Americans must face today’s world

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst for military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.” — Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Gibbon’s words, written more than 200 years ago, speak to the heart of America’s sickness. We are a reckless nation of spoiled citizens treading along a path toward trouble. Yet the inheritance we have from the past generations who survived the Great Depression, won World War II and established the world program that won the Cold War, still remains upon us in splendid ways. Unfortunately, it is deceiving us about our own times and our own lives. When we should be shuddering at increasing vast global commitments, and ethical and legal misconduct by our leaders, we are instead blissfully gallivanting as though we have a God-given right to the luxuries we enjoy and that nothing else affects us.
President Clinton epitomizes us as a nation. In the wake of the World War II generation, we now have sexual deviants, former drug users and pompous law-breakers defining our times. We celebrate this because it is us. We are no better than our leaders. When it’s acceptable to elect as president a Vietnam War protester who has never held a private sector job in his life, we have made a major leap from the World War II generation. We have fallen far.
As Gibbon recounts in his epic on Rome, the result of such a transition is a natural impulse to overdo things and get overextended. This is why today’s youth have the idea that they have a right to the luxuries they have. They think they have some claim upon the greatness that America has been in the world. They believe they have somehow earned it. All these are wrong.
Gibbon points out that after the great advances of Rome, the leaders were often inspired to pursue reckless adventures on the basis of contemporary rationale. Ours today is liberalism, human rights and American ideals resulting in Clinton’s use of more military force in the past 12 months than President Reagan did in his combined years in office. What have we gained after bombing four sovereign countries since last August — bombing Iraq almost 80 times since the first of the year? Very little. In contrast, Reagan won the Cold War.
The World War II generation earned this century through sacrifice and more sacrifice. The United States should not be intervening in civil wars in the Balkans and sending soldiers on nation-building peacemaking missions all over the globe. Instead, we should be consolidating our gains at home and consolidating our gains abroad rather than expanding them.
The problem is that in the aftermath of such great victories as the Cold War, leaders like Clinton can’t see any limits to our power and ideals. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan reached the zeniths of American leadership. But theirs was the limit. We shouldn’t go that far in time of peace for our country, and we shouldn’t think that the luxuries their times earned us are a God-given part of our times. George Bush is at fault for starting us on this course in the aftermath of the Gulf War by speaking of a “new world order,” as if the world is America’s to rule. Clinton’s readiness to bomb Iraq, invade Haiti, disarm Somalia and redraw the map of Yugoslavia are all symptoms of a squanderous American youth.
Where this comes from is linked to parenting by a generation of Vietnam War protesters who SURVIVED the war. They have no major message of earned luxury and sacrifice to offer. Theirs is instead a message of escape and enjoy. And this today is yours to acknowledge and correct.
Who today thinks this country that is intervening in conflicts all over the world and celebrating deviant behavior by our leaders is even half the country America was in the 1940s? Who today thinks we won World War II, beating Germany and Japan? Probably most of you, but you’re all wrong. We didn’t win World War II, and we didn’t beat Germany or Japan. Their generation did.
Today’s America wants to put women on submarines, pull out of conflict if a few Americans are killed and expand the size of government so we can further guarantee the luxuries of social services in our lives. This is a vast and total change from a time when this great country was forced to live through the slaughter of thousands of Americans over months on end, in the most horrifying scenes of worldwide war. Back then Americans fought for freedom, plain and simple. Then they came back and built the most powerful and successful country in the world. Today we merely fight to reach consensus and then fatten the size of government.
Someday soon, the world is not going to be so easy to push around. We may be on a world leadership scale second only to Rome’s past empire, but it is fleeting away quickly. Unless we seize upon the realities of the world and our society, we will soon face nuclear missiles from rogue nations and crumbling social, economic and demographic weakness.
There is hope, but it is not to be found in modern youth’s blissfulness. Rather, it is a matter of maturity, solemn respect, honor for the past achievements we’ve inherited, pride in being accountable as leaders, willing to sacrifice, desire to achieve and great wisdom to see where our boundaries are.
The last is perhaps the most impossible to grasp. America needs to see that even though we just won the Cold War and are advancing beyond the World War II generation, our nation and our way of life has limits. We can follow the path of Rome and fight for popular causes in all the corners of the globe, but we will exhaust ourselves and see failure. As bad as things are in some places, it just isn’t the role of the U.S. military to play peacemaker. A military’s role is best reserved for fighting wars. And in that role, peace is best kept.
This places a serious burden on us as a society trying to define ourselves, of course, because it means that we must see that American ideals will not be practiced by much of the world. It means there will be inequalities, brutality, suffering and that we will have to be very discriminate on who we help and where. But such restraint was the greatness that gave Rome many decades of happiness.
Augustus sought to stop the temptation for conquest whenever a naive public and a bombastic political authority thought otherwise. He led Rome after its greatest conquests, and therefore when the temptations for reckless adventures were most powerful. His message was simple: “relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.” America, fortunately, has the legacy of this type of leader: Theodore Roosevelt. He was a powerful leader who sought limited commitments, yet knew when, with whom and where to use the might of American leadership and force.
I believe we can again have another leader like him, one in the fashion of an American Augustus. I believe we desperately need one. I believe this leader is among you. Our country is acting too powerful, pompous, zealous, overconfident and our citizenry is squandering decades of accomplishment in an irresponsible orgy of spoiled childishness. We need to reject the passion to squander luxury, and instead we need to embrace responsible consolidation.
If anyone thinks this is hyperbole, realize that the one thing above all else that the World War II generation did was to give us a better world. The least we should seek is to do the same for the generations that will follow us. We are risking disgrace as the generations who squandered greatness and left the future far worse and dangerous.
As students who will seek to understand and change the nation and the world, this is your challenge. It is not one to be welcomed, much less enjoyed. The cost of continued squander that is the hallmark of modern youth will be extremely high and tragic if some of you who aspire to intelligence and leadership do not recognize the state of modern times.
Joe Roche is a University history graduate. He welcomes comments to [email protected]