Let's have a show of hands: How many of you would consider it an act of war against the United States if a foreign power launched missiles at American territory?
All of you? That's what I thought.
Next question: Against how many countries has the U.S. launched airstrikes since the end of World War II?
The answer, by my count, is 13. (Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria.) That's a long list. But it's also a very conservative estimate, since it counts Iraq only once, even though each of the past four American presidents have bombed the country, and it doesn't include nations (like Somalia [again], Yemen, Pakistan, and possibly the Philippines) within which we have repeatedly conducted covert drone strikes in the years since Sept. 11.
So, we can all agree that the United States has fought wars with or in at least 13 countries in the past 69 years.
Is there any other single nation on the planet that even approaches that high of a number? The Soviet Union and Russia are probably the only ones that come close. The U.S.S.R. interfered with nations across the globe during the Cold War (as did the United States), and it outright invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. Post-Soviet Russia, meanwhile, has fought a series of small, nasty wars in countries and regions on or near its borders, in South Ossetia, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Chechnya (twice), Georgia, and now Ukraine.
Final tally: U.S.S.R., 3; Russia, 6.
America wins again.
Now, just in case it isn't clear: I'm trying to be provocative. I don't think that moral reasoning about warfare can be reduced to quantitative measures. The Soviet Union crushing the Prague Spring isn't morally equivalent to the first Gulf War, in which a broad coalition of nations led by the United States acted to turn back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Neither can we evaluate the justice of a conflict by focusing solely on the number and type of casualties (military and civilian) involved. Highlighting the astonishingly high death toll in the Vietnam War (58,000 Americans; 882,000 Vietnamese) is significant, for example, but so is the broader moral context of the Cold War in which that bloody conflict took place.
But here's the thing: We Americans hear the "moral context" argument all the time. Professional, highly intelligent warmongers like Robert Kagan specialize in making the moral case for every single war we fight, telling us over and over again in suave, historically literate essays why all good things — very much including world order itself — depend on the U.S. dropping bombs on, and sometimes invading and occupying, nations around the globe.
The civic sermons have had an effect — so much so, in fact, that our president actually thinks he can get away with making the case for "destroying" ISIS while simultaneously denying that doing so is an act of war.
Imagine the president making a speech in early 2010 in which he attempted to advocate passage of the Affordable Care Act by denying it was a government program. I submit that this would never have happened because the administration would have known that the effort would be instantly ridiculed and mocked as an obvious untruth.
But not so with a denial that we're at war with people at whom we're firing hundreds of missiles.
I submit that America has heard quite enough about the "moral context" that always seems to justify our use of military force (whatever we choose to call it). What we need is a little less about how important it is for us to blow other people to bits and a little more about what it's like to live in a world in which a single nation has the power to strike a deadly blow wherever it wishes, anywhere on the planet.
The first step in moral reasoning, after all, is the imaginative act of placing oneself in another's shoes. Judged by that standard, Americans regularly fail even to begin to reflect morally on how the nation conducts itself in the world.
How would we feel, I wonder, if we lived in a world in which another country was so powerful that it could inflict military pain on any nation, including us, with impunity? Without an act of imagination, we can't even begin to answer that question — because we are the only nation in that position, or even close to it. Russia, our nearest rival, may be flexing its muscles in Ukraine. But as with all of Russia's post-Soviet military adventures, this one is taking place right next door. The United States, by contrast, hasn't fought a war with a neighboring power since the mid-19th century, and it regularly (as in, every few years) starts wars many thousands of miles from its territory. In this sense at least, America truly is an exceptional nation.
I will never write a word in defense of ISIS and its bloodthirsty, homicidal ambitions. But if we wanted to understand some of what motivates people from around the world to join its seemingly suicidal cause, we might start with the very fact of America's incontestable military supremacy and the cavalier way we wield it on battlefields across the globe.
Every time we project our power to the other side of the planet, we provoke another around of asymmetrical blowback, which sparks another act of force projection, which inspires still more (ultimately futile) resistance to the global hegemon. Round and round it goes — with Monday night's Tomahawk missiles over Syria starting a brand-new cycle.
If this is what defending our national interests truly requires, then this is what we should be doing. But we shouldn't kid ourselves about its character.
It is yet another war. And it won't be our last.