November 18, 2012
The iconic American infantry squad made its debut in "Guadalcanal Diary." The 1943 war movie followed a squadron whose members represented most of America. There was "Taxi," the inner-city working-class Joe played by William Bendix, "Tex" (Eddie Acuff) and Jesus "Soose" Alvarez (Anthony Quinn).
Contrived by Hollywood? Yes. ("Soose," for example, was based on Sgt. Frank Few. By making Few Hispanic -- he was actually a Native American -- the writers hoped to boost the box office in Latin America.) But the extras and bit players really did "look like America," simply because they were real Marines training at Camp Pendleton. (African-Americans were conspicuously absent because U.S. combat units weren't integrated until the Korean War.)
The all-American squad was more than just a Hollywood trope, however. The band of diverse brothers conveyed a fundamental message. All were Americans. All were in this together. We the people were responsible for defending us the people. And it was a serious, uncompromising responsibility for everyone.
America has never been a monolithic nation. We have always had class, ethnic and racial differences. We have squabbled over policy. Pacifists squared off with interventionists. But, generally, when it came to national security, there was a unity -- at times fractious, but ultimately determined -- to work together for the common defense.
The American infantry squad depicts all this. But this presidential election leaves one wondering whether, perhaps, the squad is drifting apart.
Traditionally, most Americans -- regardless of demographics -- have believed that Washington's "Job One" was to provide for the common defense. But when it comes to voting, most Americans don't make defense their No. 1 priority. Unlike with domestic issues, when it comes to foreign affairs and national security, Americans tend to first identify with a leader and then adopt the leader's policies -- not the other way around.
It happened again this go-around. Many people with no firm view on defense policy lined up behind President Obama because they liked the man. More people identified with him and some of his domestic policies than with Mitt Romney. And, so, they followed the leader.
This testifies to the potency of the progressive strategy perfected by FDR: weaving together a majority, not with broad policies calculated to work for all Americans, but with numerous small-ball proposals -- each crafted to appeal to a specific constituency -- sufficient to appeal to the self-interest of 51 percent of the voters.
Although it's an effective strategy for winning elections, this approach doesn't come close to guaranteeing good foreign and national security policies -- issues that were barely addressed in this election. Even in the debate supposedly dedicated to foreign policy, both candidates preferred to talk about jobs.
What's worse, constituent politics tears at the American fabric. It pulls together a majority by dividing us. That is a tragedy for foreign affairs, where we need to face the world with common courage, determination and solidarity.
Much of the conservative postelection commentary has focused, predictably, on how to win future elections. But conservatives should be even more worried that we pull this nation together as Americans by reminding all Americans who we are. We are not an assemblage of cohorts: blacks, Hispanics, women, middle-class voters, etc. We are Americans. And if we don't provide for our own common defense, we will be left undefended.
The iconic American infantry squad knew that America couldn't be defended on the cheap -- that we couldn't sit at home and ignore the rest of the world or outsource security to treaties and international organizations. Unless today's Americans recognize that, our peace, prosperity and freedoms will increasingly be put in jeopardy. And then it really won't matter who wins elections.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner.