December 30, 2003,
Many people have noted the influence of Greece on American architecture and early culture. Students at Harvard, Princeton, and other major universities during the Founding period of the U.S. (1770-1800) faced tough Greek exams, and made annual declamations in Greek. Aristotle's ethical and political writings were especially influential, along with Greek historians and dramatists. Several of our 50 states named one of its cities "Athens" and a great many of our school sports teams call themselves "Spartans." (One of the best calls its athletes "the Trojans.") The United States is self-consciously a child of the ancient civilization of Greece and Rome.
During long periods, America looks too pacific to be a threat to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Too much like Athens gone soft. But at times such as the present with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the Spartan dimension of our civilization becomes visible to all doubters. The biggest thing that most Europeans don't know about America is Spartan side. Our Founders chose the eagle as the symbol for the nation because the eagle is supreme in war, seeing unblinkingly and at great distances. Once fixed on its prey, the eagle is not easily deterred.
Our Founders well knew that democracy itself softens manners, tames even coddles the human spirit, and pulls great spirits down to a lower common level. No democracy will long survive, they knew, that does not toughen itself to face adversity, to raise up warriors, and to keep ready a warlike spirit. A democratic army should be small, under civilian control, they insisted, kept safely away from political power, but committed to keeping those who serve in it fearless and invincible.
In a word, in order to survive and to prosper, democracies need to infuse a Spartan spirit into their Athenian thinking. To maintain the peace, prepare for war. A democracy too soft will soon perish.
In this respect, Time magazine was wise to choose as its "Man of the Year" of 2003 "The U.S. Soldier." A mere 100 of our best-trained "green berets," dropped stealthily into Afghanistan to hook up with the Afghan resistance, brought down entrenched Taliban power in a matter of 50 days. They were aided by spectacular air power, but what made that air power so deadly were the direct aiming devices focused on targets by the green berets. At times these most advanced of warriors rode about the Afghan countryside on horseback, in rough 19th-century cloaks and scarves, directing the airplanes with radar and targeting beams focused on enemy forces hidden in the mountains.
Before the war in Iraq, European, and American critics predicted enormous difficulties, massive casualties, chemical, and biological warfare unleashed, house-to-house fighting, vast destruction of cities and infrastructure. If I had predicted on my visit to Rome last February that in the first nine months of fighting there would be fewer than 300 Americans dead (i.e., by December 16); that virtually no bridges or highways or oil wells would be destroyed; and that not one single city village would be leveled, peaceniks would have scoffed. I remember one cardinal in the Vatican predicting on Vatican Radio that there would be a million deaths in Iraq. Challenged, he repeated it: a million. That didn't happen, not even a tiny fraction of that. There were virtually no refugees the people of Iraq trusted the Americans and waited in place.
It was one of the quickest, most thorough acts of liberation in history.
Yet there are still people in Europe, not least at the Jesuit monthly Civilta Cattolica, who write that the motive for the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan is not to deny support and bases to terrorists. The motive, they insist, is oil.
One wonders if those who make such accusations know how to do a profit-loss statement. Can't they see that U.S. costs in Iraq alone have gone over $200 billion, whereas the entire annual GDP of Iraq is only $22 billion? At that rate, it would take 20 years for such an investment (which will probably have to increase by a lot over the next few years) even to be recouped. It will never show a profit.
But the greatest blindness of the critics of the U.S. is not financial accounting. It is spiritual. They do not see that safety from terrorism means not only depriving terrorists of bases, but also building democracy and a dynamic economy for the Iraqi people, as an alternative to terrorism. Creating such an alternative, not only for Iraq, but for all the young people of the Mideast, is worth a lot more than 200 million dollars. Such costs and benefits are not counted in dollars.
Since at least 1941, the people of the United States have spent far more than any other people on earth (more, perhaps, than all the other people on earth together), first, to defeat Fascism, second, to defeat Communism, and now to defeat terrorism. We are not complaining. It was worth it. If you want to see our greatest monument, look around you.
It may be comfortable for Europeans to keep repeating, "War is always a defeat for humankind." It would have been far more comfortable for the American people to have believed that in 1941. Yet could we really have left Europe, Asia, and so many other places to fend for themselves? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor answered that question. The Japanese thought we were Athens gone soft. They didn't know American Sparta.
Near my home, two cars bear the simple-minded bumper sticker, WAR IS NEVER THE ANSWER. I have to restrain myself every day from inserting with a thick red crayon a modifier: EXCEPT FOR SLAVERY, FASCISM, COMMUNISM, AND TERRORISM.
In other words: "Except for slavery in the U.S. in 1861-65, Hitler in Europe in 1941-45, the Japanese in the Pacific, the bloody USSR from 1917-1991, and now, terrorism." All these have required war, and it would have been unjust to fail to conduct these wars.
Saint Augustine seems to have been correct in Book xviii of The City of God, that war will keep appearing as long as the City of Man rolls on. To do justice in this world, often enough war is necessary, despite its awful burdens and constraints. Not to fight a war so required would be a sin against justice. We speak of "just wars" because sometimes justice requires war.
If one examines the many places in which American armies became engaged after 1941, one is likely to find today the most prosperous, freest, most democratic nations in the history of the world. When Americans go to war, the first domestic urgency is to win quickly, and the second urgent priority is just as quickly to find "an exit strategy." Americans do not want to stay. They do not want empire. They want to go home.
To tell the unpretty truth, we like Americans better than we like anyone else. And we have a hard enough time governing ourselves, without taking on the headaches of governing other peoples. The peoples of Europe for instance, you have to admit, are difficult. Thank God we don't have to govern them. Although eating in France is sheer delight, just thinking of governing the French strikes ice into my heart.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.