This is a sad and angry book. It describes the crisis of American civil military relations, and offers an implausible solution. Andrew Bacevich is a graduate of West Point and was an American Army officer for 25 years. The book is dedicated to the memory of Captain William F. Reichert, a messmate, killed by a disgruntled subordinate when they served together in the waning days of the Vietnam War, and to Colonel Theodore S. Westhusing, a fellow professor at West Point and scholar of military honor, who killed himself in Iraq when confronted with allegations of contractor fraud and command indifference.
The citizen army Bacevich joined in 1969, which practiced ‘fragging’ and lived with social dislocation at home, was transformed by Nixon’s repeal of the draft. In the first part of the book, Bacevich describes the popular people’s wars – particularly the Second World War – from which America benefited, albeit at the expense of foreign armies which did more of the dying, while Americans built the machines that did the killing, in factories that later produced consumer durables while America picked up the spoils of empire.
The end of the draft brought the great decoupling, “minimizing collective inconvenience rather than requiring collective commitment”. The three No’s now characterize Americans’ approach to war: we will not change, we will not pay, and we will not bleed. This is the cri du cœur of the bereaved father, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007. He describes the financial meltdown, the hubris, greed, corruption and plunder of America, and links citizens’ unwillingness to address epidemics of incarceration, obesity, teenage pregnancy, and debt to their unwillingness to engage in the business of killing for the nation. It fits with the epigraph from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He answers his footnoted question about Bush’s call to fight for freedom: the pop gospels of American Freedom are novelty, autonomy, celebrity, and consumption. So what’s it all for?
In the second part, Warrior’s Plight, Bacevich seeks to explain how the US Army after Vietnam sought reconciliation and relevance but became isolated and mired in unwinnable wars. He goes back over the same historical ground as the first part, this time focusing on the professionalization and outsourcing that followed the end of the draft, and the revolution that successively opened the US Army to equal opportunity unobstructed by race, gender, or (eventually) sexual orientation. But he sees in this triumph of individual choice the widening of the choice not to serve: “Individual choice fully eclipsed state power as determinant of who would defend the country.” In the chapter, “Searching for Dragons,” he describes the institutional pressures within the US Army to be involved in the new wars of empire. Questions of purpose piled up as Iraq and Afghanistan went badly and the costs mounted, while few citizens paid, and contractors and their investor profited handsomely.
The final part, Skin in the Game, blames politicians of all stripes, military and leadership, pundits and media, and a complacent citizenry for avoiding the truth about a failing American way of war. There’s a wonderful chapter about rogue generals, who come to realize the error of their ways after lengthy service: Smedley Butler, Lee Butler, William Standley, and Thomas Moorer. But McChrystal’s belated call for the draft begs the question, what’s the game, and who benefits from it? McChrystal’s call was unheeded, Bacevich says, because the Defence Department’s partner is not the people, but defence industry. Even the manual on working with contractors on the battlefield was written by the contractors, Military Professional Resources, Inc. The ‘treason’ of pundits unwilling to criticize is neatly summarized by tracing the trajectory of editorials by Paul Berman, Richard Cohen and especially David Brooks – a narrow sample that effectively makes the case: “In a time of faith, scepticism is the most intolerable of insults.” Bacevich has barbs for General Boykin (“They hate us because we are a Christian nation.”), for the growth of military commands, and for the operational mimicking of Israel, in which security means supremacy and preventive war and executive decrees for assassination become policy in pursuit of a strategy without apparent direction. He concludes that the American GI has become Kipling’s Tommy Atkins.
And so the prescription outlined in a scant few pages is to repeal the three No’s: Americas must revert to citizenship entailing responsibilities, not just privileges. They must pay for wars as they go, by taxation, foregoing benefits, or reducing consumption. Above all, they must bleed. Bacevich calls for national service or a draft. But is this plausible? Bacevich clearly understands the American army, but does he understand American society? The all-volunteer force did not create the ills he describes; those ills created the all-volunteer force. Americans arm themselves, resist taxation, and deny the legitimacy of their gridlocked government, which sits on record-breaking debt and deficits, the proceeds of which are concentrated in ever-fewer hands. If the past is prologue, more plausible than a repeal of the three No’s, here is what America has to look forward to:
“…more needless wars, or shadow conflicts sold by a militarized and irresponsible elite; more wars mismanaged by an intellectually sclerotic and unimaginative officer corps; more wars that exact huge penalties without yielding promised outcomes, with the consequences quickly swept under the rug, even as flags flutter… and commercials tout the generosity of beer companies doing good works for ‘the troops’…”
Does America have an infinite capacity to adapt to that sort of future? How many wars like Iraq and Afghanistan can its economy and society absorb?
David Last, 2 February, 2014