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National Unity and Foreign Wars

Michael Tomasky worries [1] about a lack of national unity in support of foreign wars:

All the above amounts to a proper and essentially democratic skepticism. But that skepticism travels with a less healthy companion, a kind of civic cynicism that pervades almost all public questions these days. I have trouble conjuring up, for example, any event that could make us anything like the unified country we were during World War II.

There are at least two main reasons why modern U.S. wars so rarely produce that sort of unity. The first is that the U.S. mostly doesn’t fight necessary wars in self-defense, but chooses to join or start wars that have at most a tangential connection to our security. Some are entirely unrelated to American security, and some may even do real harm to that security. No matter how defensible a military action may be, there is never going to be the same degree of support for a war of choice as there is for a war fought in self-defense, and many of our wars of choice haven’t been very defensible.

The other reason is that the enemies that the U.S. has fought over the last thirty years have not required anything close to the sort of total mobilization that the country went through in WWI and WWII. In almost all respects, that is an undeniably good thing: it means that the threats we face today are much smaller and more manageable than the ones our ancestors faced, and it means that most of our society can continue to function more or less as it normally does. Besides, it makes no sense to demand widely shared sacrifices to combat third-rate dictatorships and low-level insurgencies, and it is impossible to expect unity in support of war efforts that are neither necessary nor wise. It is also very difficult to maintain broad support for a war that doesn’t seem to have any clear purpose or discernible conclusion. No sane nation would remain unified in support of pointless wars that last a decade or more, and no one should want them to. One other reason why this degree of unity is unlikely nowadays is that Americans have generally become less accustomed to deferring to political leaders and more inclined to assume that we are being taken for a ride and misled into unnecessary dangers. All things considered, I’m not sure that this is such a bad change, since our leaders often do abuse the public’s trust and don’t deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt on such important matters.


As Tomasky will remember, there was a remarkable degree of unity in the weeks and months following 9/11 and during the earliest phase of the war in Afghanistan. That attitude prevailed as long as the main U.S. military effort overseas was directly related to responding to the attacks on the U.S. There was overwhelming support for that effort, and it is likely that this would have continued without much change for at least a few years. Once the debate over invading Iraq began, that unity started to fracture for obvious reasons. The Iraq war was completely unrelated to the attacks, and it represented a huge diversion of attention and resources into a new and unnecessary conflict. The public rallied behind the administration in 2002-03, but found that it had been sold a bill of goods and belatedly discovered that the short, cheap, and easy war that they had been promised had turned into an open-ended, expensive, and bloody conflict. The last time that the public offered broad, largely uncritical support to U.S. foreign wars, their trust was betrayed and the country was much worse off because of it. We shouldn’t be worried about a lack of unity in support of our foreign wars. We should be more concerned with avoiding the unnecessary ones, of which the current war is just the latest.

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12 Comments To "National Unity and Foreign Wars"

#1 Comment By BD On October 6, 2014 @ 8:14 am

The wonderful days of “unity” that Tomasky seems to fondly yearn for were also days of extreme rationing, severe curtailing of civil liberties (including putting American citizens in concentration camps simply because they shared ancestry with one of our enemies), and of course the death of hundreds of thousands of young Americans and the maiming of millions more. It also required us to do some pretty horrible things to enemy noncombatants in trying to win the war.

That may be what you get when you go to total war and see your own existence at stake, but these are also the things that happen when we have such “unity” that the normal and beneficial skepticism Americans have for our leaders gets thrown out the window.

#2 Comment By SDS On October 6, 2014 @ 9:06 am

“The last time that the public offered broad, largely uncritical support to U.S. foreign wars, their trust was betrayed and the country was much worse off because of it.”


#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 6, 2014 @ 10:19 am

Michael Tomasky laments the lack of national unity in support of US foreign wars and writes:

“I have trouble conjuring up, for example, any event that could make us anything like the unified country we were during World War II.”

Given the history of recent US wars, I, too, have trouble “conjuring up” such an event.

And there are reasons for that:

After Pearl Harbor my father and five uncles (the sixth uncle was too young) went out and enlisted. To be sure, a national draft had been in place since the previous year (1940), but my father, my uncles, and the vast majority of Americans believed that the Japanese destruction of the US Pacific fleet justified a Congressional declaration of war.

I don’t believe that the draft was necessary to convince my father’s generation that Pearl Harbor was a real reason to fight a war. However, the draft was one of the measures that convinced my father’s generation that the sacrifices of the war were being borne more equitably. And a sense of bearing the costs of the war more equitably was a tremendous source of US national unity.

The draft – even with its accumulated inequities — lasted until 1973 when it was replaced by an all-volunteer army. But for the last eight years of its existence the draft was not so much a unifying institution as it was a catalyst for a vigorous national debate about whether the US should be fighting a war in Vietnam. The existence of the draft forced the generation of those who would bear the brunt of the fighting Vietnam war – and their families – to ask whether the war was really worth it.

Part of the reason for eliminating the draft was that senior US planners (both civilian and military) reasoned that eliminating the draft would make future US wars would “easier to fight”: less subject to intense public scrutiny and debate – and less subject to the type of widespread public protest that might have political ramifications.

I would bet the farm that most of the 7,000 Americans who died and the 52,000 who were wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have died and been wounded if a draft had been in place. By 2003-2004 the existence of the draft would have forced a level US public debate – in town hall meetings and across US campuses – that would have forced a speeded-up abandonment of both doomed, counter-productive military adventures.

Although Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) is a man with whom I often disagree, his recent “Time Magazine” call for a re-instatement of the US draft is certainly spot-on and in the national interest:

“It’s Time for a War Tax and a Reinstated Draft” – Sept. 19, 2014


Reinstating the draft would force a series of public debates that would ultimately save the lives of thousands of Americans and save the spending of trillions of US tax dollars on a series of foreign wars that are not in the US national interest.

#4 Comment By Bill H On October 6, 2014 @ 10:27 am

The fact the the wars we have fought do not require total mobilization is part of the problem. If they are not sufficiently threatening to us to require total mobilization, then we should not fight them.

#5 Comment By Barry On October 6, 2014 @ 10:31 am

BD, for these people, restrictions on freedom due to war are a good thing. In the end, all neocons really worship Mars (so long as they, their sons and daughters don’t take a turn on his altar). I used to say ‘worship Mars’ figuratively. I now mean it literally.

#6 Comment By robby On October 6, 2014 @ 11:06 am

even if the public (and some of the media, this time) is now awake to lack of necessity for some of these new wars, those in power will do as they please and even if voted out, it wouldn’t be until the ball is already rolling.

#7 Comment By HyperIon On October 6, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

Is it only me who has a visceral response when presented with a picture of GWB? Think of the children!

#8 Comment By simon94022 On October 6, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

We also lacked national unity during the Mexican War (opposed by the Whigs), the Civil War (opposed within the North by most Democrats), and the Spanish-American War (opposed by most northern Democrats and anti-imperialist Republicans).

Despite the best efforts of the Wilson Administration and most of the media to curtail civil liberties and crush dissent, we did not really have national unity during the First World War either. We certainly had a pervasive sense of national buyer’s remorse about American involvement in that war throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Wartime national unity happens when we are under attack or facing an genuine existential threat. The unity America experienced during World War II and immediately after the 9/11 attacks was the exception rather than the rule.

And we should be thankful for wartime disunity, since it highlights how rare it is for American to be attacked or face a genuine threat.

#9 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On October 6, 2014 @ 2:52 pm


Wartime national unity happens when we are under attack or facing an genuine existential threat. The unity America experienced during World War II and immediately after the 9/11 attacks was the exception rather than the rule.

Arguably true. But I would also point out that Islamic terrorism, while extremely dangerous, was not an existential threat for US. It is a threat, alright, and it did, sadly, achieve a spectacular “success” on 9-11. But it lacks a resources to change (does it???) the nature of American society. But rephrasing immortal Clausewitz. He wrote about Russia and Europe but I will omit them from quote:”______is not a country that can be formally conquered–that is to say occupied–certainly not with the preset strength of the __________ states….Only internal weakness, only the workings of disunity can bring a country of that kind to ruin.” (c)

Fill in blanks on your own.

#10 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On October 6, 2014 @ 3:00 pm


also days of extreme rationing,

I would challenge this thesis.


Especially the term “extreme”. There is an excellent article by Wesley Harker on the front page of TAC. Gives some perspective.


I am parroting myself (am I aware of that) but the key term is Continental Warfare.

#11 Comment By Patrick On October 6, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

I’ll give up sugar when they find a weapon of mass destruction.

Sarcasm aside, it would help the cause of “unity” firstly if the government didn’t deceive the public in order to start the war, immediately breaking any bond between the government and the people and secondly if they didn’t doubt peoples’ patriotism for opposing the war – immediately making the war an “us v. them” matter of internal political division in a radical way. Some smug neocon talking about the “Democrat Party” is foreclosing the idea that the entire country is somehow in things together.

#12 Comment By Ken_L On October 6, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

Why on earth is national unity regarded as an inherently virtuous goal? Unity is an attribute of totalitarian states. Robust argument and disagreement is a sign of a healthy organisation, whether it be a local community group, a large business or a nation. However the other desirable characteristic is a culture in which differing arguments are considered on their merits, people genuinely search for solutions based on evidence, and people are not disrespected just because they have different values and objectives. It is in the latter area where the USA has failed so dismally in recent years.