The New Cold War

American cultural identity after September 11


"We have found our mission and our moment," declared President George W. Bush in his September 20 address to a joint session of Congress. In making such a statement, Bush was not simply outlining plans for what he originally called, in a Reaganesque turn of phrase, "a crusade against evil." (In another Reaganesque moment, Bush almost immediately recanted his original choice of words. Where Reagan apologized for calling the Soviet Union "evil," Bush, fearful of offending the Muslim governments with whom he wished to ally, apologized for invoking the Christian Crusades in preparing for battle against Islamic fundamentalists.)

Along with announcing what would ultimately become known as Operation Enduring Freedom, Bush ushered in an age of explicit national purpose—of an overarching political imperative to which everything else is subjugated—the likes of which hasn't been seen since the end of the Cold War. In doing so, the president was reacting to more than the horrific events of September 11. He was speaking to a long-simmering sense among many Americans that our society, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism a decade ago, has become increasingly fragmented and incapable of pulling together for larger, ostensibly loftier, purposes than the supposedly crass individual pursuit of happiness.

Apart from important questions of military necessity, this is dangerous territory, as treacherous to traditional American ideals of liberty as the terrain in the mountains of Afghanistan is to invading armies. Indeed, at its best—which is not to say at its most typical—America has promised its citizens precisely a reprieve from such grand collective undertakings, substituting instead the right to live life as fully on one's own terms as possible.

Given the sacrifices that are inevitably demanded of citizens in wartime, it's worth puzzling over the implications of this latest call to arms—not necessarily to question its legitimacy, but to understand fully its potential pitfalls on the home front. The concern over national purpose took many forms in the decade after the Cold War, including a call from big-government conservatives for massive federal projects that would incarnate "American greatness" and a left-liberal demand for a reinvigorated communitarianism that would create a political agenda every bit as centralizing as the fight again communism had been.

The romance of national purpose has taken its most visible form in the celebration of the "greatest generation" and the overabundant World War II nostalgia that has given us a slew of films such as Saving Private Ryan, television programming such as the HBO series Band of Brothers, and a planned national monument in Washington, D.C., commemorating veterans of the Good War. It's hardly cynical to note that such nostalgia is directed less at the actual people who lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II—most of whom are dead—and more at contemporary anxieties about lack of meaning.

Hence, Tom Brokaw, who popularized the "greatest generation" term, fixates more than anything on the contemporary need for belonging to something larger. Writing in the late 1990s, Brokaw duly, almost wistfully, noted the lack of any sort of national emergency akin to widespread economic panic or Axis aggression. Yet he insisted, "We must restore the World War II generation's sense of national purpose, not merely of individual needs." For Brokaw, these two aims are mutually exclusive; he simply can't conceive of a nation dedicated to allowing people to decide what is most important to them.

The War on Terrorism certainly delivers a national purpose. Bush has told us that we must gird ourselves for a long, drawn-out conflict in which all activities will be measured by their usefulness in combating terrorists of "global reach." "We will," he said, "direct every resource at our command—every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war—to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network." When we are done with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, he promises, we will move on to the next group, stopping only when "every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." To succeed in "civilization's fight," Bush says, we must be willing to expand the scope of government action and sacrifice certain individual liberties in pursuit of our new national objective.

If this sounds like the Cold War, that's the point. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, the War on Terrorism "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war. If you think about it…the Cold War took 50 years, plus or minus….It involved continuous pressure….It involved the willingness of populations in many countries to invest in it and to sustain it."

In fact, the Cold War took more than a long time and many resources: It restructured every aspect of American society, becoming the center around which every activity revolved, whether it be sports, education, science, or popular culture. Especially in the Cold War's early years, every undertaking by an American—from piano recitals to chess matches to participating in the Olympics (themselves a product of an earlier iteration of nationalistic fervor following the Franco-Prussian War)—became an international struggle against the forces of communism.

However necessary such proxy battles may have been, they inevitably took a toll on traditional American identity by subjugating the individual to the state. As Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. noted in his regrettably forgotten 1955 masterpiece, The Decline of American Liberalism, the Cold War sanctioned both the growth of a military-industrial complex and intervention in all manner of economic and personal matters; tragically, the U.S. became something of a mirror of the Soviet Union in order to defeat it.

"As part of the struggle against Communism," wrote Ekirch, "the American people were won over to the necessity of military preparedness on a virtual wartime basis….The individual citizen…live[d] in a near-war atmosphere, in which his own aspirations were subordinated to the demands of the state."

Given the relatively limited size of its target, the War on Terrorism certainly won't demand the same level of resources or sacrifice that the Cold War did. Rather, it will function like a low-grade version of the Cold War. Still, virtually every significant decision in American political and cultural life will be judged in relation to it and prioritized accordingly. We've already seen the early fruits of this, with spending packages and other legislation hurried through Congress, requests from the government that media organizations put national interests ahead of disseminating news, and the shelving or delaying of movies and other pop culture fare. Some small measure of this may be unobjectionable, but if the War on Terrorism takes as long as the administration warns, it will become unbearably stultifying.

Ironically, only this much seems positive so far: In the very act of responding to the terrorist attacks, Bush has defined the American national character in ways that confound conservative and leftist demands for any sort of unified national purpose. In his September 20 address, Bush posed the rhetorical question, Why do the terrorists hate us? His answer, to be sure, was simplistic, but also carried a fair measure of truth: "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." In short, they hate our freedom to chart our own individual courses in life. One only hopes that insight doesn't become a casualty in the War on Terrorism. r