Are Americans Ready for War?

By Barton Swaim,
from The Wall Street Journal,

Free nations prefer peace to war, but that preference is complicated by the continued existence of nations led by criminals, ideologues and irredentists. In a fallen world, war eventually comes, wanted or not. And it’s coming. Iran and its proxies, having started one war in Israel, don’t appear reluctant to consider another with the U.S. A Russian victory in Ukraine, even a partial one, would make eventual confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization almost inevitable. China menaces Taiwan. And the possibility that Kim Jong Un isn’t plotting an attack on South Korea—or on the U.S.—is a bet only a fool would take. These admittedly rather basic reflections occurred to me as I read Mark Helprin’s latest novel, “The Oceans and the Stars.” The book, which went on sale on Oct. 3, relates fictional circumstances that became far easier to credit four days later. Mr. Helprin’s novel imagines a war launched by Iran against the U.S. and Israel, a political class that views national security exclusively as a means of gaining electoral advantage, a perpetually irritable American president whose chief goal is to avoid blame, and an army of terrorists capable of savagery so repellent that Western elites refuse to contemplate it.

Last month I visited Mr. Helprin’s home here, some 10 miles north of Charlottesville. On the wall of his vast and spacious library I spy a framed August 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales, the ship on which the prime minister met FDR to enlist the U.S. in the struggle against fascism. I came to Earlysville—I say this at the risk of melodrama—to ask Mr. Helprin the sort of question that Churchill had contemplated in the years before that photograph was taken: Are we ready to fight? The answer today is plainly no. But neither were the British in 1935. What does America need to do to get ready?

Any discussion of U.S. leadership abroad has to start, as ours does, with America’s humiliating 2021 retreat from Afghanistan, a colossal exhibition of weakness and confusion and almost certainly a catalyst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel.

Our faltering in Europe and the Middle East is the reason, Mr. Helprin says, we need to adopt a “bastion strategy.” Meaning what? “No, we’re not going to give up on a forward defense in Europe and Asia. But as an emergency measure, as a reserve, in case the forward defenses fail—and they are under tremendous pressure now both because of our isolationism and our disintegration and the world situation externally—if those should fail, we have a bastion.” The bastion is the Western Hemisphere. “Of course I’m talking about the Monroe Doctrine. Essentially, Russia, China and other nations may not interfere in this half of the globe, but we may interfere in theirs.”

Yet Russia, China and Iran are making enormous inroads in South America, “and we can’t allow them to do that.

Another strategic priority is the protection of Europe.

Why is the number of men willing to fight and die for the United States decreasing? Mr. Helprin mentions an education system that trains young people to distrust their country and a military bureaucracy enthralled by woke ideology. So what can we do about that in the short term? Without pausing Mr. Helprin says: “We can depoliticize the military completely.” That won’t be easy, I say. “It might not be so hard,” he replies. “You don’t have to do anything. You just have to stop doing stupid things. The military is a million education programs meant to indoctrinate and train. Exclude, from all that indoctrination and training, anything having to do with ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ ”—he signals quotation marks—“anything having to do with racism, anything about how bad America is, the ‘gender’ crap, all that. Just stop doing it.” He has a point. An executive order from the commander in chief would likely accomplish for the U.S. military what Gov. Ron DeSantis did by signing legislation banning DEI in Florida public universities. If the military were to scrap every last shred of DEI training tomorrow, nobody but activist busybodies would regret it, and the benefits would reverberate for a decade. What about the long term? Very little about today’s cultural landscape suggests that America’s political class and citizenry understand the threats or are prepared to counter them with force. What’s going to get us ready? “A strong leader on a white horse isn’t going to do it,” Mr. Helprin says. “The only way that can happen, I think, unfortunately, is distress and defeat. A depression, a big loss in a war, invasion, Gotterdammerung.” He trails off. It’s a solemn thought. “Still,” he says, “there is so much good in this country, so much courage that we may yet summon well steeled resolve.”

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