“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.