Marshall's Reviews > The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

The Icarus Syndrome by Peter Beinart
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's review
Oct 14, 2010

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bookshelves: culture, history, non-fiction, politics
Recommended for: History buffs

An interesting, well-written book on American 20th century history on foreign policy. I've never thought of military confidence in terms of economic boom-and-bust cycles, as this book does. It focuses on three wars: World War I and Woodrow Wilson's "scientific peace," Vietnam and the "hubris of toughness," and Iraq and the "hubris of dominance." About every 40 years, emboldened by a stint of military and economic glory, America has tended to set its sights higher and higher, eventually believing that it's our national destiny to transform the world in our image. Then, much like Icarus in the Greek myth, we fly too high and get burned.

The author was clearly trying to be objective, exposing both the virtues and flaws of each president, and I like how he showed their human side, but I have some issues with the biases of this book. It's not so much in what is said, but what is left out. For example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are scarcely mentioned, let alone discussed; in repeatedly citing popular opinion, never is it mentioned the forces that shape those opinions: the media; not once was the influence of big money in politics mentioned. It's pretty obvious the author is a fan of Reagan and the neoconservatives. American hegemony almost seems taken for granted at times, with the only issue being that of a good idea taken too far. Of course, the biggest bias is the focus of the book itself, emphasizing war as the most meaningful story of history, and using simplistic game metaphors of "winning a war" versus "losing a war."

Nonetheless, this book offers an invaluable historical perspective on the botched war in Iraq that has shaped our own time. I've always wondered why America suddenly became mortally afraid of terrorists. Terrorism has always been a problem. It seemed more extreme than just 9/11 showing that the threat was worse than we imagined. A rational reaction would have been to step up national security a bit, and institute a few changes to prevent such attacks in the future. The fear that suddenly gripped the nation seemed outrageous. This book explains this, summed up beautifully in this quote: "Fears don't exist in isolation. They tend to rise and fall depending on what people think they can do about them."

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Quotes Marshall Liked

Peter Beinart
“Fears don't exist in isolation. They tend to rise and fall depending on what people think they can do about them.”
Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

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