Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Book Review: The New American Militarism

The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, by Andrew Bacevich

I think this is an enormously important book that should be read by everyone who's associated with the American military, or concerned about the role of the military in American politics, or concerned about American military policy. That should cover everybody.

Andrew Bacevich is not your average peacenik. A Vietnam veteran who rose to the rank of Army Colonel, since his retirement he has become a professor of International Relations at Boston University. He is a self-described "Catholic conservative", but he parted ways from the conservative movement in the late 1990s.

Like all sensible soldiers, Bacevich hates war. What makes him unusual for a soldier is that he also hates militarism. What makes him especially unusual for a critic of the Bush II administration is that he sees how their militarism and their military failures are not their own invention. Modern American militarism is a project on which Democrats and Republicans have cooperated, and in which Americans are almost all complicit.

Over his years in academe, Bacevich has come to reject the "Great Man" theory of history. He doesn't blame American militarism on Ronald Reagan, or Dick Cheney, or Lyndon Johnson; on any single person or even any single movement. We have acted together to bring ourselves to this pass: where the US is the greatest military power in the history of the world, where every problem seems to cry out for a military solution, and where it is never enough.

I think this is a really important book and I hate to oversummarize. Nonetheless, here are a few of the arguments Bacevich makes:

a) The American military -- specifically, the officer class -- responded to Vietnam *not* by trying to figure out how that type of war could be successfully fought, but by refocusing their efforts on getting ready for the Least Likely War -- one against the Soviet Union, taking place in Eastern Europe. This was good for their institutional interests, but bad for true national security. This strikes me as exceedingly plausible, because that's how human beings behave.

b) The Cold War does deserve to be called World War III. World War IV, though, did not begin on 9/11/2001: it began with the "energy crisis" and the OPEC "oil shock" of the late 1970s. When President Carter asked the American people to focus on conservation and self-restraint as the way out of the Crisis, the American people basically said, "No." We chose freedom, where "freedom" is "the ability to do what we feel like regardless of consequences". This choice made the Middle East perforce the pivot of American foreign policy, and World War IV -- the War for Oil -- has been going ever since.

c) Bacevich clearly thinks Carter was the most (possibly the only) moral President of the past 30 years at least, but he could not do his job -- sell the American people on what needed to be done -- when it mattered most. He considers Reagan a myth-maker, a convincing salesmen of fairy-tales. Bush I was almost a non-entity, Clinton too politically savvy to have principles, while Bush II is playing a role laid out for him: the Christian warrior, though he is acting neither as a Christian nor a warrior.

d) The bond that has developed between Israel and the US has made both countries more militaristic, more respectful of their military and more inclined to use military solutions to their problems.

I've only scratched the surface on Bacevich's analysis of American militarism, what it is and how it has grown. I'm going to skip to the end, though, and give his To-Do list, which is more concrete and detailed than most and which I haven't seen discussed online.

1. Heed the intentions of the Founders. Their experience of war was personal and direct, and they were right to be distrustful of standing armies. Military power should *not* be the cornerstone of American greatness in the world, and to think of it that was is an obscene distortion. Military power should be focused on "the common defense" in a direct and pragmatic way, not on exanding the area Americans feel obliged to defend.

2. Revitalize the concept of separation of powers. Congress is supposed to be in charge of declaring war, not the Executive, but Congress has been shirking its duty for decades.

3. View force as a last resort. This doesn't mean that the US can't consider responding to *direct* threats, but it is both sensible and moral for us to stop thinking of military intervention as the main thing America is good for.

4. Enhance US strategic self-sufficiency. In particular, of course, we have to stop being so dependent on foreign oil. As Bacevich says, though we have been saying this for 30 years, "in all that time, the US has yet to take any meaningful action to reduce its energy dependence." He's right, this is both intolerable and bafflingly stupid.

5. Organize US forces explicity for national defense -- not on projecting our power around the globe. This means drawing down our overseas garrisons and turning over most of our network of bases to our allies. In other words, to treat our allies as allies, not vassals.

6. Devise an appropriate gauge for determining the level of US defense spending -- not just our current method, which is "always more". Bacevich suggest pegging US defense spending to what others are spending, e.g.: the next ten biggest defense budgets combined. That should be more than enough for true defense, while still limiting what's available for adventurism.

7. Embrace alternative instruments of statecraft. In particular, why are Americans so intolerant of waste and inefficiency in State Department programs, so lax about it for the Defense Department?

[I think the answer here is related to a major aspect of militarism that Bacevich overlooks: the military-industrial complex. Basically, ill-spent Defense Department money enriches American corporations and their pet congressmen, wasted State Department money mostly does not.]

8. Revive the concept of the citizen-soldier. The "All-Volunteer Army" is meant to sound very Minute Man-like, but Bacevich says "the actually existing ethos of today's active force is more akin to that of the French Foreign Legion." They are professionals who go anywhere without question to obey their leaders, and they are not particularly interested in being part of civilian society for which they do not have a great deal of respect.

Bacevich thinks a good start would be to have "a new GI bill that on principle ties federal education grants to citizen service" -- not to mention better signing bonuses and shorter enlistments.

9. Re-examine the role of the National Guard and the reserve components. Put the Guard and Reserves back to their original purpose -- a trained militia for community self-defense, where "community" does not mean Kosovo and Iraq.

10. Reconcile the American military profession to American society. Bacevich feels that the officer class is too remote from the rest of America, both psychologically and physically. The heart of the officer class is trained in isolated academies; their post-graduate training is in dedicated Officer Training Schools. Officers live in special "fort" communities that serve no military purpose.

Bacevich is an extremely brave man, because his proposed solution is for *all* officers,as a prerequisite, to have "a liberal education acquired in the company of their company of their fellow citizens". He suggests that the service academies should then train *all* officers for a year or so, and that officers' post-graduation education should take place in civilian universities, not War Colleges.

IMHO Bacevich's list is an excellent start for thinking about how to get America off the addiction to military power. The first step, of course, is to admit you have a problem.