Term Paper: American Experience With War

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SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] So, war is a "learning" activity; it is "recurrent, remembered, similar, separated by intervals of time, various in form and outcome..."

While reading Shy's essay, one needs a bit of patience, as Shy is more didactic and theoretical than Kennedy. He also tends to apply semantics to issues, such as (p. 232) his way of pointing out (using alliteration) that just because an event happened a long time ago, doesn't diminish it's value today: "Learning theory invites us to challenge [the] common-sense approach [to history] by considering the possibility that the explanatory importance of events should be reckoned not by proximity, but by priority in historical time." Not to nit-pick, but it seems to take Shy quite a bit longer to make his points, than it does Kennedy.

Meantime, Shy does offer some excellent insights into the issue he first raised in the essay - the unusual behavior of America on the world stage. He points out, aptly, that Americans, "never ready for war, often surprised by it but always boyishly confident about their knack for waging it, were repeatedly brought to their knees by the first battles and campaigns." He mentions "Bull Run" (1861), and "Pearl Harbor" (1941), as examples of war situations where America was not ready, and "came close to complete defeat again and again." Never, though, he continues, "did they give up."

Shy summarizes the first two centuries of American military experience as "formative." Hence, American society, he says, entered it's "age of free security with certain military attitudes" which had been "implanted and powerfully reinforced." Those three attitudes towards the military are: 1) a "deep respect" for the military prowess which was part of "the very definition of American nationhood" - intertwined with a "contempt" for "military professionalism" (which Kennedy earlier alluded to when pointing out that until 1917, U.S. Army troops were volunteers); 2) a concept of military security expressed "not in relative but in absolute terms"; 3) an "extraordinary optimism about what, when necessary, could be achieved by the exertion of American military force."

Later in the essay, Shy, like Kennedy, takes the U.S. political and military establishments to task for allowing American to become mired in the bloody quicksand that was Vietnam. And he spends quite a bit of time in the last half of the essay, apparently building up to that sharp-edged critique. For example, he explains that the causes of wars America waged in the 19th Century were fought because of "atrocious behavior by the enemy: the usual murders and mutilation connected with every Indian war, the massacres of the Alamo...and the brutal pacification policies of the Spanish in Cuba." One can't equate the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution - and the vague "attack" on a U.S. Navy ship by phantom gunners - with "atrocious behavior" by an enemy.

He also mentions, admirably, that American troops committed "atrocities of their own." His point? How easy it was to justify war, if the enemy behaved in a "criminal" or "inhuman" or "degenerate" fashion. He doesn't mention the massacre at Mi Lai, but at the end of his essay, he does say, in reference to the Vietnam disaster, "American soldiers," for the "first time," "may be as despised as they have liked to claim to be when they were not." Antiwar actions in the U.S. (again, this was written in 1971, at the height of anti-war activity), he writes, can be explained because "very large numbers of ordinary Americans as well as their leaders are deeply ashamed of their national identity." Further, the young "were taught to expect a smoother, cleaner American military performance," and that, too, explains the rage throughout the nation.

One of the more interesting portions of Shy's essay is his corollary after the fact of his essay; entitled, "Some Further Reflections," it was written five years after he published the original essay. Reading it, one feels as though Shy, too, had been perhaps too caught up in the negative emotions of the national Vietnam experience, and had caught the bitterness bug. He writes: "Despite the agony of the last five years, the domestic effects of a lost war have not been as bad as I expected." And that seems a gallant enough gesture, but he is absolutely dead wrong when he adds: "The American people, confused and cynical, did not make the professional soldier the scapegoat for military failure... " Wrong, Mr. Shy. It's well-known that the Vietnam veteran was indeed vilified and blamed when returning home from the war. It was largely unfair, and reached levels of unconscionable viciousness in many instances, but it happened, and there's no denying it. And so, Shy would have been smart to leave out his "further reflections."

Lewis Coser

If the question posed is related to the dynamics of America's experience in WWII - while U.S. soldiers were under heavy bombardment from German tanks, and Japanese Kamikazes, and meantime back home Americans were producing war hardware to support those troops - then certainly part of Coser's theory applies. To wit, he states: "A flexible society benefits from conflict because such behavior, by helping to create and modify norms, assures its continuance under changed conditions." The conflict in this case was that America's sons were off getting shot at and killed, and families did not know if their loved ones would return safe and sound. Moreover, Hitler and the Japanese, while not attacking the American homeland, had shown hitherto unseen power to conquer and slaughter in many nations, creating fear and conflict in all U.S. citizens. Hence, as Coser postulates, this WWII conflict led to the "mobilization of group members and hence to increased cohesion" of the culture.

On the other hand, conflict from forces within the United States - during the Vietnam antiwar movement - which was directed at antiwar activists by the government (Nixon, Agnew), actually drew the movement closer together. This external pressure on ideologically strident young people fits into this definition by Coser: "Social conflict is a mechanism for adjustment of norms adequate to new conditions." The overall messages of Coser in his study are so overlapping and generalized, that it is difficult to exactly pin down how his strategies and theories apply, but the two mentioned above have applications to their identified situations.

References

Coser, Lewis A. Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings. Toronto: The

MacMillan Company, 1969.

Kennedy, David M. "War and the American Character." The Nation (1976),

Shy,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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