BY MATTHEW HERBERT
What kinds of things should Americans be proud of?
Only since the late 1940s have we been proud of military might as a token of national strength. In a way, being a military superpower wasn’t something we asked for. World War Two started in far away places, and we joined the fighting only when our hand was forced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (And, less noticed, because FDR increasingly came to see the war as a global, existential conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, from which we could not in good conscience absent ourselves.)
So we had to build a war-winning machine, which we did. The scale of the task was larger than in times past, but we prepared for war in 1941 the way we always had–on the fly. These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time when our country was not on a permanent war footing.
We didn’t used to consider war a normal part of life. Before the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, we had had a Department of War, not Defense, and we only had that intermittently, when necessary.
To put that in perspective, our country existed for 171 years without a permanent department to organize the provision of national defense. We also lacked a standing army for most of that time. But when World War Two ended, not with a clear and decisive victory for liberal democracy but with a lingering, persistent threat of conflict with the USSR, it became necessary to form permanent institutions of defense.
This was, in my estimation, a national tragedy. Our hand may have been forced, but in any case the country turned a corner and became something it had never been before, a national security state.
With the passage of the National Security Act, the resulting colossus of a defense- and intelligence bureaucracy imbricated itself with a massive network of defense industries and educational institutions. The whole thing became precisely what Dwight Eisenhower warned could overtake our national purpose–a military industrial complex.
And of course, Ike had no idea what a corporate lobbyist was, or he would have referred to them as part of the MIC too. This suave and canny battalion of retired generals grow rich promoting the business of defense–and in doing so they keep the permanent war economy humming.
Today the U.S. national security state is unstoppable. This is primarily because it is politically unquestionable. In 1981 Ronald Reagan immunized the national military budget against meaningful review, saying in a speech that defense was “not a line item expense.” He meant that defense was a fixed cost, to be paid out before the leftovers–which make up the discretionary budget–are divvied up.
You can see the legacy of this doctrine today in the way the defense budget is set aside. Although politicians give lip service to the idea that we gauge our future military to specific threats we anticipate, this argument is mocked by the way the budget is really drawn up.
As Jessica Mathews wrote in the New York Review of Books in July 2019, “For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.”
Regardless of all the work that scientists, intelligence analysts and other experts put into understanding future threats against which to calibrate our military capabilities, the Pentagon spending graph simply describes an unthinking upward arrow. It represents a percentage of national wealth fixed by dogma, not intelligence, imagination or empirical information.
The uncritical conviction with which we accept this arrangement is relatively new. Americans viewed President Lincoln’s first-ever levying of an income tax as an emergency measure necessary to win the Civil War, and they were eager to turn it off as soon as the war was won.
There was no permanent income tax until the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1913. Today the tax spigot runs night and today into the Defense Department, at full blast. I’m not sure how many Americans understand how much political choice has been taken away from them by the normalization of unquestioned defense expenditures and the national security state that perpetuates them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie peacenik. I served in the military. So did my dad. So does my sister. We have all fought in foreign wars. I believe in having a strong enough military to provide for a national defense. I even acknowledge that some costly overseas military commitments that were once characterized as unwelcome “foreign entanglements” have evolved into constructive alliances and real friendships. Our abiding military alliance with Germany, for example, is the world’s best guarantee that vibrant, powerful, ingenious countries will not be tempted once again into the darkness of militarized fascism.
The necessity of having a national security state is what the political scientist John Mearsheimer calls the “tragedy of great power politics.” The logic of security competition dictates that the safest place in a dangerous world is at the top of the military power order. So, if you live in a big, powerful country, you are always gunning for that goal. Second place is not good enough.
In line with this logic but without anyone voting for it, our number one national priority became military supremacy sometime between 1945 and 1947. Then, it was fixed as law. And whatever onerous job Americans take on, we take pride in doing it well. We became great military-industrialists.
I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the unseen, neglected costs of this development. What kinds of great accomplishments we had taken pride in in the past, before we became militarists?And what kinds of great accomplishments ought we to take pride in going forward? The shadow cast by our overwhelming military power obscures many other things we used to be good at and consider vital to our national character–things worthy of national pride.
Pride and patriotism have gone out of fashion with much of my tribe of progressives and communitarians. Pretty much the whole left started going silent on national pride since Vietnam, and the theme hasn’t picked up much since then. This is a mistake.
In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that national pride is essential to good politics whether of the left or right. He writes:
National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history–is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation probably will not occur unless pride outweighs shame.
Whatever causes we may have for pessimism at particular moments in history, our longer-term national faith in progress requires that we override them. “Democracy,” wrote William James, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure.”
We have a deep need to believe in our country and to find reasons to be proud of it. Ideally, there should be some consensus about what these reasons are, but the pursuit of this consensus must be guided by moral seriousness. As the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her 2019 book This America: The Case for the Nation:
Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.
Liberalism, the cause on which our country was founded, is at risk of dying? That sounds dire. But, Lepore continues, more hopefully:
Liberalism is still in there. The trick is getting it out. There’s only one way to do that. It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation.
Notice what she said there at the end. We must make the case for the nation. Not the laws; those will be determined by the question, What is the nation for?
There are three reasons, I believe, to look beyond our country’s military strength for the sources of inspiration capable of renewing our sense of national pride and making the case for the nation.
The first is that, even if military might can be seen as an intrinsically noble national characteristic, it is one that has been forced upon us by the logic of state-level security competition. As such, it is more a reflexive adaptation to global circumstances than an informed, creative choice about what our nation is for. When I think of the struggles and accomplishments that underwrite my self-respect, I think first of the things I freely chose, such as studying hard or having children, over adaptations forced on me by circumstances. Make no mistake, one’s responses to unbidden challenges are certainly a mark of character, but surely it the the things we must first imagine before pursuing them that lie closer to the glowing core of who we are.
Second, military might is a value-neutral characteristic, neither good nor bad in itself. Abraham Lincoln built a military juggernaut between 1861 and 1865 to defend the cause of liberal democracy. But then, Josef Stalin did the same from 1941 to 1945, in the service of monstrous authoritarianism.
My point is, any country with a certain amount of resources and organizational capacity can become militarily powerful without affecting their internal character. Don’t we want to focus first on the character we are seeking to defend?
Third, and this is relatively new, militarism at the national level has trickled down to the individual level, poisoning communal life by turning every public space you enter into a potential armed standoff. The same tragic circumstances our government is forced to confront in the international arena we have voluntarily re-created in our home lives. Stand Your Ground and Guns Everywhere laws mean the citizen is now legally obliged to regard normal life as armed conflict. And it touches us at our most tender points. In public schools across the country, the normalization of mass shooter drills and the corresponding provision of armed guards make up “rational” solutions to a problem that no decent, morally literate people would ever choose. But choose it we have.
Was this what our country was created for? To promote such a robust common defense that its by-products of military chauvinism and runaway gun culture dominate our social and cultural existence?
Thomas Jefferson, our greatest rhetorical defender of freedom, thought not. In the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl surveys the yawning gap between where Jefferson saw our nation going and where we have actually come:
“[T]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good governance,” [Jefferson wrote]. A politics that spreads guns, blocks health care and defunds schools seems to have forgotten Jefferson’s basic principle. Behind these agendas are core assumptions that the happiness of a select few persons takes precedence over the care of a great many others.
All of the things that make me proud of America have something to do with care. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system. It was a grandiose but deeply humane way of caring for our natural endowment. I love Ellis Island, and the idea that our land can take in broken, desperate lives and give them a new chance. I love the creation of frontier- and Freedman schools in the 19th century. They show we cared about children, and the mind. I love Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem that said all Americans are creating and re-creating ourselves all the time. We care so much about our destinies we are always working on them, perpetually busy, as Bob Dylan would put it, being born.
In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty wrote this about art and politics and pride:
Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.
And, to adapt Jill Lepore’s observation above, you can get those symbols from conscientious students of our history, or you can get them from reactionary jackboots.
In closing, here are the symbols of American greatness that get my vote. They are the wellspring of the stories I would want to have told about us. They may not describe us in our totality, but they say something vitally important about who we are at our best.
We have safe public spaces with a robust built environment that helps the most people go the most places and do useful, desirable things. There are few if any lethal weapons in my America but lots of sidewalks, bike paths, libraries and ice cream shops. The poor and infirm go into these space and are not walled off from the rich and healthy, or useful destinations. The elderly are not made to live shut-in lives after they stop driving. Cars take second place to people. That would make me proud.
Healthcare is good and accessible to all. We abandond the sadistic fantasy that says helthcare is a scarce commodity and the poor and middle class people must compete with the rich to get it. Healthcare is a human right, and we have the laws to protect it as such. Most of the world’s developed countries understand it is wrong to price people out of widely available healthcare resources.
We have great public schools, and teachers are paid on a scale commensurate with the job they do. Educating the next generation is the most important task there is in a republic. It is the sine qua non of having a great country. At a rough guess, I would say pay all public school teachers twice what they are getting now. I would be proud of that.
I could go on, but i think you get the flavor. For much of our nation’s life, we’ve been busy pioneering, creating, envisioning, becoming something bigger. As we create new reasons to be proud of our nation, I think it is worth looking back on what made us bold and inventive in the past. And then looking forward, to imagine a new republic, in which we re-order our priorities in creative, life-affirming ways.