When should we fight?

With the war on terrorism expanding, Salon talks to a group of average Americans about the U.S. military's role in the world today.

Published January 31, 2002 11:52PM (EST)

You already know, if you want to know, what the pundits have to say about the war on terrorism, whether the United States should expand the battlefront to other countries and to what extent America should engage in nation-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And polls will tell you that Americans overwhelmingly support the war in Afghanistan, and are in favor of extending it to other countries by slightly smaller but still substantial majorities.

But as the Bush administration sets its sights on other military targets -- including the regimes of Iraq, Iran and North Korea that the president directly threatened in his State of the Union speech -- Salon has ventured behind the poll numbers and TV sound bites to talk directly with Americans about the role that the world's only superpower should play today. It's a question that has not been seriously debated in the public arena since the end of the Cold War. "In a generation you don't have that many wars, generally, maybe one big one and several little ones, so each generation comes to the question for the first time in its own experience," says historian Walter Russell Mead, author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

Though we tried to speak to a wide range of people across the country, the 20 or so we talked to in depth were not chosen scientifically. We might have picked by accident a group of the most anomalous, iconoclastic Americans ever assembled. We don't think so, but even if we did, we found their comments interesting, and perhaps a good place to begin the public exploration of America's place in the world.

Mead breaks this discussion into the following questions, which our eclectic group wrestled with in one way or another: "What kind of world are we trying to create? Are we defensively trying to basically just keep the world from screwing us up at home? Are we actively trying to turn the world into a society of law-abiding democracies? Are we trying to do what countries have always done, which is establish our own power, and extend our own power? Are we trying to create the conditions for economic prosperity in the United States? Or abroad? Are we trying to build a law-based international order?"

Our reporters took to the streets in New York, St. Louis and the San Francisco Bay Area in search of concerned citizens. We also contacted people in other parts of the country by phone and e-mail. While the opinions of those we talked with generally mirrored the results of recent polls, there was a complexity to their views of American global power that no survey statistics can capture.

"Unfortunately, I guess I just pick and choose," said Brad Deck, 66, a retired data coordinator in Kansas City, Mo., when asked under what circumstances he backs the use of U.S. military force. Deck, who spent six years in the Navy, voted for Al Gore in 2000, but said he supports the president now: "I'm backing President Bush in doing in the next few years whatever we need to do to make it absolutely, terribly unprofitable to support terrorism."

Deck said he would continue to support Bush if the president sends military forces against Iraq, Iran or North Korea, even though the American public has not been fully informed about the threats to U.S. security posed by these regimes. "I am behind it, and I don't know how much we need to know about it," he said. "I trust [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. It sounds funny, being a Democrat, but I do. I don't think the American people need to know every little thing about everything. I think we elect people and we need to trust them. As far as I'm concerned, I've got enough information, which is not much, for him [Bush] to go ahead and talk to those countries, and get mean with them if he needs to."

But while Deck agrees that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are security threats to the U.S., he shies from making broad statements about when and where American troops should intervene. "It's a case by case thing, because sometimes I just really disagree with" U.S. military involvement, he said. "When countries have revolutions and civil wars -- as we ourselves did -- I'm not so sure. I certainly don't like genocide, and I guess ... boy, that's a really hard question for me, and it's one I've thought about a lot over the years. I guess it sounds wishy-washy, but sometimes I kind of agree with it and sometimes I definitely don't."

Nick Lilavois, a 34-year-old graphic artist and corporate trainer in Orlando, Fla., said he too was "split" on the military role the United States should play in the world. Describing himself as liberal on social issues and moderate on economic ones, Lilavois said that with no world government, "it is impossible for a [global] policeman to exist. Because of that, the United States is more like a benevolent vigilante," which makes him nervous. On the other hand: "We are in a global marketplace, so just about any action in any nation has impact on us or our allies in some way, so we should have the right to protect those interests."

Turning specifically to the war on terrorism, Lilavois backs the attack on al-Qaida and the Taliban -- "we were of course completely justified in retaliating" -- but has doubts about Bush's plan to make it a global war. "The problem with a war on terrorism is that there is no clear-cut definition of the word 'terrorism.' It is a decree that is just asking to swing out of control. He might as well claim it's a war against all bad guys," he said.

Aundre Cross, a retired welding inspector in Andalusia, Ala., has no such doubts about pursuing terrorists to the far corners of the world -- putting him, according to a Gallup poll this month, in the majority of Americans, with 77 percent backing military action in Iraq, 71 percent in Iran and 62 percent in Somalia. "Anywhere there's terrorists, we ought to be blastin' their ass," said Cross, a 67-year-old Republican. "I think we ought to go after 'em and nail their carcass to the wall."

Conservatives weren't the only interventionists. "Everything's a sacrifice," said Lenox Forbes, 42, a Brooklyn jewelry maker from Trinidad who describes himself as "more liberal." "If you can avoid the conflict, avoid it, but if you can't, you have to do what you have to do. If we have the will and the way, it's a responsibility."

David Lundahl, a 42-year-old firefighter in Casper, Wyo., who recently retired from the National Guard, agrees the United States should take an activist role on the world stage. "We should be the world's policeman because of precedents set in the past. It's what we've always been," he said. "When other countries have fractured and started fighting each other, we've gone in to stop the killing."

Lundahl backs U.S. military intervention, even when there is no immediate threat. "Because of the recent tragic events, it has hit home to the citizens of the USA that any terrorism, in any country, is a threat to us. We should take steps to eradicate these threats and protect our country and fellow citizens." Does this mean he thinks the U.S. should be prepared to go to war in Iraq, Iran and North Korea? "Yes, because of the past relationship with these countries, I feel that all three countries are threats to the U.S. in varying degrees."

But others felt that the United States needs to be more discriminating when it comes to using its military resources. Robert Turner, a 45-year-old auto mechanic in San Bruno, Calif., said he is wary of the U.S. playing "world cop. We should fight only when it's in our interest, economically or militarily. When people are killing their own people they should take care of it themselves. We spend millions and millions of dollars every year helping other countries, but no one ever helps us."

The general reluctance we found to support use of the U.S. military for humanitarian purposes corroborates historian Mead's theory that most Americans fall into a category he calls "Jacksonian," after the populist, war-hero president. "Jacksonians would say, basically, you should not be going to war for these sort of secondary questions," Mead said. "It's not worth the life of an American soldier to have free elections in Haiti, or, for that matter, to protect corporate interests in El Salvador, or whatever it might be. But if you do send troops, then you should use force in such a way as to crush the enemy as quickly as possible and as totally as possible with the lowest possible level of U.S. casualties."

Mary Roby, a 48-year-old Baltimore Democrat who works for the nonprofit City Parks Alliance, goes so far as to call herself an isolationist. "I feel like we can't be the protector of the entire world and freedom everywhere," she said. "We certainly have our own problems here that we don't spend enough attention on." Roby believes the U.S. should be reluctant to intervene even in genocidal emergencies. "I almost feel like we should stand aside. In the United States we have a lot of genocide going on in our cities -- what's happening in Baltimore with young black guys shooting each other, and in other cities, like Detroit. I mean, why not dispatch the military there to sort that out? I guess I wouldn't be absolutely opposed to it, but it's back to that role of protecting the world. You know, bad things are going to happen, and I'm not sure that we can send our military around the world to save everybody."

One respondent did not even back the U.S. war in Afghanistan. "Totally? No, I don't support it," said Rosalynn Boyd, 42, a hairstylist and owner of Buck's & Aja's hair salon in St. Louis. "They haven't presented any proof to me. I'm seeing things on another side. I've got a different view of it. I have to look at it as a black point of view."

Asked what that means, Boyd, who is African-American, said it comes down to mistrusting the government. She said she is not even convinced that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network are responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. "We don't know that," she said. "We've only been told that."

Boyd also echoed Roby's sentiments about taking care of America's domestic problems first. "I think we should be right here in the United States and stopping some of the murdering here. We've got the same thing, it's just in a lower key. I don't think [overseas conflicts are] our business, I just don't. Take care of our own first, then maybe we can help others."

But others were equally adamant about America's global responsibilities. "The U.S. should always be involved," said Clint Hickel, a San Francisco collections agent. "We've got the most stuff, we make the biggest contribution to the U.N. We need to use them."

Hickel was one of several respondents who asserted that America's global responsibility was not just military, but economic and diplomatic. "If we're going to claim the title 'leader of the world,' we have some responsibilities to fulfill, and it's not just a matter of the military," said Dick Castile, 70, a Korean War veteran and retired schoolteacher in Mill Valley, Calif. "A lot of the time, we wait too long to get involved. We should be more engaged in building countries, not just fixing problems after the fighting has started."

"I'd rather we find a way in [global crises] to help with the humanitarian stuff, but keep the military and the government itself away, at least further back," said Laurel Palmer, 28, a Web designer in Minneapolis, adding that she thinks the aid should be distributed through nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. "Too many people in the world see [U.S. intervention] as politically motivated, and it just seems to cause more trouble than it's worth."

Manhattan resident Suzanne Wasserman, 44, an associate director of the Gotham Center for New York History who describes herself as a liberal Jewish-American, struggles not only with the question of whether the U.S. should intervene in a given situation, but when it should. "It's a big question," she said. "Should we have intervened in Bosnia? In Nazi Germany? And when do we do that? Did we do it too late? Six million Jews were killed, hundreds of thousands of people in Bosnia died [before the West intervened]. So it's like we're damned if we do and damned if we don't."

Turning away from the subject of using military force, we asked about nation-building. With Afghanistan lying in ruins, and the government of interim leader Hamid Karzai ruling only over Kabul, we asked -- just prior to Karzai's visit to the White House -- what the U.S. role should be in rebuilding Afghanistan, most of which is still under the control of various warlords. We found, again, a diversity of opinion, but a lot of reluctance to engage in nation-building, surprising only in that no one mentioned the disastrous U.S. attempt to establish order in Somalia that ended in 1994.

"No," said Benjamin Lofton, a 42-year-old security guard and janitor in San Francisco, when asked whether the U.S. should help rebuild Afghanistan. "We need to only help other countries when they can help us."

"No, sir," agreed Cross, the retired welding inspector in Alabama. "They let bin Laden or whoever that idiot is come in there and they supported him, and then he attacked America. He was in Afghanistan when all this was going on, so we went in there and cleaned their clock."

Reminded that the average Afghan didn't support bin Laden, Cross replied, "They didn't do nothing against him either."

"I'm the kind of fellow," he added, "that thinks that if you get somebody down -- kick 'em. That'll give them an incentive to get up."

Pamela Carrasco, a 37-year-old martial arts teacher from Walnut Creek, Calif., who said she was a Clinton supporter, took a less harsh line. "It's so weird," she said. "We go blow [Afghanistan] up and then we go fix it. I don't think we should spend a lot of money on [rebuilding Afghanistan], but we should do something -- some kind of gesture of support."

"Our record at helping countries rebuild has been pretty abysmal," said New Yorker Wasserman. "Our record in Iran and Guatemala and El Salvador has been to put in someone who will comply with our view of the world -- that's led to why people around the world resent us. It comes back to bite us in the ass. I don't see the Bush administration doing nation-building the way it might be done, but on the other hand, I don't think we should bomb the hell out of [Afghanistan] and then leave."

Lilavois, the corporate trainer in Florida, said it's up to business, not government, to rebuild the devastated country. "The government should oversee corporate investment in Afghanistan. That way we have a win-win situation -- minimal tax dollars used, companies get cheap labor and a new marketplace, and Afghanistan becomes part of the global economy."

Deck, the Kansas City retiree, said his feelings about helping postwar Afghanistan were influenced by his TV watching, making him more sympathetic to the idea of nation-building than he normally would be. "I guess I've just seen the devastation on television, and what has happened to these people over the years. And I've never to my knowledge known an Afghan, but I just, I guess I've seen it on television, seen how the people have suffered. And let's face it, that's why they put it on television."

Palmer, the Minneapolis Web designer, said that we have an obligation in Afghanistan because of our military actions there. "I think that it would be a good idea for us to help out. I mean, we helped destroy it," she said. "We've finally got a government in there that the United States seems to like, so I guess maybe doing something to help with that would be a good idea."

Finally, with an extended military campaign on the drawing boards for the first time since the Vietnam era, we asked people about the makeup of the military. There have been calls, since Sept. 11, for a reinstitution of the draft, and a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in October found deep support -- 77 percent -- for the idea. On the other hand, those likely to be drafted aren't as enthusiastic. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll of college undergraduates in October found 68 percent of them opposing a reinstatement of the draft, though 79 percent supported the airstrikes and 68 percent supported the use of ground troops.

Without a draft, the military tends to draw disproportionately from lower-income people. As Roby, the Baltimore nonprofit worker, pointed out, "The military traditionally has been a good career for people who don't have a lot of options." But is it fair that the responsibility for defending our country falls so heavily on poorer people? With some exceptions, our respondents tended to say that because no one has to join the military, it is fair.

"What makes it fair is because they volunteer," said Boyd, the St. Louis salon owner. "Now, if it was a draft, that would be different if they only took the poor people."

Many oppose reinstating the draft, some because they don't believe Americans should ever be forced to do anything they don't want to do, but more because they feel that a professional, volunteer military makes a more effective fighting force.

"The draft is bullshit," said Hickel, the San Francisco collections agent, who adds he was drafted during the Vietnam War after a stint in the merchant marine, but avoided serving. "They should keep up the high standards and make it a profession. When they drafted people who didn't know what they were doing in Vietnam, people got killed. They shouldn't have even been there."

Palmer, in Minneapolis, said she'd be in favor of a draft only if it were universal and played no favorites. But she's referring to gender, not the type of maneuvering that kept our last two presidents, as well as former Vice President Dan Quayle and current Vice President Dick Cheney, from combat duty.

"If they're going to draft my male friends, then they should draft me," she said. "And if they're going to require people to be in the military or perform some kind of service, they should require me to do that, too, and they don't. So as long as it's not balanced, then they shouldn't do it at all."

Roby adds that she thinks a return of the draft would lead to a less activist U.S. military. "We'd see a lot less interest in military interventions around the world" if there were a draft, she said. "I think probably the military leadership feels like the fighting guys who are young and poor and all that are maybe expendable. If they're sending middle-income people, like the people who were killed in the World Trade Center, or upper-income people, overseas, there'd probably be more incentive not to intervene."

Deck, who said he enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army, would like to see the draft return. "I'd actually be for some kind of a draft, for a couple of years," he says. Military service "did me a lot of good, and I think it's done a lot of people that I know a lot of good." He added, however, that even without a draft, "apparently the military's doing a heck of a good job with what we've got, even though I believe we're getting the lower socioeconomic groups in there for the better percentage."

Cross, the Alabama Republican, said he doesn't like the idea that the armed forces tend to be made up of poor people, "but there ain't a whole lot I can do about it. I keep voting these sorry bastards out, but then another one gets in."

Cross said if he were in charge, there would be a draft for all young American men, with no special considerations for anybody. "It wouldn't make no difference who their daddy was. He come of age, by God, he'd go in the military."

Cross said he enlisted in the Army in 1953, when there was a draft. "I went in, and I served my time. And then I got out," he said.

"I didn't like it."

Additional reporting by Damien Cave and Suzy Hansen.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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