All you really need to know is that, at Robert
Gates' Pentagon, they're still high on the term "the Long War." It's a phrase
crept into our official vocabulary back in 2002 but was popularized by
CENTCOM commander John Abizaid in
2004 – already a fairly long (war-)time ago. Now, Secretary of Defense
Gates himself is plugging the term, as he did
in April at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, quoting no less an
authority than Leon Trotsky:
"What has been called the Long War is likely to be many years of persistent,
engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity.
This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There
are no exit strategies. To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not
be interested in the Long War, but the Long War is interested in us."
The Long War has also made it front and center in the new "national
defense strategy," which is essentially a call to prepare for a future
of two, three, many Afghanistans. ("For the foreseeable future, winning the
Long War against violent extremist movements will be the central objective
of the U.S.") If you thought for a moment that in the next presidency some
portion of those many billions of dollars now being sucked into the black holes
of Iraq and Afghanistan was about to go into rebuilding American infrastructure
or some other frivolous task, think again. Just read between the lines of that
new national defense strategy document where funding for future conventional
wars against "rising powers" is to be maintained, while funding for "irregular
warfare" is to rise. The Pentagonization of the U.S., in other words, shows
no sign of slowing down. Here, by the way, is the emphasis in the new Gates
Doctrine – from a recent Pentagon briefing
by the secretary of defense – that should make us all worry. "The principal
challenge, therefore, is how to ensure that the capabilities gained and counterinsurgency
lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lessons relearned
from other places where we have engaged in irregular warfare over the last
two decades, are institutionalized within the defense establishment." Back
to the future?
here's a riddle for our moment: How long is a Long War, when you've been there
before (as were, in the case of Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, the imperial
Brits, and the Soviets)? On the illusions of victory and the many miscalculations
of the Bush administration when it came to the nature of American military
power, no one in recent years has been more incisive than Andrew Bacevich,
who experienced an earlier version of the Long War firsthand in Vietnam. His
new book, The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, has just been
published. Short, sharp, to the point, it should be the book of the election
season, if only anyone in power, or who might come to power, were listening.
(The following piece, the first of two parts this week at TomDispatch, is adapted
from section three of that book, "The Military Crisis.") But if you want the
measure of our strange, dystopian moment, Barack Obama reportedly has a team
foreign policy advisers – just about everyone ever found, however brain-dead,
in a Democratic presidential rolodex – and yet Bacevich's name isn't among
them. What else do we need to know? Tom
Illusions of Victory
How the United States did not reinvent war… but thought it did
by Andrew Bacevich
"War is the great auditor of institutions," the
historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has
undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies
in full to America's armed forces.
Valor does not offer the measure of an army's greatness, nor does fortitude,
nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that
accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global
war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush conceived of a bold, offensive strategy,
vowing to "take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the
worst threats before they emerge." The military offered the principal means
for undertaking this offensive, and U.S. forces soon found themselves engaged
on several fronts.
Two of those fronts – Afghanistan and Iraq – commanded priority attention.
In each case, the assigned task was to deliver a knockout blow, leading to
a quick, decisive, economical, politically meaningful victory. In each case,
despite impressive displays of valor, fortitude, durability, and technological
sophistication, America's military came up short. The problem lay not with
the level of exertion but with the results achieved.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces failed to eliminate the leadership of al-Qaeda.
Although they toppled the Taliban regime that had ruled most of that country,
they failed to eliminate the Taliban movement, which soon began to claw its
way back. Intended as a brief campaign, the Afghan War became a protracted
one. Nearly seven years after it began, there is no end in sight. If anything,
America's adversaries are gaining strength. The outcome remains much in doubt.
In Iraq, events followed a similar pattern, with the appearance of easy
success belied by subsequent developments. The U.S. invasion began on March
19, 2003. Six weeks later, against the backdrop of a White House-produced
banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," President Bush declared that "major
combat operations in Iraq have ended." This claim proved illusory.
Writing shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the influential neoconservatives
David Frum and Richard Perle declared Operation Iraqi Freedom "a vivid and
compelling demonstration of America's ability to win swift and total victory."
Gen. Tommy Franks, commanding the force that invaded Iraq, modestly characterized
the results of his handiwork as "unequaled in its excellence by anything in
the annals of war." In retrospect, such judgments – and they were legion –
can only be considered risible. A war thought to have ended on April 9, 2003,
in Baghdad's al-Firdos Square was only just beginning. Fighting dragged on
for years, exacting a cruel toll. Iraq became a reprise of Vietnam, although
in some respects at least on a blessedly smaller scale.
A New American Way of War?
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Just a few short years ago, observers were
proclaiming that the United States possessed military power such as the world
had never seen. Here was the nation's strong suit. "The troops" appeared unbeatable.
Writing in 2002, for example, Max Boot, a well-known commentator on military
matters, attributed to the United States a level of martial excellence "that
far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome,
Britain, and Napoleonic France." With U.S. forces enjoying "unparalleled strength
in every facet of warfare," allies, he wrote, had become an encumbrance: "We
just don't need anyone else's help very much."
Boot dubbed this the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. Within a year, after
U.S. troops had occupied Baghdad, he went further: America's army even outclassed
Germany's Wehrmacht. The mastery displayed in knocking off Saddam,
Boot gushed, made "fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian
seem positively incompetent by comparison."
All of this turned out to be hot air. If the global war on terror has produced
one undeniable conclusion, it is this: Estimates of U.S. military capabilities
have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush administration's misplaced
confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgment
that has cost the country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons,
and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly
unipolar era, American military power turns out to be quite limited.
How did it happen that Americans so utterly overappraised the utility of
military power? The answer to that question lies at the intersection of three
According to the first illusion, the United States during the 1980s and 1990s
had succeeded in reinventing armed conflict. The result was to make force more
precise, more discriminating, and potentially more humane. The Pentagon had
devised a new American Way of War, investing its forces with capabilities unlike
any the world had ever seen. As President Bush exuberantly declared shortly
after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, "We've applied the new powers of technology
… to strike an enemy force with speed and incredible precision. By a combination
of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on
our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation."
The distinction between regime and nation was a crucial one. By employing
these new military techniques, the United States could eliminate an obstreperous
foreign leader and his cronies, while sparing the population over which that
leader ruled. Putting a missile through the roof of a presidential palace
made it unnecessary to incinerate an entire capital city, endowing force
with hitherto undreamed-of political utility and easing ancient moral inhibitions
on the use of force. Force had been a club; it now became a scalpel. By the
time the president spoke, such sentiments had already become commonplace
among many (although by no means all) military officers and national security
Here lay a formula for certain victory. Confidence in military prowess both
reflected and reinforced a post-Cold War confidence in the universality of
American values. Harnessed together, they made a seemingly unstoppable one-two
With that combination came expanded ambitions. In the 1990s, the very purpose
of the Department of Defense changed. Sustaining American global preeminence,
rather than mere national security, became its explicit function. In the most
comprehensive articulation of this new American Way of War, the Joint Chiefs
of Staff committed the armed services to achieving what they called "full-spectrum
dominance" – unambiguous supremacy in all forms of warfare, to be achieved
by tapping the potential of two "enablers" – "technological innovation and
Full-spectrum dominance stood in relation to military affairs as the political
scientist Francis Fukuyama's well-known proclamation of "the end of history"
stood in relation to ideology: Each claimed to have unlocked ultimate truths.
According to Fukuyama, democratic capitalism represented the final stage in
political economic evolution. According to the proponents of full-spectrum
dominance, that concept represented the final stage in the evolution of modern
warfare. In their first days and weeks, the successive invasions of Afghanistan
and Iraq both seemed to affirm such claims.
How Not to "Support the Troops"
According to the second illusion, American civilian and military leaders
subscribed to a common set of principles for employing their now-dominant
forces. Adherence to these principles promised to prevent any recurrence
of the sort of disaster that had befallen the nation in Vietnam. If politicians
went off half-cocked, as President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara had back in the 1960s, generals who had correctly discerned
and assimilated the lessons of modern war could be counted on to rein them
These principles found authoritative expression in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine,
which specified criteria for deciding when and how to use force. Caspar Weinberger,
secretary of defense during most of the Reagan era, first articulated these
principles in 1984. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
during the early 1990s, expanded on them. Yet the doctrine's real authors were
the members of the post-Vietnam officer corps. The Weinberger-Powell principles
expressed the military's own lessons taken from that war. Those principles
also expressed the determination of senior officers to prevent any recurrence
Henceforth, according to Weinberger and Powell, the United States would
fight only when genuinely vital interests were at stake. It would do so in
pursuit of concrete and attainable objectives. It would mobilize the necessary
resources – political and moral as well as material – to win promptly and
decisively. It would end conflicts expeditiously and then get out, leaving
no loose ends. The spirit of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was not permissive;
its purpose was to curb the reckless or imprudent inclinations of bellicose
According to the third illusion, the military and American society had successfully
patched up the differences that produced something akin to divorce during the
divisive Vietnam years. By the 1990s, a reconciliation of sorts was under way.
In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, "the American people fell in love again
with their armed forces." So, at least, Gen. Colin Powell, one of that war's
great heroes, believed. Out of this love affair a new civil-military compact
had evolved, one based on the confidence that, in times of duress, Americans
could be counted on to "support the troops." Never again would the nation abandon
The all-volunteer force (AVF) – despite its name, a professional military
establishment – represented the chief manifestation of this new compact. By
the 1990s, Americans were celebrating the AVF as the one component of the federal
government that actually worked as advertised. The AVF embodied the nation's
claim to the status of sole superpower; it was "America's Team." In the wake
of the Cold War, the AVF sustained the global Pax Americana without
interfering with the average American's pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
What was not to like?
Events since 9/11 have exposed these three illusions for what they were.
When tested, the new American Way of War yielded more glitter than gold.
The generals and admirals who touted the wonders of full spectrum dominance
were guilty of flagrant professional malpractice, if not outright fraud.
To judge by the record of the past twenty years, U.S. forces win decisively
only when the enemy obligingly fights on American terms – and Saddam Hussein's
demise has drastically reduced the likelihood of finding such accommodating
adversaries in the future. As for loose ends, from Somalia to the Balkans,
from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, they have been endemic.
When it came to the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, civilian willingness to
conform to its provisions proved to be highly contingent. Confronting Powell
in 1993, Madeleine Albright famously demanded to know, "What's the point
of having this superb military that you're always talking about, if we can't
use it?" Mesmerized by the prospects of putting American soldiers to work
to alleviate the world's ills, Albright soon enough got her way. An odd alliance
that combined left-leaning do-gooders with jingoistic politicians and pundits
succeeded in chipping away at constraints on the use of force. "Humanitarian
intervention" became all the rage. Whatever restraining influence the generals
exercised during the 1990s did not survive that decade. Lessons of Vietnam
that had once seemed indelible were forgotten.
Meanwhile, the reconciliation of the people and the army turned out to be
a chimera. When the chips were down, "supporting the troops" elicited plenty
of posturing but little by way of binding commitments. Far from producing
a stampede of eager recruits keen to don a uniform, the events of 9/11 reaffirmed
a widespread popular preference for hiring someone else's kid to chase terrorists,
spread democracy, and ensure access to the world's energy reserves.
In the midst of a global war of ostensibly earthshaking importance, Americans
demonstrated a greater affinity for their hometown sports heroes than for
the soldiers defending the distant precincts of the American imperium. Tom
Brady makes millions playing quarterback in the NFL and rakes in millions
more from endorsements. Pat Tillman quit professional football to become
an army ranger and was killed in Afghanistan. Yet, of the two, Brady more
fully embodies the contemporary understanding of the term patriot.
Demolishing the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada
While they persisted, however, these three illusions fostered gaudy expectations
about the efficacy of American military might. Every president since Ronald
Reagan has endorsed these expectations. Every president since Reagan has
exploited his role as commander in chief to expand on the imperial prerogatives
of his office. Each has also relied on military power to conceal or manage
problems that stemmed from the nation's habits of profligacy.
In the wake of 9/11, these puerile expectations – that armed force wielded
by a strong-willed chief executive could do just about anything – reached
an apotheosis of sorts. Having manifestly failed to anticipate or prevent
a devastating attack on American soil, President Bush proceeded to use his
ensuing global war on terror as a pretext for advancing grandiose new military
ambitions married to claims of unbounded executive authority – all under
the guise of keeping Americans "safe."
With the president denying any connection between the events of Sept. 11 and
past U.S. policies, his declaration of a global war nipped in the bud whatever
inclination the public might have entertained to reconsider those policies.
In essence, Bush counted on war both to concentrate greater power in his own
hands and to divert attention from the political, economic, and cultural bind
in which the United States found itself as a result of its own past behavior.
As long as U.S. forces sustained their reputation for invincibility, it
remained possible to pretend that the constitutional order and the American
way of life were in good health. The concept of waging an open-ended global
campaign to eliminate terrorism retained a modicum of plausibility. After
all, how could anyone or anything stop the unstoppable American soldier?
Call that reputation into question, however, and everything else unravels.
This is what occurred when the Iraq War went sour. The ills afflicting our
political system, including a deeply irresponsible Congress, broken national
security institutions, and above all an imperial commander in chief not up
to the job, became all but impossible to ignore. So, too, did the self-destructive
elements inherent in the American way of life – especially an increasingly
costly addiction to foreign oil, universally deplored and almost as universally
indulged. More noteworthy still, the prospect of waging war on a global scale
for decades, if not generations, became preposterous.
To anyone with eyes to see, the events of the past seven years have demolished
the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. A gung-ho journalist like Robert Kaplan
might still believe that, with the dawn of the 21st century, the Pentagon had
"appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas
of it with troops at a moment's notice," that planet Earth in its entirety
had become "battle space for the American military." Yet any buck sergeant
of even middling intelligence knew better than to buy such claptrap.
With the Afghanistan War well into its seventh year and the Iraq War marking
its fifth anniversary, a commentator like Michael Barone might express absolute
certainty that "just about no mission is impossible for the United States
military." But Barone was not facing the prospect of being ordered back to
the war zone for his second or third combat tour.
Between what President Bush called upon America's soldiers to do and what
they were capable of doing loomed a huge gap that defines the military crisis
besetting the United States today. For a nation accustomed to seeing military
power as its trump card, the implications of that gap are monumental.
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.
[Note for TomDispatch readers: This is the first of a two-part series,
"The American Military Crisis," adapted from Andrew Bacevich's new book, The
Limits of Power. Next up: "Is Perpetual War Our Future? Learning the Wrong
Lessons from the Bush Era."]
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