Center for Law and Philosophy
National Security Law Program
Center on Global Governance
Somehow we in the West thought the age of war was behind us. After nuking Hiroshima, after napalming Vietnam, we had only distaste for the idea and the practice of war. The thought of dying for a noble cause, the pursuit of honor in the name of patria, brotherhood in arms – none of this appealed to us anymore. "I hate war and so does Eleanor," opined FDR in the oft-repeated lyrics of Pete Seeger. War became a subject for ironic disdain. As Tom Lehrer caught the mood of the 1960s: "We only want the world to know that we support the status quo.... So when in doubt, Send the Marines!"
Behind this disdain for war lies as well a distaste for the Romantic view of the world that tends to glorify the nation and war as an expression of patriotism. As Nancy Rosenblum argues, in the Romantic view of the world, war and militarism become sources of inspiration. Identifying with an ideology worth dying for, accepting a place in the hierarchy of command, becoming part of the fighting collective – these are actions and commitments that lift men out of the quotidian and enable them to feel that their lives express a deeper meaning.
Revolutions and wars of self-determination have always appealed to Romantics. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Greek war of independence captured Byron's imagination. The War of 1848 brought Francis Lieber face to face with the glory of battle. The Spanish Civil War had a similar appeal in the twentieth century. As Barbara Ehrenreich describes the popular reaction to World War I, the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 unleashed "a veritable frenzy of enthusiasm .... not an enthusiasm for killing or loot.... but for something far more uplifting and worthy." The aversion to war that set in after Hiroshima and Vietnam represented a rejection of this Romantic sensibility. Finding meaning in warfare was relegated to the outdated attitudes of another time.
In popular culture, at least, things have begun changing, and the shift became evident even before September 11. If the postwar and Vietnam eras found expression in films like Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now, the new spirit of patriotism became visible in Steven Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan and in Tom Brokaw's bestseller The Greatest Generation. Slightly more than fifty years after the event, the invasion of Normandy became a focal point of nostalgia and renewed interest in the lives of heroes bound together in the brotherhood of battle. Consider that Joseph Ellis, best-selling historian and professor at Mount Holyoke College, made up heroic military adventures to please his students. It would have been unthinkable for a professor circa 1970 or 1980 to think that he could impress a university audience by pretending to have fought against the Viet Cong. The recent call to arms against terrorism came when many Americans were yearning to believe, once again, that our highest calling lay in going to war for freedom and the American way.
George P. Fletcher,
The Storrs Lectures: Liberals and Romantics at War: The Problem of Collective Guilt,
Yale L. J.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/245