In an earlier post, I promoted the book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War authored by Andrew J. Bacevich. (Oxford University Press: New York, 2005). Richard asked for a flavor of the argument. That I will do, but this will not be a book review because Iâ€™m not knowledgeable enough about military matters for that. My experience in the military was as a radar operator. I will attempt to be fair, but will leave it to others to discuss weaknesses in Bacevich’s arguments. Also, as both a “just war” proponent and a strong war skeptic, I was inclined to support most of Bacevich’s conclusions from the outset. Such limits my ability to approach the book objectively.
Bacevich says that â€œpresent-day American militarism has deep roots in the American pastâ€ but that once there were statesmen such as Robert J. LaFollette and Robert A. Taft who stood up squarely to oppose war. Many modern war critics, such as John Kerry, focus more on tactics than on morality, he says.
Indeed, Bacevich writes that at one time, America considered war, even if required, as evidence that diplomatic efforts had failed. In modern U.S. policy, war doesnâ€™t just arise out of diplomatic failures, but is a means to form foreign policy. (It should be noted that the United Methodist Book of Discipline Social Principles specifically rejects â€œwar as an instrument of foreign policy.â€)
A recurring theme of the book is that the new American militarism can be more directly traced to a perversion of the Wilsonian (Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President from 1913 to 1921) vision, sometimes known as Wilsonianism. It rests on the notion that the rest of the world is to support American policies because â€œGod has willed it.â€ While Wilson may have been arrogant in believing that God destined the United States to action, it should be noted that Wilson himself was a â€œreluctant warriorâ€ and believed in diplomacy and negotiations. Indeed he advanced the League of Nations, which the U.S. refused to join. Further, Wilsonâ€™s greatest concentration was to bring world peace â€“ to end all war. He wasnâ€™t insistent that every other country have the same exact same vision as America, though he did want to see the â€œworld remade in Americaâ€™s image and left permanently at peace.â€ Thus, Bacevich classifies Wilson as an â€œideologue.â€
Some administrations, like that of John F. Kennedy, were fairly â€œself-restrained.â€ He says that Kennedyâ€™s administration, despite his strong language of â€œpay any price, bear any burdenâ€ was in reality â€œmarked over-all by sober-minded pragmatism.â€ On the basis of the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, some might disagree with Bacevichâ€™s assessment, of course. Nevertheless, Bacevich says that Wilsonianism not only endured but became even more dangerous because â€œits natural skepticism about arms and armies disappeared.â€
Why? Bacevich cites several factors, among which are:
1. The American public felt humiliated by its loss in Vietnam and was ripe for a politician to come along who would wrap his candidacy in the flag and patriotism.
2. In 1979, just four years after the fall of Saigon, Americans felt humiliated again by the painful experience of the Iran hostage matter and the failure in the desert to rescue the hostages. This left Americans thirsty for bold and hopeful leadership, which most didnâ€™t think they were getting in Jimmy Carter.
3. Ronald Reagan, with the help of others, was able to turn Jimmy Carterâ€™s 1979 speech calling for sacrifice to reduce the energy imbalance into a â€œdefeatistâ€ speech in which we no longer believed in ourselves or the possibilities of â€œlimitless growth.â€ Reagan successfully wed the ideas of business growth and military growth by wrapping both in the mantle of patriotism. As president, Bacevich says, â€œRonald Reagan figured out he could use military and patriotic imagery to boost national esteem.â€
4. Technological advances in warfare and the all-volunteer armed services have permitted more Americans to â€œenjoy war from afar.â€
5. On the whole, todayâ€™s military service people (both officers and enlisted), as a by-product of the all-volunteer service, have arrived at the view that they are morally above the rest of society. Bacevich quotes retired Admiral Stanley Arthur, to the effect that such views â€œare not healthy in an armed forces serving a democracy.â€
6. The United States has taken on the viewpoint expressed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she inquired of Colin Powell of what was the purpose of a great military â€œif we canâ€™t use it.â€
7. More recent U.S. presidents have obscured the distinction that they command as civilians. Increasingly, presidents put on military garb, surround themselves will military trappings, etc.
8. Americans were emboldened by â€œliberating a small desert oligarchy (Kuwait) from the clutches of a ham-handed invader possessed of a large invading army but no nuclear weapons.â€
9. Vietnam leader Creighton Abrams, post-Vietnam sought to bring about post-Vietnam military reforms that would make it harder to convince civilians to choose the option of war. The Abrams view developed into the [Caspar] â€œWeinberg Doctrineâ€ (Weinberg was defense secretary in the Reagan Administration) that there has to be a vital national interest at stake, that there must be popular and congressional support, and clear goals. Colin Powell, with modifications such as the use of overwhelming force, embraced the Weinberg doctrine, which essentially evolved into the Powell Doctrine. Powell opposed the 1991 Gulf War but his leadership in the war made him a national hero. Bacevich says Powell â€œthe reluctant warriorâ€ inadvertently turned the U.S. more militaristic because the lesson many Americans embraced post-war was that â€œmilitary might promised to be not less but more useful.â€ Bacevich says Powell also underestimated the determination of many civilian leaders to intrude into military matters and the desire of many military leaders to be involved in political leadership. He says that with a few notable exceptions, the outcome is a modern military not particularly hesitant to go to war.
10. That with the rising Pentagon expenditures in the 1990â€™s, the military experienced demands to â€œshow some tangible return on the nationâ€™s investment.â€
11. Donald Rumseld arrived in office bent on re-establishing civilian control over the military (as provided for in the U.S. Constitution) but ended up largely ignoring the militaryâ€™s counsel all together.
12. The rise of the neo-conservatives determined to transform the whole world. Bacevich says many of the neo-conservatives were social liberals with strong beliefs in the use of state power to achieve their domestic goals and simply transferred that outlook to the international scene. He says that for the neo-conservatives â€œAmerica is the one true universal church, the declaration of 1776 tantamount to sacred Scripture, and the District of Columbia the Holy See.â€ Further, he says that the neo-conservatives have a simplistic understanding of the response to evil. He says neo-conservatism can be boiled down to â€œ1. evil exists; 2. it must be resisted; and 3. military force is the only way to resist it.â€ (Thus out with diplomacy, negotiation, etc.)
13. The arrival of the viewpoint, advanced by neo-conservative and former leftist Norman Podhoretz of Commentary Magazine that a legitimate way to advance oneâ€™s view was in â€œruthless demolition of any viewpoint inconsistent with the neo-conservative version of truth, usually portrayed as self-evident and beyond dispute.â€ (Consider the Republican campaign against Vietnam War hero Max Cleland, who was viciously attacked as soft on terrorism simply because he raised a few questions about the approach to the war on terror.) Whereas liberal John F. Kennedy and conservative Barry Goldwater were personal friends, Podhoretz instructed contempt for anyone with different ideas. Bacevich considers the neo-conservatives as far to the right of Ronald Reagan, and in fact that they privately condemned him as too timid in foreign policy and military matters, but because of the end of the Cold War, they have publicly embraced him as their hero. Thus, militarism has risen because much public debate has been intimidated or stifled.
14. That Americans have bought into the myth that the entire world desires the same things we desire. Bacevich points out, though, that American democracy as practiced has resulted in an â€œever widening gap between rich and poor.â€ Thus, the neo-conservatives may not be considering that imposing our way of life on the rest of the world might create massive social unrest.
15. That Americans have both accepted and spread the myth that God has singled out Americans to be â€œhis new chosen peopleâ€ and that the U.S. is unparalleled as the agent of Godâ€™s grace.
16. Religious instincts of the past were often balanced between the tendency toward war and pacifist leanings, but that with the advent of World War II there arose in the U.S. a fundamentalist movement to transform the world based on Christian ideals to be found in the Bible and by war if necessary. Fears from the Cold War accelerated this movement as the majority of religious leaders, but particularly â€œevangelicalsâ€, took strong anti-Communist stands. Over time, this morphed into a general pro-military alignment, particularly among more conservative Christians.
17. That more conservative Christians came to see skepticism of the military as a challenge to authority and thus an undermining of society in general. Over time, conservative Christians associated those who questioned the military with those who supported abortion, â€œwomenâ€™s libâ€, homosexual rights, the Supreme Courtâ€™s school prayer decision, and â€œseparation of church and stateâ€ in general. Less than whole-hearted enthusiasm for military action represented a part of Americaâ€™s moral decline. In fact, before the fall of the Soviet Union, many Christian leaders believed that Americaâ€™s moral decline made us more vulnerable to being defeated by the Communists. Further, it became the conviction of many that the military was a necessary defense against atheism.
18. While many of the neo-conservatives have little interest in religion, they have found a willing partner in some conservative evangelical Christians. Indeed, Bacevich writes that George Bush looks at the war on terror through a religious lens, rather than an ideological one. With respect to the Middle East in particular, the views of many conservative or fundamentalist Christians regarding Israel and prophecy have driven an increasing militarism. Further, Bacevich says that many conservative Christians lend such unqualified support to Israel that they have carved out exceptions to the â€œjust war traditionâ€ and approved suppression of Palestinian uprisings at any cost. Thus, the U.S. military has a role to play in Christâ€™s return.
19. Because military action is about “right versus wrong” neo-conservatives and many Christian conservatives among others have decided that popular support of a war effort (from the Weinberg/Powell doctrines) is no longer a requirement to engage in war.
Bacevichâ€™s book is very nuanced and I can only touch on some of the basics here. I do not pretend that my overview is comprehensive. I also respect that pacifists will find the book lacking in many areas simply because they oppose all military action, whereas Bacevich comes from the â€œjust warâ€ tradition.