Sure, we’ll drink their wine, eat their tappas and cheeses, and drive their BMWs. But when it comes to Europe, we refuse to adopt their most sensible refinements—the metric system, wise gun laws, better poverty programs, and inclusive medical care. The latest feather in our stubborn streak is our unwillingness to follow their practice of abstaining from war.
Out of the ashes of two world wars and a long history of barbaric warfare, western Europeans have finally made reliable peace with each other. The possibility of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans killing each other in the fury of war is as remote now as it was predictable only 70 years ago.
Can Europe’s aversion to war be imported to America? Will it get here in time? Our totalitarian military-industrial complex, instinctively attuned to fear and greed, is devouring the civilian economy and crushing the spirit of our bedridden democracy.
Are we as blind about militarism as we were 150 years ago about slavery? Europeans of that era were also more enlightened than us about the practice of slavery.
America’s leaders react to Europe’s achievement by mocking their pacifism and lecturing them on how to be more warlike. A stark warning from Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a recent example. He told an international security conference in Munich this month that the safety of Europeans from terrorist attacks depends on NATO’s enhanced military presence in Afghanistan.
What happened among Europeans to account for their trouncing of war? A recent book by James J. Sheehan, titled, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), contends that the horror, disgust, and shame of back-to-back world wars was the catalyst that convinced Europeans to rise above the perversity of war.
Sheehan, a history professor at Stanford, writes that “the experiences of the twentieth century had finally taught Europeans that such turmoil was an aberration, a pathological assault on normal society, something to be combated and overcome, like crime." Old institutions were reorganized for peace, not war. Social change “was translated into economic production, not battle potential." As prosperity surged, “the overwhelming majority of people came to view violence, both domestic and international, as something to be feared and avoided, not applauded or excused.”
The three decades that followed Victory in Europe, Sheehan notes, were marked by surging economic growth as well as by the decisions of colonial powers to abandon their empires. The brute force required to win and hold empires was now “part of a vanished world in which the ability to wage war had been centrally important to what it meant to be a state.”
In his review of Sheehan’s book in the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley writes, it “seems to me that Europe as Sheehan portrays it in this timely, first-rate book is headed on a sound, mature course. Europeans tend to see terrorism ‘as a persistent challenge to domestic order rather than an immediate international threat’ and to attack it with ‘more effective policing, stricter laws, better surveillance’ rather than with a ‘war.’ Maybe, just maybe, they know more than we do.”
It’s true, of course, that during the Cold War we protected Western Europe from the need for militarization. However, both the Cold War and the rise of Islamic terrorism might have been avoided if the United States had shown more confidence in the power of diplomacy and statecraft rather than relying to such a degree on military might. People with integrity are more likely to believe in the power of diplomacy because they negotiate effectively in their personal relationships.
Oh, but how we love our guns! Last month, while the families of those murdered in last year’s Virginia Tech massacre looked on, Virginia legislators voted to block legislation that would have prevented deranged individuals and ex-felons from buying guns at gun shows. If we refuse to demilitarize at this level, we’re not likely to do so at the more profitable and thrilling level of advanced lethal weapons systems.
The one thing we love better than guns are profits. The bigger our empire, the greater the profits. Maintaining the commercialization of war is our Christian nation’s sacred vow. There was little danger that the end of the Cold War would interrupt that observance. It’s a case of the Mighty Right’s Illusionary Syndrome meets the National Disgrace Disorder. One of the symptoms of this confabulation is the claim that Old Europe offers nothing of value.
The White House isn’t going to ask Europeans to send us teams of warfare deprogrammers. What might save us, in a self-defeating sort of way, is national bankruptcy or hyper-inflation. A less painful route would be the election of a reformist government.
To be effective, this government would need the passionate support of many millions of Americans who denounce the demonology of perpetual war. For this to happen, we will have to become more engaged and creative in spreading our ideals and values into the social and political sphere. If we come to our senses, there’s enough shame for the Iraq misadventure to make it America’s last war.