So I'm sorry, President Obama. If you wish to address the finest fighting force the world has ever known, you'll need a time machine, not Air Force One. You'll have to doff your leather Air Force-issue flight jacket and don Mongolian armor. And in so doing, you'll have to embrace mental attitudes and a way of life utterly antithetical to democracy and the rights of humanity as we understand them today. For that is the price of building a fighting force second to none—and one reason why our politicians should stop insisting that we have one.
"The Greatest Force for Human Liberation"
Two centuries ago, Napoleon led his armies out of France and brought "liberty, equality, and fraternity" to much of the rest of ancien régime Europe—but on his terms and via the barrel of a musket. His invasion of Spain, for example, was viewed as anything but a "liberation" by the Spanish, who launched a fierce guerrilla campaign against their French occupiers that sapped the strength of Napoleon's empire and what was generally considered the finest fighting force of its moment. British aid to the insurgency helped ensure that this campaign would become Napoleon's "Spanish ulcer."
The "Little Corporal" ultimately decided to indirectly strike back at the British by invading Russia, which was refusing to enforce France's so-called continental blockade. As Napoleon's army bled out or froze solid in the snows of a Russian winter, the Prussians and the Austrians found new reasons to reject French "fraternity." Within years, Napoleon's empire was unsaddled and destroyed, a fate shared by its leader, sent into ignominious exile on the island of Saint Helena.
Like Napoleon's fired up revolutionary troops, the American military also sees itself as on a mission to spread democracy and freedom. Afghans and Iraqis have, however, proven no more eager than the Spaniards of two centuries ago to be "liberated" at gun (or "Hellfire" missile) point, even when the liberators come bearing gifts, which in today's terms means the promise of roads, jobs, and "reconstruction," or even cash by the pallet.
Because we Americans believe our own press releases, it's difficult to imagine others (except, of course, those so fanatic as to be blind to reality) seeing us as anything but well-intentioned liberators. As journalist Nir Rosen has put it: "There's… a deep sense among people in the [American] policy world, in the military, that we're the good guys. It's just taken for granted that what we're doing must be right because we're doing it. We're the exceptional country, the essential nation, and our role, our intervention, our presence is a benign and beneficent thing."
In reporting on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rosen and others have offered ample proof for those who care to consider it that our foreign interventions have been anything but benign or beneficent, no less liberating. Our invasion of Iraq opened the way to civil war and mayhem. For many ordinary Iraqis, when American intervention didn't lead to death, destruction, dislocation, and exile, it bred "deep humiliation and disruption" as well as constant fear, a state of affairs that, as Rosen notes, is "painful and humiliating and scary."
In Afghanistan, Rosen points out, most villagers see our troops making common cause with a despised and predatory government. Huge infusions of American dollars, meanwhile, rarely trickle down to the village level, but instead promote the interests of Afghan warlords and foreign businesses. Small wonder that, more than nine years later, a majority of Afghans say they want to be liberated from us.
If the US military is not "the greatest force for human liberation" in all history, what is? Revealingly, it's far easier to identify the finest fighting force of history. If put on the spot, though, I'd highlight the ideas and ideals of human dignity, of equality before the law, of the fundamental value of each and every individual, as the greatest force for human liberation. Such ideals are shared by many peoples. They may sometimes be defended by the sword, but were inscribed by the pens of great moralists and thinkers of humanity's collective past. In this sense, when it comes to advancing freedom, the pen has indeed been mightier than the sword.
Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire
The historian John Lukacs once noted: "There are many things wrong with the internationalist idea to Make the World Safe for Democracy, one of them being that it is not that different from the nationalist idea that What Is Good for America Is Good for the World."
In our post-9/11 world, whatever our rhetoric about democratizing the planet, our ambitions are guided by the seemingly hardheaded goal of making Americans safe from terrorists. A global war on terrorism has, however, proven anything but consistent with expanding liberty at home or abroad. Indeed, the seductive and self-congratulatory narrative of our troops as selfless liberators and the finest freedom fighters around actually helps blind us to our violent methods in far-off lands, even as it distances us from the human costs of our imperial policies.
Though we officially seek to extinguish terrorists, our actions abroad serve as obvious accelerants to terror. To understand why this is so, ask yourself how comforted you would be if foreign military "liberators" kicked in your door, shouted commands in a language you didn't understand, confiscated your guns, dragged your father and brothers and sons off in cuffs and hoods to locations unknown, all in the name of "counterterror" operations? How comforted would you be if remotely piloted drones hovered constantly overhead, ready to unleash Hellfire missiles at terrorist "targets of opportunity" in your neighborhood?
Better not to contemplate such harsh realities. Better to praise our troops as so many Mahatma Gandhis, so many freedom fighters. Better to praise them as so many Genghis Khans, so many ultimate warriors.
At a time of feared national decline, our leaders undoubtedly prescribe military action in part to comfort us (and themselves) and restore our sense of potency and pride. In doing so, they violate the famous phrase long associated with the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.