War and the National Character

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Sometime between the ancient Roman Republic and the Roman Empire that replaced it, the character of the Roman people changed. The emphasis on qualities of manliness, gravitas, and dedication to family began to fade. Cicero said of the Romans of the republic, "They turned away from a thousand daily temptations." Tacitus, writing of those living at the time of the empire, said, "They indulged every desire as soon as it came to mind."

American national character at midcentury was forged by the hard years of the Depression and the enormous sacrifices of the people in the fight to defeat fascism and make the world "safe for democracy." Despite the dreadful losses of the war, Americans optimistically set to work building a new American society and helped to rebuild shattered European societies through the Marshall Plan. That hopeful, self-sacrificing character was significantly affected by the events of the 1960s: the civil rights struggle, the anti–Vietnam War protests, women’s liberation, and student upheavals shaped by the ideology of the "New Left" movement. The decade of the 1970s added Watergate, airplane hijackings, hostage taking, and stagflation to the mix.

By some mysterious chemistry a new version of the American character emerged. On the one hand came a culture of entertainment, a pleasure-loving approach to life largely set in motion by young males. Self-indulgence replaced Emerson’s nineteenth-century self-reliance. The self was now defined by one’s favorite music groups, movies, celebrities, and sports stars. This is what is meant by postmodernism: Virtually every aspect of life, even politics, becomes a form of entertainment. Those who are boring will be banished; attention span is the measure of all things.

On the other hand emerged a female culture of safety and caring, which viewed life as a series of harsh and dangerous attitudes and actions that needed to be brought under social and legislative control. Soccer Moms made noncontact, noncompetitive, noninvidious recreations the norm. Legislators worked overtime to pump out detailed safety regulations, warning labels, and penalties for risk taking. The inauguration of this era in American life can be located in the year—I would say about 1985—when the traditional word of parting, "good-bye," was replaced by "take care."

So the self-sacrificing determination and national unity of the World War II years and the buoyant optimism of the postwar period gave way to hedonistic timorousness in a transformation not unlike that which changed the Roman character of old.

In time of war it became necessary to invent a form of combat that would be compatible with the demands of this new national character. The Weinberger Doctrine set out by the secretary of defense in the 1980s attempted to do so but compiled such a long list of prerequisite steps of public support that any American military operation would have been rendered impossible.

More effective was the Powell Doctrine, created by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Desert Storm war against Iraq. To meet the demands of the American male’s brief attention span, the military operation had to marshal overwhelming force in order to achieve the swiftest possible outcome. And in order to satisfy the American female’s insistence on avoiding harm, the campaign had to be designed to succeed without incurring casualties. Throughout his two terms in office President Clinton conducted America’s foreign affairs and defense policy on these same principles: Whatever you do, keep it short and harmless.

The war on terrorism launched in 2001 is wholly unlike the 1991 war to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. This war cannot conceivably be won without heavy loss of life and years of harsh, determined effort. The Bush administration has made it clear that its commitment to this mission will define its term in office.

Yet if the impact of social and international forces on the generations of the 1960s changed American culture for the worse, it may be possible that terrorist attacks on U.S. territory may affect attitudes so substantially, particularly among the young, that the national character will reform itself—or rediscover itself—along lines such as those seen in World War II and before. On one university campus after another, signs can be seen, however tenuous, that the students are standing taller than their professors, most of whose formative years were the 1960s. A national moment of renewal could be at hand.