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Living by the Sword

The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, By Andrew J. Bacevich, Oxford Univ. Press. 270p $28

From America, June 20, 2005

“Today as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power.” So begins the introduction to Andrew J. Bacevich’s thorough and prophetic examination of our increasing dependence on guns and bombs to insure our domestic security and spread our ideals of democracy abroad.

Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, writes: “To state the matter bluntly, Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force…. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.”

Marching in lockstep with militarism is American “exceptionalism,” the view that we embody universal ideals, valid for all times and places.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, these two tendencies have given us President George W. Bush’s open-ended global “War on Terror.” Indeed, with the justifications of weapons of mass destruction and pre-9/11 ties to Al Qaeda disproven, the default Bush justification for Gulf War II in Iraq has been to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Bacevich cautions, however, against blaming 9/11—or Bush—for the rise of American militarism. Instead, he carefully details how it developed in the decades after the Vietnam War.

It is a complicated picture. It includes U.S. military officers intent on rehabilitating their profession after Vietnam. They succeeded so well that the easy victory of Gulf War I, in 1991, made it much easier to have recourse to arms in solving international conflicts. It includes the evolution of “neoconservative” intellectuals reacting to U.S. self-doubt after Vietnam with a vision of the spread of American ideals by force. It includes other intellectuals heralding “the Revolution in Military Affairs.” Moving warfare into the information age, R.M.A. would enable lean and fast military forces to apply overwhelming force in a surgical fashion for quick and easy victories to advance American interests and spread American ideals.

Hollywood, too, played a part in the rise of the new American militarism out of the ashes of Vietnam with such 1980’s movies as “Top Gun.” And, of course, the need for U.S. dominance in the Middle East to keep the oil flowing is a major factor behind the use and exaltation of military power.

The end of the cold war, and with it the end of the threat of a massive conventional battle with the Soviet Union in Europe, might have led to a real reduction in U.S. military spending. Yet, the current Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation, is 12 percent larger than the average cold war era budget. By some estimates, the United States now spends more on defense than all other nations of the world combined.

Along with this is the paradox that military service is now solely a matter of individual choice, with the working class and minorities carrying a disproportionate share of the load.

The evangelical right has played a key role in the rise of militarism. The cultural excesses of the 1960’s in large part led conservative evangelicals to celebrate what they see as the traditional virtues of the military. “Abandoning their own previously well-established skepticism about the morality of force and inspired in no small measure by their devotion to Israel, they articulated a highly permissive interpretation of the just war tradition,” Bacevich writes. “And they developed a considerable appetite for wielding armed might on behalf of righteousness, more often than not indistinguishable from America’s own interests.”

Bacevich identifies himself as a Catholic and a cultural conservative, but one not at home with the current Bush administration. In a footnote, he writes that the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy discredited the U.S. bishops and in effect silenced them on the moral dimension of war and U.S. military policy. Drawing on the charismatic eloquence of Pope John Paul II, the American bishops could have served as a counterweight to the evangelical influence on these issues.

Ultimately, however, Bacevich’s argument against the new American militarism draws most on our nation’s traditional skepticism of foreign entanglements and large standing armies. The intention of the Founders as expressed in the Constitution does not justify the role of aggressive world policeman.

If it keeps to its current militaristic course, the United States will alienate people and nations around the world and leave us increasingly isolated. Bacevich adds, “If history is any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure.”

In the final chapter, Bacevich proposes a number of correctives. These include revitalizing the idea of separation of powers—that is, having Congress fulfill its constitutional responsibility of deciding when to declare war—viewing force as a last resort; organizing U.S. forces explicitly for national defense; devising an appropriate way to determine the level of defense spending; enhancing alternative aspects of statecraft, such as diplomacy; and reviving the dormant concept of the citizen-soldier.

The New American Militarism is an important and prophetic book. One has to wonder, however, given the current political and cultural climate, whether it will make any impact at all on our national discussion. Mark E. Rondeau

Mark E. Rondeau , a former newspaper editor who live in North Adams, Mass., is a freelance correspondent for The Catholic Observer, of the Diocese of Springfield.

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