In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930's (review)
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In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. Michael S. Sherry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 595 pp. $31.50/Cloth.

“War created the United States.” The provocative oversimplification with which Michael Sherry begins this noteworthy, but deeply flawed study both captures the boldness of its intentions and hints at the cause of its ultimate failure. Author of the Bancroft Prize-winning history The Rise of American Airpower, Sherry promises in his latest work to tell “the story of America’s militarization and how it changed the nation. “The enterprise is a worthy one. As a potential source of illumination regarding the dichotomous character of the present-day United States—democratic superpower, anti-imperial hegemon, benign enforcer of world order and putatively universal values—the intricate interplay between war, politics, and culture in recent American history offers a field rich with promise. With the end of the Cold War and the abrupt demolition of the long-standing rationale for US military policies, a thoroughgoing assessment of how war and the idea of war have affected modern America is that much more timely.

An ambitious attempt to provide that assessment, In the Shadow of War in the end disappoints. The book comes up short on two counts. [End Page 202] It fails first of all because of the author’s insistence on larding his narrative with various left liberal preoccupations, especially relating to gender and sexual orientation. Although demonstrating fealty to prevailing intellectual fashion, these digressions do little to bolster the author’s analysis. They thicken the book but diminish its authority. More decisively, the book fails because the author persistently overstates his case, overreaching his evidence and thereby undermining the persuasiveness of his conclusions.

Militarization, according to Professor Sherry, is “the process by which war and national security became consuming anxieties and provided the memories, models, and metaphors that shaped broad areas of national life. “Thus defined, militarization has little to do with weapons or military affairs as such. It has much to do with the way that the very idea of war, whether as threat or as reality, infiltrates and subverts politics and the general culture.

With the United States in recent decades almost continuously engaged in or girding itself for war, politicians, political activists, and cultural critics developed the habit of invoking the war metaphor for a variety of causes unrelated to war. They did so, according to Professor Sherry, in order to overcome the people’s abiding distrust of the state. Only by citing the existence of emergencies equivalent to war could elites persuade Americans to permit the federal government to address poverty, crime, disease, discrimination, drug abuse, pollution—or any of the other problems on which the government has declared “war” in recent decades. In this sense, militarization has been a means of political self-aggrandizement, a device through which national elites have wrestled power from local authorities. To understand the process by which Americans have been seduced by the war metaphor is, according to Sherry, to understand the nation itself.

In a narrative that begins with the Great Depression (thereby implicitly devaluing all prior military history such as the Civil War) and concludes with the early days of the Clinton presidency, the author attempts to demonstrate that war as memory, model, and metaphor has occupied “the center of American political culture. “In support of that thesis, he has combed through great heaps of political oratory, popular literature, and mass journalism searching for evidence. The search has yielded a host of references to “victory,” “enlist,” “attack,” “enemy,” and similar terms which provide the basis of Sherry’s argument: proof positive that war has the collective American psyche in its grip. [End Page 203]

There is, of course, something to this. But there may not be as much as Professor Sherry would have us believe. The approach has at least two problems. First is the problem of weighting the evidence. It is one thing to point out that presidents routinely use military lingo to generate support for initiatives that have nothing to do with war or even security. It is quite another thing to attribute significance—as...