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Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire

William Astore @ Tom Dispatch - Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign. What to make, then, of President Obama's pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known"? Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.

In fact, this sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of a must for American presidents. Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" and "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.

I'm a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history. The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.

Let's start with the fighting part of the equation. Are we truly the world's greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history? If so, on what basis is this claim made? And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington's priorities? Consider that no leading U.S. politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care system or environmental policies "that the world has ever known." Read more.

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