Required Reading

The New American Militarism

Andrew J. Bacevich

Thirty-plus years ago, I sat in somebody else’s suburban living room and heard Daniel Ellsberg say that we weren’t on the wrong side in Vietnam, we were the wrong side.  At the time I thought it was hyperbole, though I found a lot of the other things he said that night very persuasive.  Like “if every American who was against the war had been willing to lose his job to stop it, it would have been over long since.”

Now I have found myself reviewing a lot of what Ellsberg said then.  I just finished Andrew Bacevich’s book, The New American Militarism, and it puts a lot of things into a different light.  It was written in 2005, two years before the author’s own son was killed in action in Iraq.  Bacevich has been both professional soldier and academic, and now a Gold Star father.  This impressive life has resulted in several impressive books.

Bacevich is a historian, and he starts the story of American expansionist militarism where it pretty much began, with Woodrow Wilson, who got elected to keep us out of World War I and ended by dragging us into it (sound familiar?), and then into a peace that almost inevitably led to World War II, all to “make the world safe for democracy.”  (Bacevich neglects to mention that the kind of democracy Wilson had in mind had no place for citizens with darker skins than his own; among his other dubious achievements, Wilson re-segregated Washington DC.)

Bacevich goes on to describe the oscillating fortunes of American militarism through the 20th century and into the 21st.  After World War I, the military establishment shrank back almost to its 19th-century size, as the Depression and the mistreatment of World War I veterans soured the public on foreign wars.  With the exception of more-or-less illegal leftist participation in the Spanish Civil War, that sourness lasted until Pearl Harbor, when the military sprang back with a vengeance.

Bacevich, like many revisionist historians on all sides, has taken to re-numbering the World Wars. After World War II came the Cold War, which he prefers to call World War III.  Its early years were both expansionist and beneficent.  It kept communism out of Western Europe with the cornucopia of the Marshall Plan and the shield of several hundred thousand American soldiers on bases all through the “free world.” (This was when, in keeping with this idealistic mindset, the War Department became the Defense Department.) In Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, it didn’t do so well.

Which brings us to Vietnam.  Back in 1962, when most Americans didn’t even know where Vietnam was, the upper reaches of the Kennedy administration were the scene of a great debate pitting deterrence/massive retaliation/nukes against counterinsurgency. (I was a distant witness of that debate, in the Stuart Hughes vs. Ted Kennedy senatorial campaign in Massachusetts.)  In Vietnam, the counterinsurgency buffs won out.  That was where the Ugly American came from—Burdick’s novel about the good-hearted American trying to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, and save Vietnam from the evil communists.  And of course, the counterinsurgency buffs failed, either because theirs was the wrong strategy, or because they lacked the courage of their convictions in implementing it.

Present-day analysts of that war like to find ways of blaming it for all our current problems, from all possible sides.  Did we lose because we were wrong to be there in the first place?  Or were we wrong to be there because in the end we lost?  The orthodox military historians consider the American defeat the result of political interference in the military’s business.  So, of course, did Rambo.  Bacevich points out that the original American ideal was civilian (i.e. political) control of the military.  The civilians (politicians) were to set forth the goals and the military would then supply the means.  But that relationship has always been an uneasy one, especially since Americans have a habit of electing military leaders to civilian political office, and furthermore don’t much like civilian politicians. After Vietnam, it broke down completely for a while. The American civilian public repudiated the military leaders who had organized the war and the grunts who had fought it.  (Bacevich doesn’t mention this, and may well not have known it, but for the first ten years after the Vietnam War ended, the only American civilians who gave a flaming damn for the welfare of Vietnam veterans were all in the peace movement.)

[Sidenote: I don’t mean to diminish the value of Bacevich’s work, especially since so far, this is the only book of his that I’ve read.  If I do him an injustice when I point out things he doesn’t mention in it, I apologize deeply, because in general this book knocks my socks off.]

The Cold War/WWIII ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  It was popularly considered a victory for “our side.”  It might more accurately be viewed as the culmination of a potlatch, that fascinating institution of the Northwest Pacific Indians, in which a person or a group gains power, status, and dominance by winning a contest to see who can destroy or give away more of what he values most.

Afterward, the Vietnam debacle ultimately gave rise to the Powell Doctrine, enunciated first by one of the younger graduates of that school of hard knocks: we don’t enter a war except to protect America’s vital interests; the war must have concrete, achievable objectives; it must have the full support of the American people; it must have an exit strategy set up at the very beginning; and we must approach the task with “overwhelming force”—not merely sufficient, but preponderant.

The First Gulf War was the model for this doctrine (and the opening salvo of what Bacevich calls World War IV.)   Indeed, the First Gulf War, in a few short months, completely rehabilitated the reputation of the American military and of American militarism.  It was short, cheap (in both casualties and finances—Bacevich doesn’t mention that one of the reasons everybody liked it was that we fought it mostly on other people’s money), popular (at home and abroad, which is how we managed to get other people to pay for it), and effective.  It was even preceded by a stirring and impressive congressional debate, probably the most serious public discussion of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution in more than fifty years.

But it was the very opposite of the Wilsonian ideal.  The American army stopped well short of Baghdad and left Saddam Hussein in power.  The United States paid minimal honor to our promises to the Kurds and the Sunnis, who had relied on us when they rose up against Saddam; to protect them, we created a batch of no-fly zones, policed regularly from the air.  And the international community imposed economic sanctions on Iraq which reduced it from its previous highly-industrialized status to a part of the Third World. We changed Iraq, but not by democratizing it.

And it was followed by what Bacevich portrays as a perfect storm of neoconservative politics, newly-politicized evangelical religion, a newly-professionalized officer corps, and a “crusade theory of warfare.”  It was no longer enough to set limited military goals and accomplish them.  “Containment” was once again a dirty word.  The United States has been divinely chosen to rule and impose its values on the world.

We all know what happened next. First came 9/11.  Conspiracy wackos like to think it was the work of either the Elders of Zion or the CIA.  What matters is that, if Osama bin Laden hadn’t set up 9/11, the Bush government would have had to, to accomplish its own ends.  ( If the Reichstag fire had been caused by improper use of smoking materials, who would know the difference today?)

At first, Bush responded more or less appropriately, by dropping bombs on the region from which Al Quaeda had plotted the attack.  But then, he turned his glance back on Iraq.  And at first, even that seemed to follow the Powell doctrine.  The troops went straight to Baghdad, wiped out most of the Iraqi army, and floated the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

A peripheral note here on karma: during the First Gulf War, Saddam decided to pull the rest of the Arab world into the war on his side by dropping some bombs on Israel.  Israel, of course, was in no way a party to the war on either side.  The US had asked them to stay out, and they complied.  But Saddam figured, logically enough for an Arab politician, that bombing Israel for no reason whatever was an activity all the other Arab governments would want to get in on.  It didn’t work, partly because too many Arab governments worried that Saddam did not play nicely with others, and that his Arab “allies” might end up meeting the same fate as Kuwait.  But Saddam himself became the victim of precisely the same kind of maneuver from Bush several years later—Bush decided that, if he couldn’t count on overthrowing Osama bin Laden, he could at least reconstitute the old “coalition of the willing” by overthrowing their old adversary, who had in no way been a party to 9/11.  That didn’t work either, except on the UK and a few representatives of “the new Europe.” But one has to admire the symmetry of what happened to Saddam.

Bacevich ends with a sheaf of recommendations for amending our national life that include restoring the primacy of the legislative branch in warmaking decisions, restoring the ideal of the “citizen soldier” by attaching the promise of a free college education to national service, pulling US military bases out of those parts of the world long since capable of defending themselves, giving the State Department the budget and teeth to make realistic foreign policy, and setting realistic limits on the military budget.  It’s a breathtaking panorama, and in a recent book-signing at the bookstore down the block from my home, Bacevich seemed to acknowledge that the Obama administration was no closer to implementing it than Bush had been, not yet anyway.  Conventional wisdom calls Bacevich a paleoconservative.  He may in fact be preaching that old-time political religion established by the Framers.  One hopes that the new administration is paying serious attention to it.


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