The role of the U.S. military and moral nation building

The United States has a long and, to its own citizens anyway, secret history of interfering with other countries for its own benefit, particularly for economic and idealogical reasons. What was done in our name in Latin America alone is horrifying and we should all be glad Islam is not widely practiced south of the border. Entire libraries could be filled with our cruel meddlings in the Phillipines or the Middle East. We don’t even need to talk about Vietnam. Even without the current Iraqi war the sanctions of the 90s, in my view, put us on a moral level occupied by Saddam Hussein (what with the killing of about a million civilians and the ruining of a country and all).

But hey, let’s not wring our hands too much, eh? After all, better us than the USSR and hey, World War II made us heroes right? Yeah, sure, I’ll agree I guess…we still did all those other things but we’re not completely horrible to the core.

To me, South Korea is the clearest (but, curiously, not often cited) example of positive military intervention. This may be due to the visceral nature one can feel when comparing and contrasting South Korea with North Korea. South Korea is the 11th largest economy by GDP and one of the most technologically advanced, literate and connected countries in the world. There are things for which we should be jealous of here.

After the Korean War though it wasn’t obvious at all this would happen. Millions were dead and cities were reduced to ghost towns or bombed out moonscapes. For years South Korea was ruled by a string of strong men while we occupied/protected them. Yet today South Korea is a shining jewel of Asia. To me, it seems obvious: the Korean War has a positive moral outcome. Out of the ashes of war 50 million are now free and prosperous.

The lesson I get from history is this: war is a blunt instrument, usually used for bad and not good, even by the U.S. We didn’t really care about SK becoming democratic; we just didn’t want them to fall under the communist sphere of influence. The current state of SK is a happy accident yet we caused it through using the military.

Now enter the “enlightened” idea that we really should use our military to create democracies and spread freedom and liberty and rainbows and unicorns throughout the world instead of acting in naked self interest. Democratic/liberty rhetoric has often been used by the most evil of men, so one must be very careful when entering this realm, despite how much this may resonate with one’s inner humanitarian. And, of course, one’s interest can be greatly served by creating another South Korea somewhere.

I think this could work, but it must be made on a case by case basis…yet some recent examples trouble me and here is where the thrust of what I wish to see debated comes in.

For example, the idea of freeing and democratizing Iraq sounds good but, for practical purposes, it won’t work. At least, not for a very long time and it won’t be due to the current war. There reaches a point where sheer incompetence and hamfistedness becomes indistinguishable from outright malevolence and I think we crossed that point a long time ago. Even if we turned it around the Iraqis hate us so much that we may as well leave them to their own devices. Perhaps at some later date we can return and help redress our current crimes.

But no, let’s not have another Iraq debate. Ten threads a week is good for that. I only highlight Iraq as a decision that IMO could be viewed in a moral light but in reality leads to very immoral outcomes and is definitely not in our self interest.

What I’m curious to see is about other hotspots. How do we decide when to undertake such a massive endeavor? People, especially those on the left, will cry and wring their hands over the genocides in Rwanda and (ongoing as I type) Darfur…but there’s always a trailing off about what role of the United States or the U.N is supposed to play. Are we obligated to outright invade, occupy, and show them how to be civilized? I mean, that’s what we’re talking about, right? Yet, we couldn’t just step in, slap them on the wrist, tell them to behave and then leave, could we? We’d have a go at nation building, surely. We’d have to pour in resources and hope for the best of outcomes.

A democratic Sudan? Really?

Is it practical? Could we invade and successfully occupy random African countries and bend them to our supposedly benevolent will? These are actual questions -– I don’t know enough about these regions. Something inside tells me the answer is no -– these are phases these countries have to go through, however bone chilling. It’s one thing to protect a country from an outside aggressor as the victim cries for help…it’s quite another to intervene in a civil war and start meddling in the inner workings of their society. I try to imagine what would’ve happened if someone invaded during the U.S. civil war and told us how to work things out…it wouldn’t address the issues in any substantial way. The fundamental problems would just simmer.

But I don’t know. I’m willing to be convinced on any of these examples or any others I can’t think of –- the problem is there are lots of shitholes in the world run by assholes. It all seems like a Sisyphean challenge.

I’ll end with a quote from Bill Clinton, who said this in a Larry King interview:

You might also cite Japan and Germany. And Grenada. And Malaya with the British. It seems to me that the difference between success or failure depends on whether or not the indigenous population wants us there or (possibly and) the ability to control outside influences. Take Korea and Japan. One a peninsula, the other a group of islands. No easy way for malcontents to get in or out, plus the occupying forces were seen as a bulwark against North Korea, and Russia and China. Look at West Germany: the US forces were a bulwark against Communism and the evil Eastern Bloc. Compare this with Iraq where a large part of the population don’t want us there and the borders cannot be controlled. It’s just too easy for Iran and Syria to sneak across people and equipment.

Similarly, look how successful Israel’s border fence has been.

Similarly, look how many Mexicans successfully cross into America.

Had we gone into Rwanda, the bad guys would have simply melted into the jungle or gone across the borders. And laughed at us and come back when we left.

Africa’s a shithole and needs to be left to sort itself out. But shit’s a powerful fertiliser and Africa will eventually come good. We are interfering in sovereign countries on a steady basis, What gives us the right to attempt governmental changes in other countries.?

So’s almost every other country. America just does it more widely. And that link is a pathetic excuse of a reason for 9/11.

Because it’s in America’s self-interest.

A “right” does not flow out of self-interest, Quartz.

It’s every country’s right to do the best for itself and its citizens. Countries have been interfering with other countries since time immemorial.

It is my right to do the best for myself and my family, but that doesn’t mean it is my right to rob you whenever we’re hungry, or shoot you if I suspect you might possibly be a threat to us.

Lots of things have been done since time immemorial. That doesn’t make them right.

Why not?

I actually just recently was reading some comments written by Lee Kuan Yew, who has basically been the de facto leader of Singapore for the last few decades, and is by no means a devout supporter of the US. He argued that the Vietnam war had many positive effects for the broader SE Asian region, and that even though the war failed in Vietnam, if there had been no intervention, communism would have spread more widely, into places like Thailand, Malaysia, etc. and the economic boom the region has seen in the last few decades (lifting millions out of poverty) would not have happened. Made a pretty compelling case.

Conversely, I have heard some Koreans argue that South Korea would have been better off had the UN never come and SK had lost the war: that the authoritarian regime of the north was/is only possible because of the “threat” of the south, and that Kim-Il-Sung would have proved unable to rule a united Korea, and there would inevitably have been a anti-communist revolution.
Whatever you think of either of the two theories above, they both make the same point: The full consequences of an action may be entirely unpredictable; and it’s a fair bet that whatever you do will look good to some later observers, and bad to others.


I have never heard a Korean ever say that. Are these just acquinatances of yours or do you have a cite?

I lived there, and heard it. Granted, these were somewhat naive late teens/early twentysomethings, but then again it wasn’t like they were coming up on their own. They’d been reading whoever the Korean Noam Chomsky is.

Quick googling:

Chances are that they are wrong, Japanese and American investment and benevolence would not have existed

  • South Korea would probably be more like Vietnam

I think you are right; that wasn’t my point.

My point was that whether any given war was a “positive” or not is going to depend upon who’s doing the judging and from what point in history. In the immediate aftermath of the war, many people in the US judged the Korean war to have been futile – millions died, the country was devastated, and the borders ended up unchanged. In 2007, we look at the progress South Korea has made and we deem it to have been worth fighting for. If in 2008, North Korea invades and they go to war again, many will say that “we should have let them settle this on their own in the 1950s.”

No. Those were both powers in their own right before they went to war with the USA.

As a result of that war they were devastated and powerless, so yea, they do count. Look at the standard of living in West Germany versus East Germany before the wall came down. The U.S. wanted a strong, free ally and the Soviet Union wanted a vassal state. They each set about to produce what they wanted, and they did. The differences between the countries are remarkable. You can’t tell me there was no difference between them with a straight face, can you?

North Korea is not going to invade South Korea.

If they did their only chance would be nuking the place, and that will help nobody.

I really don’t know whether the Korean war was futile, in many ways it was a proxy war, so it might have staved off something worse.

The premise that so rough a beast as the state is even capable of serving as a competent moral actor is a fairly dubious one. To assume that a state is capable of purposefully doing right versus wrong, or more ludicrously, that the entity itself is capable of having ‘rights’ in the legal or practical sense of that term, is frankly not supported by the evidence.

Most of our history and half of the twentieth century stand in direct contravention to the very idea. The other half of the last century arguably provides the illusion only because two of the roughest beasts spent most of their time snarling at each other. We emerge from our bloodiest period with a host of ridiculous pretensions, among them the distorted view that countries have rights and that war can be moral or immoral. Can there be any more absurd idea than that there is a moral and appropriate way of butchering tens of thousands of people who prefer not to be dead? What a perfectly bizarre notion.

The OP does provide a striking, if unintentional, insight into the seductive nature of the imperialist urge in its juxtaposition of South Korea and Iraq. We may look at the former and ask, “what went right?” We look at the latter and wonder what the hell is going wrong. But the answer is obvious if we don’t unduly intellectualize the question: we label the South Koreans as a success because they have become more like we are; the Iraqis as a failure because they have not. We are, many of us, polite people who might think ourselves kind and condescendingly liberal, but to accept that premise in the OP is to accept as a “positive moral outcome” another society changing to become closer to our own concept of the ideal society. It is to become imperialist, and perhaps a far cry from what some of us would otherwise imagine ourselves to be. In my view, an imperial expansionist state is not moral or immoral so much as it is a creature whose time has come to bloom and pollinate, to feed, fuck and breed, whether its individual components want it to or not. Even those individuals who recoil at the inevitable carcasses left by the passage of these vast beasts may find themselves bending and equivocating in the most subtle and ambiguous ways.

In the future, a human superorganism might become collectively and independently self-aware, and thus morally capable or culpable, but today isn’t that day.

They’re still necessary.

I’m sorry to shatter your Panglossian view.

I’ll take it by your silence that you agree with my substantive point.

I have a hard time looking at you with a straight face, regardless of the issue. :stuck_out_tongue:

Germany, France and Great Britain were all industrialized capitalistic democracies prior to WWI. Following WWI, Germany recovered without help from the USA. I expect that it would have recovered from WWII as well without help from the USA.

Note that the American’s Morgenthau Plan, which took effect as WWII ended, stripped Germany of it’s industrial base, and left the Germans to try to recover on their own, as a de-industrialized economy. Home - FDR Presidential Library & Museum

With respect to the US military, the Morgenthau Plan was implemented by Joint Chiefs of Staff Driective 1067. It directed the military to not let the Germans starve, but at the same time it prohibited and prevented the production of iron and steel, chemicals, non-ferrous metals (excluding aluminum and magnesium), machine tools, radio and electrical equipment, automotive vehicles, heavy machinery and important parts thereof. The purpose of the directive was to occupy Germany not for the purpose of liberation, but as a defeated enemy nation.

It was not until after nearly starving the Germans for a couple of years that the Allies realized that holding back Germany’s recovery was also holding back Europe’s recovery, so the Morgenthau Plan was replaced by the Marshall Plan in 1947, although even then, the dismantling of Germany’s industry continued until 1950. but primarily Marshall’s June 1947 speech

With respect to the Marshall Plan, the JCF directive 1067 was replaced by JCF 1779, which recognized that a stable and productive Germany was necessary to European recovery. This is essentially when the USA loosened its stranglehold on Germany’s industrial economy.,9171,887417,00.html

As I am sure you are aware, the Marshall Plan was essentially a massive economic funding arrangement, and not a military exercise. There is debate as to just how helpful the Marshall Plan was for Germany (as opposed to other European nations that benefited greatly from the Marshall Plan), but one thing is clear, the resetting of the currency from the Reichsmark to the Deutsche Mark did a world of good to stabilize the German economy. The Morgenthau Plan had stood in the way of this.

What it comes down to then, is that the US military stood in the way of German recovery. It did not aid in the recovery.

With respect to the USSR, bear in mind that without American involvement in WWII, it is likely that Germany would not have lost so much, if any, territory to the USSR, so it is rather circular to say that the Americans saved half of Germany from the USSR. Furthermore, it was the Morgenthau Plan that divided up Germany, including giving over much of it to the USSR.

Please note that the OP is looking at the role of the US military in nation building. The US military did not participate in East German nation building. The US military stood in the way of West Germany rebuilding itself. The US military did not participate in any significant role once West Germany was permitted to recover both through its own efforts and with the economic assistance of the Americans.

The way I read it, an occupying military standing in the way of a nation rebuilding itself does not constitute nation building by that military.

OK then Grossbottom and others, then is it your judgment that we did the correct thing (that is to say, nothing) with Rwanda and that Clinton is mistaken in his regret and hand wringing? Ditto Darfur?

Maybe I’m being whooshed or missing something, but if you think it’s necessary then wouldn’t that make you the Panglossian and not BG? A Panglossian wouldn’t say something is wrong, per se…