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, paper


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 to fight.

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 nonpareil.

... 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 falling behind.

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 problems.

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 has advanced.

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.

The New American Militarism

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