A week before I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, my wife and I volunteered for a few hours at our daughter’s elementary school. As we left, her teacher told the students that I was an officer in the Marine Corps about to leave on deployment. “A nation does not survive,” he said, “without men like that.”
It was a heartfelt statement. I thought of it often while in Afghanistan; it felt most poignant when my detachment of transport aircraft flew each one of the 119 bodies out of Helmand province between June and December 2010 to make their final trip home. Near the end of our deployment, I asked my fellow Marines to always remember the fallen. I asked the living to honor the sacrifices of their dead. Not by mourning forever, nor by seeking vengeance, but by honoring their comrades’ sacrifices in the choices and actions of their own lives. I asked them, in the words of Oliver Stone’s movie about another war, to find a meaning and goodness in this life.
Since I returned home, a darkness has grown in me as both I and our nation have failed to live up to the sacrifices of these young men and women. I had no expectation of “victory” in Afghanistan or Iraq, whatever that would mean. Nor did I expect some epiphany of strategic insight or remorse from the nation’s brain trust.
I just found that I could not square the negativity, pettiness and paranoia in the discourse of our country’s elders with the nobility and dedication of the men and women I had seen and served with in Afghanistan.
Over time, as I listened to the squabbling, I realized that about the only thing Americans agree on these days is gratitude bordering on reverence for our military. It troubled me that the sum total of consensus in our discourse is deference toward the defenders of our nation.
Eventually, it dawned on me that the focus on defense was the root of our problem.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States sent its military off to war and fretted about post-traumatic stress disorder — but paid little attention to the fact that America itself was traumatized. Americans became angry and withdrawn. We are fearful and paranoid because after a strike on our nation we chose to focus on defense rather than the resilience and vitality that made America great. In our defensive mind-set, we bristle at every change in a world undergoing an epochal transformation.
We have little reason to be so negative. Certainly the rest of the world is gaining on us, but this represents the success of explicit U.S. policies. After World War II, the United States sought to create a world of economic interdependence and prosperity, hoping to banish the malaise that helped precipitate a global conflict. The prospect of rapid growth in the developing world was not viewed as a threat but rather offered the promise of robust markets for American goods and ingenuity. We were confident and focused on the positive tasks of expanding our economy rather than fearing change.
Collectively, we have lost that positivity — what historian Louis Mumford called an “inner go.” Mumford was referring to the Romans, who in their decline focused only on security and stability, losing the vitality to embrace change and take risks. In our increasingly paranoiac discourse, we too have lost focus on the positive, creative tasks that continuously remake American power, resilience and vitality. We cannot agree to invest in education for our children or in infrastructure for our commerce, to rationalize the regulations that underpin our markets or to act collectively to create value. Instead, we hunker in a defensive crouch.
Defense is an act of negation. It brings no victory, instead making us fearful, paranoid, angry and uncooperative. Our negative, defensive outlook has colored our politics, hampered our economy and hamstrung our strategies. Individually, many Americans retain inner go — the unswerving view of our changing world as an endless fount of opportunity. Collectively, however, we must regain our lost focus on a positive vision for the future. We must exalt those who create value in our society: parents, teachers, workers, builders, entrepreneurs, innovators. We must go forth confident that we can lead a changing world by continuing to create, by working together and by living the sorts of fearless lives that our fallen lived.
A nation cannot survive on defense alone. Militaries and wars produce nothing. They only consume — time, lives, resources and hope. That day in the classroom in 2010, looking across the sea of young, diverse faces and hopeful eyes untainted by cynicism, I saw promise for a positive, creative America. When I decided to focus on that promise, the darkness lifted. It can lift for all of us. America, thank your military by building something worth defending. Banish the fear, paranoia and dissension. Lead again.
Peter J. Munson a major in the Marine Corps, is the author of War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History. The views expressed here are his own.