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Books: The New American Militarism by Andrew J. Bacevich

July 21, 2007 | Books,Iraq,Military


Title: The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press 2006, paperback). Author: Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran, he has a doctorate in history from Princeton and was a Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of several books, including American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.

Weird things happen when I read. I was reading another book that quoted Andrew J. Bacevich from 2005 about the importance of the Downing Street memo regarding the war in Iraq. That morning, two days before Memorial Day, his name popped out at me from a headline in the Wall Street Journal (.pdf). The article said that his son, 27-year-old U.S. Army 1st Lt. Andrew Bacevich, died on Mother’s Day in a suicide bombing in Balad, Iraq.

An outspoken critic of the war, Bacevich had never mentioned his son in his writings and asked reporters not to write about his son because he “didn’t want to burden him with my political baggage.” He also wrote a raw account of a father’s grief on May 27 in The Washington Post.

I looked him up, read some of his articles and ordered this book, which he said in the introduction was “not only a corrective to what has become the conventional critique of U.S. policies since 9/11 but … a challenge to the orthodox historical context employed to justify those policies.”

The new American militarism made its appearance in reaction to the 1960s and especially to Vietnam. It evolved over a period of decades, rather than being spontaneously induced by a particular event such as the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Nor … is present-day American militarism the product of a conspiracy hatched by a small group of fanatics when the American people were distracted or otherwise engaged. Rather, it developed in full view and with considerable popular approval.

He quoted James Madison from 1795:

Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. … No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

He concluded the introduction with:

The purpose of this book is to invite Americans to consider the continued relevance of Madison’s warning to our own time and circumstances.

Bacevich carries an industrial-sized flashlight and leads readers down a long, dark hallway of U.S. history, giving an unvarnished look behind each door. Through the last door, he shows how everything comes together, and he offers a prescription for change.

Got your boots on? Let’s go for a walk.

Door No. 1: Wilsonians under Arms 

Bacevich explained the new American militarism evolution by separate but coinciding influences. He started with President Woodrow Wilson and his goal to “end all wars” through his Fourteen Points foreign policy that, ordained by God, would spread American principles of liberal democracy and free enterprise.

He traced Wilsonian ambitions to 1) Ronald Reagan, “Wilson’s truest disciple,” 2) Bill Clinton, who followed Reagan with the spread of democratic capitalism and “intervened with greater frequency in more places for more varied purposes than any of his predecessors,” and 3) George W. Bush, who — especially after Sept. 11, 2001 — became “the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself.” Bush, for whom “the connection between America’s calling and God’s will was self-evident,” published the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which revived such Wilsonian ideals.

Militarism led to the United States to spend more on defense than all other nations in the world put together. It led to military bases and forces in dozens of countries, the “normalization of war” and implementing “coercive diplomacy” without dissent from politicians or the public. As Vice President Dick Cheney said, “… force makes your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems.”

Door No. 2: The Military Profession at Bay

By the turn of the 21st century, a cleaner image of war emerged with a highly skilled professional military carrying out coercive diplomacy with high-tech warfare and “smart” weapons, rendering war “surgical, frictionless, postmodern, even abstract or virtual.” The military gained new respectability and confidence, and the soldier was elevated “to the status of national icon.” Politicians exploited the dynamic of “supporting the troops” — on both sides of the aisle — even though “few have made any effort to educate themselves regarding issues of national security.”

Military service was no longer an obligation of good citizenship, allowing the elite (Cheney and Clinton alike) to see it as a “matter of personal choice, devoid of civic connotations,” giving us an all-volunteer force that has less and less in common with the general population.

After the disaster of the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War, victory in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 meant redemption for the military. Digging up the values of “crusty but compassionate” Gen. Creighton Abrams, the military set forth on a path of “intense purification and rigorous preparation.”

Through Herculean exertions, the services beginning in the mid-1970s purged their ranks of the pathologies bred of defeat. Out went the dopers and the bigots, the malcontents and the untrainable. That was just the beginning. Evincing a hitherto uncharacteristic passion for operational excellence, the U.S. military set out to reinvent itself. The result was sustained innovation on a massive scale: new doctrine, sophisticated new weapons, more rigorous approaches to training and the development of leaders, large-scale changes to organizations and tactics — all developed over the period of a decade and more and fully unveiled for the first time during the pummeling administered to Saddam Hussein‘s army.

In 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger introduced the Weinberger Doctrine, which “created a series of tests or preconditions for any policy decision that might put American troops into harm’s way.” The most “passionate advocate” of the Weinberger Doctrine was Gen. Colin Powell, who also “did more than any other soldier to ensure its demise.” While Powell was revered by most Americans, insiders saw him as “too adept at the arts of manipulation” and “conniving and faintly mendacious.”

Operation Desert Storm in 1991 “vaulted Powell to the status of national hero,” even though he argued against using force because he thought “Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait came nowhere close to satisfying each of the Weinberger Doctrine’s several preconditions.” The Iraq campaign went well, but Powell erred in ending hostilities too soon, which allowed Saddam Hussein stay in power and obliged the United States to keep a military presence in the Gulf, “thereby putting in train a series of events that led ultimately to 9/11 and yet another major war whose ambiguous outcome led to still deeper U.S. military involvement in the region.”

After the war, Powell “supplemented, modified, and ultimately transcended the Weinberger Doctrine” with the Powell Doctrine, which required an exit strategy and emphasized “overwhelming force” with “his fellow generals calling the shots.”

With the Pentagon spending about $300 billion a year throughout the 1990s, there was pressure for “some tangible return on the nation’s investment.”

Although it is difficult to make the case that these operations were especially effective, their cumulative effect was to reduce any residual inhibitions that Americans entertained about the use of force. Each successive episode eroded that much further the collective ability of the officer corps to stay the hand of the advocates of intervention. By the end of the decade, the Powell Doctrine looked increasingly like a dead letter.

Gen. Wesley K. Clark mismanaged Operation Allied Force in Kosovo and violated the Powell Doctrine. This restored the idea “that generals needed more adult supervision … greater civilian oversight … over all facets of military activity.” Republicans took control in 2000, along with the Bush administration and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose task was “to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander in chief and the country.”

Although members of the Bush administration professed to hold America’s fighting men and women in high regard, they evinced little patience with soldiers who counseled caution or restraint and the notion of civilian control of the military became meaningless, since civilians were the leading militarists.

Because of this, 9/11 was the officer corps’ “worst nightmare come to life,” facing an open-ended global warwithout having any say in how things happened. Rumsfeld overruled Gen. Tommy Franks, who wanted “plodding orthodoxy,” while Rumsfeld wanted “novelty and dash.” Getting into Afghanistan and Iraq was easy. Getting out was not. By 2004, high-ranking retired officials began calling for withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq. Then came Fallujah. Then Abu Ghraib.

Whether for good or ill, by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the effort to restore the authority of the officer corps, initiated thirty years earlier by Creighton Abrams, had collapsed. Senior officers advised and implemented, but they did not decide. Henceforth, the generals might drive the bus, but others chose the destination and picked the route. As to paying the fare, that was left to the soldiers in the ranks.

Door No. 3: Left, Right, Left 

Add to mix the neoconservative movement, whose core beliefs were that 1) “evil is real,” 2) “in international politics there was no substitute for power, especially military power,” 3) “alternatives to or substitutes for American global leadership simply did not exist,” and 4) at home and abroad there should be an “appreciation for authority.” They saw things in black and white, good and evil, through the lens of crisis as a permanent condition.

After the Cold War, a new generation reinvented neoconservatism, not with ideas but with political agitation and hegemony. By the end of the 1990s, they became established, their views mainstream and less controversial. They warned of the dangers of isolationism, called for more defense spending and advocated using it around the world. Three of the leading national newspapers had at least one neocon offering regular commentary on foreign policy, and neoconservative views dominated the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Ideas that even a decade earlier might have seemed reckless or preposterous now came to seem perfectly reasonable.

Pressured by a public letter from neoconservatives, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for the removal of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein and $99 million to do it. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, neoconservatives argued, “The road that leads to real security and peace,” … was “the road that runs through Baghdad.”

Door No. 4: California Dreaming

Mythology plays a major role in the new American militarism, creating a great divide between what Americans want to believe and what really happens and between how America is portrayed at home and how others see it from abroad. Adversely affected by the aftermath of Vietnam, Americans faced high inflation and unemployment, long gas lines and an energy shortage. Carter addressed the problems with his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979 and promised to cap oil imports and invest in alternative sources of energy. He called for personal sacrifice as “an act of patriotism.”

Then came the Iran hostage crisis, which paralyzed the Carter administration.

Reagan rode in on his white horse with a message of “abundance without end” and limitless economic expansion “without moral complications or great cost.” He doubled the Pentagon’s budget and put the soldier on a pedestal. Under Reagan, “military might … became the preferred measure for gauging the nation’s strength.” Popular culture propped up that image with An Officer and a Gentleman, Rambo and Top Gun.

Reagan showed that in post-Vietnam America genuflecting before soldiers and playing to the pro-military instincts of the electorate wins votes.

Reagan’s myths “became enshrined as permanent aspects of American political theater,” and Clinton perpetuated and exalted those myths.

Door No. 5: Onward

As a “Christian nation,” the United States has about 100 million Americans who define themselves as evangelical Christians. They wield enormous political clout, with such early leaders as Billy Graham — who served as “spiritual counselor to presidents and leading members of Congress” and was “something of a political power broker able, it was said, to swing millions of votes” — and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder in 1979 of the Moral Majority, Jim Bakker, Jim Dobson, Pat Robertson and others.

Militant evangelicals imparted religious sanction to the militarization of U.S. policy and helped imbue the resulting military activism with an aura of moral legitimacy.

As Falwell said in 1980, “A political leader, as a minister of God, is a revenger to execute wrath upon those who do evil. Our government has the right to use its armaments to bring wrath upon those who would do evil by hurting other people.”

With an obsessive preoccupation with Israel regarding premillenial dispensationalism, evangelicals believe it is crucial for Jews to return to the Holy Land in a sequence of events leading up to Christ’s Second Coming. Consequently, “the Religious Right has been unflinchingly loyal to the Jewish state, eager to support Israel in the performance of its prescribed role (although according to the most commonly accepted script, before the Millennium arrives all Jews will either convert to Christianity or be killed off).”

Evangelicals granted special dispensation to Israel regarding war and saw rearmament as “akin to a religious imperative.” Reagan courted the Religious Right, holding private conversations with leaders and speaking to large group of followers. The Religious Right, in turn, promoted Reagan’s military building, even forming a “Religious Coalition for a Moral Defense Policy” to promote ballistic missile defense, which they considered a moral obligation.

… were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in this deeply and genuinely religious country becomes inconceivable.

Door No. 6: War Club

After World War II, a new profession of “defense intellectuals,” led by Bernard Brodie, arose, as well as institutions such as the RAND Corp., a federally funded research facility founded in 1946. Mathematicians, economists and political scientists became “charter members of the new postwar national security elite” and included Charles Hitch, Herman Kahn and John von Neumann. Albert Wohlstetter, known as “the dean of American nuclear strategists,” joined RAND in 1951. (Paul Wolfowitzstudied with Wohlstetter at the University of Chicago.) These “high priests of nuclear strategy came to wield great influence, without the burden of actual responsibility.”

Members of this priesthood remained largely hidden from public view and thus unaccountable.

Wohlstetter studied Strategic Air Command and a possible Soviet attack and “concluded that ‘strategic-retaliatory-force vulnerability’ was ‘the problem of nuclear war.” He became obsessed with vulnerability and was convinced that Americans were oblivious that they lived “in a world of persistent danger.” His belief that “defensive ends required the use of offensive means” instructed “the ongoing evolution of American thinking about strategy” that ultimately led “down a path ending some four decades later in a fully developed argument for preventive war as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy.”

Andrew Marshall, “the ultimate insider,” took up the task of “refining the design, drawing up the detailed blueprints, and cajoling the officer corps into full compliance with” Wohlstetter’s vision. He did so with the Revolution in Miliatary Affairs, whose essence “was to move war out of the industrial age and into the information age.”

Door No. 7: Blood for Oil 

Bacevich argued that the Cold War was actually World War III and that World War IV, started on Sept. 11, 2001, “promises to continue indefinitely.” World War IV was “declared” in 1980 by Jimmy Carter, of all people. In January 1980, Carter outlined in his State of the Union Address what became known as the Carter Doctrine and has since remained sacrosanct:

An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region, will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

In the words of Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, this step “was to assure the unimpeded flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf.” In other words, “The overarching motive for action was the preservation of the American way of life.”

Here lay the driving force behind U.S. actions in what became World War IV: not preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; not stemming the spread of terror; certainly not liberating oppressed peoples or advancing the cause of women’s rights. The prize was mastery over a region that leading members of the American foreign policy elite, of whatever political persuasion, had concluded to be critically important to the well-being of the United States.

Osama bin Laden‘s 1996 Declaration of Jihad “emerged at least in part as a response to prior U.S. policies and actions, in which lofty ideals and high moral purpose seldom figured.”

The United States cannot be held culpable for the maladies that today find expression in violent Islamic radicalism. But neither can the United States absolve itself of any and all responsibility for the conditions that have exacerbated those maladies. After several decades of acting as the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf, American did not arrive at the end of the twentieth century with clean hands.

Prescription for change — Door No. 8: Common Defense

In the last chapter, Bacevich outlined 10 principles to diminish the new American militarism.

1) Restore the basic precepts of the Constitution.

2) Revitalize the concept of separation of powers.

The problem is not that the presidency has become too strong. Rather, the problem is that the Congress has failed — indeed, failed egregiously — to fulfill its constitutional responsibility for deciding when and if the United States should undertake military interventions abroad.

3) View force as a last resort.

4) Enhance U.S. strategic self-sufficiency.

5) Organize U.S. forces explicitly for national defense.

6) Devise an appropriate gauge for determining the level of U.S. defense spending. Instead of basing it on a percentage of gross domestic product, it should be determined by what others spend.

7) Enhance alternative instruments of statecraft.

If the United States is to remain effectively engaged with the rest of the world, it needs a highly competent agency to coordinate and manage U.S. diplomacy. It needs mechanisms to counter the negative image of the United States and is policies prevailing in too many parts of the world. And it needs to solve the riddle of development and, once having done so, to invest in implementing that solution.

8 ) Revive the moribund concept of the citizen-soldier.

Standing armies threaten government by the people, the soldier-historian John McAuley Palmer observed between the world wars, not because they consciously seek to pervert liberty, but because they relieve the people themselves of the duty of self-defense.

9) The role of the National Guard and the reserve components need to be re-examined, which means a return “to their original purpose — a trained militia kept in readiness as the primary instrument for community self-defense. Of course, community in this context refers not to Kosovo and Iraq but to Kansas and Iowa.”

10) Reconcile the American military profession to American society.

Posted by Becky @ 6:30 pm  

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