May 9, 2005
Blog Interview with Dr. Andrew Bacevich, author of "The New American Militarism"
I recently finished reading The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew Bacevich [see the link in the sidebar], an excellent treatment of the subject of militarism, civil-military relations, and a whole host of related issues. Dr. Bacevich is a Viet Nam veteran and was a career Army officer before entering academia. He currently serves as the Director of the Center for International Relations, and Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
Dr. Bacevich is a critic of current trends in militarism and of the nature of the war. That being said, his work should not be lumped together with much less erudite or more partisan works. I found the book to offer some very interesting viewpoints on the sources of American militarism and its possible cures. I decided to speak to Dr. Bacevich to get some more details. The following is our exchange.
Chester: In your work, The New American Militarism, you map out a long-term shift in thinking among political elites, ideologues, the officer corps, religious institutions, and popular culture that has led to "misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions that have come to pervade the American consciousness and that have perverted present-day U.S. national security policy." What is the nature of that dangerous conception, and how does it pervert our policies?
Andrew Bacevich: Since Vietnam and especially since the end of the Cold War we've developed outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and a romanticized view of soldiers. Together these constitute a variant of militarism. This militarism is contrary to our interests and is radically at odds with our founding ideals as a nation.
C: Your chapter describing the history of the Army's attempts to reconstitute itself, and its role in advising the civilian authorities was fascinating. You show that beginning with Creighton Abrams, and ending successfully with Colin Powell's role in the Gulf War, the Army was able to restore its prestige, reconstitute its forces, yet create what is known as "the Powell Doctrine" about the use of US force which as you say, aimed "not to facilitate, but to impede intervention." How did the Powell Doctrine fail? Has the military been a victim of its own success?
AB: The Powell Doctrine failed in no small measure due to Powell himself. After the Cold War, he and the other service chiefs capitalized on the inflated status that they enjoyed thanks to Desert Storm to argue successfully for maintaining a military establishment far larger than needed to respond to the threats that we faced. In essence, they argued for excess military capacity -- a capacity that civilians were happy to put to work in ways quite contrary to Powell's own preferences.
C: Is the Army in the process of creating a new doctrine, either ad hoc, or explicitly? If so, how might you describe it? Is it an attempt to return to something like the Powell Doctrine?
ABThe army is up to its elbows in dealing with the challenges posed by Iraq -- that's the doctrinal challenge of the moment.
C: Given your background, it is not surprising that you focused on the role of the Army in the Vietnam to Desert Storm era. What role did the other services play in changing the conceptions of the military and the use of force?
AB:It was substantial. The Air Force in particular has persistently promoted a vision of air power that suggests that the use of force is becoming more precise, certain, and economical.
C: Your account seems to describe a militarism that is currently at least lacking much direct influence from the military itself, either in its propagation, or in its rebuttal. Can any current militarism either be stopped or promoted by the officer corps?
ABThe problem is not the officer corps. It's us -- "we the people" -- and the folks that we send to Washington.
C: You raise some interesting questions about the nature of military bureaucracies and their institutional interests. For example, you write that the efforts of military professionals "to reassert the autonomy of that profession backfired and left the military in the present century bereft of meaningful influence on basic questions relating to the uses of U.S. military power,"(p.6) but you later say, "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." (p. 30) Could these two statements be summarized by saying that since our civilian leadership has decided that war is best not left to the generals, then the generals have decided to turn their attention instead to bureaucratic battles? What kind of civil-military relationship would you recommend?
AB:Senior officers demonstrated real skill in waging bureaucratic warfare in the 1980s and 1990s. The current administration has taken the generals down a peg or two. As a practical matter, civil-military relations remain as dysfunctional today as they were during the Clinton presidency. What do we need: mutual respect and candor within an overall commitment to the sanctity of civilian control. You can make a strong argument that we haven't had that since FDR was president.
C: You summarize the relationship between the public and the military with the phrase, "We admire you. Now go away." This seems to describe a militarism that is rather hollow such that "supporting the troops" is some part of national piety, but nothing else. How would you further describe the relationship between the public and the armed services?
AB:It's a phony respect. We proclaim our support for the troops as long as doing so comes without cost.
C: Your chapter on defense intellectuals was fascinating. After World War II, the "priesthood" -- as you call them -- tried to find more reasonable forms of using violence in the shadow of nuclear weapons. This led to game theories at the strategic level, and the conception of using limited force to bargain or signal. But after Vietnam, the same intellectual priesthood began advocating "discriminating offensive strategies," using calibrated force to win outright hence surgical strikes and the like. Do you believe this had an effect on the rise of pre-emptive warfare as a concept? Has modern weaponry made the concept of total war all but obsolete?
AB:I've got no problem with preemption as such. Given the right set of circumstances, it can be justified. My gripe is with preventive war such as the Bush administration has committed us to. And, yes, the false visions of precision warfare peddled by certain defense intellectuals did pave the way for this misguided policy.
C: You do not speak highly of pre-emptive war in your book. Yet the largest single reason given for such a doctrine is to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. How would you prevent this from happening?
AB:There are no certainties in life. My own view is that a doctrine of preventive war will contribute to instability and disorder more than it will to safety and security. The best way to address the terrorist threat -- meaning those Islamic radicals who are intent on doing us harm -- is through intensive international police action. When I say "police," I'm including intelligence agencies and even on occasion action by special operations forces.
C: Are you familiar with the concepts that fall under the title "fourth generational war"? Do you think an adoption of its ideas will increase or decrease militarism in our society?
AB:Prophets are always claiming to divine how the subject of their study is being transformed and that something completely novel is appearing right before our eyes. I am highly skeptical of such prophecies, especially when it comes to warfare.
C: You recommend a complete change in the roles of ROTC programs and service academies in officer development. How would you change these institutions?
AB:I want all would-be officers first to get an undergraduate education in the company of their fellow citizens. Only after getting a liberal education should they continue on to an officer training program -- and I want all officers to experience the same preparation. In that regard, the service academies should be transformed into officer training institutions along the model of Sandhurst, offering one-year programs and no undergraduate education.
C: A final question: One over-riding concern of many civil-military relations experts is the interaction, or lack thereof, between military professionals and the socioeconomic elite of the nation. That the children of the wealthy don't serve is conventional wisdom in the US. Would serious reform of the military's ability to define, assign, and promote talented people have an impact on the participation of elites? That is to say, would you agree that many of the best and brightest don't serve because they feel that they will be able to fulfill their true potential elsewhere?
AB:People don't serve because as a country we decided after Vietnam that citizenship no longer entailed a responsibility to contribute to the defense of the nation. We need to rethink what it means to be an American. Citizenship ought to entail obligations as well as entitlements.
C: Thanks very much for your time!
Posted by Chester at May 9, 2005 11:17 PM
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The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced By War. by Andrew J. Bacevich, Oxford University Press, 2005 $28 ($21 if you get it via AAFES) When I sat down to read this book, I deliberately did *not* read other... [Read More]
Tracked on September 12, 2005 8:59 AM