The New American Militarism

Militarism CoverALMOST EVERYONE ENJOYS hearing their prejudices read back to them as theories. Atlas Shrugged, for example, gave substantial aid and comfort to two generations of selfish louts who felt that their attitude somehow came off better if it had an ideology behind it.

I am, I suppose, prone to the same kind of indulgence. I like seeing my sentiments show up as ideas in the books of my betters. So it was with an expectation of cozy warmth that I settled in to Andrew Bacevich’s 2005 The New American Militarism, a critique of the United States‘ increasing use of military force as its power instrument of first choice. This passage is from a peroration, toward the end of the book:

Several decades after Viet Nam, in the aftermath of a century filled to overflowing with evidence pointing to the limited utility of armed force and the dangers inherent in relying excessively on military power, the American people have persuaded themselves that their best prospect for safety and salvation lies with the sword.

As an empiricist, I am encouraged by Bacevich’s thrust. One’s beliefs should be determined by the evidence available to one‘s senses, and the history of America‘s military actions since Viet Nam certainly seems to yield the conclusion that the offensive use of military force rarely achieves the goals for which it is chosen and almost always produces chaotic, unintended consequences, including, of course, human suffering. War seems well worth avoiding as far as possible.

For the most part Bacevich develops a clear, robust argument in support of this position, lucidly laying out a narrative of how the Washington establishment and—crucially—the American people came to endorse the possession of a global military empire as a desireable status quo. The book is, as Tony Judt would call it, opinionated history.

But first: why, if I am already convinced of the truth of the proposition, would I bother reading Bacevich’s restatement of it? For two reasons. First, because I am always interested to know if my position is wrong, and critiquing a stranger’s arguments in support of my beliefs is more effective than scouring my own. One’s own thoughts are immunized from critical introspection by an army of stealthy biases. (With luck, I’ll have the chance to review Daniel Kahnemann in the future on precisely this topic.) Furthermore, I expect Bacevich, a soldier and historian, to do a professional job of gathering and evaulating the evidence, something I have only done as an amateur, in the vague, scattershot way allowed by barroom discussions. If Bacevich’s arguments are weak, mine are likely weaker still.

Second, because in addressing the main question, “What is the new American millitarism?” Bacevich exposes a fascinating subsidiary question, about our national identity. Understood through their speeches and letters, our Founders clearly evinced an attitude toward military power radically different from, and more modest than, the one most Americans espouse today. How did we stray so far from their vision, and why are so few Americans curious about this tangent we have taken? It threatens to consume all our wealth, and more. It also causes much of the world to hate and fear us. August Renan theorized that nations do a certain amount of calculated forgetting in forging their collective identities. Are we determined to forget that our founders were profoundly skeptical of military power? Or, not liking to read books, are we simply becoming too stupid to wonder about such things? Welcome to Costco, I love you.

But to the book. It provides a crisp, compelling history of the wars, government decisions and social movements that led to our adoption of military supremacy as the measure of our greatness. It all started with Viet Nam. That overseas military catastrophe interacted on the domestic front with the hippie- and the civil rights movements to challenge and corrode the the political authority of the nation’s leading insitutions. The result put Americans in a deep funk. They had just lost a major war and found themselves sapped of the ideational wherewithal to reclaim their strength. The establishment had been thoroughly discredited. Who would make the country great again?

In response to the crisis, the U.S. military’s officer corps decided to take its fate into its own hands. Viet Nam had been a nightmare made by politicians, in their eyes. Never again, the officer corps resolved, would its soldiers languish in slack unprofessionalism, nor would generals‘ rulings on the optimal use of force be overridden by inept civilians. I should take a moment as a veteran to comment on this position, which is not quite the power grab it appears to be. The U.S. military has never had, nor does it seek, the authority to decide whether to employ force. This is a sacrosanct power reserved for the country’s civilian leaders. But when it comes to questions of how to use force and what size and shape of organization is needed to meet politicians‘ stated goals, the military is as defensive of its turf as any other highly specialized profession. Asked to plumb a house, for example, a master plumber would not seek or benefit from the advice of a non-plumber. He has the specs; let him do his job. And so it is with the military profession. This feeling intensified among officers after Viet Nam and has become deeply ingrained as a professional value.

Carter, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. At first, Americans seemed fortified by his “confidence” speech, but, upon reflection, they resented his blaming their problems on consumerism and materialism, two of their favorite things.

So the military did have a plan for recovering from Viet Nam. But the nation at large remained adrift. Oil crises had caused the economy to tank, and Americans were feeling not just disoriented, but economically precarious as well. President and Chief Communicator Jimmy Carter stepped up to give his citizens a dose of bracing medicine in July 1979, in the form of a national address. It became known as the „Crisis of Confidence“ Speech. Americans were suffering from an amorphous malaise, Carter said, which ran deep into our soul. Yes, the economy was bad, yes, OPEC had us over a barrel, but at the core of our sickness was “a growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.” In the speech Carter did something politicians have since discovered to be fatal: he asked the people to get real and deal with things. “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance,“ he intoned, “but it is the truth.” Americans would have to steel their wills, ennoble their minds, and focus on non-material wealth. Later, a Carter aide would say the speech was more of a sermon. Whatever spiritual import Americans took from it, its political message was clear: expectations should be reduced.

The problem with malaise, as anyone who has read Sartre or Camus knows, is that it has no address. Carter himself called it “invisible.” The speech about it didn’t go over well. After a spate of increased approval for the president—possibly because he had spoken to his fellow citizens as adults: that must have felt good to them—his ratings dove. Americans, it turns out, did not like having their problems blamed on their core values, consumerism and materialism.  As it happens, though, a clique of conservative thinkers led by the formidable Norman Podhoretz, founding editor of the arch-conservative magazine Commentary, had been toiling away for years on an ideology that would shield Americans from the burdens of self denial. Real Americans don’t reduce their expectations, preached Commentary; they dream bigger and bigger. Strong and bountiful as America was, any government that could not clear the way for the limitless pursuit of happiness was simply unworthy of the People’s consent.

Morning was about to dawn in America. Carter, fatally off message, would be steamrolled.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 all he really had to do to win was to contest everything Carter had said in the “Crisis” speech. And he duly did so. Podhoretz, who had long been forming the words for such a rebuttal, backed Reagan mightily. The result was foreordained.

Reagan succeeded spectacularly as the conservative movement’s frontman because he so clearly “solved” the malaise problem. Unlike the introspective Carter, who sensed a tenebrous cloud of despond drifting somewhere abroad in the nation’s soul, Reagan named specific enemies and drew clear battle lines. There was an evil empire on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and it was our duty to defy it. Even better, Reagan relieved Americans of the Carteresque fear that they might not be able to have it all. A little credit would get them through the rough patch, and then capitalism’s inevitable growth would cover the bills. I suppose It sounded good at the time. (Did our love affair with war have the same genesis as our addiction to debt? Bacevich leaves this captivating question unaddressed.)

For Bacevich, the Carter-Reagan chapter of American history is seminal, because it is where the main drivers of American militarism took shape. Buffeted by doubt, then bouyed by optimism, the American people made the choices, unremarkable at the time, that would lead to our present belief that a “peculiar genius” for war and an outsized means for prosecuting it together provide “the truest measure of national greatness.”

Despite the heavy moral overtones of Bacevich’s history, it is not, strictly speaking, a morality tale. All that Americans knew when they embraced Reagan, implies Bacevich, is that they were tired of feeling like losers, and he gave them succour. What they could not (quite) have known is that Reagan`s bright-burning star was fueled by a neocoservative ideology centered on the military confrontation of evil, a fight that feels so right it turns out to be habit forming. Once a nation tastes the thrill of facing down devils, it has embarked on a path toward permanent war, or at least a permanent desire for war. The rational, human adversaries of Clausewitzian Realpolitik come and go with circumstances, but evil exists forever, part of the Firmament. And the only thing required for evil to prevail—as Podhoretz believed and Reagan mouthed—is for strong heroes to falter.

By 1990 the U.S. military was turning out great columns of strong heroes. For 15 years since Viet Nam the military services had professionalized extensively and kept their powder dry by repeatedly warning America’s political class away from unwinnable wars. They also found themselves, from the Reagan years onward, the beneficiaries of a lavish stream of funding that had proved, for domestic political reasons, impossible to tamper with. Well, that’s not exactly true: the money could always be increased, just not reduced. When the U.S. Blitzkrieg of Operation Desert Storm expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, it presented the world with the stunning results of all these developments. And in a flash, the Viet Nam effect was over.

Humming in the circuitry behind the political story of America’s return to military greatness was a school of defense intellectuals convened at the dawn of the Cold War to work out whether a nuclear war might be winnable. Bacevich argues that this school, once it had deduced the main axioms of game theory in a nuclear scenario, transposed the same logic to conventional war scenarios. Thus the defense theorists‘ commitment to strategic deterrence—clearly the best approach to a potentially suicidal nuclear war—ultimately came to dominate the Defense Department’s thinking about all conflict. It was always best to signal one’s intent to do ruinous harm to any potential adversary, and the only way to render this threat credible was to maintain a large, highly lethal standing army. War was thus no longer a merely periodic crisis for which one could call up new troops to be demobilized later.

Without knowing the longterm ramifications of their choices, the proponents of a large standing army, the “strategic priesthood,” as Bacevich dubs them, turned a corner in the 1950s toward “a fully developed argument for preventive war as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy.” Thus when the younger Bush inked the National Security Strategy of 2003 committing us to precisely this doctrine, he was not making it up on the spot, as he has occasionally been villified for doing. He was drawing on a theory that had been incubating in the Pentagon and in Washington’s military think tanks for half a century.

While not wishing to give short shrift to the rest of the history of America’s new militarism, its development after Desert Storm became much more deliberate and, therefore, open to public view.  For one thing, our growing preference for military intervention blended with the tenets of evangelical Christiantity. Billy Graham became the counselor of presidents, the last voice on many occasions to cry “Let slip the dogs of war.” “Policy options that policymakers advocated as feasible and necessary,” writes Bacevich, “Christians discerned as right and good.” This gave significant cultural depth to the politics of militaristism. Today, if one wished to reduce our appetite for war, one would have to persuade the nation’s evangelicals—some 150 million—to undo the marriage of their faith to militaristic bloodlust.

The deadly gravity of Bacevich’s book does not become clear until the last chapter, in which he outlines ten meausres to break our additction to militarism.  Those Americans who hold on to even a crumb of hope that our country might return to being a peaceful republic—that the American eagle, as Twain put it, would stop sinking ist talons into foreign nations—will despair at Bacevich’s prescriptions. Of the ten, half are non-starters. For one, Bacevich recommends we pull back from almost all our foreign bases, and that we drop”power projection” as a normal means of interacting with the world. We should dramatically trim the size of the force as well, he says, and organize it for its original role of territorial defense. It almost goes without saying that such measures would be seen by almost everyone who counts as heresy. This is how far down the road we have gone.

The constellation of politicians, military reformers, defense intellectuals, media kings and reactionary voters that have gifted us militarism as a national identity trait simply would not allow such measures to be seriously considered. The world needs us, we believe, and because we are on the right side of history, the world needs our terrible swift sword.

Insightful and revelatory overall, Bacevich’s history presents one major distraction and a nagging, recurring weakness.

In the next-to-last chapter Bacevich reviews at length the United States’ increasing Middle East entanglements over the last 35 years. He believes the region has become both a new, quasi-permanent strategic focal point for the U.S. and a live-fire laboratory for our ongoing experiments in militarism. Although the analysis of the Middle East amplifies his central claims about militarism, they do not expand on them or illuminate them especially. One senses that he is on to a new topic, which he should merely outine and hasten onward. Indeed Bacevich himself came to see that his new subject deserved its own, more comprehensive treatment, which he provides in his 2016 America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Although I look forward to reading it, contending with its core argument at such length in The New American Militarism detracted from the main narrative of the 2005 book.

Had Bacevich left out the chapter on our protracted Middle Eastern war, he would have had room to make up for the small logical elisions that occur too frequently in the book to allow one to call it a masterpiece. Judgments like the two below call out for evidence that Bacevich does not provide:

“For the armed services, [military] dominance constitutes a baseline or a point of departure from which to scale the heights of ever greater military capabilities” (18).

“Even for the participants [in war], fighting no longer implied the prospect of dying for some abstract cause, since the very notion of ‘sacrifiice in battle had become implausible and ironic'”(20).

The first proposition seems plausible, but where or what is the evidence for it? Is it a claim about what young officers are taught, what their attitudes are, what the military propagates in its doctrine, or something else? By leaving the proposition unsupported, Bacevich gives the impression he is merely dispensing intuitions rather than drawing an informed inference.

The second proposition is from a passage arguing (but not very well) that war became a spectator sport after Desert Storm. While war certainly did become more surgical in some ways, I have to believe that even Bacevich’s experience as a soldier rails against the idea that the troops after 1991 could sit back and watch the fighting happen. I have several friends and comrades would would contest this claim severely. More to the point, though, what evidence could Bacevich have possibly adduced for his implied claims about soldiers’ subjective experiences of warfighting? Is it in case studies? War memoirs? Hospital records? Again, Bacevich should not have stepped on to such slippery ground without a critical point to argue and a credible body of evidence to support it.

There are probably fewer than twenty such missteps throughout The New American Militarism, but they remind me that, nice as it is to have my sentiments read back to me as theories, hardly any theory is watertight, especially about war and politics.



2 thoughts on “The New American Militarism

  1. Hi Mark. He doesn’t put a lot of meat on the bone. Based on his critique of overseas basing, though, he doesn’t having anything like power-projection or defense in (strategic) depth in mind. I would guess he has to keep continental BMD, but he’s very critical of having it based abroad. As far as troops and tanks go, I think he has a Monroe Doctrine era force in mind, just enough to deter a large power from sending an expeditionary force our way.


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