Conversation with Andrew Bacevich on "The New American Militarism"

May 17, 2005

The New American Militarism

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (Mary-Lea Cox): In your book you refer to the alliance between neocons and evangelical Christians. This made me remember Bush Sr.'s campaign for reelection in 1992 based on a platform of "family values"—which at the time, didn't fly. However, ten years later, it seems that "family values" have morphed into "moral values," and have now been combined with "military values" to make a rather potent cocktail—one strong enough to give the second George Bush a second term. Was it mainly historical circumstance that led to that mixture—a direct result of 9/11? Or was 9/11 just the catalyst for something that was going to happen anyway?


ANDREW BACEVICH: I think you're right about the moral values piece—it's an expansion of the original family values agenda. You're also right that there's a new cocktail today. "Family values," as you may recall, applied to domestic politics, but today this concept is aligned with a foreign policy agenda based on a belief in the efficacy of military power along with a revived sense of the American mission in the world. Finally, I think that 9/11 was the catalyst, nothing more. If I remember my chemistry correctly, a catalyst is an element that triggers a reaction among components that already exist—its role is crucial though limited.

In my new book I argue that, just like the domestic policy component, the foreign policy components of the cocktail were there before 9/11 occurred, particularly the infatuation with military power and the belief in the American mission. There is of course nothing new about the latter. A sense of mission goes all the way back to the American colonies. John Winthrop's "city on the hill" sermon has been cited over and over by American leaders, to suggest that we're a providentially special nation. Throughout American history, there have been two dominant ideas about how to implement this mission. One way is to serve as an exemplar of a God-fearing community, to use the language of the founders—or, to use the language of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, of a democracy. The other camp believes that America should assert its presence in the world by aggressively pursuing its mission—made most explicit in Woodrow Wilson's famous line about making the world "safe for democracy."

What is new today is the other component of the cocktail, a confidence that the American mastery of warfare now puts us in a position as never before, to aggressively pursue our mission in the world. After 9/11, President Bush clearly articulated that proposition in vowing to make an end to evil. He could not have persuaded the American public about the plausibility of that idea if we weren't already predisposed to believe that military power had become our nation's strong suit.

CC:While living in the UK, I taught on several U.S. Air Force bases. Most of my students came from very deprived backgrounds—they had joined the military as a way of improving their lot in life, getting an education, and so on. So I was curious about your claim that one sign of the new American militarism is the increase in status conferred on American soldiers. Also, I imagine that if the draft had to be re-instituted, we would see growning opposition to America's military efforts. Once the middle classes see their sons coming home in body bags, they would begin to perceive the pursuit of the nation's mission in a different light.

AB: The status of the soldier has gone up in the sense that when you ask Americans nowadays what they think of their military, they routinely declare that they hold them in the highest regard and have complete confidence in their abilities to protect the nation. Today more Americans trust the military than they trust Congress or the Supreme Court. That said, the high esteem we have for our military doesn't necessarily translate into a desire to be one of them. On the contrary, I think many of us express respect for our soldiers as a way of assuaging our guilty consciences.

I'm bothered by the fad of people putting "support the troops" stickers on the backs of cars: it's an expression of support that comes at almost no cost. It's not dishonest, but it's a bit too thin, a bit too patronizing. "We love you; now go away and do your duty."

As you say, working class people and people of color continue to play a predominant role in the nation's armed forces. My recommendations about how to wean us away from this include reviving the concept of the citizen soldier. Then the privileged and middle classes would have a direct and immediate stake in decisions to deploy our soldiers on missions abroad.

By the same token, our future elites would include people with firsthand military experience. Research shows that the greater proportion of veterans there are in Congress, the less likely Congress is to support military interventions. You of course don't need to make every member a veteran; but the reality is that the numbers of veterans in Congress have been declining steeply—which helps to explain the deference shown by Congress to the President's announcements about military intervention, as well as Congress's inability to have a real debate over the necessity of intervention, focused on the potential consequences.

CC:I'm reminded of Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11: the scene where he tries to get several members of Congress to sign their sons and daughters to fight for the American cause in Iraq.

AB: It's true that in the spring of 2003, there was only one member of Congress who had a child who was an enlisted member of military. A few others had kids that were officers. That's not the way it used to be.

CC:The Carnegie Council is a rare place where members of the military come together with civilians to discuss topics of war and peace. You've served in the military so are in a good position to tell us: is the gap widening nowadays between civilians and the military; and if so, how can it be bridged?

AB: Civil-military relations in this country are really in crisis, something we have yet to acknowledge. In particular, there is a gap between senior civilian officials and senior military officers. Neither side appears to trust the other; they rarely engage in candid dialogues.

During the 1990s, the crisis manifested itself in a military that was able to manipulate President Clinton. Now the situation has reversed: civilian leaders are unreceptive to professional military advice. When the Republicans returned to power in 2001, part of their agenda was to restore civilian control that had been weakened in the 1990s.

The job of the military is to follow orders. They offer professional military advice for the consideration of decision-makers. That's how it should be. But civilian leaders still need to have an effective relationship with the military, through open and honest dialogue. This isn't happening today.

There are two ways to explain the deterioration in the relationship. Broadly, it's been a problem since the end of WWII. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, civil-military relations were contentious and not informed by a mutual sense of trust. Somewhat more narrowly, you could also make the argument that Vietnam caused an absolute collapse in civil-military relations. The best evidence I can think of for how the officer corps has come to regard Donald Rumsfeld is that they have taken to calling him another Robert McNamara (to this day, McNamara ranks first in the military's pantheon of villains). Vietnam definitely made the problem worse, and nowadays it's fairly deep seated.

Still, we can't correct the problem until we acknowledge it. There continues to be a lot of public posturing: "We get along fine." Pressure will need to come from the bottom up, from American citizens. Something can be done sooner if citizens recognize the problem than if we wait for the people at the top to acknowledge it.

CC: I'm still puzzled as to why this gap cannot be bridged at a time when the nation is at war. Surely, this should be an incentive for civilian and military leaders to put aside their differences and encourage open dialogue?

AB: There's something about military service that changes a person's perspective—it tends to wear away their ideals, not reinforce them. A comparison can be made with a reporter who pursues a career in journalism because he believes in the First Amendment—only to find himself many years later, cynical and jaded, working as an editor for the New York Times. The civil leadership shuts out the opinions of senior military officers because they see them as stodgy and hidebound. Rumsfeld and his team are big on the "transformation" of the military—and believe that for the generals, this is an alien concept.

To be fair to Rumsfeld and other civilian leaders, the armed services have over time repeatedly behaved in ways suggesting that they value institutional objectives over the interests of the nation, or else have incorrectly identified their institutions' interests with those of the nation. The military leadership has done itself no favors by acting in such a self-interested, bureaucratic way.

CC: On June 1, the Council is sponsoring a roundtable on the "question of torture" with Mark Danner, Mark Bowden, and a couple of others. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, the use of extraordinary rendition, the detaining of prisoners indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba—are these also manifestations of what you'd call the new American militarism? What about the tolerance the American public has shown for these practices? Do they accept torture as a necessary evil for a country that engages in warfare?

AB: I don't see these practices as being connected to the phenomenon I've described in my book. The policy of torturing prisoners is just plain stupid and misguided, not to mention counterproductive. The concept of militarism figures only insofar as it helps to lend credence to the argument that the misconduct can be attributed to "a few bad apples." Since by definition the people who serve are among our best and brightest, misbehavior must be the exception.

While I don't mean to imply that this kind of misconduct has been widespread, I'm surprised we are content to hold a handful of low-ranking individuals accountable. The obvious comparison is with the My Lai incident in Vietnam. When the news broke about the My Lai massacre and its attempted cover-up, the initial inclination was to pin the blame on Lt. Calley and Captain Medina, leaders at a low level. Pretty soon, however, the army realized the inadequacy of such an approach and created the Peers commission to conduct an investigation. The commission's report held a number of high-ranking officers responsible. All had their careers ruined as result. Even as late as the early 1970s, there are examples of senior officers being held accountable for the misconduct of their subordinates.

All of this changed with Iraq—in part because of Bush administration's adamant refusal to admit to any errors in the conduct of the war. To hold senior people accountable for Abu Ghraib would be tantamount to a confession of error. War almost inevitably results in ugliness—not because armies are filled with bad people but because war induces unusual stress and some people don't handle stress well. We will always have these kinds of problems during wartime; so the question becomes: how does our society, our government, and our military respond? This particular government responds by saying it's the fault of a handful of soldiers.

By the way, it's not insignificant that most of the blame for Abu Ghraib is being placed on Janis Karpinski, a woman and a reservist. Reservists are second-class citizens (regulars review them). Also, military officers are a kind of old boys' club. Women are admitted grudgingly, in limited numbers, but are never quite viewed as full members. They are seen as more expendable.

CC: runs a discussion board on the rift between America and Europe—based on the two Carnegie Council talks by Robert Kagan on this topic. As you know, Kagan claims that as Europeans are "beyond war," Americans are doing the world a favor by serving as the world's policemen. There is no one else, really, to share that burden. Against this background, does the United States have any choice but to make militarism a central feature of its foreign policy?

AB: There is something to Kagan's argument. Europe has become debellicized. But it is we who have been the enablers. The Europeans get away with it because the United States has been willing to shoulder their security burdens. If you want to correct their behavior, you don't do it by saying, "Stand aside, and we'll handle everything." Instead you should say: "We're no longer going to manage your security requirements and to the extent that you want to have a say in our security arrangements for other parts of world, you will need to develop your own means to do that." It will of course take time for Europe to come to terms with fact that the United States is no longer providing for its safety. Over time, however, Europe could develop a feasible security apparatus.

CC: Would the same be true of Japan?

AB: In theory, yes, except that Japan's relationship with China is so complicated. Because of Sino-Japanese antipathy, it is important for U.S. troops to remain in Japan. Europe is different. The Franco-German problem is no longer.

CC: I've often heard it argued at Carnegie Council meetings that in the case of Iraq, a military strike was in fact the lesser of two evils—better than imposing another ten years of sanctions, particularly given the precision of modern weaponry. Wouldn't this, too, lead to an increasing propensity to use force and hence to a normalization of war?

AB: Sure—that's precisely what I mean when I talk about the new aesthetic of war in my book. The new aesthetic emphasizes the potential of technology to make force more precise, more predictable, and more of an economic instrument. It began to emerge in the late 1970s. And events seemed to reinforce it in the 1990s—most notably, during the first Persian Gulf War, but also during the Kosovo campaign, a smaller but in my view, equally important, event. Kosovo marked the first time in history that we were able to win a war without suffering a single fatality.

Now I don't find this new aesthetic false, but I think it has limited utility. As we've been finding out in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, an uncooperative enemy can determine the nature of a particular conflict in ways that make high tech weapons of limited utility. It's not that technology doesn't have a role, but air power and precision weapons aren't going to defeat an insurgency. Unconventional means of resistance such as we're seeing in Iraq can bring back forms of warfare that Americans perhaps imagined were obsolete. The upshot is a protracted war that imposes enormous human, economic, and political costs.

CC: You write that war has once again become a "grand pageant, performance art, or perhaps a temporary diversion from the ennui and boring routine of everyday life." This reminds me of Chris Hedges, who spoke at the Council a couple of years ago—only he would add that war is a "force that gives us meaning." Isn't this part of the picture, too, that the U.S. was casting about for a higher purpose in the wake of the ending of the Cold War?

AB: Yes, and it's very much related to the new aesthetic of war. The film Top Gun was the number one hit the year it came out (1986). In contrast to movies about Vietnam, which depicted the mindless, filthy, and exhausting side of war, Top Gun gave us a picture of good-looking pilots in starched white uniforms. This marked a radical departure from the traditional focus on the perils of military combat that until then had tended to shape the American understanding of war. According to Top Gun, war can be clean, high tech, and glamorous—an image reinforced in Tom Clancy's books.

American popular culture helped to create a set of expectations about what war was becoming, so that by the time the Cold War ended, a new aesthetic of war had emerged, making the prospect of engaging in military conflict palatable to the average American. You may recall the reporting on the Kosovo War—it was all about the pilots, the glamorous side of it. It almost made war seem an antiseptic kind of enterprise, which was very misleading. Indeed, as we've seen in Iraq, war is a messy and ugly business.

CC: Growing up in this country, I remember thinking that with Vietnam, America had entered its adolescence: for the first time, we had cause to doubt that God was on our side and that we always win. Hedges has a version of this: "The defeat in Vietnam made us a better nation and a better people. We were forced to step outside our own borders and see how other people saw us. We were forced to accept very unpleasant truths about ourselves—our own capacity for evil." Do you agree with this analysis and if so, how do you explain what's happening now in this country? Returning to my analogy, are we refusing to grow up?

AB: I understand what you are saying; but you have to realize that a large part of America rejects that analysis. They think that Vietnam was a disaster—and should never happen again. They do not want to see America become more self-effacing and self-aware. They want to rebuild American power.

CC: Finally, can you hazard any predictions as to where America is going with this new militarism?

AB: The way in which the Iraq war plays itself out will have a huge role in determining whether Americans continue their infatuation with military power or begin to rethink it. What happens over the next few years in Iraq is critical—that's the story we'll have to follow. How do we end up evaluating our progress (or the lack of it)?

CC: The subject of a future book?

AB: Perhaps.

--conducted by Mary-Lea Cox, Communications

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