American’s attitudes toward both its military and war can best be described as strangely ambivalent. Despite the fact that up until the first and second world wars America remained uninvolved in foreign conflicts, there is ample statistical evidence of the pervasive presence of war throughout U.S. history. There can be no doubt that the founders of America shared a common fear in maintaining a large, standing army and that this sense of antimilitarism was integral in their decision to give a civilian president the power of the sword. But while the U.S. was intent on maintaining an isolationist policy with regard to outside conflicts, within its own borders America set out on an overtly ambitious policy of expansionism. The American government and a majority of its citizens believed in multiple wars that led to the forced displacement of thousands of Native Americans, in a war with Mexico which allowed them to take ownership of desired territory, in the Spanish American war that led to the U.S. acquisition of Guam and the Philippine Islands, and in the Civil War that threatened to rip the nation apart. Nonetheless, Americans have traditionally and sincerely believed themselves to be a peaceful, unmilitaristic people, revealing that there is indeed a kind of peculiar love-hate relationship in the way Americans see war.
This internal conflict over when it was warranted for the U.S. to go to war continued even after America experienced its first real attack on the homeland. It wasn’t until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that the U.S. government began the first truly massive mobilization of its military forces, economy, workforce and industry toward defeating a foreign enemy. Curiously, even after thousands of American soldiers and civilians lost their lives and the Japanese had inflicted a crippling blow to U.S. naval forces, there yet remained those in the nation’s government and among the civilian public who disdained entrance into what they saw as a European conflict. But the end of World War II marked a significant turning point in American’s attitudes with regard to the threat of war. The Soviet Union’s swift absorption of numerous eastern countries into the Soviet Bloc made communism a very real threat to the U.S. and its weakened European allies. As the unsettling period of the Cold War ensued, isolationism began to be replaced by a belief in interventionism. Many came to believe that America had a moral responsibility to ensure the preservation of human rights around the globe, to protect—with monetary and military aid—those who sought liberty from dictatorial rule, and perhaps to a lesser extent, there were even some that saw world democratization as an ultimate goal of U.S. foreign policy. But it is critical to note that while this shift in ideology became markedly noticeable after the rise of Communism, it was by no means new.
The conflicting beliefs in antimilitarism and interventionism among the American people continued through Vietnam, the Cold War, Korea and even today. In the wake of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there continues to be a growing anti-war movement alongside those who see America’s presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world as an absolute and ongoing necessity. This means that opinions held by Americans in the U.S. war on terrorism continue to be widely disparate. Those against the war argue that the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq has done little to prevent a future attack on the United States’ homeland. Moreover, they blame the Bush administration’s handling of the war for destroying America’s image around the globe, leading the economy into a recession, and endangering U.S. soldiers in a war where there is no chance for victory. Opponents of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan believe that the U.S. must secure these countries newly established governments from terrorist insurgents. They argue that the U.S. must ensure these countries’ stability through the promotion of economic development and democratization, and only in this way will they be able to operate as free societies with the powers necessary to discredit and disarm Islamist terrorists. Advocates of the war on terror also share an alarming viewpoint about pulling out too quickly, and have warned repeatedly that leaving Iraq, specifically, without making certain its military, police forces and leaders are firmly able to thwart takeover from Iran or any of the numerous extremist groups in East Asia would lead to dangerous consequences. The most unacceptable of these is of course another attack by terrorists on American soil. Whichever side one chooses, whatever paradigm twenty-first century Americans follow in this newest of wars, the outcome is not likely to come quickly.
Of the many wars that America has taken part in, the war on terror presents one of our most amorphous enemies. In other words, in this conflict the U.S. faces an ever-changing enemy force— one who hides their faces and attacks in secrecy, one who uses violence as a political tool, one who sees themselves as superior to those they attack—one who uses extremist views of religion and fanatical ideologies to wage their war. But Americans need not look very far in their past to find a war indicative of the one we are waging against Islamic terrorists. The Ku Klux Klan used the same tactics of terror for more than a century against American citizens on the safety of U.S. soil. The KKK committed countless acts of terrorism, hid behind those in governmental power, used money funneled from public officials and other bigoted groups who hid their identities, claimed religion gave them right to commit acts of atrocity, and they murdered, tortured, burned and bombed innocent people to promote their fanatical views. America did not win its battle against the KKK quickly; in many ways it continues today. The underlying reason that the KKK terrorist group lost power was that its message of hate, of extremism and terror, could not compete with that of racial equality, of non-bigotry, of all Americans enjoying the same rights. America waged this war on a number of fronts: the courts passed laws; Congress passed legislation; police agencies sought out the terrorists; and peaceful protestors united to create a majority force against these criminal insurgents. When considering the long-term goals of America’s war on terrorism in East Asia or anywhere else in the world, it is crucial that we not forget our own ongoing history with the radical terrorists in our backyard. The victory in the war against Islam’s extremist groups can only be won through the promotion of liberty, the respect of human rights, the assurance of democratic goals, and the continual effort to promote real economic and political change for the Iraqi and Afghan peoples. Winning this war will not end dictatorships, terrorist groups, human rights violations, or evil in the world, but it has the potential to enable other citizens, fellow human beings, to rule their own destiny without the fear of extremist violence. America’s own past, its internal battle between isolationism and interventionism, between war and peace, make the war on terrorism particularly hard to accept. Our history offers us the truest, though most arduous route to take if we are honestly committed to defeating the enemies in this war on terrorism. Perhaps the only question that remains is which side will be the victor of our internal battle—who will win America’s love-hate paradox?
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