Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Mini Teaser: American civil-military relations will remain vexed for some time.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

In short, despite the absence of a credible threat and contrary to
the nation's political traditions, Americans today appear dedicated
to the proposition that henceforth the United States will set the
world standard in military power. And, as noted above, events have
already shown that the United States will not hesitate to use that

But toward what end? With what prospects for success in the long
term? At what cost? Most important, with what consequences for
American democracy?

Postmodern Democracy and Global Hegemon

The relationship of the military to American society ranks first
among a handful of indices that are indispensable for a serious
consideration of those questions, and that is the chief reason why
civil-military relations demand attention. More than the composition
of the House or Senate, more than the editorial opinions of the
networks and major newspapers, more than marginal fluctuations of the
defense budget, civil-military relations provide a barometer that
enables us to measure the fitness of the United States to play the
part of democratic superpower. To state the matter differently, the
sparks generated by recurring civil-military friction illuminate,
however fleetingly, the dilemmas awaiting the United States as it
attempts to reconcile its identity as postmodern democracy with its
self-assumed responsibilities as global hegemon.

Three large issues define that dilemma, and the present
civil-military predicament exists precisely where those three issues

The first issue is that of grand strategy. Here the problem is one of
dissimulation and denial. In terms of civil-military tensions, it
takes the form of a consistent pattern of misrepresentation of
American intentions, fostering illusions among citizens and soldiers
alike about the purposes for which the United States wields its
power. The resolution lies in a candid acknowledgment of the reality
of American policies and the long-term costs that they will entail.

The second issue concerns American culture. Here the problem is one
of massive change that is antagonistic to the traditional military
ethos. In terms of civil-military tensions, this issue manifests
itself in several ways: in the growing isolation of the military; in
a belief among some soldiers that they represent a morally superior
remnant in an otherwise decadent society; and in the proliferation of
inappropriate efforts by political activists to use military
institutions as venues and instruments to advance their own agenda.
The resolution lies in finding a new definition of military
professionalism that reconciles the distinctiveness of the soldier's
calling with changing social norms.

Only the third issue--the problem of technology--touches directly on
military affairs. The very technologies that may hold the greatest
promise for preserving American dominance threaten cherished military
customs, organizational arrangements, and carefully negotiated
agreements regarding roles and missions. This threat incites military
resistance to change that would enable the United States to
capitalize fully on the potential of advanced technologies. It
encourages soldiers to cling to outmoded rituals and institutions.
Resolving this third issue requires forceful and informed civilian

Strategic Candor

Many have bemoaned the apparent failure of the United States to
articulate a coherent grand strategy appropriate for the post-Cold
War era. The problem is not the absence of strategy, however, but the
unwillingness to acknowledge openly the strategic enterprise to which
the United States has tacitly committed itself. American leaders will
not say out loud what they know American purposes to be. As a result,
meaningful discussion of means and ends, costs and consequences,
becomes impossible.

President Clinton has designated the United States the "indispensable
nation", an evocative but vacuous phrase that neatly captures the
balderdash permeating public discourse on basic national policies. In
proclaiming American indispensability, the President plays to
national vanity without describing the specific responsibilities and
costs that such a lofty status entails.

To give the President and his speechwriters their due, this
phrase-making responds to a real problem. The vocabulary employed by
their predecessors to justify American endeavors overseas has lost
its persuasive authority. Explaining the U.S. intervention in Somalia
in terms of "vital interests" confuses rather than clarifies matters.
As an explanation of why American soldiers are occupying parts of the
Balkans, "national security" is likewise inadequate. "Department of
Defense" itself has become a misnomer. The Department's day-to-day
activities are not defensive. Rather, the Pentagon is in the business
of projecting American power in order to undergird American influence
around the world.

Obscured by presidential testimonials to American indispensability,
this projection of power suggests the essence of the de facto U.S.
grand strategy: establishing a benign imperium conducive to American
interests and values. It is the seamless confluence of Teddy
Roosevelt's "big stick" without the bombast, Taft's "dollar
diplomacy" without the overt venality, and Wilson's missionary
diplomacy without the condescension--implemented on a global scale
and extending indefinitely into the future.

The armed forces rank first among federal agencies engaged in
maintaining that imperium--an undertaking analogous to the task once
undertaken on a far smaller scale by U.S. Marines in places such as
Nicaragua and Haiti. Just as the United States throughout most of
this century intervened to keep order in the strategically vital
Caribbean, so in the age of the "world community", a "global
economy", and "universal rights", similar concerns now lead the
United States to dispatch American soldiers much farther afield. A
new lexicon describing new categories of non-traditional military
missions--"peacekeeping", "peacemaking", and "peace enforcement"--has
evolved to describe the American military's expanded role. Given the
slipperiness of such terms, military officers have tended to be leery
of them, but the very considerable extent to which they have achieved
common usage further illustrates the blurring of functional
boundaries between soldiers and civilians.

The immediate purposes upon which those soldiers embark bear small
resemblance to high-minded crusades. Their task is not the lofty one
of saving the world from totalitarianism but the necessary one of
staving off disorder. As a result, their efforts will seldom yield
the satisfaction of clear-cut victory. Nor will they culminate in the
"lasting peace" that presidents from FDR to Reagan held up as the
great object of American participation in world affairs. Indeed,
elites have discovered--perhaps they have known all along--that
permanent world peace is an illusion. The best one can hope for is a
modicum of stability--and even that requires continuing American
"engagement." As this handy euphemism for blood and taxes would
suggest, policing the imperium is a task for which there is no end in

Unwilling to let the people in on this one big secret, elites work
themselves into a further bind. When it comes to explaining the
far-flung endeavors of U.S. forces, they prefer subterfuge to
straight talk. On his final official visit to Bosnia, Secretary of
Defense William Perry characterized the mission of American forces
there as doing "God's work." President George Bush had used the
identical phrase to describe the U.S. intervention in Somalia.
Whether the Dayton Accord will produce results that merit divine
approval remains to be seen. In the case of Somalia, the outcome is
clear: Soldiers doing the Lord's work ended up using helicopter
gunships against those they came to save, and the objects of American
beneficence took pleasure in publicly defiling the remains of GIs
that they killed. Amid such nastiness, claims of a heavenly mandate
quickly crumbled, as did the policy itself, in a torrent of

In short, the absence of candor in describing the purposes of U.S.
policy sows confusion among the American people and within the
American military itself. When decision makers contrive exalted moral
justifications for military operations that actually derive from
American intolerance for disorder or egregious misbehavior, they
erect policies on the flimsiest basis. As the late General Mohammed
Aideed demonstrated, such a rationale is prone to collapse if things
go less than swimmingly well.

The lack of candor also encourages an excessive sentimentalization of
American military professionals, manifested in posturing about
casualties that has become de rigueur among politicians and pundits.
(It seems likely that the sentimentalization of today's GI is a way
of making amends for the reckless demonization of American soldiers
during and after the Vietnam War, a process abetted by opponents of
the war who have now risen to prominence in public life.) Yet this
self-proclaimed sensitivity to casualties again creates false
expectations at home and in the ranks. Worse, it signals adversaries
that they need not defeat, but merely damage, U.S. forces in order to
achieve their aims, a prospect that invites attacks against the very
men and women in uniform whose well-being is the subject of such

By allowing casualty avoidance to become the leading measure of
success, policymakers also surrender influence to senior military
officers. That these officers use that influence to advance their own
institutional interests rather than the ends of national policy is
hardly surprising. The process is well illustrated by the limited
mandate of U.S. forces camped in Bosnia. At times, this military
leverage approaches that of a near veto: If the Joint Chiefs of Staff
cannot be cajoled into offering support, the civilian leadership is

The iconography that depicts soldiers as fuzzy-cheeked draftees
engaged in saving the world rather than well-trained professionals
handed a dirty but essential job; the debilitating preoccupation with
casualties; the smudging of distinctions between military advice
(once the business of soldiers) and policy advocacy (formerly the
exclusive preserve of civilians)--all these testify to a
civil-military relationship that is out of kilter. All undermine the
effectiveness of U.S. policy. All are attributable not to a lack of
strategy but to an unwillingness to speak the truth about what U.S.
strategy entails. For a democracy to serve as global hegemon is
difficult enough; that its leaders should undertake that task without
telling the people and its military what they are doing is to invite
continuing misunderstanding and possibly disaster.

Essay Types: Essay