Book Review: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War

August 21st, 2005 - by admin

Reviewed by Mark Biskeborn – 2005-08-21 00:05:36

Book Review: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War
By Andrew J. Bacevich (Oxford University Press, 272 pp., April 2004)
Reviewed by Mark Biskeborn

(August 17,2005) — A new American militarism is seducing Americans into wasting their chidlren’s lives and squandering hundreds of billions, what can be done to reverse this hideous trend?

Although this book arrived on the market over a year ago, surprisingly few reviews appeared and they do so more as opinion essays based on Bacevich’s work, which only testifies to its influence. His book traces the last few decades of American history focusing on changes in public attitudes and government doctrines regarding the use of military might. Bacevich states his position clearly in the introduction of this seminal work.

“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 US history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military actions, and the fostering of, or nostalgia for, military ideals.”

Judging by his track record, Bacevich might appear as a true-blue conservative, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and soldier for 23 years. He currently teaches at Boston University and has contributed to conservative magazines such as the Weekly Standard and the National Review. He was a former Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Nevertheless, his analysis of evolving military doctrines shows no bias for any party.

Evolution to Militarism
For the author, the current militarism represents a natural culmination of various unrelated groups “intent on undoing the purportedly nefarious effects of the 1960’s. Military officers intent on rehabilitating their profession; intellectuals fearing that the loss of confidence at home was paving the way for the triumph of totalitarianism abroad; religious leaders dismayed by the collapse of traditional moral standards; …politicians on the make; purveyors of pop culture looking to make a buck;…”

Bacevich discusses a few events that direct certain groups of Americans toward what he considers an unusually aggressive militaristic attitude in the general culture as well as in foreign policies. First, the Vietnam War turned into a quagmire destroying the military’s credibility and honor. This key event prompted military leaders to rebuild the military’s reputation and abilities as well as to develop doctrines to protect these refurbished institutions from the type of civilian officials who were responsible for the Vietnam fiasco. Then, the fall of the Soviet Union imposed upon the United States the enormous burden of being the world’s imperial police force.

“Briefly told, the story that follows goes like this: The new American militarism made its appearance in reaction to the 1960’s and especially to Vietnam. It evolved over a period of decades, rather than being spontaneously induced by a particular event such as the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001.”

Indeed, to point the finger at the G.W. Bush administration would give too much credit to the wanna-be Texas rancher. The evolution to the current extreme militarism grew from intellectual efforts of a long line of policy makers both in the military and in government, beginning, for example, with Woodrow Wilson. He was “possessed of a deep-seated aversion to armaments, militarism, and killing, only the certainty that he was acting as a divine agent…could justify…his decision…to intervene.” Wilson dreaded armament and needed to justify military involvement through religious notion of duty. A vague school of thought and of policy arose out of Wilson’s post-WWI accomplishments.

Wilsonian Ideology
A Wilsonian ideology arose from a seemingly simple vision for world peace made possible by remaking the world according to America’s own brand of democracy and free-wheeling capitalism. This ideology moved and morphed among the succeeding Presidents like a mutating virus. It adapted to world events until it finally took the form of G. W. Bush’s current Machiavellian and unembarrassed manipulation of patriotic and religious symbols in order to sugar-coat the more crass geopolitical ambitions to secure economic expansion. In its current G. W. Bush mutation, Wilsonian ideology serves to justify the invasion and occupation of the oil soaked lands of Babylon.

G. W. Bush inherited a mutated Wilsonian strain of ideology and adapted it for his own use that made a “marriage of a militaristic cast of mind with utopian ends.” The author describes how Bush followed popular American ideals and concocted his own fundamentalist mixture of free-enterprise capitalism, militarism, and Christianity. “For his part, President Bush himself ought to be seen as a player reciting his lines rather than as a playwright drafting an entirely new script.”

Bacevich shows how the Bush administration took America’s penchant for military force to an unprecedented height. He describes in detail how Bush’s cabinet members, such as Rumsfeld, threw out Abrams’ and Powell’s cautious and wise doctrines – guidelines for when and how to deploy military force at a minimum of risk. “So Rumsfeld overruled [General Tommy] Franks…the outcome…proved to be disastrous.”

The So-called Weinberger Doctrine
General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1972, represents one of several stakeholders who wanted to rebuild the honor and dignity of the military after the Vietnam quagmire. “In short, Vietnam had demonstrated that when it came to deciding when to go to war and how to fight, civilians were not to be trusted. According to Westmoreland, …Southeast Asia had shown definitively that war had become too complex to be entrusted to appointed officials who lack military experience…” Many men experienced in battle and military operations, Generals such as Scales, Westmoreland, and Abrams “resolved to prevent this [Vietnam disaster] from ever happening again.” They evolved a military doctrine in the aftermath of Vietnam, three decades of rebuilding the reputation of armed services, “the long journey ‘from disillusionment and anguish in Vietnam to confidence and certain victory in Desert Storm.”

Casper Weinberger enjoyed the credit for conceiving this doctrine, but he “was in fact merely the medium for its delivery. The message itself – establishing specific criteria to govern decisions regarding the use of force – was the uniformed military’s.” This doctrine made Desert Storm an overwhelming success, but, as Bacevich shows, ironically to the chagrin of the Generals, also encouraged the “chicken hawk” civilian officials such as VP Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to revert to Nixon’s Vietnam era use of military force as a political toy and to permit G. W. Bush to make statements such as “bring it on” or “an open-ended conflict on a global scale.”

The so-called Weinberger doctrine consisted of four requirements for effective, successful military force:

• Restrict the use of force to matters of vital national interest

• Specify concrete and achievable objectives, both political and military

• Secure assurance of popular and congressional support

• Fight to win (as opposed to using deployment as a political toy)

• Use force only as a last resort

Through the successions of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Powell became a passionate advocate of the “Weinberger Doctrine” and he added two more preconditions to the use of military power:

• An exit strategy – clear idea about how to extract U.S. force even before the intervention

• Use of ‘overwhelming force’ to assure a rapid end to fighting

Chickenhawks Play High-tech Military Games
Desert Storm proved that the use of high technology in military operations gave the U.S. a monopoly in military dominance which the Bush Administration translated directly into political domination. This new born-again military aesthetic regained “a grand pageant, performance art…a diversion from the ennui and boring routine of everyday life.” Appointed civilian officials became enthralled in the high-tech ability to master the battlefield and this prompted them to run their policies on the question: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about, if we cant’ use it?”

Bacevich reminds us that G.W. Bush and his cabinet members — except for Colin Powell whom Condoleezza Rice graciously replaced after the reelection –are all armchair generals, chickenhawks, who “lack military experience, a knowledge of military history.” Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, might be a self-professed war buff, but he leaves the soldiering itself to the plebs. Likewise, President Bush may have joined the Texas reserve air force as a member of the country club clique, “the champagne squadron,” but he did so in order to avoid any real service, despite his unprecedented “president as warlord” bravado.

These chickenhawk officials deployed their new, imperial, high-tech military, overwhelming the sanction-beaten Iraq – a country the size of Texas – but they ignored one of Powell’s requirements, the exit strategy. Their shock and awe invasion provoked four times the level of terrorism than previously existed. Terrorism represents the only possible response to an overwhelming high-tech power.

Apocalypse Now Redux
It took two decades to rebuild the U.S. military back to a strong position that made Desert Storm possible. But once the civilian politicians saw the potential in this capability, they burned the Weinberger Doctrine and relegated military advisors such as General Powell to mere messengers of new and dizzy presidential ambitions. The lessons learned from Vietnam were thrown away.

Operation Iraqi Freedom initially appeared as another quick Desert Storm type victory, but soon echoed the blind blunders of the Nam disaster. History repeated itself yet again, even to the point of reliving the My Lai scandal at the POW camps of Guantanamo. The parallels between Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to rise in number every day to the point where they now mirror each other both in terms of who devised the strategy and how it was botched.

The scope of this book review can only glean some of the insights of Bacevich’s remarkable work. Hopefully, this suffices to convince anyone how Bacevich’s seminal book reveals the evolution to the current American Zeitgeist. The author goes on to show how this new American militarism takes the nation off its original purpose of a free, peace-loving land of opportunity for all and onto a track of elite cabal members who use their Christian fundamentalism as an ideological platform for their lucrative politics among the status quo.

Mark Biskeborn was born in Oregon and has over 15 years experience in the enterprise software industry. Mark has a M.B.A. and M.A. in comparative literature and teaches literature. You can email him

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