The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War
by Andrew Bacevich
A review by Reihan Salam
Recently, in The Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kaplan published a characteristically
gritty dispatch from Niger, an African republic best known to Americans for having
some very vague association with "yellowcake." Unbeknownst to most folks at home,
Niger is at the heart of the "Pan-Sahel Initiative," an effort on the part of
the U.S. to strengthen indigenous military forces in the region to deal with the
threat posed by Al Qaeda and its allies. Unlike the large-scale military interventions
in Iraq and Afghanistan that have attracted so much international attention, not
to mention scornful reproach, the American presence in Niger has left a very small
footprint indeed. Kaplan followed three battle-hardened Americans as they taught
Nigerien troops how to shoot straight. This, Kaplan suggests, is the day-to-day
reality of America's war on terror -- not the high drama of the Sunni triangle,
but rather the yeoman-like building of states on the lawless global frontier.
One wonders what Andrew Bacevich would make of this. Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, sees "World War IV" -- the war on terror, or, as he would have it, America's deepening oil-driven entanglement in the Islamic world -- as the culmination of a decades-long embrace by certain American elites of what C. Wright Mills called "military metaphysics," "a tendency," in Bacevich's words, "to see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution except through military means." And so the American involvement in Niger might stand for Bacevich as a reductio ad absurdum. Because the remorseless logic of empire is limitless, the writ of America's militarized establishment will, Bacevich fears, expand and expand until it covers even the obscurest corners of the globe.
The best that can be said of a book that is deeply wrong is that it is interestingly wrong. So it is with The New American Militarism.
Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a retired military officer, first offered his bracing reinterpretation of recent history in American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. In that earlier effort, quite unusual for an erstwhile contributor to National Review and The Weekly Standard, Bacevich turned to Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, left critics of "the American century," for inspiration in arguing that American idealism masked otherwise naked American imperialism. And yet rather than putting forward a strident critique, like Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, and countless others, Bacevich offered a lament. His wistful appeal to fading American virtues marked him as more Old Right than New Left.
The same elegiac tone defines The New American Militarism, but this time Bacevich attempts a more daring synthesis of intellectual, cultural, and institutional history. He traces the origins of the new militarism to America's catastrophic defeat in Vietnam. Reeling from a newfound sense of American weakness, military officers seeking to recover lost prestige and autonomy, neoconservatives enthralled by Wilsonian rhetoric, and religious leaders transfixed by an apocalyptic reading of the cold war reached the same conclusion, namely that American military strength had to be restored, and once restored multiplied several fold. The culture industry followed, with 1986's Top Gun representing the apotheosis of Hollywood's newfound love affair with the American fighting man. (Lengthy discourses on Top Gun and Rambo: First Blood Part II make for some of the most entertaining moments in an unfailingly serious work.) These currents redounded to the advantage of a small clique of defense intellectuals, several of them associated with the RAND Corporation, others high-ranking civilians in the Pentagon, who had envisioned new forms of war fighting that promised to transcend the cold-war stalemate. Taken together, the result has been a vastly more expensive, more celebrated, and more frequently deployed military.
Though one can quibble with many aspects of Bacevich's retelling, he does his due diligence when it comes to the origin and spread of ideas, acknowledging his own biases and taking care to avoid constructing strawmen. The discussions of several key figures and events, particularly a vivid consideration of General Wesley Clark and the Kosovo campaign, make the book an indispensable resource. Apart from a quick invocation of "the Fuehrer principle" in describing an alleged neoconservative fetish for presidents, Bacevich avoids cheap shots. His treatment of the role of Israel is illustrative. Absent from the author's discussion of neoconservatism, enthusiastic support of Israel instead plays a prominent role in his discussion of Protestant evangelicals, thus suggesting a subtler, keener appreciation of American realities than tends to be found among antiwar conservatives.
Unfortunately, this deftness does not extend to Bacevich's reading of geopolitics. Without ever demonizing those in charge, Bacevich is harshly critical of America's involvement in the Middle East, focusing on the period dating from the end of the Carter administration to the present. Always quick to interrogate and undermine the moralistic claims made by policymakers, that America fights for freedom being foremost among them, Bacevich makes moralistic claims of his own that can't withstand scrutiny. His take on America's dependence on foreign oil is, if anything, more cultural than strategic: that it stems from reprehensibly gluttonous appetites. You'd think from Bacevich's account that a mature decision on the part of the American public to curb oil consumption in the late 1970s would have spared the United States all the pain and suffering of its involvement in the Middle East. This then leads you to the implicit conclusion that an equally tyranny-ridden yet more destitute Middle East, thanks to benign neglect from Uncle Sam, would suffer in blissful silence, leaving Americans to enjoy energy-efficient lives without any undue military burdens. Those who take up arms against America in our world would instead lead peaceful, productive lives in Bacevich's alternate world, or something like that. It's a view that strains credulity.
This is slightly unfair. Bacevich's take is nuanced, and he deserves better than to have his arguments dismissed out of hand. The same is true of those who believe that American military might can effect a transformation for the better in the Middle East, and that an America that maintains strength beyond challenge is more likely to foster a peaceful, cooperative world. What if security at home really does depend on building decent governments in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Niger? The fact of a shrinking world suggests that Bacevich is wrong about the war on terror.
Even so, there's no denying, even for the hawks among us, that calls for restraint can offer a useful corrective. When those calls come from marginal, under-informed, instinctively anti-American voices, they will very rightly be ignored. But when they come from someone like Bacevich, an unusually perceptive observer and a committed patriot, it's that much more likely that we'll listen and learn.
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