A line at the tail end of Nicholas Schmidle's article in The New Yorker (August 8, 2011) on SEAL Team Six's takedown of Osama bin Laden captured the military zeitgeist of the moment. Upon meeting the SEAL team, President Obama gushed that the team was, "literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world."
As a military historian, I was struck by the sweeping nature of that boast.
The "finest small-fighting force" ever in the history of the world? What about the Spartan 300 who gave their all at Thermopylae against the Persians, thereby saving Greek civilization for posterity? What about those Royal Air Force pilots in the Battle of Britain, about whom Winston Churchill said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few"? Turning to an American example, what about the Rangers lionized by President Ronald Reagan for their sacrificial service at Pointe du Hoc to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II?
Such caveats are not meant to diminish the bravery and toughness of the SEALs and other US Special Forces teams; the deadly risks they take are only too evident, as the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 6 reminds us. But immoderate boasts of how the US military is the "best ever" contributes to a myth of American omnipotence that has disturbing implications for the conduct of our wars and even for the future of our country.
The historian George Herring made an important point when he noted that a key reason the US lost in Vietnam was "the illusion of American omnipotence, the traditional American belief that the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while." Because of this illusion, we're psychologically unprepared when events go south, therefore, we tend, as Herring notes, to "find scapegoats in our own midst: the poor judgment of our leaders, the media, or the anti-war movement."
We're so wrapped up in our own ethnocentric drama, Herring suggests, that we deny any agency or initiative to the enemy, as well as the vital importance of "the nature of the conflict itself, the weakness of our ally, the relative strength of our adversary." We have no context, in other words, in which to process setbacks, to reconsider our commitment of troops overseas, to know when it's both prudent and wise to walk away. How can we, when we're always at pains to celebrate our troops as the finest warriors ever on planet Earth?
Our military is full of highly motivated professionals, but no matter how tempting it may be, we should take great care in elevating them to the pantheon of the warrior heroes of Valhalla. For only the dead gain access to its hall.
Nor should we mistake warrior prowess for true national security. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his State of the Union address in 1957, "National security requires far more than military power. Economic and moral factors play indispensable roles." Eschewing Ike's wisdom, our government today equates national security with astronomical defense budgets and global military intervention, never mind the damage done to our economy or to our moral standing.
Better than anyone, perhaps, Ike came to recognize the perils of misplaced power and the folly of placing too much faith in military action. Afforded the luxury of space provided by two oceans, rich natural resources and the wisdom of the founders who forged a representative democracy (however imperfect) based on personal liberty, the United States had the option of preferring peace and prosperity to war and destitution.
Yet, partly because we've come to believe in our own military omnipotence, we seem today to be determined to choose the latter option of war and destitution. We persist in dissipating our economy and our energy in endless military action, a fate Ike perhaps had in mind when he said, "Only Americans can hurt America."
We can do better. And one small step we can take is to stop boasting of how great we supposedly are at fielding the "finest" fighting forces ever.