In evaluating the Global War on Terrorism, the overriding question is necessarily this one: has more than a decade of armed conflict enhanced the well-being of the American people? The war fought by citizen-soldiers at the behest of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did so. Can we say the same for the war launched by George W. Bush and perpetuated in modified form by Barack Obama?
Before taking stock of what a decade of war has actually produced, recall the expectations that prevailed shortly before war began. On the eve of World War II, the mood was anxious. For a nation still caught in the throes of a protracted economic slump, the prospect of a European war carried limited appeal; the previous one, just two decades earlier, had yielded little but disappointment. By comparison, expectations on the near side of the Global War on Terrorism were positively bullish. For citizens of the planet’s “sole remaining superpower,” the 20th century had ended on a high note. The 21st century appeared rich with promise.
Speaking just prior to midnight on December 31, 1999, President Bill Clinton surveyed the century just ending and identified its central theme as “the triumph of freedom and free people.” To this “great story,” Clinton told his listeners, the United States had made a pivotal contribution. Contemplating the future, he glimpsed even better days ahead—“the triumph of freedom wisely used.” All that was needed to secure that triumph was for Americans to exploit and export “the economic benefits of globalization, the political benefits of democracy and human rights, [and] the educational and health benefits of all things modern.” At the dawning of the new millennium, he concluded confidently, “the sun will always rise on America as long as each new generation lights the fire of freedom.”
What the president’s remarks lacked in terms of insight or originality they made up for in familiarity. During the decade following the Cold War, such expectations had become commonplace. Skillful politician that he was, Clinton was telling Americans what they already believed.
The passing of one further decade during which U.S. forces seeking to ignite freedom’s fire flooded the Greater Middle East reduced Bill Clinton’s fin-de-siècle formula for peace and prosperity to tatters. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the United States touched off a conflagration of sorts, albeit with results other than intended. Yet for the average American, the most painful setbacks occurred not out there in wartime theaters but back here on the home front. Instead of freedom wisely used, the decade’s theme became: bubbles burst and dreams deflated.
Above all, those dreams had fostered expectations of unprecedented material abundance—more of everything for everyone. Alas, this was not to be. Although “crisis” ranks alongside “historic” atop any list of overused terms in American political discourse, the Great Recession that began in 2007 turned out to be the real deal: a crisis of historic proportions.
With the ongoing “war” approaching the 10-year mark, the U.S. economy shed a total of 7.9 million jobs in just three years. For only the second time since World War II, the official unemployment rate topped 10 percent. The retreat from that peak came at an achingly slow pace. By some estimates, actual unemployment—including those who had simply given up looking for work—was double the official figure. Accentuating the pain was the duration of joblessness; those laid off during the Great Recession stayed out of work substantially longer than the unemployed during previous postwar economic downturns. When new opportunities did eventually materialize, they usually came with smaller salaries and either reduced benefits or none at all.
As an immediate consequence, millions of Americans lost their homes or found themselves “underwater,” the value of their property less than what they owed on their mortgages. Countless more were thrown into poverty, the number of those officially classified as poor reaching the highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking such data. A drop in median income erased gains made during the previous 15 years. Erstwhile members of the great American middle class shelved or abandoned outright carefully nurtured plans to educate their children or retire in modest comfort. Inequality reached gaping proportions with 1 percent of the population amassing a full 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Month after month, grim statistics provided fodder for commentators distributing blame, for learned analysts offering contradictory explanations of why prosperity had proven so chimerical, and for politicians absolving themselves of responsibility while fingering as culprits members of the other party. Yet beyond its immediate impact, what did the Great Recession signify? Was the sudden appearance of hard times in the midst of war merely an epiphenomenon, a period of painful adjustment and belt-tightening after which the world’s sole superpower would be back in the saddle? Or had the Great Recession begun a Great Recessional, with the United States in irreversible retreat from the apex of global dominion?
The political response to this economic calamity paid less attention to forecasting long-term implications than to fixing culpability. On the right, an angry Tea Party movement blamed Big Government. On the left, equally angry members of the Occupy movement blamed Big Business, especially Wall Street. What these two movements had in common was that each cast the American people as victims. Nefarious forces had gorged themselves at the expense of ordinary folk. By implication, the people were themselves absolved of responsibility for the catastrophe that had befallen them and their country.
Yet consider a third possibility. Perhaps the people were not victims but accessories. On the subject of war, Americans can no more claim innocence than they can regarding the effects of smoking or excessive drinking. As much as or more than Big Government or Big Business, popular attitudes toward war, combining detachment, neglect, and inattention, helped create the crisis in which the United States is mired.
A “country made by war,” to cite the title of a popular account of U.S. military history, the United States in our own day is fast becoming a country undone by war. Citizen armies had waged the wars that made the nation powerful (if not virtuous) and Americans rich (if not righteous). The character of those armies—preeminently the ones that preserved the Union and helped defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—testified to an implicit covenant between citizens and the state. According to its terms, war was the people’s business and could not be otherwise. For the state to embark upon armed conflict of any magnitude required informed popular consent. Actual prosecution of any military campaign larger than a police action depended on the willingness of citizens in large numbers to become soldiers. Seeing war through to a conclusion hinged on the state’s ability to sustain active popular support in the face of adversity.
In their disgust over Vietnam, Americans withdrew from this arrangement. They disengaged from war, with few observers giving serious consideration to the implications of doing so. Events since, especially since 9/11, have made those implications manifest. In the United States, war no longer qualifies in any meaningful sense as the people’s business. In military matters, Americans have largely forfeited their say.
As a result, in formulating basic military policy and in deciding when and how to employ force, the state no longer requires the consent, direct participation, or ongoing support of citizens. As an immediate consequence, Washington’s penchant for war has appreciably increased, without, however, any corresponding improvement in the ability of political and military leaders to conclude its wars promptly or successfully. A further result, less appreciated but with even larger implications, has been to accelerate the erosion of the traditional concept of democratic citizenship.
In other words, the afflictions besetting the American way of life derive in some measure from shortcomings in the contemporary American way of war. The latter have either begotten or exacerbated the former.
Since 9/11, Americans have, in fact, refuted George C. Marshall by demonstrating a willingness to tolerate “a Seven Years [and longer] War.” It turns out, as the neoconservative pundit Max Boot observed, that an absence of popular support “isn’t necessarily fatal” for a flagging war effort. For an inveterate militarist like Boot, this comes as good news. “Public apathy,” he argues, “presents a potential opportunity,” making it possible to prolong “indefinitely” conflicts in which citizens are not invested.
Yet such news is hardly good. Apathy toward war is symptomatic of advancing civic decay, finding expression in apathy toward the blight of child poverty, homelessness, illegitimacy, and eating disorders also plaguing the country. Shrugging off wars makes it that much easier for Americans—overweight, overmedicated, and deeply in hock—to shrug off the persistence of widespread hunger, the patent failures of their criminal justice system, and any number of other problems. The thread that binds together this pattern of collective anomie is plain to see: unless the problem you’re talking about affects me personally, why should I care?
For years after 9/11, America’s armed force floundered abroad. Although the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq began promisingly enough, in neither case were U.S. forces able to close the deal. With the fall of Richmond in April 1865, the Civil War drew to a definitive close. No such claim could be made in connection with the fall of Kabul in November 2001. When it came to dramatic effect, the staged April 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square stands on a par with the September 1945 surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri. There, however, the comparison ends. The one event rang down the curtain; the other merely signified a script change. Meanwhile, Americans at home paid little more than lip service to the travails endured by the troops.
Beginning in 2007—just as the “surge” was ostensibly salvaging the Iraq War—a sea of troubles engulfed the home front. From those troubles, the continuation of war offered no escape. If anything, the perpetuation (and expansion) of armed conflict plunged the nation itself that much more deeply underwater. Once again, as in the 1860s and 1940s, war was playing a major role in determining the nation’s destiny. Yet this time around, there was no upside. Virtually all of the consequences—political, economic, social, cultural, and moral—proved negative. To a nation gearing up for global war, FDR had promised jobs, help for the vulnerable, an end to special privilege, the protection of civil liberties, and decisive military victory over the nation’s enemies. To a considerable degree, Roosevelt made good on that promise. Judged by those same criteria, the Bush-Obama global war came up short on all counts.
The crux of the problem lay with two symmetrical 1 percents: the 1 percent whose members get sent to fight seemingly endless wars and that other 1 percent whose members demonstrate such a knack for enriching themselves in “wartime.” Needless to say, the two 1 percents neither intersect nor overlap. Few of the very rich send their sons or daughters to fight. Few of those leaving the military’s ranks find their way into the ranks of the plutocracy. Rather than rallying to the colors, Harvard graduates these days flock to Wall Street or the lucrative world of consulting. Movie star heroics occur exclusively on screen, while millionaire professional athletes manage to satisfy their appetite for combat on the court and playing field.
Yet a people who permit war to be waged in their name while offloading onto a tiny minority responsibility for its actual conduct have no cause to complain about an equally small minority milking the system for all it’s worth. Crudely put, if the very rich are engaged in ruthlessly exploiting the 99 percent who are not, their actions are analogous to that of American society as a whole in its treatment of soldiers: the 99 percent who do not serve in uniform just as ruthlessly exploit the 1 percent who do.
To excuse or justify their conduct, the very rich engage in acts of philanthropy. With a similar aim, the not-so-rich proclaim their undying admiration of the troops.
As the bumper sticker proclaims, freedom isn’t free. Conditioned to believe that the exercise of global leadership is essential to preserving their freedom, and further conditioned to believe that leadership best expresses itself in the wielding of military might, Americans have begun to discover that trusting in the present-day American way of war to preserve the present-day American way of life entails exorbitant and unexpected costs.
Yet as painful as they may be, these costs represent something far more disturbing. As a remedy for all the ailments afflicting the body politic, war—at least as Americans have chosen to wage it—turns out to be a fundamentally inappropriate prescription. Rather than restoring the patient to health, war (as currently practiced pursuant to freedom as currently defined) constitutes a form of prolonged ritual suicide. Rather than building muscle, it corrupts and putrefies. 
The choice Americans face today ends up being as straightforward as it is stark. If they believe war essential to preserving their freedom, it’s incumbent upon them to prosecute war with the same seriousness their forebears demonstrated in the 1940s. Washington’s war would then truly become America’s war with all that implies in terms of commitment and priorities. Should Americans decide, on the other hand, that freedom as presently defined is not worth the sacrifices entailed by real war, it becomes incumbent upon them to revise their understanding of freedom. Either choice—real war or an alternative conception of freedom—would entail a more robust definition of what it means to be a citizen.
Yet the dilemma just described may be more theoretical than real. Without the players fully understanding the stakes, the die has already been cast. Having forfeited responsibility for war’s design and conduct, the American people may find that Washington considers that grant of authority irrevocable. The state now owns war, with the country consigned to observer status. Meanwhile, the juggernaut of mainstream, commercial culture continues to promulgate the four pop Gospels of American Freedom: novelty, autonomy, celebrity, and consumption. Efforts to resist or reverse these tendencies, whether by right-leaning traditionalists (many of them religiously inclined) or left-leaning secular humanists (sometimes allied with religious radicals) have been feeble and ineffective.
Americans must therefore accept the likelihood of a future in which real if futile sacrifices exacted of the few who fight will serve chiefly to facilitate metaphorical death for the rest who do not.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches at Boston University. This essay is adapted from Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country , published in hardcover by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC, in September. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Bacevich. All rights reserved.