The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2013)
From our Archives: 100 for 100
April 15, 2013
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us as we welcome back a very special guest, Andrew Bacevich.
Professor Bacevich is no stranger to the Carnegie Council, as he has spoken here a few times before. If you're interested in listening to those earlier discussions, you can do so by visiting our website at www.carnegiecouncil.org.
As perhaps one of the leading critics of America's preoccupation with military powers, he is known as much for his independence of thought as for his insistence on grounding his public remarks with a clear sense of moral principle and purpose. We are delighted to have him back at the Public Affairs podium.
Today he will be discussing a subject that he feels passionately about and one that he has talked about before, which is the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy. He admonishes us about what he believes is a dangerous dual obsession that has taken hold of Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, which is the belief in unprecedented military might that is wedded to the blind faith in the universality of American values. This mindset, he warns, invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy.
His book The New American Militarism: How Americans Have Been Seduced by War has been updated since it was first released and has been reissued to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War. It should serve as a reminder to politicians in generations to come of the high cost of war and the unpredictable results of believing in the use and reliance on the military as a foremost tool of statecraft.
With a new afterward, Professor Bacevich considers how American militarism has—or maybe has not—changed in the past five years during the presidency of President Barack Obama. In reviewing this ideology, he reminds us that President Obama first ran for the presidency on a campaign based on hope for change and for a new beginning. With respect to our military policy, it was to focus on where and how our armed forces are used.
Despite the rhetoric, despite the end of the Iraq War and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, Professor Bacevich powerfully suggests that this attitude, which was to give rise to a new policy, has remained unchanged. U.S. military posture, he says, remains intact and as inviolable as ever. And you may be surprised to learn that this policy is one that resonated long before George Bush was elected president, long before 9/11.
Speaking out about what one truly believes in confers its own moral authority. When that person is discussing our military and just so happens to be a West Point alumnus, a Vietnam vet, an academic, and an author of several widely acclaimed books, I believe we should heed his advice. Whether we are discussing drones, budget cuts, or military exercises in Asia, Professor Bacevich uniquely understands the debate about the role that our military plays in guiding our foreign policy decision making. So when he urges us to restore a sense of realism and a sense of balance to our foreign policy and bring this policy more in line with our interests and with those of our founding traditions, we know him to be mindful and we should listen to what he has to say.
To begin this conversation, please join me in welcoming our very special guest, the distinguished Andrew Bacevich.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I rest my case, and I'll be glad to entertain any questions. That was tremendously generous. Thank you very, very much. It is a great privilege to come back to the Council and to be able to speak to you.
The aim of my book, The New American Militarism, as Joanne suggested—first published in 2005, but now appearing in a new edition—is quite simple: It invites Americans to consider the possibility that we have as a nation fallen prey to a set of attitudes toward war, soldiers, and military institutions that constitute a variant of militarism. The book explains the origins of this new American militarism—new in the sense that these attitudes emerged relatively recently, in the decades that followed the Vietnam War. The book suggests that this emphasis on force is at odds both with our interests and with our founding traditions, and the book offers some ideas about how to restore a sense of balance and realism to U.S. policy.
Now, let me make a point early on of emphasizing some of the things that the book is not. It's not an expression of anti-Americanism. I hope I qualify as patriotic. It's not an attack on soldiers. I hold the American soldier in very high regard, having once been one myself. It is not a pacifist tract. Humankind, I believe, is condemned to live in a world in which political competition will never end and in which force will always, like it or not, have a place, if we are to enjoy even a modicum of stability and justice.
The key point, however, is this: Somewhere right around the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power. If you wanted to pick a specific moment, that moment might be in early 1991, back when Operation Desert Storm ended in what appeared to be a historic victory. Right then, the skepticism about arms and armies that had informed the American experiment from its founding vanished. Political leaders—as Joanne suggested, liberals and conservatives alike—became enamored with military might. And American military leaders, who ought to have known better, became complicit in marketing alluring visions of future warfare that had no basis in history and that events soon revealed as fraudulent.
The ensuing affair has been a passion pursued in utter disregard of the consequences that have ensued. Few of those wielding authority in Washington or influencing opinion in the mainstream media have critically evaluated the implications of valuing military power for its own sake. Fewer still have considered the possibility that cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with both American principles and American interests.
How does this new American militarism, defined here as outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force, a tendency to see military power as the truest manifestation of national greatness, and a romanticized view of soldiers—how does this new American militarism manifest itself?
It does so, first of all, in the scope, cost, and configuration of America's present-day military establishment. Through the first two centuries of U.S. history—my students certainly have forgotten this entirely—political leaders in Washington gauged the size and capabilities of America's armed forces according to the security tasks immediately at hand. A grave and proximate threat to the nation's well-being might require a large and powerful military establishment.
In the absence of such a threat, however, policymakers scaled down that establishment accordingly. With the passing of crisis, the army raised up for the crisis went immediately out of existence. This had been the case in 1865, in 1918, and indeed in 1945. The general principle was to maintain the minimum force required, and no more.
Since the end of Cold War, however, having come to value military power for its own sake, the United States has abandoned this principle and is committed as a matter of policy to maintaining military capabilities far in excess of those of any would-be adversary or combination of adversaries. This commitment finds both qualitative and quantitative expression, with U.S. armed forces dwarfing those of even America's closest ally.
Thus, whereas the United States Navy maintains a dozen very large attack aircraft carriers, the once-vaunted Royal Navy has none. Indeed, in all the battle fleets of the world, there is no ship even remotely comparable to a Nimitz-class carrier. Today the United States Marine Corps possesses more attack aircraft than does the entire Royal Air Force, and the United States has two other, even larger air forces, one an integral part of the Navy and the other officially designated as the United States Air Force. Indeed, in terms of numbers of men and women in uniform, the United States Marine Corps is half again as large as the entire British Army, and the Pentagon has a second, even larger army, actually called the United States Army, which in turn operates its own air force of several thousand aircraft.
All of these massive and redundant capabilities cost money. Prior to 9/11, American military spending exceeded by a factor of 25 the combined military budgets of the seven so-called rogue states then comprising the roster of U.S. enemies. Indeed, by some calculations, the United States was then spending more on its armed forces than every other nation in the world combined. This was a circumstance without historical precedent.
The effect of 9/11 was to increase military spending by leaps and bounds. In 2001, the base defense budget totaled $287 billion. The budget request released by the Pentagon last week, styled as an austerity measure, comes in at a tidy $527 billion, not quite double what it was in 2001.
Oh, did I not mention that the base budget excludes the cost of waging ongoing wars? That was $159 billion last year. It also excludes veterans' benefits. That was $127 billion last year. Add those to the tab, and annual U.S. military outlays reach somewhere around $750 billion. In constant dollars, Pentagon spending today is considerably higher than it was at any time during the Cold War—that is to say, back when we worried about having to fight the communist hordes. More astonishingly still, after the war in Afghanistan ends, projected Pentagon spending will remain at levels higher than they ever reached during the Cold War.
On a day-to-day basis, what do these expensive forces exist to do? Simply put, for the Department of Defense, defense per se figures as little more than an afterthought. The primary mission of America's far-flung military establishment is global power projection, tacitly understood in all quarters of American society. That well over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continues to maintain bases and forces in several dozen countries—by some counts, over 100 in all—rouses minimal controversy, despite the fact that many of these countries are perfectly capable of providing for their own security needs.
That, even apart from fighting wars and pursuing terrorists, U.S. forces, these days augmented by CIA paramilitaries, are constantly prowling the globe, training, exercising, planning, posturing, and liquidating whoever the White House has decided to liquidate elicits no more notice from the average American than the presence of a cop on a city street corner. Even before the Pentagon officially assigned itself the mission of shaping the international environment, members of the political elite, liberals and conservatives alike, had reached a common understanding that scattering U.S. troops around the globe to restrain, inspire, influence, persuade, or cajole pays dividends.
The indisputable fact of global U.S. military preeminence also affects the collective mindset of the officer corps. For the armed services, dominance constitutes a baseline or a point of departure from which to scale the heights of ever greater capabilities. The services have come to view outright supremacy as merely adequate, and any hesitation in efforts to increase the margin of supremacy as evidence of falling behind.
The new American militarism also manifests itself through an increased propensity to use force, leading, in effect, to the normalization of war. As a consequence, self-restraint regarding the use of force has all but disappeared. Whereas during the entire Cold War era, large-scale U.S. military actions abroad totaled a scant six in all, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, war has become almost an annual event.
The brief period extending from 1989's Operation Just Cause—remember the invasion of Panama—to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, featured nine major military interventions. And that does not count innumerable lesser actions, such as Bill Clinton's signature cruise missile attacks, the almost daily bombing of Iraq during the late 1990s, or the quasi-combat missions that have seen GIs dispatched to Rwanda, Colombia, East Timor, the Philippines, Pakistan, Libya, and, most recently, to various countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as AFRICOM expands its mandate.
As crisis became a seemingly permanent condition, so too did war. The George W. Bush administration tacitly acknowledged as much in describing its global campaign against terror as "a conflict likely to last decades" and in also promulgating the doctrine of preventive war.
The Obama administration has abandoned the phrase—we no longer hear talk of the Global War on Terrorism—but it has sustained the expectation of open-ended conflict. The Iraq War has ended. The Afghanistan War is winding down. But the violent pursuit of violent Islamists continues with no end in sight.
After the Cold War, policymakers increasingly came to see coercion as a sort of all-purpose tool. Among war planners, the assumption has now taken root that whenever and wherever U.S. forces next engage in hostilities, it will be as a result of the United States consciously choosing to launch a war.
There was that op-ed by Jeremi Suri in The New York Times about three or four days ago now insisting that the time had come for us to launch a preventive war against North Korea. I have to say, I read these things and I say to myself, "Who is it on the Times's op-ed page that says that now is the moment when the American people need to read somebody making the case for preventive war in North Korea?" It's one of life's great mysteries to me, how these decisions are made.
As President Bush remarked, the big lesson of 9/11 was that "this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense." The American public's ready acceptance of the prospect of war without foreseeable end and of a policy that abandons even the pretense of the United States fighting defensively or viewing war as a last resort shows clearly how far the process of militarization has advanced.
Reinforcing this heightened predilection for arms was the appearance during the 1990s of a new aesthetic of war. This was the third indication of advancing militarism. The old 20th century aesthetic, the one most of you are familiar with, depicted war as barbarism, brutality, ugliness, and sheer waste—an aesthetic that I think mostly grew out of World War I, as depicted by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Graves. But World War II and Korea and certainly Vietnam affirmed that aesthetic—in the latter case, with films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.
The intersection of art and war had given birth to two large truths. The first truth was that the modern battlefield was a slaughterhouse and modern war an orgy of destruction that devoured the guilty and the innocent alike. The second truth, stemming from the first, was that military service was an inherently degrading experience and military institutions, by their very nature, repressive and inhumane.
But by the turn of the 21st century, a new image of war had emerged. According to many observers, the era of mass armies and mechanized warfare destruction had ended. A new era of high-tech warfare, waged by highly skilled professionals equipped with smart weapons, had commenced—so we were told. Describing the result inspired a new lexicon of military terms. War was becoming "surgical," "frictionless," "postmodern," even "abstract" or "virtual."
It was now "coercive diplomacy," the object of the exercise no longer to kill, but to persuade. In war as spectacle, force had acquired symbolic value. The aim was no longer anything so crude as laying waste to the enemy; merely demonstrating that one possessed the ability to do so was expected to suffice. To use force was to strike a posture, to manipulate perceptions, or to send a message.
This image of war transformed, derived from, but also seemed to validate, the technology-hyped mood prevailing during the final decade of the 20th century. By common consent, the defining characteristics of this age, this age that we supposedly live in, were speed, control, and choice. Information, we were told, was empowering the individual. Information reduced the prevalence of chance and surprise and random occurrences. Henceforth, anything relevant could be known and, if known, could be taken into account. The expected result was supposedly to lessen, if not eliminate, uncertainty, risk, waste, and error, and to produce quantum improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.
The potential for applying information technology to armed conflict, long viewed as an area of human endeavor especially fraught with uncertainty, risk, waste, and error, appeared particularly promising. Given access to sufficient information, man could regain control of war, arresting its former tendency to become total. Henceforth, swiftness, stealth, agility, and precision would characterize the operation of modern armies. Economy, predictability, and political relevance would constitute the hallmarks of war in the information age.
In short, by the dawn of the 21st century, the reigning postulate of technology as panacea had knocked away much of the accumulated blood rust sullying war's reputation. Thus reimagined, armed conflict regained an aesthetic respectability that the literary and artistic interpreters of 20th century military cataclysms were thought to have demolished once and for all. In the right circumstances, for the right cause, it now turned out, war could actually offer an attractive option—cost-effective, humane, even thrilling.
Well, this new aesthetic made it as far as Baghdad in the spring of 2003, and that was about it. The war inaugurated with expectations of "shock and awe," delivering a clean, quick victory, turned out to be not all that different from every other war worthy of the name—ugly and dehumanizing.
What lessons did Americans take from all that our troops suffered and inflicted on others in Iraq? That war was irredeemably a brutal and risky proposition? Not at all. We persuaded ourselves, instead, that missile-firing drones and skilled commandos could soften the brutality and mitigate the risk.
But this new aesthetic contributed, in turn, to an appreciable boost in the status of military institutions and soldiers themselves—the fourth manifestation of a new American militarism. Since the end of the Cold War, opinion polls surveying public attitudes toward national institutions have regularly ranked the armed forces first. Americans, fearful that the rest of society may be teetering on the brink of moral collapse, console themselves with the thought that the armed forces remain a repository of traditional virtues, old-fashioned values, and competence.
Confidence in the military has found expression in a tendency to elevate the soldier to the status of national icon—I'm a Catholic, and every time I go to Sunday mass, we say prayers for our soldiers, which may be good, but I think we owe them more than prayers—the apotheosis of all that is great and good about contemporary America. As a consequence, in public life today, paying homage to those in uniform has become obligatory.
The one unforgiveable sin in American politics is to be found guilty of failing to support the troops. Even among left liberal activists, the reflectors of antimilitarism of the 1960s has given way to a more nuanced view. Progressives have come to appreciate the potential for using the armed forces to advance their own agenda. Thus, the most persistent calls for U.S. intervention abroad to relieve the plight of the abused and persecuted—did somebody say Syria?—come from the left.
Oblivious to the implications of creeping militarism, Americans have, for the most part, accepted it—indeed, in unexpected quarters, have embraced it with an enthusiasm which is nothing short of inexplicable. If only by default, the nation's status as the greatest military power the world has ever seen has come to signify a cosmic verdict of sorts, a compelling affirmation of American exceptionalism.
In fact, I believe, our present day military ascendancy represents something quite different, for all of this—seeing the armed forces as the preeminent expression of state power and military institutions as the chief repositories of civic virtue—distorts, if it does not altogether forfeit, important elements of the American birthright.
Recall that at the outset, the New World—that's a phrase that was still used when I was going to grade school—was intended to be radically and profoundly new. The vision of freedom animating the founders of 17th century Anglo-America of the 18th century American republic distinguished their purpose from that of the Old World, which was constantly embroiled in bloody disputes over privilege and power. Princes, armies, and perpetual war defined Europe. The absence of these things was to provide a point of departure for defining America.
Determined to preserve their freedom and their experiment in popular self-government, Americans knew instinctively that militarism numbered as perhaps the foremost threat to their prospect of doing so. Military power was poison—one not without its occasional utility, but poison all the same, and never to be regarded otherwise.
In our time, oblivious to the potential consequences, we have lost sight of that truth. We have chosen to marry the means of the Old World to the ends of the new, relying on force and the threat of force to spread the American way of life or, as my favorite writer, Max Boot, has observed, "imposing the rule of law, property rights, and other guarantees at gunpoint, if need be."
Thus has the condition that worried C. Wright Mills back in 1956 come to pass in our day. Whereas in earlier times, he wrote, Americans viewed history as "a peaceful continuum interrupted by war," today planning, preparing, and waging war has become "the normal state and seemingly permanent condition of the United States." As Mills observed, again quoting, "the only accepted plan for peace is the loaded pistol."
With that, I'll stop. I look forward to any comments and questions that you may have. Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge.
I was struck by the fact that you began your talk by explaining what it is not. It is not anti-soldier. It not anti-American. There really is a mindset right now, which you have identified very clearly, in the American public that champions what you just described.
Actually, I have just read another book in the last couple of weeks, by Vali Nasr in which he describes his dismay during the two years of service to the Obama administration at finding that Obama basically had no faith in diplomacy and lots of faith in the military solution—what he called the Pentagon-CIA drone solution.
My question is about diplomacy. How can diplomacy fight back? The State Department has lost the war right now in Washington to the Pentagon and the CIA. Is that where one begins to get the initiative back?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I rather think that the place to begin is with history and our understanding of the history of the 20th century in particular and, maybe more broadly, our place in history. What do I mean by that?
I think as a people we have absorbed a historical narrative that really transforms history into a morality tale, a morality tale in which either God or providence has assigned to the United States a role in which we are called upon to bring history to some pre-designated conclusion. We have come to believe that that endpoint of history will be a moment when everybody else catches up to us and embraces our values, which we have insisted for decades—at least going back to Woodrow Wilson—as necessarily universal values.
If you come at the events of the world from that perspective, diplomacy is not all that useful. If you come at it from that perspective, there really is precious little to negotiate. There is, in fact, a verdict that needs to be rendered. Those who resist that have to be dealt with, and military power seems to be the instrument for doing so.
If you take a different perspective on history—I have been trying to fiddle with this with my students. I will not do a very good job of explaining it right now. Let's posit that the definitive event in the 20th century was not World War II, the Anglo-American war against Nazi Germany. Let's posit that the central event of the 20th century was the British decision to dismantle the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Let's imagine that the history we want to learn from, to embrace, is the story of all that happens after the Brits decide to turn against the Ottomans and to create a new Middle East.
That's an ugly story. It's not a story in which the Brits are the good guys. It's not a story in which we would celebrate the role of Winston Churchill. But it is a story, in fact, that, it seems to me, has a far greater explanatory value than even World War II as the Anglo-American war against Nazi Germany, in helping us understand the set of circumstances and problems that we face at the present moment. That story has more to teach us.
If you would say, "Yes, that's the story that really counts," then that's a story in which it's difficult to see that—it's not a good guys against bad guys story. It's certainly not a story in which Western democracies—the Brits and then the United States as the successors to the Brits in the Greater Middle East—it's not a story in which our behavior has been motivated by a desire to do good things to others.
If you take that story as the instructive story, then, it seems to me, you can come to a point where you would say, maybe instead of imagining that we are called upon to enforce our will and impose our values, maybe there are some things that really ought to be discussed and negotiated and that would open up a space where diplomacy could be more effective.
Let's take the case of Iran specifically, where U.S. and British policy has been mischievous, to be kind, going back to the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in 1953. I find it somewhat understandable that an Iranian government might find value in acquiring nuclear weapons. I find it somewhat understandable that an Iranian government, however objectionable in many ways, might view itself as surrounded and threatened, and threatened above all by my country, the United States of America.
So to my mind, the militarists, who tend to be the loudest voices in our politics, many of whom promote the idea—who tell us that containment is unacceptable, who tell us that we need to strike now against the Iranians to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons, if that's indeed what they are doing —discrediting their argument becomes possible if we appreciate the extent to which, from an Iranian perspective, it's a somewhat different story.
So I think we need a different history. A different history provides a basis for beginning to disengage ourselves from our emphasis on military power and at least make it possible for us to give greater weight to non-military ways of trying to solve problems.
That was a very circuitous and lengthy answer, and I apologize for that.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
For a long time I have been skeptical about the ability of antimissiles to knock out incoming ballistic missiles and feel that that skepticism has been supported by independent researchers from places like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the occasional rogue contractor reporting, and the failure of the Patriot system to do any damage to Saddam Hussein's scuds.
Now we read about the Iron Dome system, with a reported 40 to 85 percent effectiveness. We have just seen our own government sending antimissiles to deal with the possibility of a North Korean attack. Have antiballistic missile systems suddenly become more reliable?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I'm not enough of a techie to give you any kind of authoritative answer to that question. There's no question that the Patriot missile used in Operation Desert Storm as an antimissile missile did not perform well. But that's quite a while ago now. And, indeed, the Patriot missiles that were deployed in Operation Desert Storm were not designed to be antimissile missiles. They were antiaircraft missiles that were being pressed into this role. So I could be persuaded that the technology has advanced to the point that they are more effective.
That said, I think it's within the last 36 hours that I read an article that was questioning the advertised effectiveness of the Iron Dome. I think the Israeli government was broadcasting something like an 80 percent or 90 percent success rate. This article, which didn't seem to be nonsense, was suggesting that the actual effectiveness is much less than that. I think that simply is something that we need to try to follow.
As far as North Korea, who knows what North Korea intends or is trying to do? The supposed missile test that they are preparing to do—I gather one of the reasons that the preparation period is of such long duration is that they have to fuel the missile. If you've got a missile that you're pumping gas into so that you can launch it, that would suggest that your rocket technology is probably somewhere vintage 1955, as far as we're concerned. We have had solid fuel missiles since the Polaris system came on board at the end of the 1950s.
My point there would be that, whatever the capability of the antimissile systems that are on board U.S. Navy ships or being deployed to Guam, I think the first point I would make is, let's take care not to overstate the military threat posed by North Korea and keep calm.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. John Hirsch, International Peace Institute.
I certainly agree with your point that we spend far too much money on the military. But I want to ask you again about the role of diplomacy. Joseph Nye, who is one of your colleagues up in Boston, has a book that I use in my own class where he describes the nature of the world we live in as constituting a three-dimensional chess board. The top of the chess board is the military, the middle is economic issues, and the bottom of the chess board is all the other issues in the world—climate change, migration, all these things that we're living with constantly.
His theme is that the military—yes, the United States has absolute predominance, which you have also said, but that it counts for very little in the world we actually live in because the military cannot solve virtually every problem that I have just very briefly summarized. We have to negotiate through diplomacy, whether it's trade agreements or dealing with movement of people around the world or the health pandemics and so on.
I wonder what you make of that. He doesn't deny the strength of the United States in the military. But he thinks diplomacy is kind of where we have to go if we're going to deal with all these other issues that are very key to our own future.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I guess he's right. But the United States would seem to be far more willing to engage in diplomacy on some of those issues at tier two and tier three than they are willing to engage in diplomacy at tier one, where the issues that relate to security are.
The point I was trying to make in my previous longwinded quasi-speech was that a different understanding of history could make us more comfortable with deemphasizing the role of military power in the realm of security issues and being more willing to engage in give-and-take and compromise, and therefore give diplomats a larger role.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Do you think that the trends in American attitude towards the military, with which I wholeheartedly agree, as you described them, are a symptom of the decline of civic life? Let me give you a couple of examples.
It was rare prior to the Vietnam War that any political decision-maker did not have some military experience, combat experience in some cases. Now we have virtually no one who has had that kind of experience, and we had a spirited opposition, which, fortunately, in my judgment, failed, to the appointment as secretary of defense of one of the few people who did have such experience. We no longer have a draft.
So it may not be American attitudes so much as the exclusion of traditional American attitudes from participation in civic life.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Let me give you a plug for my next book. Everybody, pick up your pens and write this down. It's called Breach of Trust. It comes out in September. The book tries to explore the issue that you have identified.
Let me say at the outset that I don't particularly subscribe to the notion that you have to have military experience in order to be a wise and prudent war leader in Washington. I say that out of respect for our two greatest commanders-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, who had virtually no military experience, and Franklin Roosevelt, who had none at all. So the notion that you have to have worn a uniform in order to be a good president or a good secretary of defense—I'm not buying into it. It might be helpful, but it's not essential.
More to the point, though, the argument in my book is that, to some degree, the root of our problem, a contributor to the persistence of militarism in the face of the failure of our military power to achieve what we have set out to achieve in places like the Greater Middle East is the all-volunteer force. To state it more bluntly, it is the abandonment of the tradition of the citizen-soldier that was the foundation of U.S. military policy up until Vietnam. As a consequence of Vietnam, we abandoned the concept of a citizen-soldier. We embraced this notion of a professional military, what the founders would have called a standing army.
I was a serving officer back when this happened. I myself emphatically, back in the 1970s, supported the notion that we needed to end the draft and move to a new military system. I myself, as many, many other people, failed to appreciate some of the long-term implications.
The American people have become divorced from the American military. This "support the troops" rhetoric is, for the most part, simply that. And I think that that has produced a host of negative consequences, and it's time for us to evaluate those.
We have great soldiers. They don't win wars. The costs of those wars are staggering—not staggering in terms of the total number of soldiers killed. In historical terms, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, in terms of the number of American soldiers killed, they are relatively small-scale enterprises. But in terms of the dollar cost, and I think in terms of the moral cost, these are epic failures.
One of the things that I find so disappointing, if you recall, there was a certain amount of commentary in the newspapers and magazines and on TV when we hit the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War. Who does The New York Times get on the 10th anniversary—my friend John Nagl, whose column basically was, "Let's see if we can find the silver lining in the Iraq War." Again, I just said to myself—he's a wonderful guy. He's a nice guy. Why at this point would we invite people who were proponents of this war to explain to us the significance and meaning?
My point here is that I think that one of the consequences of jettisoning the tradition of the citizen-soldier, opting for the so-called all-volunteer force, has been to validate a separation and division between the American people and the American military that actually serves to promote reckless and ill-advised military policies. Only when we can get the American people to reengage with their military will it be possible to reverse some of the pernicious trends that at least I identify.
It's very interesting that General Stanley McChrystal has come out in favor of the draft. I'm not, myself, in favor of the draft. But he has come out in favor of the draft, arguing that the all-volunteer force is a failure. He has argued that it's a failure because—his phrase—Americans don't have skin in the game. Only by addressing that head-on—in the entire universe of reality, this is the only thing I agree with General McChrystal on—this issue of Americans allowing wars to be conducted in their name when the wars are ill-advised, are we going to be able to make some headway in coming to a wiser approach to national security policy.
QUESTION: Victoria Kupchinetsky, Voice of America. Thank you so much, Professor, for a wonderful presentation.
Can you talk about the reasons why it has happened so that since the end of the Cold War, militarism has become such an integral part of American politics and just our ideology?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Very quickly, I tried to insert that into the talk. Maybe one way to get at it, from a slightly different angle, is to discuss why the Cold War ended the way it did.
As a people, we position ourselves in the center of history. Faced with this unexpected event, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the average American asks himself or herself, why did this happen? The obvious answer would be, "Because we made it happen. We overcame the communist challenge. It was American resolve. It was American strength. It was Ronald Reagan making speeches in Berlin, spending lots of money on the American military that led to the happy conclusion of the Soviet-American rivalry of several decades."
If you buy into that notion, then, by golly, we need even more military power than we had before, because look at what good things it does.
If you take the United States out, if you say America is just one actor among many, one force among many forces that are shaping events, perhaps there's some alternative explanation for why the Cold War ended. Let's say there are the inherent contradictions of Marxism-Leninism, which have never worked anywhere, and those contradictions finally caught up with the Soviets and led to the sudden erosion of their power. If you take that explanation for why the Cold War ended on favorable terms to the United States, then you don't necessarily go down a path being persuaded that military power is the be-all and end-all.
But again, it kind of goes back to one's perspective on history. It's very hard, I think, for us to not see ourselves as sitting in history's driver's seat.
QUESTION: David Hunt.
How would you rate the threat to the United States or the West from al-Qaeda, the Taliban? So much of our military effort today seems to be devoted to trying to stem this tide. Take AFRICOM, for example, which you mentioned, because of Mali and all those things. Is that kind of effort on our part justified?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I would rate the threat as real, but modest. My telling of the tale of why 9/11 occurred would be because we chose not to defend ourselves. The institutions of government at the federal, state, and local level failed to put in place reasonable efforts to prevent 19 thugs with box cutters from hijacking airplanes and running them into buildings.
I'm not the first one to say this, but I think it's much preferable for us to define al-Qaeda as, in essence, a version of the mafia. It's an international criminal gang. The appropriate response is not to undertake war, but to mobilize an international police effort to identify and dismantle this enterprise.
I have been trying to get a graduate student, for some considerable time now, to write a history of the Carter Doctrine and its consequences. You all remember the Carter Doctrine, President Carter's State of the Union address, January 1980, in which he declared that the Persian Gulf was a vital national security interest and said that the United States would use all means necessary to in order to ensure that hostile powers would not control the Persian Gulf.
President Carter did that in response to the overthrow of the Shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also did it in part because he was deeply unpopular, facing a reelection campaign, and needed to do something to try to burnish his national security credentials.
I don't think that he had any real appreciation for the process that he was inadvertently setting in motion, and I would describe that process this way. From January 1980 down to the present moment, the United States began an attempt on ever-wider geographic scale to use American hard power to bring stability to this region of the world.
Accept that definition of what we have been trying to do since 1980. In other words, use that as the context in which to understand the Gulf War of 1990-91—well, even before that, the Reagan Tanker War of the 1980s, the Operation Desert Storm, the dual containment policy, the interventions on the fringes, in places like Afghanistan or Somalia, the post-9/11 wars.
Take all of those events and imagine that they are part of a campaign—not necessarily a coherent campaign, not completely well-thought-out, but an effort on the part of the United States to use our power to bring stability to this important part of the world.
We're here in 2013. How are we doing? People may differ. My judgment would be that it's not going well, that we have, in fact, expended enormous resources, and on the evidence, that part of the world is becoming less stable, not more stable. We can have an argument about whether we are causing the instability or whether our efforts, in a sense, are irrelevant. But instability is the reality.
Does it not make sense to step back and say, "Maybe we ought to try a different approach"? Simply trying harder—and I take the expansion of the AFRICOM mandate and the growing U.S. military presence sort of creeping down into sub-Saharan Africa as a further continuation, further expansion of this project.
It ain't working, and we need to try something different. I'm not trying to suggest to you that I have here in my little notes the three bullets that will lead to success, but I think it is time for us to recognize that, whatever our problems are in the Greater Middle East, military power is not going to solve them.
QUESTION: Robert James.
You're pretty good at saying that we should rebalance our reliance on the military. "Rebalance" is not strong enough. You really want to pull away from it. But as a businessman, that isn't enough. You haven't said a lot about what we do in place of that. We pull out of Syria. We, I guess, let others in Asia face China, or at least lead it.
What else do we do? We get rid of a lot of the 13 carriers? Do we demobilize CENTCOM?
These are dangers, and you haven't faced these—even though we agree with you.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Let me try to be a little bit more concrete. Let's talk about global presence. Let's just, for the sake of argument, divide the world into three big chunks: Europe, the Greater Middle East, East Asia.
I think that it's long past time for us to recognize that the Europeans, who face negligible security threats, are more than capable of managing their own defense requirements. So what we ought to do is say, "Fellows, got news for you. It's 2013. By 2023, the United States of America is going to withdraw from NATO. You've got 10 years to figure out how to defend yourselves, because we're leaving. It's over." That's what I would do, as one way to reduce our commitments.
I have already made the case that it seems to me that the U.S. military presence and activities in the Greater Middle East are counterproductive. I think we ought to vastly decrease our presence there and examine whether there are non-military means that deserve greater emphasis, because what we're doing ain't working.
Now, you're a big Navy guy. I actually am a big Navy guy. I would argue that when it comes to East Asia, the U.S. military presence in the wake of the Cold War does have a stabilizing effect. To put it another way, were we to withdraw on short notice from East Asia, the likelihood of triggering an arms competition between China, Japan, and South Korea would be very high.
So although I'm not exactly sure what this pivot to Asia is about—and I don't believe for a second the denials by the White House that it has nothing to do with our concerns about China—I'm not keen on somehow bringing the troops home from the Pacific. I think, actually, there we probably serve a useful purpose.
I guess my point would be, to quote a famous biography of a famous general, it shouldn't be "all in" as opposed to "all out." But we ought to be able to discriminate a little bit about where commitments make sense, and therefore should be sustained, and where commitments have outlived their usefulness or are counterproductive, and there those commitments might be reduced.
I spent my time on active duty in the United States Army. The Army continues to the present moment to advertise itself as an instrument of power projection. If you go look at the latest documents being produced by the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff of the Army, despite the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, they insist that the United States Army is an instrument for power projection, and they describe the United States Army as America's decisive force.
I'm sorry, I'm not buying that. I'm not buying that the United States Army knows how to win wars, at least of the type that we have been committing the United States Army to in the past years.
I think the purpose of the United States Army ought to be to defend the United States, which means that my service, the one I served in, probably ought to be a lot smaller than it is. We probably could rely much more on the National Guard to fend off an invasion from Canada. It doesn't seem real likely. I have visited Kingston and visited that wonderful fort that's next to the Royal Military College of Canada to keep us out. Time to update that fort a little.
But again, I think the point is to discriminate. There are certain kinds of powerful forces that we should maintain because they are relevant, because they contribute to our security. There are other types of forces, quite frankly, that ought to be deemphasized to economize. Quite frankly, instead of the standard phrase in Washington—"all options are on the table"—let's take some options off the table. That will prevent us from doing ill-advised things.
JOANNE MYERS: In the words of Uncle Sam, we need you—to continue the conversation. Thank you so much.