The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew Bacevich. Oxford University Press, 2005. Hardcover, $28.00.
Reviewed by Gerald Loftus, "Avuncular American"
Whatever emerges from America’s predicament in Iraq, at some point we will say “post-Iraq” just as we speak of “post-Vietnam.” Andrew Bacevich, in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War provides a vital guide on how to avoid the kind of post-Vietnam reaction that saw the military hit its drug-ridden nadir in the seventies, only to be elevated to the all-in-one American miracle cure for foreign headaches. He shows how the national narrative of the joys of “power projection” was woven by decades of persuasion in churches, on television, in scholarly journals. Bacevich has a good cinema sense, as seen in his analysis of the role of such Reagan-era films as An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun in the glamorization of the military. When first published in late 2005 (now out in paperback), The New American Militarism was a timely critique of what Bacevich sees as a decades-old bipartisan affliction. The passage of time only makes his book more relevant—and, as we shall see, more poignant.
You don’t get more credible commentators on the American fascination with things military than Andrew Bacevich. West Pointer and retired career Army officer, Bacevich teaches at Boston University. He writes extensively on international affairs, and has been highly critical of the Bush Administration’s willful march to war in Iraq. But don’t expect another lefty screed; Bacevich is (perhaps was) a “self-described conservative.” Citizen soldier of the Cold War and Vietnam, Bacevich is concerned with the imperial-sized defense budgets that spawn global military engagements. But more than mere size and willingness to “deploy,” he sees American illusions on the efficacy of military action as a long-term danger to our republic. His prescriptions are conservative with a small “c,” and include reinstating the Constitutional role of Congress, ensuring that U.S. armed forces are used for national defense, and enhancing strategic self-sufficiency. This soldier-academician is particularly exercised at the increasing separation of the military from American society, and short of calling for a restoration of the draft, he suggests steps to reduce the gap—moves that would themselves act as a brake to the tendency to “send in the military.”
In meticulously footnoted chapters tracing the rise of interventionist neo-conservatism, of the nuclear era national security “priesthood,” of messianic Christian fundamentalism suffused with martial biblical certainties, and of “mythmaking” Reaganism from the Great Communicator, it becomes clear that the American reflex to using military force overseas is not the sole domain of the current President. Bacevich sees under George W. Bush a “new Wilsonian moment,” where Bush channels our quixotic World War I President and fancies himself as remaking the Middle East in the image of America. Contemporary Democrats—Madeleine Albright prodding then General Colin Powell with “what is the point of having this superb military… if we can’t use it?"—are revealed as equally tempted by the use of force to carry out their objectives, in this case, intervention in the Balkans.
Many are familiar with General-President Dwight Eisenhower’s admonition against the pervasive “military industrial complex” upon leaving the White House. But how many know that our young republic got a similar adieu from its first (and only authentic) commander-in-chief? Thanks to Bacevich we find George Washington, in his farewell address, warning about “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” What would Washington make of today’s global reach, with our “overgrown military establishment” stretched to the breaking point?
In a key chapter Blood for Oil, Bacevich suggests that America’s Middle East problems began, not with 9/11, but with Jimmy Carter’s unhappy 1979-80 encounter with the Iranian Islamic revolution. With the Carter Doctrine, the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves were enshrined as vital American interests (reaffirming Roosevelt’s pledge to defend Saudi Arabia) to be protected by military force. Carter’s “Rapid Deployment Force,” synonymous with the failed mission to rescue American Embassy hostages in Tehran, was transformed by Ronald Reagan into Central Command and charged with leading the American buildup in the Middle East. “As the U.S. military profile in the region became ever more prominent,” writes Bacevich, “the difficulties with which the United States felt obliged to contend also multiplied.” He provides a list from the Reagan years: a disastrous Marine intervention in Lebanon; air strikes on Libya; arming Islamic insurgents in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan…
Bacevich credits Carter with trying to manage public expectations in his 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, when he lectured Americans about their appetite for foreign oil and limitless, unsustainable consumption of scarce resources. Right message, wrong audience: voters preferred “Morning in America” Reagan. A quarter century later, will the next President be able to convince Americans of the true cost of Middle East oil, of the climate change limits to growth? Has the militarization of America gone so far as to blind policy makers to non-military means of pursuing U.S. interests?
Though he “trained as a diplomatic historian” and recognizes the value of statecraft in conflict prevention, Bacevich generally ignores the potential of American diplomacy to counter rampant militarism. Other than paraphrasing a Newt Gingrich diatribe delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, Bacevich devotes almost no space to the State Department—an unfortunate lapse in an otherwise comprehensive tome.
Bacevich dedicates his book “To the memory of George Blough, Casualty of a misbegotten war.” We learn that Blough was his brother-in-law, and that this particular “misbegotten war” was Vietnam. On Memorial Day 2007, Bacevich wrote another obituary, that of his namesake son killed only days earlier in Iraq. In a heartrending tribute from a principled war critic, Bacevich lamented that his son shared his “peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time.”
The New American Militarism is a work of lasting importance, and as the United States grapples with resolution of our first twenty first century quagmire, we need to listen to Andrew Bacevich and his warning of the “toxic” dangers of the mindset that imagines only military solutions to the world’s ills.
This first appeared September 19, 2007 in the Book Review section of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy website.