The problems with this analysis are manifold. First off, it’s by no means a given that having a substantially larger available force—even one comparably trained and equipped, much less an inferior version—would have made the difference in Iraq or Afghanistan. As in Vietnam, it’s quite probable that the strategic goals were simply unachievable, especially at a price America was willing to pay. Second, to the extent that the missions to which we apply military force are in the nation’s interests, it would seem beneficial indeed that the current force is ready, willing and able to absorb the bumps and bruises of the long fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and go on to the next fight. Third—and Bacevich’s writings here and elsewhere make it clear he agrees—the solution to the problem of not winning unwinnable wars is rather obvious: stop fighting them. But that’s a decision up to civilian policy makers, not the service chiefs.
The common thread is one that Bacevich discussed at length in The New American Militarism: a large standing force. In the introduction to that book, he quotes James Madison: “War is the parent of armies.” But it is also the case that armies are the parent of war. This is not because of some sinister cabal of war profiteers in a military-industrial complex—the merchants of death, as they were known after World War I—but rather because, in a world where presidents are constantly besieged to “do something” about myriad global crises, that “something” quite frequently has a military component. Over the last two decades, these forces have been routinely called up without backlash from the public or the citizen-soldiers themselves. Bacevich says, “The military thereby voided the implicit contract that had defined the terms of service for these part-time soldiers—that the nation would call upon them only in extreme emergencies—and converted them in effect into an adjunct of the active-duty force.”
Then again, this has now been the norm for more than two decades, going back to Desert Shield and Desert Storm and continuing without much break through the various humanitarian interventions of the 1990s and the war on terror. Those who signed up in recent years surely were not promised the “implicit contract” that was in effect when Bacevich and I served. Indeed, for all but the most senior members, the Reserve Component has always been an adjunct of the active force. Bacevich claims that “all options remain on the table” has become the “signature phrase of contemporary American statecraft.” He further asserts:
All it takes to bomb Belgrade, invade Iraq, or send Navy SEALs into Pakistan is concurrence among a half dozen people and a nod from the president. No need to secure prior congressional assent, certainly no need to consult the American people: that’s what the all-volunteer force allows.
But the all-volunteer force came into being with the end of the draft on June 30, 1973. Earlier that same year, Congress passed, over Nixon’s veto, the War Powers Resolution, which sought to claw back some of the legislature’s power over the use of force after decades of executive overreach. It’s debatable whether the trend has accelerated since the end of the draft and, if it has, whether and to what extent the end of the draft contributed to said acceleration. By definition, however, something that happened well after a trend has been identified cannot be the cause of the trend.
BACEVICH IDENTIFIES some genuine problems with the American military that ought to be addressed. He notes that there were some 260,000 contractors on American payrolls in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, “more than the total number of U.S. troops committed to those theaters.” The expansion of private security contractors is indeed very expensive and wrought with issues of command and control. But he lumps in private security contractors who are de facto mercenary soldiers with those engaged in food service and other logistical duties; these are very different issues. In addition, Bacevich charges, with little evidence, that the explosion in contractors is the result not of a bloated, disconnected bureaucracy and a Congress failing in its oversight responsibilities but rather of a cozy relationship between members of Congress, retired generals and admirals, and the rich fat cats who stand to profit from massive government contracts amounting to legally sanctioned corruption.
Bacevich reasons that, with a large conscript force, the military could go back to “guarding its own gates, hauling its own fuel and supplies, preparing its own rations, and disposing of its own human waste, not to mention doing its own thinking.” But there’s no obvious reason why it would want to—much less why Americans should consent to allowing their sons and daughters to be involuntarily conscripted to perform such menial tasks. To be sure, contracting out these functions is expensive, and there has been a good amount of fraud, waste and abuse. Bacevich cites several studies pointing to over $60 billion in such losses, equal to “about $1 for every $3.50 spent on contractors.” But much of this money went to overseas firms, meaning it wasn’t lining the pockets of American businessmen, politicians and other elites, and all of it was subject to the vast Pentagon contracting bureaucracy. A July report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is devastating in its critique of both Defense Department and USAID leadership on this issue. Such boondoggles as “moving forward with a $771.8 million purchase of aircraft the Afghan National Army cannot operate or maintain” will not be solved by the involuntary servitude of America’s youth for latrine duty.
The last third of the book is devoted to odd anecdotes calling out various pet peeves only tangentially related to the ostensible thesis. Considerable space is devoted to the sad saga of Colonel Theodore Westhusing, a 1983 West Point graduate who earned a PhD in philosophy at Emory studying military honor—only to commit suicide in Iraq when “his conception of honor collided with a radically discordant reality.” After receiving an anonymous letter claiming that a government contractor was not only cheating the U.S. government but also committing human-rights abuses, Westhusing dutifully reported it up his chain of command to then lieutenant general David Petraeus—appending his own view that the allegations were unfounded and that the contractor was “complying with its contractual obligations.” Inexplicably, Westhusing suddenly demonstrated a complete change of personality and, a week after alerting Petraeus, fatally shot himself with his service revolver.
Rather than seeing this as an indictment of the army’s mental-health system, Bacevich concludes that corrupt contractors and a leadership that looks the other way are to blame. Indeed, it was “a sacrificial act and should command the attention of anyone concerned about the health of the military profession.” Bacevich sneers at an army psychologist’s conclusion that Westhusing possessed a “surprisingly limited” ability to understand that some people sought to profit from war and instead believed “that doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do should be the sole motivator for businesses.” That some seek to profit from war has been a fact of life since well before the American Revolution; it should surely not have been news to a highly educated army colonel in 2005, let alone so at odds with one’s worldview as to prompt suicide.
Yet, despite the fact that Westhusing’s own report cleared the contractor in this instance, his death was somehow “the fire bell that rang in the night” and demonstrates that “in forging its lucrative partnership with defense contractors, the army to which he had devoted his life had sullied itself.” Bacevich’s solution: “Limit the nation’s ambitions to those that a relatively small professional army can manage (which implies giving up on globalism) or . . . revive the citizen-soldier tradition (with globalism becoming contingent on a popular willingness to participate in war).” But these are not the only choices. Indeed, the more obvious response would be to expand the size of the professional force such that the tasks could be performed by uniformed troops subject to the chain of command, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the law of war.
PERHAPS THE most disquieting passages in Bacevich’s book appear toward its close. He says, “U.S. national security policy increasingly conforms to patterns of behavior pioneered by the Jewish state.” He charges that the United States is “mimicking Israel” by treating relatively powerless foes as major threats, often through the preemptive use of force. He describes the bipartisan post–Cold War approach as a “quest for global military dominance” in which “the United States stumbled willy-nilly into an Israel-style condition of perpetual war—with peace increasingly tied to unrealistic expectations that adversaries and would-be adversaries will comply with Washington’s demands for submission.” Consequently, armed intervention went from occasional to commonplace.
While the United States intervenes abroad militarily far too often, the evidence that a “quest for global military dominance” is the root cause is dubious. As Bacevich himself notes in The New American Militarism, “With the end of the Cold War, the constraints that once held American ideologues in check fell away.” As the world’s sole superpower, it should not be surprising that America’s new status came with increased demands, both domestically and internationally, to “do something” whenever a major global crisis erupted.Pullquote: There's simply no evidence that the fact that "somebody else" is doing the fighting and dying has made us less sensitive to the loss of American sons and daughters.Image: Essay Types: Book Review