also to do so while "creating conditions that can prevent it, or a threat like it, from ever re-emerging." (5) These aspirations rested on little evidence that the United States could achieve such far-reaching goals in a region stubbornly resistant to American influence.

Moreover, dogmatic faith in what war can deliver limits serious debate about the utility of force in achieving foreign policy objectives. Since the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, most policy deliberations centered upon the mechanics of military strategy--troop strengths, stay-behind forces, and expansion of combat beyond certain countries' borders. Left unexamined is the potentially flawed supposition that war is in fact furthering US policy goals. Hence, Andrew J. Bacevich observes that even in an era of "persistent conflict," few senior officials, even those in the Pentagon, can explain why war has become "inescapable. …

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