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May 31, 2005

Book review. The New American Militarism by Bacevich

The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced By War.
by Andrew J. Bacevich, Oxford University Press, 2005 $28 ($21 if you get it via AAFES)

When I sat down to read this book, I deliberately did *not* read other people's reviews, I wanted to have as uninfluenced an opinion (other than by my own biases) as I could.

Bottom line? The book is not disrespectful of the soldier or the profession of arms. It is *not* a flattering portrait of the political and policy classes. And it’s all *your* fault, Jane and Joe Sixpack.

Short answer - I mostly agree with Bacevich on the evolution of the military as a tool over the last 30 years, though I think (as is often the case with people who are arguing to persuade) he overstates his case in several aspects, and ignores some contrary evidence. The work is at its strongest when it's heavily footnoted and historical, at it's weakest when Bacevich lets his old-style populist politics shine through to mask his message. Unless, of course, you come at this from a leftist perspective, in which case you'll be nodding your head, pumping your fist, and asking for an "Amen!" I was doing that through many of the footnoted parts... This doesn't mean I embrace his politics as they periodically surface, but his basic thrustline (regarding the development of the military and incoherent usage, not socialization issues) to me is sound. Of course, since he's saying some things about the use of military power that I've averred before and have been since the middle 90's may be skewing my objectivity somewhat. Jack of Random Fate and Alan of GenX@40 will be comfortable with this book, I’m thinking.

Greyhawk weighs in here.

The interview by Chester is here (and is also the broken link down below that none of you told me about... so, not really reading it *all*, eh?)

Politically, Bacevich characterizes himself as nothing more than a social conservative, but as you read, and the "huge disparities in income-distribution" and “excessive consumption” lines start falling off the page, you realize that Mr. Bacevich is more a New Deal Democrat with a whiff of populist. Which is fine, that doesn't damage his basic thesis, if it does make (to this reader) for some inapt passages in the book. But he's either clueless about his interest in Progressive politics, or, more likely, wants to mask that so that people like me will read the book. Heh. He'll get people like me with the title.

Most of the readers of this blog who comment or communicate via email will find the book a good read, regardless of whether or not you end up agreeing with Bacevich's thesis.

Update: Based on several good email conversations and comments... I'll further refine my review.

Professor Bacevich looked around and didn't see people like himself serving in the military, i.e., liberal/progressive diplomatic historians at large, Blue State Universities.... And, like many in the Blue State Elites, from that interpreted the situation as indicating that the Military had divorced itself from society. An angle he didn't consider is that perhaps Professor Bacevich and his fellow-travelers had divorced themselves from Society? Discuss.

That said - the book is still a good read for those of you with an interest in the subject, left, right, or, like most of us, in the great mushy middle.

If you are feeling masochistic and want to read my pompous bloviating further - hit the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry button.

You need to understand where Bacevich comes from, as his experience both informs and colors his work. He is a West Pointer, Princeton-trained historian, late-war Vietnam veteran, retired Regular Infantry Colonel. After his retirement, he joined the faculty of Boston University, where he is Professor of International Relations and the Director of the Center for International Relations at that institution.

Much of the negative response to his book has been due, I think, to a visceral reaction to the title, and the blurbs. If you take the time to read it, you'll find that it isn't quite what it seems, nor quite what the spinners on both sides have made it out to be. Of course, since Bacevich and I were thinking on parallel tracks regarding the use of military force by the leaders of this nation (of both parties) didn't affect my judgment. Nope. Nada. Hah.

If you approach this book thinking that Bacevich is talking about militarism as in the way it was used to describe Pre-WWI Germany or WWII Japan, you will be caught up short. Bacevich is arguing that a confluence of factors – politics, military reaction to the failures in Vietnam policy, rampant consumerism and selfishness in the electorate, the advent of a “defense intellectual” class, and the Rise of the Evangelicals, interacted in such a way to have caused us to build a hyper-capable military system – for which we have no coherent policy on its use. We have made it too easy to use force, and we keep seeking the magic bullet that will make it the perfect tool,, and that because we have such a nice hammer, every problem tends to be looked at as a nail. Rather than taking real cognizance that force has it's limits, we have fallen into the trap that if we get just a little more precise, we can bend anyone to our will, and should – without immoral carnage on the scale of the World Wars. We forget that war tends to take on a life of it's own - dictating the terms, and not responding to your will. Much like the 'insurgency' in Iraq has taken over from that nice, clean March Upcountry in March, 2003.

While Bacevich doesn’t argue that the military is out of line and dictating things and defacto ordering the civilians around (the classic definition of militarism) he does claim both that the military abrogated its role to provide professional advice and at the same time is not sufficiently subservient to civil authority. In a passage that will greatly annoy fans of Creighton Abrams, he essentially accuses Abrams of usurping civil authority by deliberately building the force to constrain policymaker’s choices (by the heavy reliance on the reserves) which Bacevich implies is a serious breach of the concept of civilian control – and will later, with the other hand, lambaste the military for having built itself into a tool which can be used by the civil authority without having to pay the political costs of mobilization, etc, which he feels acts as a brake on irresponsible foreign policy adventures. All of which he will then lay at the feet of civilian policymakers for having failed to ensure proper oversight and control – and of being in thrall to a coterie of defense intellectuals who are enamored of force. He has little good to say about any of the Presidents since FDR, and he really pastes the Congress for abrogating their responsibility for declaring war.

So, who *is* to blame? You are, you ravening sybarite. Yep. You. Not the military, really. They are either behaving in predictable fashion (incompetent or being brilliant Machiavellians). Not the elected officials. Nope, they are just weather vanes, twisting in the wind. Bacevich savages all the President's since FDR. He's got little use for Clinton's feckless foreign policy - but he's really ticked at George. However... No, gentle reader - IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT.

Your desire for limitless freedom and economic upward mobility, manifested in your insatiable desire for oil, set this train in motion. And when you dismissed Jimmy Carter from the Presidency for daring to suggest that we conserve, lower our expectations, and adopt a more green and spiritual lifestyle over your irresponsible compulsion to buy SUV's, have air conditioning, and keeping the house just above freezing, well you, your sorry bastards, you set the stage for the acceleration of an already in progess action. And the politicians got the message. Bottom line, even though we don't realize it, *it is* blood for oil.

There, I've inoculated you against that theme that runs through the book. It will be there, popping up now and again. Don't let it distract you from the fact that whether or not you agree with it - I don't think that it undermines his thesis.

He takes 8 Chapters and 227 pages to make his point (footnotes, most of which are cites and not explanatory) push it to 262. It's a fairly quick read, and for those of us who lived through what is described, especially from inside the machine, will seem very familiar.

Chapter 1, Wilsonians Under Arms, talks about the Crusading nature of American Foreign Policy in the last century. He's not a fan. He also bemoans the fact that we have no ‘principled opposition’ any more.
Chapter 2, The Military Profession at Bay discusses how the Services set out to recover from Vietnam. I should note that this is an Army-centric book, but since the Army is the Elephant in the Living Room in this discussion, it's appropriate.
Chapter 3. Left, Right, Left. The Rise of the Neocons. Bad Neocons!
Chapter 4. California Dreaming - The Myth-making that gives us an idealized and romantic view of the American Soldier and our military heritage (keep in mind, Bacevich was one himself). This chapter merits a quote:

The New American Militarism draws much of it’s sustaining force from myth – stories created to paper over incongruities and contradictions that pervade the American way of life. The exercise of global power by the United States aggravates these incongruities. Americans want to feel secure, in their homes and where they work. Rather than safety, however, the possession of military might without precedent has in practice yielded a heightened sense of vulnerability. Americans see themselves as an idealistic people. But the dispatch of U.S. forces to oppose tyranny and create the conditions for peace does not evoke accolades from abroad. Instead, it fuels anti-Americanism and generates suspicions of our motives and intentions. Americans believe in democracy. But their democracy works such that the divide between rich and poor grows ever wider. In American, the winners control and ever-increasing percentage of the nation’s wealth. To be a member of the upper class is to have privileges, among them ensuring it’s someone else’ kid who is getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan. These are hard, uncomfortable truths, for which the existing political system does not provide an easily available remedy. So Americans concoct stories to make such truths more palatable. During the past quarter century, American politicians with the eyes firmly fixed on the main chance, assisted by purveyors of popular culture with a well-honed instinct for what sells, have promulgated a host of such stories. On result has been to contrive a sentimentalized version of the American military experience and an idealized image of the American soldier.

This chapter is where he really sets the stage for who is ultimately to blame.

Chapter 5. Onward. Those thrice-damned Evangelicals take over the military and turn it into a bastion of Warrior Monks. (There *is* a grain of truth in that, from my experience).
Chapter 6. War Club (double entendre! The Defense Intellectuals, those thrice-damned thinkers who strove to shape the military and the policies that employ it into what it is today. How we built the tools, and why, and how the Generals and Intellectuals have divorced the Army from the People, making it easier to engage in Imperial Adventures.
Chapter 7 Blood for Oil – why American foreign policy since WWII has been focused on oil. And who’s to blame for that.
Chapter 8 Common Defense - do what I say, and all will be better.

The solution? Well, of course he has some thoughts on the subject – some of which reflect his West Point upbringing… and not an ROTC background, like yours truly. This is also the time for another quote, to show he’s not quite the raver the spinners have been making him out to be.

There is, wrote H.L. Mencken, “always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausidble, and wrong.” Mencken’s aphorism applies in spades to the subject of this account. To imagin that there exists a simple antidote to the “military meta-physic” to which the people and government of the United States have fallen prey is to misconstrue the problem. As the foregoing chapters make plain, the origins of America’s present-day infatuation with military power are anyting but simple. American Militarism is not the invention of a cabal nursing fantasies of global empire [sorry, DU’ers! Ed.] and manipulating an ususpecting people frightened by the events of 9/11. Further, it is counterproductive to think in these terms – to assign culpability to a particular president of administration and to imaging that throuwing the bums out will put things right. Yet neither does the present-day status of the United States as sole superpower reveal an essential truth, whether positive or negative, about the American Project. Enthusiasts (mostly on the right) who interpret America’s possession of unrivaled and unprecedented armed might as proof that the United States enjoys the mandate of heave are deluded. But so too are those (mostly on the left) who see in the far-flung doings of today’s U.S. military establishment substantiation of Major General Smedley Butler’s old chestnut that ‘war is just a racket” and the American soldier “a gangster for capitalism” sent abroad to to the bidding of Big Business or Big Oil.

His prescription?

1. Heed the intention of the Founders. Bacevich is a constructionist… Avoid foreign entanglements. Nothing in the Constitution sets forth that the US is obligated to save the world from itself. Not quite back to isolationism, but close. Bring it back to “Promote the Common Defense” Leave aside for a moment that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In another venue,
Bacevich even allows that pre-emption *is* a viable option. He argues that with the exception of WWII, *all* of our military adventures in the past 120 years have made us less safe, not more.

2. Revitalize the concept of separation of powers. In other words, Congress should do its duty in regarding declaring war, and raising and equipping armies, and quit deferring to the Executive. Rumsfeld will *not* like this discussion.

3. View force as a last resort. Bacevich argues throughout the book that the honing of the force to its current and projected state make it too easy to view force as a first option, or to at least consider it much earlier than it should be. There are 3 subsets.

a. Reserve the right to act in our own defense, unilaterally if needed. Which Bacevich views as allowing us to act against Al Qaeda as we choose – of course, the enabler for that is precisely the military machine that so worries Bacevich. (Think Hellfires from Predators).
b. The US will not tolerate behavior posing a proximate threat to the nation and citizens – which Bacevich avers would allow Afghanistan, but does not allow for Iraq.
c. We can act, in concert with other nations of goodwill, in internationally sanctioned activities, humanitarian or otherwise. I.e., had we gotten UN approval for Iraq, Bacevich would be all for it. Well, not, actually, he uses the term “might” in italics regarding OIF. He does think it would be just peachy for us to lead the way against genocide and ethnic cleansing… one wonders about those Kurds and other mass graves in Iraq, or the Marsh Arabs… but I digress. So, even though he savages President Clinton and General Clark about Kosovo, he thinks it would have been okay as long as we had UN approval. He specifically enjoins against us claiming sole right to be the world’s conscience (no argument from me).

4. Enhance US self-sufficiency. He recognizes that we can’t just unplug from the grid. Basically, he wants us to do more with less, give up our grandiose economic dreams, and live like good little democratic socialists and minimalist consumerism. Be more like Europe. He points out that the US didn’t have a problem with Islam until we needed to ensure access to oil for the west. And Islam didn’t have a problem with us until we showed up in their neck of the woods. I think his analysis is a bit simplistic there, and completely ignores the impact of global media. But it doesn’t make it all wrong, either.

5. Organize US Forces explicitly for National Defense. Shed unnecessary obligations and make Allies who can defend themselves, do so. In other words, get out of Europe, Korea, and Japan for starters. Focus on defending the homeland, and the requirement for power projection goes away. Of course, we are doing this… at least the withdraw part. He makes a good point that if we aren’t stuck someplace else, we aren’t as likely to get involved in someone else’s problems by default, allowing us to pick and choose where we will get shot at. He believes the Euros (less Great Britain) have been getting a free ride in this regard and should pay their way.

6. Determine an appropriate gauge for the level of US Defense Spending. Rather than setting goals such as X percent of the GDP, he suggest we peg it to what others are spending, his offered rule of thumb being to match the combined spending of the next ten most expensive military players. I’d have to run the numbers, I have no idea what the impact of that would be, but it’s certainly grounds for discussion.

7. Enhance alternative instruments of statecraft. Not a surprising suggestion from a guy who runs an Institute of International Relations. Setting the self-interest aside, getting the State Department re-energized, and making the Officer corps a little more “brit” in outlook and cosmopolitanism isn’t a horrible idea. My Canadian readers, if any have lasted this long, will perk up their ears at his discussion of ‘soft power’. He would have us take the money he feels would be saved on the ‘hard’ side and spend it on the ‘soft’ side.

8. Revive the moribund concept of the citizen-soldier. Recognizing that a draft is a political non-starter, he wants to change recruitment patterns. Rather than just a few ROTC scholarships – he wants to entice the monied classes with shorter enlistments and better education benefits – fine enough, but that hasn’t worked yet – we do that already. I guess he wants to shift to full-rides/debt forbearance in the thought that will bring in the children of the elites. I don’t think so, though more power to him. He wants us to find ways to keep the military from just being a self-selecting group of lower-class shmoes and self-generating officer elites (like my background).

9. Rexamine the role of the Guard and Reserve. Essentially, he wants to expand the Guard and give them the Homeland Defense mission, and take the funding away from the Regulars (which, btw, reduces their ability to be sent to cause mischief abroad) to pay for it. Essentially – he wants two Armies. The Guard, which defends the homeland, and the Regulars, which back up the Guard in the Homeland, and go abroad to do all that foreign stuff. Can anyone spell “Foreign Legion?” And nothing like setting the two against each other. This is arguably his least practical suggestion, in my view.

10. Reconcile the Military Profession to American Society. Bacevich fears incipient Praetorianism in the Officer Corps. Bacevich wants all officers to graduate from conventional universities – and shut down the Academies as colleges. The Academies survive as Officer Basic Training – kind of along the lines of Sandhurst. I think here he overplays his own experience. Most officers *do* graduate from conventional Universities. And most field grade officers *do* have Master’s Degrees, most of them from conventional institutions, and many of them paid for out of pocket and done on their own time. And while the basic military school system will still exist, he would abolish all the post-graduate military programs, and have all officers go to conventional institutions for higher education… and he does have an idea for countering leftwing bias – simply endow and fund the programs, which will draw the people. I think he’s naïve here… While he doesn’t state it explicity, from tangential comments you can draw the inference that we should eliminate on-post housing, AAFES (military department stores), and the Commissary, so that soldiers have no sense of ‘apartness’ and being aloof from the concerns of average citizens. Putting words in his mouth – he wants us to view our jobs as being no more and no less than any other, and to have virtually no sense of community outside the one (civilian) in which we live. There are merits to the argument – but he has no concept of how expensive that would be. Or, perhaps he does, because he doesn’t come out and actually recommend it, though it’s there between the line.

The book is worth reading for those interested in military affairs, in and out of the service. While having lived through it, like I did, will provide some perspective, the book still holds together for the younger folk and the non-military person. You don’t have to be a war geek for this book to have meaning – and in fact, if you aren’t a war geek, you are Bacevich’s target.

I could keep tweaking this, but I’m just going to throw it out there and let the Usual Suspects have at it. Should be an interesting discussion – especially if you’ve read the book and think I’m out of my mind.

John | Permalink | Comments (29) | Observations on things Military
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