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Why we rely too much on the military

Senior Editorial writer

TITLE:"The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War"

AUTHOR:Andrew Bacevich

INFORMATION:Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $28

Andrew Bacevich is not necessarily the guy you would expect to write a book entitled "The New American Militarism." He teaches international relations at Boston University, but before going into the academic life he not only graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam, he stayed in the Army for 20 years. And far from being a leftist or radical, he's a conservative.

So why would a conservative who has lived the military life and appreciates the many positive aspects of the military be concerned about creeping militarism? Professor Bacevich would probably reverse the question and wonder how any real conservative could fail to be concerned. Overreliance on military means undermines limited, constitutional government, with its separation of powers, and encourages government to be hyperactive.

The core of this tale is how the U.S. military and other elements of government sought to recover from the demoralizing experience of Vietnam. The officer corps sought increased professionalism and clarified rules - the Weinberger and Powell doctrines - that would make it more difficult for the politicians to drag them into inconclusive engagements.

After the Persian Gulf War and the fall of communism, however, few examined the implications of the profoundly changed world conditions. Ironically, developments in the 1990s - Bosnia, Somalia - facilitated using the military to address problems all over the world. When the current President Bush came into office the situation was ripe for him to reach for the military tool first when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

"The New American Militarism" is short on polemics and long on analysis, the farthest thing from an attack on the current president.

Bacevich offers one of the more sophisticated descriptions I've seen of the rise of the neoconservatives. He goes back to Bernard Brodie and Albert Wohlstetter to discuss the rise of the "defense intellectuals" and their influence on policies and attitudes. He discusses numerous aspects of American political life and culture that have made our status as the "world's sole superpower" and the "indispensable nation" with the most powerful and competent military in the history of the world central to our identity for many Americans. He explains that increasing militarism was not the result of some secret cabal plotting away in the Pentagon or a series of think tanks, but of mostly good intentions, human fallibility and the law of unintended consequences.

Quite interestingly, he sees the conflict involving the Middle East and Islam as having deeper roots than most acknowledge, beginning with the agreement between Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi Arabian princes in 1945. He sees the Cold War as World War III and the war over the Middle East and its oil resources as World War IV. It began around 1980, he argues, with the United States simply responding to various actions, barely aware of what it was getting itself into. But the bin Ladens of the world paid attention.

His final chapter offers 10 steps for restoring a proper balance between political and military, but he acknowledges that a large-scale change in consciousness - something more than mild disillusionment over the way Iraq is turning out - will be required before Americans are ready for the changes he has in mind.

The first step is to "heed the intentions of the founders," notably that nothing in the Constitution "commits or even encourages the United States to employ military power to save the rest of humanity or remake the world in its own image." From that would follow revitalization of the concept of separation of powers, reorienting our thinking until we view force as a last resort, not the first, which would enable the United States to enhance its own self-sufficiency by organizing military forces for self-defense rather than for "projecting power" elsewhere.

This is a wise and wide-ranging book, written clearly, with obvious passion but without rancor.

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