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The Limits of Outrage-- Part II

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This is the sequel to the piece posted yesterday (at
), discussing how we should regard the aspects of American political culture that look for some of the warrior virtues of toughness and effectiveness in the arena of power and conflict. Like that previous entry, this one consists of exchanges of comments that appeared on an earlier thread. This exchange was between a reader and me.

In response to my long disquisition about there being both crazy and wise components to America's concern for the "warrior virtues," and in particular about how --as I see it--Jimmy Carter's lack of those virtues did damage to both the United States and the world, this reader wrote:

There’s no value in “war virtues” anymore, considering the awesome military capacity we have today. And the whole “tough on terror” stuff is a straw man argument. We’ve got the most sophisticated weaponry arsenal known to man. There’s absolutely no problem of ever losing ground in this department. We’ve mastered total defense in this nation. We’ve mastered one side of the control game and we can master the other.

To which I replied:

When I read your words, “There’s no value in “war virtues” anymore, considering the awesome military capacity we have today,” I wonder what you did with that part of my long comment, above, that dealt with what I asserted to be the costs of Carter’s lack of sufficient tough-mindedness and effectiveness in the arena of power.

  The reader answered:

I read your assertions about Carter’s alleged inadequacies. I see no reason to dwell on this. I’m sure you’ll tell me how this applies today but I just don’t see it. I think it’s a good point for you to fit in when describing your philosophy of power. The fact is that now our military capability speaks for itself.

This prompted from me another substantive statement, which I will quote in full here:


You say you see no reason to dwell on this. So let me tell you what reason I see.

You have said that the warrior virtues have no value “considering the awesome military capacity we have today.” Is this a proposition one you intend for us to take seriously as why it supposedly what I said about Carter isn't worth dwelling on?

If it DOES matter whether you are right in your proposition about the implications of our "awesome military capacity" –and I believe that it does– then (if my reading of the history is valid) the example of Carter proves your notion to be false.

When Carter was president, the United States had essentially the same destructive might at its command as it does now. But nonetheless, according to my reading of two of the major international developments of his presidency, Carter's lack of understanding and effectiveness in struggles for power mattered greatly.

Therefore, it is hardly true that our having tons of nuclear weapons has rendered the kinds of virtues I’m talking about irrelevant.

This remains a dangerous world, and there are all kinds of ways that history might go from here. The established American power and the rising Chinese power are going to have to effect some kind of acceptable accommodation, or there will be real problems.

When, a century ago, Great Britain was the dominant power, and Germany was on the rise, that transition was handled badly. The result was World War I in the first place, and then that set the stage for World War II.

Do you assume that because the United States and China are nuclear-armed powers, no such violent breakdown of the international system is possible? I would not assume any such thing. The US-China relationship could unfold in ways that are good for humankind, but it could also lead to disaster.

And then there are the dangers of difficulties between the United States and Russia, which have increased lately. The possibilities in the coming generation in this area, too, encompass a wide sprectrum of scenarios – from re-establishing an emphasis on cooperation, as appeared a possibility for a while after the cold war ended, to a re-ignition of the adversary relationship that characterized the world in which I lived my first forty-some years, including conceivably the danger of the war we managed to avoid during those decades.

Of course, the challenge of navigating the adjustment to China’s rise to great power, and of building a constructive relationship between the United States and Russia, does not require of American leadership only the virtues of the warrior. It will also require the virtues of the diplomat, and various other sets of virtues as well.

But part of what one would ideally want in an American leader would be that he or she have the capacity for toughness when that is required. The same, incidentally, is also true of the ideal Chinese and Russian leaders; with the Bushites, we can see that there are aspects of America’s power structure that are eager to extend their domination wherever they can, if they think there’s no one to stop them.

My reading of the late 70s is that the Soviets thought Carter in some ways weak, and as a result they made an aggressive move in Afghanistan. We know from the history, if I recall what I’ve studied, that Kruschchev’s bold move of putting missiles into Cuba –a move that led the world as close to Armeggedon as it has ever gotten– was made in part because Kruschchev decided when he met Kennedy in Vienna that Kennedy could be pushed around.

Projecting an image of resolve, along with the means to back it up, is part of what keeps the peace. (And, again, as the Iraq invasion demonstrates, that includes keeping American aggressiveness in check.)

Nuclear weapons have changed many things. But they have not changed everything. In the international arena, among the virtues that matter in a leader are some of what I've called the warrior virtues: i.e., that he be able to convey to potential rivals and enemies that one should seek peace, because the consequences of excessive aggressiveness are not likely to be happy ones.

And, incidentally, those warrior virtues matter in the political sphere of the country as well. Politics is partly a matter of negotiation and cooperation, and it is partly a struggle for power. There is an element of it that is conducted along the template of war.

A great leader, one who is able to shape the country according to his vision, has to go to battle against political adversaries at home. Consider FDR. Look at many of his most famous speeches: in addition to the inspirational words bringing people together, for which he is much noted (”Nothing to fear but fear itself”), he also wielded words as a weapon of battle (”malefactors of great wealth”). FDR relished the political fight, and he was formidable when he decided to address his political opponents as foes, as at important junctures he felt he had to do.

What we don’t want are leaders who are bullies and thugs like these Bushites. We don’t want people with a sadistic lust. We don’t want men who choose to fight and antagonize when achieving harmony and working cooperatively for a common purpose are possible. We don’t want people like Bush with his fake bravado.

But neither do we want a leader who, like Carter, is clueless when it comes to the ways of battle. We do want the true strength of the good warrior to be one of the resources that our leaders can draw upon as they deal with the world.

The exchange continued beyond this point, and those who wish to see the entire exchange can find it at

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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