How We Fight
Americans support United States interventions abroad “only so long as someone else’s kid does the fighting and future generations get stuck with the bill.”
So concludes Andrew J. Bacevich in this passionate new book about military policy in the post-Vietnam era. Bacevich has excellent credentials, having served for 23 years as an officer in the U.S. Army. He currently teaches at Boston University.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush encouraged Americans to carry on as usual by getting “down to Disney World.” The nation’s all-volunteer Army would fight in Iraq and Afghanistan at no additional cost to taxpayers. In fact, the president persuaded Congress to cut taxes.
Bacevich argues that the United States has entered an era of perpetual war. Iraq and Afghanistan are the two longest wars in U.S. history, and they are not the only interventions in recent times. U.S. ground forces have also entered Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Few would argue that the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a success. For starters, the financial and psychological costs have been staggering.
To deploy one soldier to a war zone for one year costs $1 million. Bacevich says the psychic toll of multiple combat tours has been “downright horrifying”—drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, domestic violence. Annual disability benefits paid to veterans have skyrocketed from $15 billion in 2000 to $57 billion today.
Bacevich makes only passing reference to the fact that his son was killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq, but that loss surely must inform his reservations about endless military interventions abroad.
After Vietnam and the end of the draft, the Pentagon said that long, futile wars would be replaced by “neat, tidy ones, ending in absolute and unquestioned triumph.” Iraq and Afghanistan dramatically ended that wishful thinking.
Some of Breach of Trust updates what Bacevich has written previously —several books about U.S. military policy in the post-World War II period, most recently Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
The most provocative argument in this new book involves Bacevich’s assertion that the United States now embraces Israel’s aggressive policy of military superiority and a strike-first mentality. Among hawks in both political parties, “Israel’s kick-ass pugnacity struck a chord.”
America adopted the view he writes “that the real key to successful self-defense was to attack the other guy first.” As part of that belligerent policy, President Obama “established targeted assassinations as the very centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.”
“Assassination,” Bacevich writes, “once considered beyond the pale, has now emerged as a core function of the chief executive, the president himself choosing individual targets and periodically updating the nation’s ‘kill list’.”
For Obama the downside of targeted drone missile attacks on suspected terrorists is minimal. Americans are satisfied to leave military matters to the president, the Pentagon and an all-volunteer “warrior class.”
Although Bacevich generally makes a persuasive case that Congress should bring back the draft, he occasionally engages in rhetorical overkill, as when he writes that citizen apathy toward war “is symptomatic of advancing civic decay.” As examples, he cites childhood poverty and illegitimacy, among other issues, which is a bit of a stretch.
Overall, Bacevich has written a bracing call for Americans to “revert to a concept of citizenship in which privileges entail responsibilities.” He recommends that future wars be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis and that soldiers be drawn from all segments of society.
“Imagine a lottery with Natasha and Malia Obama at age 18 having the same chance of being drafted as the manicurist’s son or the Walmart clerk’s daughter.” Bacevich favors a mandatory program in which some 18-year-olds would enter the military and the rest would choose other service opportunities like the Peace Corps.
Bacevich is not optimistic that this will happen. People are too comfortable with the present broken system, in which volunteers do the fighting and future generations pay the bill.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “How We Fight,” in the February 17, 2014, issue.