All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1992

Are We Only Good at Waging War?


Evelyn Pyburn is editor of the Big Sky Business Journal in Billings, Montana, where an earlier version of this article first appeared.

The mayor of one of Montana’s cities was recently caught with his foot in his mouth, having been overheard to say, with the press close at hand, that “The only thing Americans are good at is waging war.”

The mayor could hardly be more wrong about Americans, as a broad and candid look at the world and at history clearly demonstrates.

it’s true that, while there is never much to glorify about war, when Americans have to wage war, they are a force with which to contend as no force in history has ever been.

The United States’ “war machine,” muddled even as it is in bureaucracy and waste, is in fact the very kind of war machine that despots and dictators the world over have tried to build for centuries. Since these tyrants have never held much regard for common folk, they have thought nothing of subjugating, mutilating, and even destroying their own people in this fervent quest. Each tyrant has drained the resources of his country, wreaking havoc and destruction, in trying to create the war machine of his dreams.

But never has one succeeded in building a war machine equal to that of the United States, which was, by comparison, built almost incidentally to the general growth and development of the country.

It’s an economic vitality so great that even to launch that war machine into major action hardly causes a ripple in the functioning of the rest of the country. As one man noted at the height of the war with Iraq, “It’s hard to believe we are at war because it hardly affects our everyday lives.”

The explanation for this phenomenon lies wholly within the means—the economic system. Americans are not superior people, they simply have more freedom than the people of other countries—that alone makes the difference. The opportunity to pursue individual goals and for each person to use his mind and stand by his actions is what created the awesome wealth and capabilities that the United States government has drawn upon to construct its war machine.

To build a war machine has never been the goal of most Americans, just as it is never the goal of average citizens of any country, but because of the capabilities of individuals and their freedom to use their talents, the results are significantly greater. It is the strength of the individual that makes the United States such a military power.

Americans are good at war because they are so good at everything else.