[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Andrew Bacevich will discuss his
new book – and the limits of American power in the Bush era – for a full hour
on Bill Moyers Journal, Friday, Aug. 15. Don't miss it. If you're watching
the Olympics, TiVo it or look for a repeat.]
To the problem of an overstretched, over-toured
military, there is but one answer in Washington. Both presidential candidates
(along with just about every other politician in our nation's capital) are
on record wanting to significantly expand the Army and the Marines. In his
remarkable new book, The
Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich
suggests a solution to the American military crisis that might seem obvious
enough, if only both parties weren't so blinded by the idea of our "global
reach," by a belief, however wrapped in euphemisms, in our imperial role on
this planet, and by the imperial Pentagon and presidency that go with it: reduce
the mission. It's a particularly timely observation to which Bacevich returns
in part two of his TomDispatch series, adapted from his new book. (Click here
for part one.)
the mission looks all-too-ready to expand, no matter who makes it to the White
House in January. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, increasingly
being mentioned in the media as a possible carry-over appointment for either
a $20 billion down payment on our future role in Afghanistan – to be used to
double the size of the Afghan army – and a restructuring of the U.S. and NATO
commands in that country. All of this is meant as preparation for a new president's
agreement to consign yet more American troops to our war there. This, in a
phrase Bacevich has used in another context, is no less "the
path to perdition" for the globe's former "sole superpower" than was the
of a small country in the Caucasus to essentially launch a war, no matter the
provocation, against its energy-superpower
neighbor. This way to the madhouse, ladies and gentlemen.
Consider, in this context, the immodest lessons our leaders have chosen to
learn from the Bush era, and then, with Bacevich, what lessons we might actually
learn if we seriously (and far more modestly) considered the real limits of
American power. Tom
Is Perpetual War Our Future?
Learning the wrong lessons from the Bush era
by Andrew Bacevich
To appreciate the full extent of the military
crisis into which the United States has been plunged requires understanding
what the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These
two conflicts, along with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece
of George W. Bush's legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of
a new, more realistic military policy.
In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way,
spurred by critics of President Bush's policies on the left and the right
as well as by reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking,
this effort has thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken
singly or together, they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that
provided the foundation for the president's Global War on Terror. In exchange
for these received illusions, they propound new ones, which are equally misguided.
Thus far, that is, the lessons drawn from America's post-9/11 military experience
are the wrong ones.
According to the first lesson, the armed services – and above all the Army
– need to recognize that the challenges posed by Iraq and Afghanistan define
not only the military's present but also its future, the "next war," as enthusiasts
like to say. Rooting out insurgents, nation-building, training and advising
"host nation" forces, population security and control, winning hearts and
minds – these promise to be ongoing priorities, preoccupying U.S. troops
for decades to come, all across the Islamic world.
Rather than brief interventions ending in decisive victory, sustained presence
will be the norm. Large-scale conventional conflict like 1991's Operation
Desert Storm becomes the least likely contingency. The future will be one
of small wars, expected to be frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual.
Although advanced technology will retain an important place in such conflicts,
it will not be decisive. Wherever possible, the warrior will rely on "nonkinetic"
methods, functioning as diplomat, mediator, and relief worker. No doubt American
soldiers will engage in combat, but, drawing on the latest findings of social
science, they will also demonstrate cultural sensitivity, not to speak of mastering
local languages and customs. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in
October 2007, "Reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure, and promoting
good governance" had now become soldiers' business. "All these so-called nontraditional
capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning,
and strategy – where they must stay."
This prospect implies a rigorous integration of military action with political
purpose. Hard power and soft power will merge. The soldier on the ground
will serve as both cop and social worker. This prospect also implies shedding
the sort of utopian expectations that produced so much confident talk of
"transformation," "shock-and-awe," and "networkcentric warfare" – all of
which had tended to segregate war and politics into separate compartments.
Local conditions will dictate technique, dooming the Pentagon's effort to
devise a single preconceived, technologically determined template applicable
across the entire spectrum of conflict. When it comes to low-intensity wars,
the armed services will embrace a style owing less to the traditions of the
Civil War, World War II, or even Gulf War I than to the nearly forgotten
American experiences in the Philippines after 1898 and in Central America
during the 1920s. Instead of looking for inspiration at the campaigns of
U. S. Grant, George Patton, or H. Norman Schwarzkopf, officers will study
postwar British and French involvement in places like Palestine and Malaya,
Indochina and Algeria.
In sum, an officer corps bloodied in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen the future
and it points to many more Iraqs and Afghanistans. Whereas the architects of
full-spectrum dominance had expected the unprecedented lethality, range, accuracy,
and responsiveness of high-tech striking power to perpetuate military dominion,
the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know better. They remain committed to
global dominance while believing that its pursuit will require not only advanced
weaponry but also the ability to put boots on the ground and keep them there.
This, in turn, implies a plentiful supply of soldiers and loads of patience
on the home front.
Were the Civilians of the Defense Department Responsible?
Viewed from another perspective, however, the post-9/11 wars teach an altogether
different lesson. According to this alternative view, echoing a similar complaint
during the Vietnam era, the shortcomings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan
have little to do with the actual performance of American forces in the field
and everything to do with the meddling of bumbling civilians back in Washington.
In its simplest form, fault lies not with the troops themselves, nor with
their commanders, but with the likes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary of Defense
Douglas Feith, who prevented the troops from doing their jobs.
The charges leveled by Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who served in Rumsfeld's Pentagon
but subsequently retired in disgust and became one of the defense secretary's
loudest military critics, are representative of this view. "Rumsfeld's dismal
strategic decisions resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen
and women," Batiste declared in September 2006. The former general held Rumsfeld
personally "responsible for America and her allies going to war with the wrong
plan." But that was just for starters. Rumsfeld also "violated fundamental
principles of war, dismissed deliberate military planning, ignored the hard
work to build the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, set the conditions
for Abu Ghraib and other atrocities that further ignited the insurgency, disbanded
Iraqi security force institutions when we needed them most, [and] constrained
our commanders with an overly restrictive de-Ba'athification policy."
Nor was the problem limited to Rumsfeld himself. It included his chief lieutenants.
According to Batiste, Rumsfeld surrounded himself "with like-minded and compliant
subordinates who [did] not grasp the importance of the principles of war,
the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of warfare." The overall
effect was tantamount to murder: Rumsfeld "tied the hands of commanders while
our troops were in contact with the enemy."
Here lies the second preliminary lesson drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan,
one that appeals to disgruntled military officers like Batiste, but also
to Democrats eager to blame the Bush administration for any and all sins
and to neoconservatives looking to absolve themselves of responsibility for
botched wars that they had once cavalierly promoted. The corrective to civilian
arrogance and misjudgment is obvious: It requires tilting the civil-military
balance back in favor of the generals, untying the hands of senior commanders.
From this perspective, the most important lesson to take away from Iraq and
Afghanistan is the imperative to empower military professionals. The Petraeus
moment of 2007, when all of official Washington from President Bush to the
lowest-ranking congressional staffer waited with bated breath for Gen. David
Petraeus to formulate basic policy for Iraq, offers a preview of how this lesson
might play itself out.
Is a Draft the Answer?
There is also a third perspective, which blames the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan
on a problematic relationship between soldiers and society. According to this
view, the all-volunteer force itself is the problem. As the military historian
Adrian Lewis observed, "The most significant transformation in the American
conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the atomic bomb was
not technological, but cultural, social, and political – the removal of
the American people from the conduct of war." Only after 9/11, with the
Bush administration waging war on multiple fronts, have the implications of
this transformation become fully evident.
A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on the army's
overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily limited. Given
a choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities other than military
service, with protracted war diminishing rather than enhancing any collective
propensity to volunteer. It is virtually inconceivable that any presidential
call to the colors, however impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly
designed, or any package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse
Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars is no longer
a people's army, the people have little say in its use. In effect, the professional
military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The troops fight
when and where the commander in chief determines.
Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of
civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to
the nation's defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam
War did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead,
it ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing
tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became
something that Americans pay others to do.
So the third lesson of the Iraq War focuses on the need to repair the relationship
between army and society. One way to do this is to junk the all-volunteer force
altogether. Rather than rely on professionals, perhaps it makes sense to revive
the tradition of the citizen-soldier.
Proposals to restore this hallowed tradition invariably conjure up images
of reinstituting some form of conscription. In place of a system based on
the principle of individual choice, those unhappy with the AVF advocate a
system based on the principle of state compulsion.
The advantages offered by such a system are hardly trivial. To the extent
that Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the operational, political, and moral
problems produced by relying on a small professional force, a draft seems
to offer one obvious way to alleviate those problems.
For those who worry that the existing army is overextended, conscription provides
a mechanism for expansion. Triple the size of the army – in essence restoring
the structure that existed during much of the Cold War – and the personnel
shortages that constrain the prosecution of ground campaigns will disappear.
Sustaining the military commitment to Iraq for 10 or 20 years, or even a century
as Sen. John McCain and many neoconservatives are willing to contemplate, then
becomes a viable proposition.
War planners will no longer find themselves obliged to give short shrift
to Contingency A (Afghanistan) in order to support Contingency B (Iraq).
The concept of "surge" will take on a whole new meaning with the Pentagon
able to dispatch not a measly 30,000 reinforcements to Iraq or another few
thousand to Afghanistan, but 100,000 or more additional troops wherever they
might be needed. Was the problem with Operation Iraqi Freedom too few "boots
on the ground" for occupation and reconstruction? Reconstitute the draft,
and that problem goes away.
Creating a mass army might even permit the United States to resuscitate
the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine with its emphasis on "overwhelming force."
For those distressed by the absence of a politically meaningful antiwar
movement despite the Iraq War's manifest unpopularity, the appeal of conscription
differs somewhat. Some political activists look to an Iraq-era draft to do
what the Vietnam-era draft did: animate large-scale protest, alter the political
dynamic, and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular
support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the
shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of
draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism
for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to
retain their seats will define their wartime responsibilities as something
more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House.
In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental
system of checks and balances, and constrain the warmongers inhabiting the
For those moved by moral considerations, a draft promises to ensure a more
equitable distribution of sacrifice in war time. No longer will rural Americans,
people of color, recent immigrants, and members of the working class fill
the ranks of the armed forces in disproportionate numbers. With conscription,
the children of the political elite and of the well-to-do will once again
bear their fair share of the load. Those reaping the benefits of the American
way of life will contribute to its defense, helping to garrison the more
distant precincts of empire. Perhaps even the editorial staffs of the Weekly
Standard, National Review, and the New Republic might have the
opportunity to serve, a salutary prospect given the propensity of those magazines
to argue on behalf of military intervention.
Reconfigure the armed services to fight "small wars"; empower the generals;
reconnect soldiering to citizenship – on the surface each of these has a
certain appeal. But upon closer examination, each also has large defects.
They are the wrong lessons to take from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Drawing the Right Lessons From the Bush Era
If gearing up to fight "small wars," deferring to the brass, and scrapping
the all-volunteer force are the wrong lessons to be drawn from our recent military
experience, then what are the right ones?
The events of the recent past offer several lessons that illuminate these
questions. The first concerns the nature of war. Iraq and Afghanistan remind
us that war is not subject to reinvention, whatever George W. Bush and Pentagon
proponents of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs may contend.
War's essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible.
War's constant companions are uncertainty and risk. "War is the realm of
chance," wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz nearly two centuries
ago. "No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant
and varied dealings with this intruder…" – a judgment that the invention
of the computer, the Internet, and precision-guided munitions has done nothing
So the first lesson to be taken away from the Bush administration's two
military adventures is simply this: War remains today what it has always
been – elusive, untamed, costly, difficult to control, fraught with surprise,
and sure to give rise to unexpected consequences. Only the truly demented
will imagine otherwise.
The second lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan derives from the first. As has
been the case throughout history, the utility of armed force remains finite.
Even in the information age, to the extent that force "works," it does so
with respect to a limited range of contingencies.
Although die-hard supporters of the Global War on Terror will insist otherwise,
events in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated definitively that further
reliance on coercive methods will not enable the United States to achieve
its objectives. Whether the actual aim is to democratize the Islamic world
or subdue it, the military "option" is not the answer.
The Bush Doctrine itself provides the basis for a third lesson. For centuries,
the Western moral tradition has categorically rejected the concept of preventive
war. The events of 9/11 convinced some that this tradition no longer
applied: old constraints had to give way. Yet our actual experience with
preventive war suggests that, even setting moral considerations aside, to
launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might pose a threat
at some future date is just plain stupid. It doesn't work.
History has repeatedly demonstrated the irrationality of preventive war.
If the world needed a further demonstration, President Bush provided it.
Iraq shows us why the Bush Doctrine was a bad idea in the first place and
why its abrogation has become essential. For principled guidance in determining
when the use of force is appropriate, the country should conform to the Just
War tradition – not only because that tradition is consistent with our professed
moral values, but also because its provisions provide an eminently useful
guide for sound statecraft.
Finally, there is a fourth lesson, relating to the formulation of strategy.
The results of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that in the upper
echelons of the government and among the senior ranks of the officer corps,
this has become a lost art.
Since the end of the Cold War, the tendency among civilians – with President
Bush a prime example – has been to confuse strategy with ideology. The president's
freedom agenda, which supposedly provided a blueprint for how to prosecute
the Global War on Terror, expressed grandiose aspirations without a serious
effort to assess the means required to achieve them. Meanwhile, ever since
the Vietnam War ended, the tendency among military officers has been to confuse
strategy with operations.
Here we come face-to-face with the essential dilemma with which the United
States has unsuccessfully wrestled since the Soviets deprived us of a stabilizing
adversary. The political elite that ought to bear the chief responsibility
for crafting grand strategy instead nurses fantasies of either achieving
permanent global hegemony or remaking the world in America's image. Meanwhile,
the military elite that could puncture those fantasies and help restore a
modicum of realism to U.S. policy fixates on campaigns and battles, with
generalship largely a business of organizing and coordinating matériel.
The four lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan boil down to this: Events have
exposed as illusory American pretensions to having mastered war. Even today,
war is hardly more subject to human control than the tides or the weather.
Simply trying harder – investing ever larger sums in even more advanced technology,
devising novel techniques, or even improving the quality of American generalship
– will not enable the United States to evade that reality.
As measured by results achieved, the performance of the military since the
end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11 has been unimpressive. This
indifferent record of success leads some observers to argue that we need
a bigger army or a different army.
But the problem lies less with the army that we have – a very fine one,
which every citizen should wish to preserve – than with the requirements
that we have imposed on our soldiers. Rather than expanding or reconfiguring
that army, we need to treat it with the respect that it deserves. That means
protecting it from further abuse of the sort that it has endured since 2001.
America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller – that is, more modest
– foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent
with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur
to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining
in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions.
When it comes to supporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen's
Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston
University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. This piece
is adapted from his new book, The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books,
2008). He is also the author of The New American Militarism, among other
books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic
Monthly, the Nation, the New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, and the Wall Street Journal. A TomDispatch interview with
him can be read by clicking here,
and then here.
For part one of Bacevich's two-part series for TomDispatch, click here.
From the book The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew
Bacevich, Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement
with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights