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Recently, the historian Marilyn Young, an old friend, died. She spent her life writing about America’s wars and a country at war. Her New York Times obituary quoted this telling passage from a speech she gave to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations:
“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war. I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace, or postwar. Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”
Curiously enough, with the exception of World War II and Vietnam (for quite different reasons), Americans have lived through our many wars of the last century, years drenched in blood and suffering when this country became the most dominant power on the planet, in a state of relative obliviousness. Nonetheless, peaceable as the United States seemed in those decades domestically, its wars did come home in all sorts of ways or you would have a hard time explaining the militarization of this country, the growth of the Pentagon budget to staggering proportions, and the rise of the national security state (and its surveillance systems).
That’s why John Dower’s new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, arrives at such an opportune moment, just as the era of Donald Trump begins with a visible ramping up (yet again) of America’s wars across the Greater Middle East. It offers a rare assessment of what that century’s human toll actually looks like and of our country’s involvement in it. In his article today, adapted from that book’s first chapter, Dower offers some striking thoughts on how to begin to measure the toll of the last 75 years of global war and conflict. And I must admit that, under the circumstances, it seems particularly fitting to me that Marilyn Young gave what must have been the last blurb of her life to his book, writing, “In The Violent American Century, John Dower has produced a sharply eloquent account of the use of U.S. military power since World War II. From ‘hot’ Cold War conflicts to drone strikes, Dower examines the machinery of American violence and its staggering toll. This is an indispensable book.”