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Andrew Bacevich on why voters will ‘choose between rival species of hawks’ for president

Andrew Bacevich

“This November, voters will choose between rival species of hawks.”

In the quote above, which appears near the top of a long essay in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, professor (emeritus, of Boston University) and Col. (U.S. Army, retired) Andrew Bacevich suggests that the addiction to war is so powerful in U.S. politics and culture that neither party is capable of producing a nominee who disagrees with the axiom that without constant U.S. invasion, incursion, arming and bombing somewhere, on some excuse, freedom will ebb and all right-thinking Americans will be in danger of losing something important, something that cannot easily be specified.

Writes Bacevich (still commenting on the presidential nominees):

Each of the finalists will insist that freedom’s survival hinges on having in the Oval Office a president ready and willing to employ force, even as each will dodge any substantive assessment of what acting on that impulse has produced of late. In this sense, the outcome of the general election has already been decided. As regards so-called national security, victory is ensured. The status quo will prevail, largely unexamined and almost entirely intact.

Citizens convinced that U.S. national-security policies are generally working well can therefore rest easy. Those not sharing that view, meanwhile, might wonder how it is that military policies that are manifestly defective — the ongoing accumulation of unwon wars providing but one measure — avoid serious scrutiny, with critics of those policies consigned to the political margins.

Yes, I believe that is a tone of sarcasm bordering on scorn you detect. In a series of books and essays like this one, Bacevich has developed a long-range argument that the United States — aided and cajoled by its leaders, abetted by historians who construct a phony narrative — has developed a long-term addiction to war and conquest. But the addict feels it necessary to explain its habit as a series of oh-so-reluctant missions on behalf of freedom, democracy and even peace.

He’s made the case before, in books and articles. This latest one is an overview in which he posits a phony narrative that we tell to ourselves about how we constantly get dragged into wars to defeat evil, and then a more accurate but less-popular narrative in which the United States engages in nearly perpetual wars of conquest and domination.

The first narrative, he describes this way:

A drama in four acts: in the first, Americans respond to but then back away from history’s charge; in the second, they indulge in an interval of adolescent folly, with dire consequences; in the third, they reach maturity and shoulder their providentially assigned responsibilities; in the fourth, after briefly straying off course, they stage an extraordinary recovery. When the final curtain in this drama falls, somewhere around 1989, the United States is the last superpower standing.

This version of history has a familiar ring: Part One, America leaves the rest of the world alone for a century or more after its founding. Part Two, we get dragged reluctantly into World War I because the rest of the world just needs America to rescue it and end war forever. Part Three, unhappy that World War I didn’t usher in a lasting world peace, the United States retreats into a nearly disastrous effort to stay out of World War II, but finally discovers that it must once again save the world. Part Four, the postwar menace of Communism requires America to remain involved militarily, indefinitely, worldwide, a requirement that still obtains.

The “lessons of the melodrama,” Bacevich sarcastically notes, “warn above all against the dangers of isolationism and appeasement.” This view that no corner of the world is safe without U.S. involvement bordering on control, Bacevich says, “enjoys a standing [among Washington insiders] comparable to belief in the Second Coming among devout Christians.”

The view that the United States suffers from a constant temptation to appease aggressors and retreat from the world is a little hard to reconcile with a nation whose military is now active in more than 150 countries, Bacevich sardonically notes, adding:

The United States today finds itself, if anything, overextended. Our principal security challenges — the risks to the planet posed by climate change, the turmoil enveloping much of the Islamic world and now spilling into the West, China’s emergence as a potential rival to which Americans have mortgaged their prosperity — will not yield to any solution found in the standard Pentagon repertoire. Yet when it comes to conjuring up alternatives, the militarized history to which Americans look for instruction has little to offer.

The second, alternative narrative, to which Bacevich clearly subscribes, also consists of four parts, to wit (from the Harper’s essay):

A Hundred Years’ War for the Hemisphere, launched in 1898; a War for Pacific Dominion, also initiated in 1898, petering out in the 1970s but today showing signs of reviving; a War for the West, already under way when the United States entered it in 1917 and destined to continue for seven more decades; and a War for the Greater Middle East, dating from 1980 and ongoing still with no end in sight.

If, like many Americans, you are unfamiliar with it, some of these elements may seem to come flying in from left field, nonetheless:

Part one: In 1898, the United States launches (at least partly on the false pretext that Spain had blown up the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor) a war against Spain, which had been the chief imperial power in South America. In the ensuing century, the United States becomes the dominant power over South America.

Part two: The war with Spain also led to U.S. control over the Philippines, a former Spanish colony that wanted independence but ended up instead being occupied, brutally, by the United States for many decades and remains part of the U.S. orbit. The U.S. seeks more control over the Pacific, which leads eventually into conflict with the rising Asian power of Japan, both of which are rising powers that hope to dominate China, which back then was the weakling of Asia. As Bacevich spins the tale, this leads almost inevitably to the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most of us know this incident as the flagrant act of Japanese aggression that got the United States into World War II. And it is. But in Bacevich’s telling it is also the culmination of a decades long U.S.-Japan shadow-boxing match over control of Asia and especially China. The U.S. war for dominion in the Pacific continues through the wars in Korea and Vietnam, then seemed to have subsided for a while, but Bacevich seems to think it is not over.

The third war, the “War for the West,” starts in 1917 with U.S. entry into World War I. It had been a war by Germany to establish its dominance in Europe, and by Britain, France and Russia to block that ambition. It’s not obvious why the United States would get involved in that question, and Bacevich seems to believe that maybe President Woodrow Wilson thought U.S. entry would actually turn World War I into the war that would end all wars. If so, he was wrong, because his allies didn’t share his vision. So the war for control of Europe resumed soon after, in the form of World War II. Here’s Bacevich’s take on that, ending with a hilarious analogy:

When Wilson’s grandiose expectations of a world transformed came to naught, Americans concluded — not without cause — that throwing in with the Allies had been a huge mistake. What observers today mischaracterize as “isolationism” was a conviction, firmly held by many Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, that the United States should never again repeat that mistake.

According to myth, that conviction itself produced an even more terrible conflagration, the European conflict of 1939-45, which occurred (at least in part) because Americans had second thoughts about their participation in the war of 1914-18 and thereby shirked their duty to intervene. Yet this is the equivalent of blaming a drunken brawl between rival street gangs on members of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a nearby church basement.

World War II ended, but the War for the West continued with new team captains, namely the United States and Soviet Union, continuing to contest for control of the West, meaning Europe, as well as other places. This turned out to be a contest that the United States won, not primarily by military means but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and European Communism generally.  Writes Bacevich: “In what seemed, misleadingly, to be the defining event of the age, the United States had prevailed. The West was now ours.”

Which brings us to the fourth of four conflicts Bacevich promised to discuss, what he calls the war for Greater Middle East.

Bacevich’s most recent book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” is all about his belief that we should stop treating the series of military U.S. military adventures in the Mideast as if they are separate wars and acknowledge that they are part of a larger U.S. effort to dominate the region. I wrote about his Westminster Forum talk on the book here. So before this piece gets any longer, suffice to say that Bacevich believes that if you adopt his four-wars concept, you will understand the sweep of the story better than if you view each skirmish as one caused by some crime committed by the other side or to make the world safe for democracy. 

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/26/2016 - 11:15 am.

    While there are apparent repetitions in history, and it is always true that yesterday has led to today,it is as much folly to force today into the grand patterns of the past (such patterns becoming apparent only because they are in the past).

    But there are significant differences because it is possible to have war without end, simply because one enemy is replaced by another, each one as determined to cause you or your allies or areas of interest as much damage as they can imagine. There is no end to a war, because there is no defeated country that will be ruled in defeat the same as triumph, with a united will. There is no castle to storm, no western front to breach, no Maginot line to break, no Berlin to fall.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/26/2016 - 11:28 am.

    I feel sorry for Bacevich

    He’s obviously a man suffering from deep regret and resentment that he spent too many of his productive years as a member of the U.S. Army, and yet ironically, has made a career out of that regret. He’s also obviously depressed that despite his history of anti-militarism and his attempts to convince Americans of their misguided attempts at national security, he lost his only son to an IED in Iraq in 2007. His most recent writings are an extension of that depression and he surely hates himself for not successfully dissuading his son from serving his country.

    Look, name another nation in history of the world whose only military objective has been to fight and die to free oppressed people. We call it “national defense” but the truth is we haven’t had to defend our shores against an invading country for over a century. Our military’s mission has been to defend the people of the world against the forces of evil, whether it be fascism, communism or jihadism. And it’s done by volunteers. No politicians are forcing us to fight and die for people in foreign lands. We did it, and still do it willingly. Because that’s what free men do. Even the sons of pacifists like Lt. Andrew John Bacevich did in 2007.

    There was no land grab involved in Europe or Asia. There was no empire building. Empires extract taxes from their conquered nations. If we had taken legal possession of the Iraqi oil fields when Saddam was overthrown, for example, Bacevich might have an argument about “wars of conquest and domination.” But we didn’t. If we extracted taxes from all the people we have freed in the world, we wouldn’t have a national debt. But he haven’t, and we do.

    Ironically, if we ever attempted to vacate all of our military installations at the 150 countries where they are currently stationed, and bring everyone home, which is the position of the leading candidate for the republican nomination, and most conservative republicans by the way, the uproar and resistance would be from the people and governments of those 150 nations who have come to depend on the presence of U.S. forces for their very economic existence.

    But I bear no ill will against Bacevich. I feel sorry for him.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 04/27/2016 - 01:17 pm.

      a sorry history

      Name _one_ nation in the history of the world whose only military objective has been to fight and die to free oppressed peoples, or explain how the long history of US interventions detailed here http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html supports that conclusion. For starters, Mexico 1846-7; Philippines 1898-1910 (600,000 Philippinos killed); Panama et. al. 1901-14; Guatemala 1954; Vietnam et. al. 1960-75; Grenada 1983-4; Iraq et. al. 2003-present (370,000 killed and counting).

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/26/2016 - 11:33 am.

    OK but…

    Just a few things: First, “Americans” are not addicted to war, historically American’s need to be duped into going to war for bogus reasons from domino’s to sunk battleships the harbor of Havana. Having been initially duped, American’s typically turn against wars if they last long enough or when the duplicity is exposed. Now one can say that for some bizarre reason despite all experience American’s are “easily” duped (The Iraq War being a recent example), but it’s not true that say Americans push their leaders into wars, quite the opposite.

    While reading Bacevich’s book might be a good, this analysis is decades old so we shouldn’t credit Bacevich without recognizing his predecessors i.e. Major General Smedley Butler (1935), Howard Zinn (1963-2008), Noam Chomsky (1960s-present) and many others. Even Mark Twain has word or two about the US oppression and occupation of the Philippines.

    Finally, the reliance on military power as an extension of political and economic policy appears to be diminishing somewhat. Obama did not in 8 years launch a major military campaign under the mantra that we shouldn’t do stupid stuff. Sander’s, while not a pacifist, would be even less likely to rely on military might as mechanism of policy.

    The point is there IS hope. American’s will know we’ve really turned the corner when we finally realize that billions of dollars are unnecessarily tied up in our military budget and someone begins shifting those resources to other programs.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 04/26/2016 - 12:06 pm.

      or tax cuts

      On the last point, I think the best avenue politically for reducing the military budget is to use the savings to provide immediate tax cuts or even rebates. That will divide the right wing populism that supports militarism and reveal its true costs.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/26/2016 - 12:13 pm.

    One piece missing

    …from Bacevich’s otherwise-cogent article / argument (and it may play a prominent role in his book, which I’ve not yet read) is… um… that thing Dwight Eisenhower warned us against as he left office.

    It’s somewhat amorphous, and seldom, if ever, mentioned in political campaigns of recent decades – certainly not in the current one – but as a culture, we’ve ignored Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, to our ongoing and considerable cost in both lives and treasure. A fair case can be made, I think, that even before Eisenhower put a label on the phenomenon in the mid-1950s, it was already visibly, perhaps blatantly, in evidence. In both Axis and Allied powers in WW 2, for a while at least, private corporations found ways to make many millions of dollars for those with the right connections or stock. Krupp was quite profitable until, perhaps, the final year of the war in Europe, Mitsubishi in Japan, Supermarine in Britain, and we need hardly mention General Motors, Grumman, Lockheed, Remington, etc., in the United States. The phrase “Merchants of Death,” popular after WW 1, and even the much milder “profiteering” term in vogue during and after WW 2, while they might have been accurate, were essentially suppressed in favor of various slogans revolving around the enemy-of-the-moment, including, in postwar years, the “Red Menace” of communism.

    Because so much of the propaganda surrounding shiny new weapons / toys ties so conveniently into our cultural faith in technology, it’s often hard to separate them, and with ominous warnings of foreign, or even worse, communist, domination of some corner of the globe constantly promoted by a pliant media, the idea that someone pure and good – that’s us, of course – has to “save” the planet from these suspicious other ideologies / styles of government / economies has gained general acceptance. The loathsome Dick Cheney provides an unhappy but apt example of the revolving door between government and defense industries. House and Senate members of their respective Armed Services Committees are frequent guests at demonstrations of the latest in techno-wizard weaponry, even when there’s no obvious threat against which to use the latest plane / ship / ballistic device.

    The cliché is that, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. That slogan certainly seems apt in relation to our foreign policy(ies) in the past half-century, and, as Bacevich has pointedly observed, since WW 2, the results of our repeated use of that hammer on all manner of nails has generally not been what most of us would call “successful.” It has, however, kept many thousands of engineers, test pilots, ballistics experts, and other civilians, not to mention hundreds of thousands of military personnel, employed, though the cancellation of a big-dollar military contract can devastate an entire region, and a significant reduction in the Pentagon budget could easily have a similar effect on national employment, so our devotion to the militarization of foreign policy can obviously have very negative effects. We try hard NOT to think about the negative effects of that militarization on the people – some deserving, most not – who are at the other end of one of our bombing runs or drone strikes.

    Childhood health issues kept me out of Vietnam, and ironically, may well have saved my life in the process. More than 58,000 of my fellow citizens were not so lucky, and more than a million Vietnamese paid the ultimate price for our involvement – a casualty figure that sees far less publicity in this country. And a generation later, what can be said to have been accomplished?

    My Dad was awarded a Navy Cross, a DFC, and an Air Medal as a result of the 46 combat missions he flew with VF-19 from the USS Lexington in the Pacific in 1944. WW 2 has generally been accepted by the public as a “good” war, but I’ve often wondered how Dad would have felt about risking his life against the Japanese only to see the same companies that manufactured equipment used to try to kill him doing business in the United States a couple decades later. Surely, there are Japanese citizens with WW 2-veteran fathers and grandfathers, wondering how they might respond to the people who used the atomic bomb against them now marketing American products in Hiroshima.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/26/2016 - 12:26 pm.

    This Man

    Is guilty of thinking, a crime much worse than all.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/26/2016 - 08:53 pm.

    If you like war, the security state, and opaque gov’t,

    …you’re going to love our next President, if the election season continues as it has so far.

    There is still time to wake up, though – however unlikely it may seem.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/26/2016 - 09:22 pm.

    The real world

    We all know what the “addiction to peace” (and I do not mean America but Britain and France) once ended: doing anything to avoid a war with Germany led to WWII and tens of millions of dead. We can also look at that from another angle: If America stops “constant U.S. invasion, incursion, arming and bombing somewhere,” someone else would be doing it (China, Russia, Iran… ) and I would like to know which option people would prefer. Who would they want to dominate the world: America or Russia? Of course, there is no addiction to war in America (people who live well do not need or want wars) but when Americans see Twin Towers going down they naturally want to find the culprit and punish him; they react the same way when big countries attack the small ones (aren’t we taught from the childhood to stand up to bullies?) Sure, lately kids are taught to tell a teacher about bullies but who would America complain to? All of this of course doesn’t mean that America should interfere in every conflict in the world, just the ones where its interests are concerned (and should not interfere where they are not, like in Yugoslavia and Libya). So to sum it up, Mr. Bacevich doesn’t want to acknowledge a reality that if America withdraws from the world, a bad guy (or guys) would replace it…

    By the way, “military-industrial complex” was the favorite bogeyman of the Soviet government when something was going wrong…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/27/2016 - 07:46 pm.

      The Twin Towers

      were ‘taken down’ by (mostly) Egyptian nationals funded by Saudi Arabians. So who did we invade?
      Americans tend to be pacifists, but are easily scared into going to war.
      That’s why we didn’t enter WWI until 1917, when it was almost over (death totals UK: ~1million, France ~1.7million, Germany: ~2.5 million, United States, 117 -thousand-.
      Roosevelt needed an attack on US territory by Japan (which he may have provoked) to get us into WWII at least three years after it started. We did not declare war on Germany when it invaded Czechoslovakia.

      And Eisenhower is credited with coining the term “military-industrial complex” in 1961. Members of the Soviet government undoubtedly used similar language — can you provide me with a quotation? I’m sure that the concept goes back at least to the Romans.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/27/2016 - 09:33 pm.

        Shoe bomber was a British man – did we have to attack the UK? Nationality doesn’t make any difference – organization does.

        So how were Americans scared to go into WWI if it was almost over by that time? And don’t you think that Pearl Harbor resulted more in rage than in fear? I also highly doubt that the Romans had any “industry” to refer to… Since I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 70’s, 1961 origination of the term looks correct to me.

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