IN PRISM'S BOOK BAG: A 'Thinking Man's Guide' to Global War, Andrew J. Bacevich's THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM: HOW AMERICANS ARE SEDUCED BY WAR (Oxford University Press, 2005)
reviewed by Bill Scheurer
You might think that a book with this title, THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM: HOW AMERICANS ARE SEDUCED BY WAR, would be just another partisan, antimilitary tract pumped out by one of the leftist presses in our political/culture wars. Think again.
Its author, Andrew J. Bacevich: West Point grad, Vietnam vet, career army officer, former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, and now director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, identifies himself as a conservative Catholic. His writings have appeared in such places as the WALL STREET JOURNAL, the WEEKLY STANDARD, the NATIONAL INTEREST, COMMENTARY, the AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE, the JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY: you get the picture, hardly your typical left-wing fare.
This is one of the reasons why his book is so important: because it is neither right nor left, Republican nor Democrat, liberal nor conservative, red nor blue. In our deeply polarized society, Prof. Bacevich takes a hard and sobering look at our American identity, our new place in the world, how we got there, and what it bodes for the future.
While he clearly states from the beginning his belief that the current linkage of our foreign policy and national identity with an aggressive military posture "does not serve our interests and may yet prove our undoing," he studiously refrains from a simplistic assignment of blame, viewing the problem instead as "a bipartisan project" with deep roots in our past. In his preface he writes, "If a problem is bigger than a particular president or single administration, as I believe the problem of American militarism to be, then simply getting rid of that president will not make that problem go away. To pretend otherwise serves no purpose." This is a kill shot, right between the eyes. The book is full of such volleys, pointing in every direction, always on the mark.
Another reason why THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM is so important (besides the fact that its subject matter addresses the question of our survival as a nation) is the sweeping scope of Bacevich's vision. This is a highly creative and ambitious effort, as much a cultural study as a critique of political and military issues. If you ever feel as if you woke up one day to find your country bristled with yellow ribbons and flags from sea to shining sea, and wonder how it all happened, Col. Bacevich offers a full explanation to your dizzy mind.
Separate chapters study the roles of politicians, intellectuals, analysts, military brass, popular artists, and evangelicals in bringing the American public, step by seductive step, to a "ready acceptance of the prospect of war without foreseeable end and of a policy that abandons even the pretense of the United States fighting defensively or viewing war as a last resort." For each group, he traces an interlocking chain reaction from the upheavals of the 1960s and Vietnam to the aftermath of 9/11 and our current state where "the nation's status as the greatest military power the world has ever seen has come to signify for the great majority of citizens a cosmic verdict of sorts, a compelling affirmation."
Along the way, we pass such milestones as the Iranian hostage crisis and OPEC oil embargo, the Gulf War which "dazzled the American people" with its military success, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and former Soviet Union. All of these (and many other) events become familiar places on the map with Bacevich as skillful navigator.
In his treatment, one might quibble with some gaps: for one, a lack of clarity on the transition from WWII demobilization to the inception of the Cold War. He does cover this period, but does not give due attention to events like the Russian A-Bomb, Sputnik, and the Korean War. What events triggered our renewed arms buildup? When did we go from a 1947 army that "was little more than an occupation force, its combat capabilities virtually nonexistent" to our arms race with the Soviets? He never tells us.
Likewise, his treatment of the cultural side leaves out some key signposts. While he cogently observes that films like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) and TOP GUN (1986) "created a second competing narrative, one that depicted soldiers, military life, and war itself in ways that would have been either unthinkable or unmarketable in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam," he neglects any mention of STAR WARS (1977). This film, perhaps more than any other cultural artifact of our day, returned us to a world of black and white, good and evil, us against them, wedded to technology and enthusiastic war. Indeed, hallmarks of the Reagan presidency and rhetoric (which he examines at length) include terms (like the "evil empire" and the "star wars" missile shield) directly out of this movie. On the same point, while he notes influences from other arts (like Tom Clancy novels and country/western songs), he completely misses the impact of violent video games. But these are mere trifles. The important thing is that he considered the arts at all.
A greater problem with THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM is its myopia about the past. It seems that the re-education of Cadet Bacevich may not yet have fully absorbed the lessons of such books as LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME and A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES: critical works that burst the bubble of our American past, exposing our wars of expansion, such as the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War. Even the great World Wars extended our empire. (How did we end up in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines to begin with?) As important a book as THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM is, it suggests the need for prequel, The Old American Militarism, exploring the period from 1492 (the European invasion) to 1975 (the end of the Vietnam war).
Still, this observation should not obscure the fact that Bacevich is on to something big here. There does appear to be a crucial difference between the old American militarism and the new. "Through the first two centuries of U.S. history, political leaders in Washington gauged the size and capabilities of America's armed services according to the security tasks immediately at hand. A grave and proximate threat to the nation's well-being might require a large and powerful military establishment. In the absence of such a threat, policymakers scaled down that establishment accordingly. With the passing of crisis, the army raised up for the crisis went immediately out of existence. This had been the case in 1865, in 1918, and in 1945. The general principle was to maintain the minimum force required and no more." Contrast this with our current fixation on America being the sole "superpower" out to transform the world in our image.
This may be Prof. Bacevich's most important discovery. Somewhere in and around the beginnings of the Cold War, which Bacevich correctly insists on calling World War III (as he also labels our current central Asian campaign begun in 1979, as World War IV), America's militarism changed, from an episodic affair rallying around opportunities of continental expansion ("manifest destiny") to a permanent mobilization for global war, followed now by a permanent engagement in global war. This is a momentous observation.
Those of us (age 60 and under, in other words, the vast majority) who grew up in the Cold War and beyond have never known anything else. The place where we live has always been a militarist nation bent on being number one. Is it possible there was a time, notwithstanding our checkered past, when this was not so? When we really hoped, if not expected, to live at peace in the world? A sobering, yet also comforting, thought.
THE NEW AMERICAN MILITARISM ends with a perhaps obligatory chapter where the author lays out his own 10-point plan to lead us out of this mess and return us to our secure and peaceable roots. Without commenting on the merits of these ideas, it is enough to say that this is not the chief burden and gift of this book. Bacevich gives us a clear description of our current ailment, along with a persuasive account of how we contracted the disease. These are monumental contributions in themselves. We can leave it to subsequent books to explore the details of the cure. Read this book. Get others to read it. Talk about it with one another. We cannot begin to heal ourselves until we recognize we are sick.
Bill Scheurer is the national coordinator of www.PeaceMajority.org and the author of US & THEM: BRIDGING THE CHASM OF FAITH, available at http://www.interfaithjourney.org/book000.html.