The new American militarism

The U.S. armed forces in the 21st century bestride the world.  There are U.S. bases on every continent; the Pentagon itself cannot state with accuracy how many bases there are.  The United States spends nearly as much on its armed forces as the rest of the world put together.  Spending on weapons system and weapons research is exempt from normal budget constraints.

But even so, the U.S. military is not large enough for its many missions.  It is necessary to issue stop-loss orders to retain troops whose enlistments have expired, and to make the National Guard part of the regular fighting force.

I recently read Andrew J. Bacevich’s  The New American Militarism: How America Is Seduced by War, an excellent book explaining how this came about.  The book was published in 2005, but unfortunately is still as true now as it was then.

Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and retired career Army officer who teaches international relations at Boston University.  He is a self-described conservative Catholic, whose first articles on this subject were written during the Clinton administration and published in National Review.  His son, also a career Army officer, was killed while serving in Iraq some time after this book was written.

The U.S. armed forces have greater prestige than at any previous time in American history.  No important politician in either party fails to praise the military.  Movies and television glamorize the military.  Pundits take the military virtues as a model for society as a whole.  Yet few people, especially among the political and economic elite, actually serve in the military.  The disconnect between the military and the citizenry is unhealthy in a democracy, Bacevich wrote.

He said that the welfare of the nation, and also of the military itself, requires that the mission of the U.S. military be scaled back to the Constitutional one of providing for the common defense, rather than imposing a new world order on unwilling people.  He said the size of the U.S. military should be scaled back to reasonable level—say, a budget no larger than the combined budgets of the next 10 greatest military powers.   He said Congress must claw back its authority to declare or refrain from declaring war.  The National Guard should normally serve on the home front and not abroad.

He made good proposals for bridging the gap that now exists between the professional military and the civilian citizenry.  Instead the armed forces should offer to give a free college education or pay the college debts of anyone who enlists for a specific time.  He said all military officers should be required to earn a degree from a civilian college, and then take one year of additional schooling at one of the service academies.   He does not advocate bringing back the draft unless there is a national emergency that requires it, but thinks these proposals would make the military more broadly representative of society.

He had good answers for every question except one—the need to project U.S. military power to assure U.S. access to the oil of the Persian Gulf.   I don’t have a good answer to that one either.

The roots of the new American militarism, Bacevich wrote, are in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  The U.S. armed forces were wracked by indiscipline, drug addiction and racial conflict; their leaders felt they were blamed for a defeat that was not their fault.  Under such leaders as Creighton Abrams, the Pentagon sought to restore the effectiveness and prestige of the military, and to ensure that U.S. forces would never again be locked into a no-win situation.  They didn’t want to engage in nation-building or anti-guerrilla war.  Their role model was the Israeli Defense Force and its quick victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

Andrew J. Bacevich

The Pentagon leaders also sought to restrict the conditions under which the U.S. armed forces would be sent to war, but these were quickly broken down.  As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked General Colin Powell, what’s the good of having a superb military if you never use it?  The situation of the U.S. military was the same as the German military during the first half of the 20th century and the Israeli military during the second half.  No matter how excellent a fighting force you have, it is possible to stretch it beyond its limits, and the more excellent it is, the greater the temptation to misuse it.

The humiliation of the Vietnam defeat had wide-ranging political consequences, Bacevich wrote.  Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of Vietnam as a “noble cause” and his vocal support for the troops paid rich political dividends.  His successors made sure to identify with the military and to have themselves photographed with troops in the background.  Movies such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Rambo: First Blood II and Top Gun glorified the military.  Pundits who’d never served in the armed forces celebrated the military virtues and contrasted them with civilian moral decline.

Another important factor was the tacit alliance of the U.S. armed forces with the conservative evangelical Protestant churches, Bacevich wrote.   Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant clergy questioned U.S. intervention in Vietnam, but the evangelicals backed the U.S. effort.  Moreover their strict religious teachings helped restore discipline to the drug-ridden, demoralized Vietnam-era forces.

Some conservative evangelicals are strongly pro-Israel because of their interpretation of Biblical prophecies about the End Times, which supposedly begin with the return of the exiled Jewish people to their homeland.  The neo-conservatives are another group which is strongly pro-military and pro-Israel.  They are intellectuals who left the Democratic Party in the post-Vietnam era because they thought liberals were too weak to enforce law and order at home or win military victory abroad.   But liberals have not been a counter-balancing force to neo-conservative militarism.  They, too, wanted a strong military for the purposes of humanitarian intervention, as in Bosnia.

The military was influenced by the “defense intellectuals” such as Albert Wohlstetter and Andrew Marshall, Bacevich wrote.  Their original idea was deterrence—to make sure that the Soviet leaders knew that the United States had a technological edge that would enable us to retaliate if attacked.  But this thinking evolved into speculation about how U.S. technological superiority could be brought to bear to win wars without provoking an all-out nuclear war.  Predator drones were unheard of when Bacevich wrote this book, but they are a logical product of this kind of thinking.

But the new American militarism is not just a result of internal trends within the American military and body politic.  It is a response to a real-world situation.

Underlying all this is the important U.S. national interest in access to Persian Gulf oil.  President Franklin Roosevelt, on his way home from the Yalta conference, met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and made an agreement to protect the Saudis from their enemies in return for cheap Saudi oil.  This was far-sighted, since in 1945, the United States, not Saudi Arabia, was the world’s largest oil exporter.  President Jimmy Carter in 1979 proclaimed the Carter Doctrine—that the United States would intervene militarily if needed to  protect U.S. access to the Persian Gulf and its oil.

Over the years the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region increased, and the United States fought two wars with Iraq.  Bacevich wrote that this is the basis of U.S. intervention in the region—not a “clash of civilizations,” not a desire to spread democracy, not a war on terrorism in the abstract, but the vital national interest in oil.  He admitted that the need for Persian Gulf oil cannot be eliminated, but he hoped that it can be reduced.  Unfortunately, energy independence is something that all the Presidents from Richard Nixon onward have proclaimed as a goal, and we are as far from achieving it now as we were then.

Click on I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose.  We Were Both Doing Our Duty for an article by Andrew J. Bacevich in the Washington Post in 2007 about the death of his son on active duty in Iraq.

Click on Americans misperceive the world and their role in determining its evolution for an article by Andrew J. Bacevich in the Boston Review in 2010.

Click on The Tyranny of Defense Inc. for an article by Andrew J. Bacevich earlier this year in The Atlantic Monthly.

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