Can America Fight Wars that Matter Anymore?

*Note: This essay was originally published at Rally Point’s “Command Post” on March 2, 2017.

“I don’t want to go! It’s not for me!”

This past holiday season brought the annual war over religious service attendance. Our inter- and multi-faith loved ones squabbled over the need to go, together, to this annual social tradition. It was a typical scene—our family’s certainly not the only one in which congregational conflict has become common. Sociologists tell us that generational norms are shifting with the rise of the Millennials, and participation in religious community events has fallen, sharply. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted that Sunday’s church hour was America’s “most segregated”—today, for many struggling to cope with this social trend, Sunday has become the family’s most separate hour.
It’s not just church—several of America’s social institutions are fraying—unions at work, PTAs at school, bowling leagues for fun: all have suffered nation-wide declines. The recent national election put a political exclamation point on this social trend. Consider the tow truck driver in North Carolina that arrived, then drove away and refused to provide aid because the stranded motorist had a bumper sticker featuring the other political party. Or the local police in California that publicly announced they’d rather not provide protection to an NFL-event over the political actions of one player on the field. When first responders won’t respond, that’s a sign—America’s social fabric is in tatters.

Armies don’t fight wars; societies do. Society is the arsenal of America’s democracy. The people provide the resources for the fight. The people provide the decision for the fight. The people provide the guidance for the fight. And so, at a moment when we’re so divided, it’s worth asking: Can America fight wars that matter anymore? A war for national survival? A war for a truly vital interest? A war against a peer competitor, like, say, a belligerent China or a bellicose Russia? A war that gets bloody—beyond what America’s experienced in generations?

Fighting such a war requires a nation to be all in, or nearly all in. That’s not the same as saying every citizen must be in perfect agreement (there is massive value in a loyal opposition). More specifically, there must be some national consensus. The subordination of self to the national interest. During the Second World War, actors and athletes willingly pulled on the uniform. Jimmy Stewart saw so much air combat he suffered what we’d call PTSD today; Ted Williams fought to get in the service, fought in the war, came home, and then fought again to go to fight in Korea. Would today’s celebrities take a leave of absence from the screen or the field to do the same?

Which raises another important question: Could our society get there? What could bring us together? It may well be that we’re so divided, so little unites us today, socially, that even such a traumatic event (another Pearl Harbor or 9/11) might not be sufficient to bridge these canyons of separation. If correct, that is truly dangerous for the survival of our democracy.

There is a glue, a sinew, a stitch—to each society. Some are stronger; others are not. It has many facets and faces, but one common trait: it binds society together. It provides an essential common bond, and America’s is a little different from the rest of the world. “To be an American is an ideal,” Carl Friedrich wrote, “while to be a Frenchman is a fact.” This is our national strong point and what got us through the hard times before—E pluribus unum; out of many, one.

We need it again. We need some basic level of social generosity. We need a faith in the good will of other Americans different in some small way from ourselves. We need to bring back the sing-song sentiment in “And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea.” Because, I fear, if we don’t—we’ll lose a lot more than a war over how to spend an hour on Sunday.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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