Holy War

Chas Freeman discusses the “peculiarly American presumption that war naturally culminates in the unconditional surrender and moral reconstruction of the enemy” and its consequences for foreign policy competence.

At its deepest level, diplomacy is a subtle strategic activity. It is about rearranging circumstances, perceptions, and the parameters of international problems so as to realign the self-interest of other nations with one’s own in ways that cause them to see that it is in their interest to do what one wants them to do, and that it’s possible for them to do it without appearing to capitulate to any foreign power or interest. Diplomacy is about getting others to play our game. […] Judging by results in the complex post-Cold War environment, diplomacy is something the United States does not now understand or know how to do.


Americans are right to consider our nation exceptional. Among other things, our experience with armed conflict and our appreciation of the relationship between the use of force and diplomacy are unique—some might say “anomalous.” So, therefore, are our approaches to war, peace, and foreign relations.


Since war is not over until the defeated accept defeat and accommodate their new circumstances, other people’s wars usually end in negotiations directed at translating military outcomes into mutually agreed political arrangements that will establish a stable new order of affairs. Not so the wars of the United States. […] In our civil war, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, the U.S. objective was not adjustments in relations with the enemy but “unconditional surrender,” that is a peace imposed on the defeated nation without its assent and entailing its subsequent moral, political, and economic reconstruction. The smaller wars of the 20th century did not replace this idiosyncratic American rejection of models of warfare linked to limited objectives. We fought to a draw in Korea, where to this day we have not translated the 1953 armistice into peace. We were bested in Vietnam. In Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and Iraq in 2003, we imposed regime change on the defeated, not terms for war termination and peace. […] So Americans have no recent experience of ending wars through negotiation with those we have vanquished, as has been the norm throughout human history. Our national narrative inclines us to equate success in war with smashing up enemies enough to ensure that we can safely deny them the dignity of taking them seriously or enlisting them in building a peace. Our wars are typically planned as military campaigns with purely military objectives, with little, if any, thought to what adjustments in foreign relations the end of the fighting might facilitate or how to exploit the political opportunities our use of force can provide. As a rule, we do not specify war aims or plan for negotiations to obtain a defeated enemy’s acceptance of our terms for ending the fighting.

When revolutionary evangelism provides the foundation for national self-understanding, a calm calculation of interests can be difficult.

1 thought on “Holy War

  1. “The situation seems to me to be thus: An immense democracy, mostly ignorant and completely secluded from foreign influences and without any knowledge of other states of society, with great contempt for history and experience, finds itself in possession of enormous power and is eager to use it in brutal fashion against any one who comes along without knowing how to do it, [emphasis in the original], and is therefore constantly on the brink of some frightful catastrophe…”

    ~ E.L. Godkin, Irish-born editor of the Evening Post, writing in 1895, quoted in THE MARTIAL SPIRIT, Walter Millis, Literary Guild of America, 1931, p. 38.


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