Wilsonians Under Arms
excerpted from the book
The New American Militarism
How Americans Are Seduced By War
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Oxford University Press, 2005,
The Republican and Democratic parties may not be identical, but
they produce nearly identical results. Money buys access and influence,
the rich and famous get served, and those lacking wealth or celebrity
status get screwed ...
Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting
itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military
power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized
expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without
precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation's
strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military
action, and the fostering of ... military ideals.
James Madison in 1795
"Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the
most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ
of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed
debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments
for bringing the many under the domination of the few .... No
nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
The purpose of this book is to invite Americans to consider the
continued relevance of Madison's warning to our own time and circumstances.
... one striking aspect of America's drift toward militarism has
been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of
genuine stature. Members of the political class, Democrats and
Republicans alike, have either been oblivious to the possibility
that something important might be afoot or else have chosen to
ignore the evidence.
When the United States in 1917 plunged into the European war,
Senator Robert M. La Follette, a stalwart progressive from Wisconsin,
warned Americans that under a pretext of carrying democracy to
the rest of the world," Woodrow Wilson was actually doing
"more to undermine and destroy democracy in the United States
than it will be possible for us as a Nation to repair in a generation.
... when Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, ran for
the presidency in 2004, he framed his differences with George
W. Bush's national security policies in terms of tactics rather
than first principles. Kerry did not question the wisdom of styling
the U.S. response to the events of 9/It as a generations-long
"global war on terror." It was not the prospect of open-ended
war that drew Kerry's ire. It was rather the fact that the war
had been "extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted.
1112 Kerry faulted Bush because, in his view, U.S. troops in Iraq
lacked "the preparation and hardware they needed to fight
as effectively as they could." Bush was expecting too few
soldiers to do too much with too little. Declaring that "keeping
our military strong and keeping our troops as safe as they can
be should be our highest priority," Kerry promised if elected
to fix these deficiencies. Americans could count on a President
Kerry to expand the armed forces and to improve their ability
Yet on this score Kerry's circumspection
was entirely predictable. It was the candidate's way of signaling
that he was sound on defense and had no intention of departing
from the prevailing national security consensus.
Under the terms of that consensus, mainstream
politicians today take as a given that American military supremacy
is an unqualified good, evidence of a larger American superiority.
They see this armed might as the key to creating an international
order that accommodates American values. One result of that consensus
over the past quarter century has been to militarize U.S. policy
and to encourage tendencies suggesting that American society itself
is increasingly enamored with its self-image as the military power
... the present-day Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation, is
12 percent larger than the average defense budget of the Cold
War era. In 2002, American defense spending exceeded by a factor
of twenty-five the combined defense budgets of the seven "rogue
states" then comprising the roster of U.S. enemies."
Indeed, by some calculations, the United States spends more on
defense than all other nations in the world together." This
is a circumstance without historical precedent.
Furthermore, in all likelihood, the gap
in military spending between the United States and all other nations
will expand further still in the years to come." Projected
increases in the defense budget will boost Pentagon spending in
real terms to a level higher than it was during the Reagan era.
According to the Pentagon's announced long-range plans, by 2009
its budget will exceed the Cold War average by 23 percent-despite
the absence of anything remotely resembling a so-called peer competitor."
However astonishing this fact might seem, it elicits little comment,
either from political leaders or the press. It is simply taken
for granted. The truth is that there no longer exists any meaningful
context within which Americans might consider the question "How
much is enough?"
On a day-to-day basis, what do these expensive
forces exist to do? Simply put, for the Department of Defense
and all of its constituent parts, defense per se figures as little
more than an afterthought. The primary mission of America's far-flung
military establishment is global power projection, a reality tacitly
understood in all quarters of American society. To suggest that
the U.S. military has become the world's police force may slightly
overstate the case, but only slightly.
That well over a decade after the collapse
of the Soviet Union the United States continues to maintain bases
and military forces in several dozens of countries-by some counts
well over a hundred in all-rouses minimal controversy, despite
the fact that many of these countries are perfectly capable of
providing for their own security needs .21 That even apart from
fighting wars and pursuing terrorists, U.S. forces are constantly
prowling around the globe-training, exercising, planning, and
posturing-elicits no more notice (and in some cases less) 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 paid dividends. Whether any correlation exists between
this vast panoply of forward-deployed forces on the one hand and
antipathy to the United States abroad on the other has remained
for the most part a taboo subject.
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 military capabilities. Indeed, 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
Thus, according to one typical study of
the U.S. Navy's future, "sea supremacy beginning at our shore
lines and extending outward to distant theaters is a necessary
condition for the defense of the U.S." Of course, the U.S.
Navy already possesses unquestioned global preeminence; the real
point of the study is to argue for the urgency of radical enhancements
to that preeminence. The officer-authors of this study express
confidence that given sufficient money the Navy can achieve ever
greater supremacy, enabling the Navy of the future to enjoy "overwhelming
precision firepower," "pervasive surveillance,"
and "dominant control of a maneuvering area, whether sea,
undersea, land, air, space or cyberspace." In this study
and in virtually all others, political and strategic questions
implicit in the proposition that supremacy in distant theaters
forms a prerequisite of "defense" are left begging-indeed,
are probably unrecognized." At times, this quest for military
dominion takes on galactic proportions. Acknowledging that the
United States enjoys "superiority in many aspects of space
capability," a senior defense official nonetheless complains
that "we don't have space dominance and we don't have space
supremacy." Since outer space is "the ultimate high
ground," which the United States must control, he urges immediate
action to correct this deficiency. When it comes to military power,
mere superiority will not suffice.
The new American militarism also manifests
itself through an increased propensity to use force, leading,
in effect, to the normalization of war. There was a time in recent
memory, most notably while the so-called Vietnam Syndrome infected
the American body politic, when Republican and Democratic administrations
alike viewed with real trepidation the prospect
of sending U.S. troops into action abroad.
Since the advent of the new Wilsonianism, however, self-restraint
regarding the use of force has all but disappeared. During the
entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988, large-scale U.S.
military actions abroad totaled a scant six. Since the fall of
the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events."
The brief period extending from 1989's Operation Just Cause (the
overthrow of Manuel Noriega) to 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom
(the overthrow of Saddam Hussein) featured nine major military
interventions .14 And that count does not include innumerable
lesser actions such as Bill Clinton's signature cruise missile
attacks against obscure targets in obscure places, the almost
daily bombing of Iraq throughout the late 1990s, or the quasi-combat
missions that have seen GIs dispatched to Rwanda, Colombia, East
Timor, and the Philippines. Altogether, the tempo of U.S. military
interventionism has become nothing short of frenetic.
As this roster of incidents lengthened,
Americans grew accustomed to perhaps even comfortable with-reading
in their morning newspapers the latest reports of U.S. soldiers
responding to some crisis somewhere on the other side of the globe.
As crisis became a seemingly permanent condition so too did war.
The Bush administration has tacitly acknowledged as much in describing
the global campaign against terror as a conflict likely to last
decades and in promulgating-and in Iraq implementing-a doctrine
of preventive war.
In former times American policymakers
treated (or at least pretended to treat) the use of force as evidence
that diplomacy had failed. In our own time they have concluded
(in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney) that force "makes
your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other
Policymakers have increasingly come to
see coercion as a sort of all-purpose tool. Among American war
planners, the assumption has now taken root that whenever and
wherever U.S. forces next engage in hostilities, it will be the
result of the United States consciously choosing to launch a war.
As President Bush has remarked, the big lesson of 9/TI 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
Since the end of the Cold War, opinion polls surveying public
attitudes toward national institutions have regularly ranked the
armed services first. While confidence in the executive branch,
the Congress, the media, and even organized religion is diminishing,
confidence in the military continues to climb." Otherwise
acutely wary of having their pockets picked, Americans count on
men and women in uniform to do the right thing in the right way
for the right reasons. Americans fearful that the rest of society
may be teetering on the brink of moral collapse console themselves
with the thought that the armed services remain a repository of
traditional values and old-fashioned virtue.
... Confidence in the military has found
further expression in a tendency to elevate the soldier to the
status of national icon, the apotheosis of all that is great and
good about contemporary America.
In public life today, paying homage to those in uniform has become
obligatory and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty
of failing to "support the troops." In the realm of
partisan politics, the political Right has shown considerable
skill in exploiting this dynamic, shamelessly pandering to the
military itself and by extension to those members of the public
laboring under the misconception, a residue from Vietnam, that
the armed services are under siege from a rabidly anti-military
Left." In fact, the Democratic mainstream-if only to save
itself from extinction-has long since purged itself of any dovish
inclinations. "What's the point of having this superb military
that you're always talking about," Madeleine Albright demanded
of General Cohn Powell, "if we can't use it?"
Even as U.S. policy in recent decades has become progressively
militarized, so too has the Vietnam-induced gap separating the
U.S. military from American society persisted and perhaps even
widened .41 Even as American elites have become ever more fascinated
with military power and the use of force& Vice President Cheney,
for example, is a self-professed war buff with a passion for military
history -)-soldiering itself is something left to the plebs."
"The volunteer military," the writer John Gregory Dunne
has observed, "has always been most enthusiastically, even
devoutly, embraced by those who would not themselves dream of
volunteering-or L of encouraging their children to do so."
Even middle-class Americans, although
professing deep regard for members of the armed services, tend
to admire soldiers from a safe distance. The All-Volunteer Force-a
euphemism for what is, in fact, a professional army-does not even
remotely "look like" democratic America. As the New
York Times reported at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom,
while the nation's wealthy and more educated youth have shunned
the military," minorities and the underprivileged, along
with the offspring of the officer class, have picked up the slack.
In 2000, for example, minorities comprised 42 percent of the Army's
enlisted force. In the growing population of female soldiers,
African Americans easily outnumber whites." Whereas 46 percent
of the total civilian population has studied at the undergraduate
level, only 6 percent of the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds
filling the military's enlisted ranks have had any college education."
As with their favorite professional football
team, Americans cheer the troops on with verve and enthusiasm.
Increasingly, however, they have about as much in common with
real warriors as they do with the gridiron warriors inhabiting
a typical NFL locker room.
Today, having dissolved any connection between claims to citizenship
ç and obligation to serve, Americans entrust their security
to a class of military professionals who see themselves in many
respects as culturally and politically set apart from the rest
of society." That military is led by an officer corps that
has evolved its own well-defined worldview and political agenda.
Senior military leaders have sought, albeit with mixed results,
to wield clout well beyond the realm falling within their nominal
purview. They aim not simply to execute policy; they want a large
say in its formulation.
Highly protective of their own core institutional
interests, these senior officers have also demonstrated considerable
skill at waging bureaucratic warfare, manipulating the media,
and playing off the executive and legislative branches of government
against each other to get what they want. The present-day officer
corps, writes the historian Richard H. Kohn, is "more bureaucratically
active, more political, more partisan, more purposeful, and more
influential" than at any earlier time in American history.
14 The resulting fractious, at times even dysfunctional, relationship
between the top brass and civilian political leaders is one of
Washington's dirty little secrets-recognized by all of the inside
players, concealed from an electorate that might ask discomfiting
questions about who is actually in charge. This too is an expression
of what militarism has wrought.
C. Wright Mills, 1956
"For the first time in the nation's history, men in authority
are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end."
Opponents of war have long blamed its
persistence on warmongers. But war, as the historian Charles Beard
observed long ago, "is not the work of a demon. It is our
very own work, for which we prepare, wittingly or not, in times
of peace." Much the same may be said about the creeping American
militarism of our own day.
Militarism qualifies as our very own work,
a by-product of our insistence on seeing ourselves as a people
set apart, unconstrained by limits or by history. More specifically,
in this case, militarism has grown out of the Vietnam War ...
If for the people of Kuwait Operation Desert Storm meant deliverance
[from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990], for the U.S. military
and its officer corps it meant something even more gratifying.
Victory over Iraq vindicated a massive effort of recovery and
renewal launched in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam. The performance
of U.S. forces during the course of the brief campaign dazzled
the American people and the world at large and overturned a historical
judgment that had lingered ever since the defeat in Southeast
Asia. For the generation of soldiers who had fought in Vietnam,
victory in the Gulf meant redemption.
New American Militarism