The United States is often considered, even by its own citizens (particularly those of leftist political leanings) as an immensely militaristic nation. This is a particularly irritating cross to bear for those Americans who travel abroad, particularly those of us with inclinations in military history , especially given the fact that while our military is admittedly particularly active around the world, Americans ourselves are for the most part a people without any particular desire for war with other nations. Throughout our history, with the notable exception of those wars we had little doubt that we would win for the expansion of our own territory, the United States has found itself willing to negotiate and compromise to a great degree only to be angered at sneak attacks that led it to fight until its enemies were destroyed, only to then go about and rebuild them and trade with them. In at least several notable occasions, Americans were pushed into war without any particular desire on the part of the people themselves to fight, only to be sufficiently angry to fight brutal wars that lasted for years. At other times a tepid acceptance of war on flawed grounds has led to unsuccessful wars when the price was deemed to be too high and the stakes too low.
Several times in American history war has been interested in Americans without a corresponding interest in war among Americans at large. In the early 1800’s, Americans wished to trade with everyone as neutrals only to find themselves caught up in the machinations between imperial France and the United Kingdom, where British control of the seas led to increased tensions over the right of people to travel without the threat of impressment. In the mid-1800’s, rising belligerence on the part of an increasingly insecure South led to a Civil War that most northerners did not in the least way want but were also not inclined to lose. In World War I, the Germans made a mistaken calculation that unrestricted submarine warfare would bring the Triple Entente to its knees before the logistical strength of the United States was fully felt in Europe, while the United States for all of its sentimental ties to UK and France had no interest in the war before its interest in them. In World War II an isolationist American people was only dragged into war by the attack on Pearl Harbor. More examples, like 9/11, could be chosen as well. Yet it should be remembered that it is not a people that makes war on others, but either governments or some sort of group of people with an agenda make war on others, and all of the people associated with those groups and governments have to deal with the repercussions of the decisions of their leaders. It may not be fair, but that’s how it works.
There are many reasons why people are not interested in war but why wars are interested in peoples. For at least some leaders, war is necessary to provide legitimacy to shaky regimes. At other times, a democracy at peace is enraged by an attack that is a surprise to it, though not necessarily its leaders, and the result is warfare. Most people have things in their life they want to do. They have husbands and wives and children and parents and family members and friends to care about. They go to church or work or the movies or the mall, they want to create art or putter about in their garden or on some vehicles in their yard. They have their own private plans and goals that do not involve violence or hostility and that are often strictly private pursuits. Yet there are others who seek larger ambitions and goals and whose plans involve mobilizing entire peoples and nations, and these people tend to make a lot of trouble for everyone else. The sort of people who make trouble for others are generally those for whom the private pleasures of research or conversation or all of the other things that people enjoy are simply not enough, but they want to do something that will be remembered even where it is cursed. It is not worth being remembered at that cost.
Yet it is not only greed and ego that lead to warfare. There are many reasons why people fight. We fight over misunderstandings, because we are too proud to ask for explanations and admit fault. We fight because we compete in a small sphere and cannot see the larger picture and the bigger world of which we are a part. We fight because we are easily pit against others, and because our blood is quick to rise when we are attacked. There are good reasons to fight, even if not all fights or even most fights are done so with reason. Yet most of us, even those of us that are somewhat prickly by nature, do not automatically go out seeking conflict. There are some people who actively avoid it, to the point where it creates a great deal of awkwardness, and there are some people who are willing to accept it under certain favorable terms, or with a certain threshold of frustration and irritation, but few people actively seek out warfare. That is a good thing. There is enough conflict and warfare given that most of us do not go after it. Can you imagine how much of a mess the world, or our lives, would be if we deliberately sought after conflict and warfare and strife with others rather than by and large disliking it. That’s a terrifying thought indeed.
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