Evoking America’s titanic struggles against fascism and communism can be rhetorically useful. It conjures an era remembered for its economic dynamism, its unity of purpose, its spirit of patriotism.
Yet simplistic renderings of the past tend to romanticize the effects of war on American society. These gauzy memories are as dangerous as they are perverse. War becomes a solution to America’s economic and political problems rather than what it truly is: a key contributor.
At a moment when American democracy seems vulnerable and economic waters are rough, it’s understandable some might look for inspiration in the Pax Americana, however apocryphal. It’s also understandable that, without novel ways of understanding this new era of international politics, policymakers are liable to fall back on old ways. That is, they might slip back into the habit of minimizing the costs and exaggerating the benefits of armed conflict.
But the notion that a war footing can remedy democratic backsliding and economic stagnation is backward: Our democracy is threatened and our wealth is wasted because unwise wars have expended public trust and resources that might have been used productively at home rather than so destructively abroad.