Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, begins this powerful critique of the United States in the years after the draft with a baseball game in Boston on Independence Day, 2011. The occasion was, he writes, “a masterpiece of contrived spontaneity” in which the military presented itself in various certifiably patriotic ways while fans in the stands applauded loudly, especially when a young woman — described as “serving aboard the carrier USS ‘Ronald Reagan,’ currently deployed in support of the Afghan war” — emerged “from behind the flag covering the left-field wall.” To those in attendance it clearly was a thrilling experience. To Bacevich — and to me — it was repellent. He writes:
“Here was America’s civic religion made manifest. In recent decades, an injunction to ‘support the troops’ has emerged as its central tenet. . . . Fulfilling that obligation has posed a challenge. . . . Rather than doing so concretely, Americans — with a few honorable exceptions — have settled for symbolism. . . . To stand in symbolic solidarity at a ballpark with those on whom the burden of service and sacrifice falls is about as far as they will go. . . . The message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part). Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligations and perhaps easing guilty consciences.”
Bacevich has written a book that precious few people in Washington will like, at least those people — and there certainly are too many of them here — who are connected in one way or another to what Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 called the “military-industrial complex,” in his much-praised and now almost totally unheeded farewell address to the American people. Bacevich, whose credentials for writing about the military are impeccable — he is a graduate of West Point, served for a year in Vietnam and did duty in the Persian Gulf before leaving the Army about two decades ago with the rank of colonel — is outspoken in his criticism of the all-volunteer Army. It’s not the soldiers whom he criticizes but the politicians who overreacted to opposition to the war in Vietnam and abolished the draft, thus establishing all-volunteer armed services, “a civil-military relationship founded on the principle that a few fight while the rest watch.” He writes:
“Rather than offering an antidote to problems, the military system centered on the all-volunteer force bred and exacerbated them. It underwrote recklessness in the formulation of policy and thereby resulted in needless, costly, and ill-managed wars. . . . From pulpit and podium, at concerts and sporting events, expressions of warmth and affection shower down on the troops. Yet when those wielding power in Washington subject soldiers to serial abuse, Americans acquiesce. When the state heedlessly and callously exploits those same troops, the people avert their gaze. Maintaining a pretense of caring about soldiers, state and society actually collaborate in betraying them.”
They are able to do so because the elimination of a truly citizen-based Army has also eliminated the need for the state to take its case to the people before going to war. Military action is now undertaken by “a small warrior class — less than 1 percent of the total population” — that has no choice except to do the bidding of leaders, both civilian and military, who for whatever reason want to go to war in remote places all over the globe.
Bacevich does not dwell on the point, but surely it is worth noting that precious few of these leaders have done military service themselves. Many of the “chickenhawks” who egged George W. Bush on, notably the much draft-deferred Dick Cheney, had never worn military uniforms. Neither has Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton; John Kerry is the rare high-ranking official in the present administration to have gone to war, and it will be recalled that he was subjected by Bush allies in the 2004 presidential campaign to malicious misrepresentations of his service in Vietnam.
This is a change of historic dimensions. As the United States prepared to enter World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and his chief military officials, notably George C. Marshall, understood that they would need the active support of the citizens who would fight that war, and they aggressively solicited it. They knew that “war was the people’s business,” and they proceeded accordingly: “For the state to embark upon armed conflict of any magnitude required informed popular consent. Actual prosecution of any military campaign larger than a police action depended on the willingness of citizens in large numbers to become soldiers. Seeing war through to a conclusion hinged on the state’s ability to sustain active popular support in the face of trial and adversity.”
Then came Vietnam. Whatever his true motives, “in creating the all-volunteer force, Richard Nixon accurately interpreted the popular will,” which had turned against that war with a vengeance. Millions of us, myself most certainly among them, thought this was the right thing to do. Who could have guessed the price to be paid? Bacevich writes: “Forty years later, the mournful consequences of this decision continue to pile up. Not least among them is a proclivity for wars that are, if anything, even more misguided and counterproductive than Vietnam was. Yet this time around, a collective refusal even to acknowledge those consequences takes precedence over corrective action. The warriors may be brave, but the people are timid. So where courage is needed, passivity prevails, exquisitely expressed (and sanctimoniously justified) in the omnipresent call to ‘support the troops.’ ”
What Bacevich calls the “inventory” of military actions enabled by the professional armed services is long and numbing: two rounds in Iraq and a continuing one in Afghanistan, as well as “stays ranging from weeks to years in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.” There have been secret missions in Iran and Pakistan; “long-duration, quasi-covert operations” in El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia; aerial attacks in Libya, the Sudan and Yemen; and now our leadership is looking hungrily at Syria. Yet “tuned-out Americans are generally no more familiar with these events, their causes, or their connection to one another than they are with why the First Seminole War happened or how it led to the Second Seminole War.”
While it’s easy to blame Bush and Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Obama — and heaven knows they and their lackeys were and are culpable — the possibility must be considered that we the people are not “victims but accessories.” We’re all in it: “As much as or more than Big Government or Big Business, popular attitudes toward war, combining detachment, neglect, and inattention, helped create the crisis in which the United States is mired.” Relying as we do on volunteers to fight wars about which most of us are ignorant, we subject these men and women to the most hazardous conditions, in which many of them are killed or grievously wounded, and in which many do multiple tours of duty because there is not enough manpower in the volunteer services to sustain such a high level of military adventure. How do we pay them back? We put touchy-feely bumper stickers on our cars, publish newspaper pages with photographs of “the fallen” and sing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. Thanks a lot.
“Is the past prologue?” Bacevich asks, and answers his question: “If so, here is what Americans can look forward to: more needless wars or shadow conflicts sold by a militarized and irresponsible political elite; more wars mismanaged by an intellectually sclerotic and unimaginative senior officer corps; more wars that exact huge penalties without yielding promised outcomes, with the consequences quickly swept under the rug even as flags flutter, fighter jets swoop overhead, the band plays the ‘Marines’ Hymn,’ and commercials tout the generosity of beer companies doing good works for ‘the troops.’ ”
Instead, Bacevich says, Americans should “revert to a concept of citizenship in which privileges entail responsibilities,” should “fund their wars on a pay-as-you-go basis,” and should “insist upon fielding a citizen army drawn from all segments of society.” He’s right, of course, but this splendid book ends on a note of hope that is most unlikely to be fulfilled. There isn’t a political figure in the country willing to make those arguments, and there isn’t a citizenry willing to listen to them, much less act upon them. Evading civic responsibility is the order of the day, replaced by a politics of insult, enmity and evasion. The men and women we so blithely send off to fight wars in places we’ve never heard of deserve better than that, but there’s no reason to believe we’re going to give it to them.
BREACH OF TRUST
How Americans Failed Their Soldiers
and Their Country
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Metropolitan. 238 pp. $26