Commentary

Resisting the Charms of War

“Today as never before in their history”, explains Andrew Bacevich, “Americans are enthralled with military power. The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys—and is bent on perpetuating—has become central to our national identity.” In other words, the military is no longer a means to an end—namely, safeguarding our physical security—but instead has become an end in itself. Our military prowess defines us as Americans.

While some in the military might welcome the centrality of their chosen profession within the nation’s identity, Bacevich—Vietnam veteran, professional soldier and West Point graduate—does not. Instead, as Bacevich warns repeatedly in this book, a failure to reverse American militarism will have dire effects. Ending his opening chapter with a quote from James Madison (“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare”), Bacevich explains that he seeks “to bring American purposes and American methods—especially with regard to the role of military power—into closer harmony with the nation’s founding ideals.”

This is a tall order. Bacevich, now a professor of international relations at Boston University, must first convince his readers that Americans have in fact become “enthralled with military power.” He must then explain how and why this has occurred. Finally, he must provide an alternative framework for national security. Happily, he succeeds on all counts.

The new American militarism is manifested first and foremost by “the scope, cost and configuration of America’s present-day military establishment.” Throughout most of American history, the size and character of the nation’s military changed according to the threat. Not so after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Pentagon’s inflation-adjusted budget is 12 percent larger than the average defense budget of the Cold War era. The numbers are staggering, yet they elicit little comment. In Bacevich’s telling, virtually no one seems to care.

The government is not simply content to spend vast sums of money on defense; it is also more disposed to use force than it was during the Cold War. The record is incontrovertible. By Bacevich’s numbers, there were only six “large-scale U.S. military actions abroad” during the entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988. “Since the fall of the Berlin Wall”, however, “they have become almost annual events.” This is no exaggeration; there have been at least nine instances in which the United States has used military force since the end of the Cold War: Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Operation Desert Fox, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Iraq War.

Another sign of militarism in American life is “an appreciable boost in the status of military institutions and soldiers themselves.” Of course, Americans should be confident and proud of their military. This is not a bad thing. What troubles Bacevich is the extent to which this is tied to an enthusiasm for using these soldiers. Madeleine Albright’s impatient query of Colin Powell—“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”—must be considered in this context.

Having established the pervasiveness of militarism in American life, and having shown the extent to which this represents a departure from America’s founding traditions, Bacevich explains how this change came about. The advance of militarism has been aided by an odd coalition of groups and special interests, from the military itself to Christian evangelicals, and from as diverse a set of politicians as one could imagine, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.

Ironically, the rise of the new American militarism started with Vietnam, when anti-militarism prompted a counter-response. Bacevich tells of the “Herculean exertions” required to turn the military around. Military leaders were intent on reaffirming the importance of warfighting, thereby ensuring an important role for themselves, but they feared losing control of the conduct of war, much as had happened in Vietnam. Reform entailed, first, restoring the bond between military and civilians, and second, shifting more authority for the actual conduct of war toward military professionals.

Bacevich explains the Weinberger and Powell doctrines in the latter context. “The purpose of the Weinberger Doctrine was not to facilitate the effective use of American military power but … to insulate the armed services from another Vietnam-like disaster.” Colin Powell supplemented the Weinberger Doctrine with his own conditions, including the demand that military operations have a clear exit strategy and that the military be allowed to employ overwhelming force in the interest of securing a quick, decisive victory. Both of these conditions were intended to further impede the political leader’s propensity to intervene.

From Bacevich’s perspective, Kosovo was a defining moment in the military’s post-Vietnam transformation. It eviscerated the Powell Doctrine because there was no exit strategy, and the forces used were hardly overwhelming. Meanwhile, General Wesley Clark’s misjudgments prompted civilian second-guessing of military experts.

Bacevich implies that the mere existence of an enormously powerful and capable military precluded a meaningful discussion of the role of the military in the post-Cold War environment. But most of the blame should be placed on political leaders. Rather than questioning the need for a Cold War-era military after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bill Clinton pledged to maintain U.S. military supremacy. He also exhibited a willingness to use force, even in situations and places that had little, if any, relevance to safeguarding U.S. security.

Whereas military leaders may have inadvertently contributed to the rise of militarism in American society, another group set out very deliberately to do so. The “ultimate ideological objective” of the neoconservatives, Bacevich explains, “was not to preserve but to transform. They viewed state power not as a necessary evil but as a positive good to be cultivated and then deployed in pursuit of large objectives.” Somewhat adrift after the Cold War, new convictions were grafted onto earlier neoconservative positions, such as “the certainty that American global dominion is, in fact, benign and that other nations necessarily see it as such.” Anything short of American dominance would result in global chaos. There was no middle ground, no alternative. Military power was essential, and this power was to be employed not simply to defend America, but also to remake the world.

Neoconservatism is a new phenomenon, but the rise of the new American militarism also ties into a very old American tradition, that of American exceptionalism imbued with Christian religiosity. Bacevich notes that the character of American religious beliefs has been altered by the rising influence of Christian evangelicals, many of whom abandoned “their own previously well-established skepticism about the morality of force” in favor of “a highly permissive interpretation of the just war tradition … .”

The tendency to see the exercise of American military power as a positive expression of American values, indeed as an essential feature of the fight between good and evil, is at the very core of the new American militarism that Bacevich decries throughout this book. These same sentiments are manifested in the Bush Doctrine, which is based on a penchant for action over inaction, and an expectation of quick and decisive victory. But war is rarely decisive and always messy. Accordingly, restoring the utility of military force, and overcoming some of the moral objections toward war, depended upon making war more predictable and manageable.

In documenting yet another intellectual thread paving the way for resurgent militarism, Bacevich examines the project to remake war, a project originally begun more than sixty years ago by Bernard Brodie of the RAND Corporation. Brodie believed that nuclear weapons had rendered war obsolete, and he focused his efforts on averting war entirely. But he was mistaken. Nuclear weapons had not eliminated war. Albert Wohlstetter, another RAND theorist, seized on this flaw in Brodie’s reasoning to become the new high priest of militarism. Wohlstetter despaired over the complacency of the late 1950s when deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to be settling into an uneasy balance. For Wohlstetter, “safety lay in devising more effective ways of actually using force.” The key to security was action. Defensive ends required offensive means.

His criticisms were timed for maximum effect. John F. Kennedy was attracted to a strategic doctrine that shifted attention away from nuclear deterrence toward a more activist posture in which the United States would use conventional weapons to thwart the spread of communism. But the experiment to make war more effective did not start out well. Wohlstetter believed that war could become part of the bargaining process, whereby military escalation, or the threat to escalate, would compel adversaries to either negotiate or capitulate. But the North Vietnamese refused to bargain. Their willingness to endure horrible suffering to drive the Americans out of their country baffled theorists, who envisioned all combatants as rational actors. Theorists schooled in the Wohlstetter tradition are similarly unable to account for the suicide bombers in Iraq today.

But while the Vietnam experience appeared to demolish his theories, Wohlstetter saw the problem rooted not in his theory, but rather in how the military had implemented it. Force needed to be targeted and skillfully applied through the use of precision weapons, weapons that would increasingly be directed by political leaders. The key to effective use of the military was more, rather than less, involvement by political leaders.

The next test came in the Gulf War. When the harvest from Desert Storm proved meager, this was interpreted as a function of President Bush’s unwillingness to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Wohlstetter’s theory was sound, his supporters believed, if only political leaders had the will to follow it to its logical conclusions. When President George W. Bush finished the job in 2003, Richard Perle credited his mentor Wohlstetter. This was “Albert’s vision of future wars”, Perle said in May 2003, “That it was won so quickly and decisively, with so few casualties and so little damage, was in fact an implementation of his strategy and his vision.”

Will anything reverse the trend toward American militarism? Bacevich only touches on the question, but the answer may lie in the cost of militarism, or more accurately, a growing sense that the actual (as opposed to the advertised) benefits of militarism are vastly outweighed by its costs. After all, Americans do not embrace militarism in their personal lives. While they admire the professionalism, dedication and courage of members of the military, very few want their sons (or daughters) to serve.

Wilsonian ambitions remain a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, as evidenced by the president’s soaring rhetoric in his second inaugural address and the 2005 State of the Union address. But the Washington Post reported in March that the public is growing weary. “People just think this is not our mission, that we should not be the democracy policemen”, explained James Steinberg of the Brookings Institution. “Even though they think [the Iraqis] are better off, [Americans are] leery about the U.S. going out and doing these things.” Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was even more blunt: “Americans don’t like putting Americans in harm’s way and fighting wars for humanitarian reasons… . [T]his means, by and large, the United States will not be spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet.”

Time will tell. Hopefully, if public skepticism continues to grow, Americans will ultimately reject militarism. Critics can best facilitate this process by emphasizing time-tested American values such as Thomas Jefferson’s “peace, commerce, and honest friendship, with all nations” or John Quincy Adams’s affirmation that America “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” and “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Such principles successfully guided U.S. foreign policy for over 150 years and earned the respect and admiration of those abroad.

In the modern era, scholars must not merely document the flaws of militarism, but also offer an alternative that can address the types of threats that the Founders could not have imagined. This, thankfully, Bacevich does in the penultimate chapter. The book is well worth the purchase price if only for the ten principles that Bacevich outlines therein.

One hopes that Bacevich’s background and reputation will inoculate him against charges that he is “un-American.” Ultimately, his considerable intellectual skills—even more than his unique credibility and perspective as a former professional soldier and a political conservative—allow Bacevich to overcome such charges. He deserves enormous credit for his courage in attempting to reverse a dangerous tide. He will deserve still more credit if he is successful at doing so.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.