In their book The Fourth Turning, Strauss & Howe assert that there is a difference in the way wars are fought in the third phase of their historical cycle, versus the way they are fought in the fourth and final phase. In the third phase, wars are fought with moral fervor but without resolution or consensus. In the current cycle, this was the phase of the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. In the last cycle, this third phase coincided with the First World War.
In the fourth phase, the Crisis Era, wars are fought to conclusion, for maximum effect. In the last cycle, this was the time of the Second World War. One can easily see how the Second World War can be understood as the First World War re-fought, but to a more decisive end.
In the mid-2000s, when the U.S. was floundering in Iraq, I actually described a kind of heady vision of how affairs might be different in the next era. In other words, how the nation-building wars in the Middle East might be re-fought, but more decisively.
As I understood it, we would finally have the right generational constellation for the Boomers to translate their values obsession into significant world change. Back then in the Bush era, it seemed to me that red zone values were dominating and a Republican would likely be the one to fulfill a role like that of FDR in the last cycle. Here’s what I wrote in conclusion:
Imagine, if you will, a President Sam Brownback. He knows the greatest poverty and oppression in the world lies in the continent of Africa, which is also where the greatest terrorist threat now lives, since Al-Qaeda has fled there after the Middle East has finally been stabilized. Imagine serious nation-building efforts to raise up the poorest of the poor African countries, which might include invasions to depose an intransigent dictator or two. Imagine a corps a hundred thousand strong of enthusiastic young Millennials, guided by competent middle-aged Gen-Xers, joining up to serve in one or two year tours, helping to build infrastructure and train indigenous peoples and do police work. This would be Boomer values finally bearing fruition…–me, ~2008
It seems ridiculously out of touch now, but where I was clearly going in my thought process was to imagine that there would be a redux of the failed intervention in the Middle East, but one that would actually be successful. Just as World War II had been World War I fought to conclusion, I conceived of a future United States embarking on a new round of nation-building wars, but this time seeing them through to the end.
What’s actually happened, we now see with hindsight, is that nation-building has been repudiated, and the United States has pulled back from its global wars of intervention and turned its focus inward. And the circumstances the United States military faced in the Middle East, it now faces at home. Armed militias disrupt the functioning of government. A “green zone” like the one that was set up in Baghdad is set up instead in Washington D.C. itself.
During the War on Terror, doctrines emerged for fighting “asymmetric warfare”, part of a new focus on “small wars” in an age of unilateralism, with the United States as the sole superpower. “Post-conflict stablization” became a new mission in the wake of invasion and regime change. In a kind of karmic comeuppance for U.S. hubris, these small wars have come home. It’s like the mission now is to stabilize the United States – in the era in which the last round of wars are re-fought, but decisively.
Arguably, the degree of political instablility in America is nothing like what it is in the parts of the world where the U.S. once felt obligated to intervene. But consider that in the Crisis Era, to quote The Fourth Turning, “wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.” (p. 104). The fact that the energy of the U.S. has turned inward, and that the nation has just had a brush with violent domestic regime change, is ominous.