America as Sparta

WHEN DID ATHENS become Sparta? When did America redefine itself so profoundly around war?

Events of this winter had already prompted the question, but then over the weekend The Los Angeles Times published the stunning news of the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review. Reversing a longtime trend away from nuclear dependence, our government is projecting a US military strategy based on usable nukes, with unprecedented potential for first use against nonnuclear states, for development of new nuclear weapons, and even for a resumption of nuclear testing. This is a move from Mutual Assured Destruction, as The New York Times put it, to Unilateral Assured Destruction - our enemy's. Washington has invited Dr. Strangelove back.

How did this happen? In half a year we have reinvented ourselves as the most belligerent people on Earth. Why?

The conventional answers are that the terror assaults of September required this response and that an evil axis poses a deadly threat. But a deeper answer, perhaps, is that the September blow to the American psyche set in motion a reaction of grief, anger, and fear never before felt so powerfully. The ''war on terrorism'' can seem to purge such emotions. The savage face embodied in the new nuclear posture can seem a perfect expression of the wound we suffered, whether it makes future suffering less likely or more.

But the ease with which we have commissioned another generation of young people to wreak havoc in our defense, as we imagine it, and the blithe spirit with which we are now rolling the nuclear dice cry out for other explanations. What notes in the American character might account for this amazing shift? Here are four that occur to me.

American time. Uniquely among nations, we define ourselves by the future, not the past. This is the source of our optimism, key to our greatness. But it also means we waste little effort on self-criticism, the lessons of history. Thus we are permanently innocent and quick to see those who oppose us as evil. If we behave with good intentions, it is enough. That our good intentions have often gone awry in the past is forgotten.

American money. Valuing entrepreneurial creativity, we trust our companies, another key to our greatness. But companies have an unexamined bias toward war. Weapons manufacture has been an economic engine for half a century, a source of prosperity. Then, once weapons exist, pressure to use them is eventually irresistible, setting off a new round of development and manufacture. The only check on this cycle is politics, but now politicians are entirely subservient to the companies that pay them. The war economy, reeling after detente with Moscow, has just reinvigorated itself.

American selfhood. We are never more ourselves than when going it alone, from the ''rugged individual'' to the Texas Ranger. Despite the communal character of our best work (science, technology), our congenital skepticism toward international collectivity (e.g. the UN) undercuts the cross-border law enforcement (e.g. International Criminal Court) that alone can combat terrorism effectively. Unilateral warfare feels normal to us because we conduct it on our own terms, accountable to no one - like real Americans.

American exemption. Because the September attacks were the first massive violence suffered in the continental United States since the Civil War, they left us uncertain and afraid. But elsewhere in the world, the devastations of war are all too common. To us they remain abstract. September memories, in fact, underscore how the horrors of modern warfare have never touched the cities of America. That is the only reason we can reorganize US force projection around robot strikes, strategic bombing, and even usable nuclear weapons. All of this represents a failure of the American imagination to grasp the real effect on real people of such assaults. We wage war without knowing war.

In each of these instances, the source of the greatness of the American character proves to have a dark side, and its forces are unleashed by overwhelming grief, anger, and fear. Darkness indeed. But the great insight of tragic literature - what Athens gave to the world - is that grief, anger, and fear can lead, in the mystery of human freedom, not to revenge, but to wisdom. What is wisdom in our present circumstance except another way to think of war?

Beware the Ides of March? No. Beware the ''war on terrorism,'' and the Nuclear Posture Review! Beware the Bush administration's exploitation of our grief, anger, and fear. We must urgently reconsider the course we have set out upon this year before it leads us into a dead end of our own making.

Then survivors will ask, When did America become Sparta? And the answer will come: It was now.

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