Resisting the Charms of War

Resisting the Charms of War

Mini Teaser: Andrew J. Bacevich laments American militarism.

by Author(s): Christopher A. Preble

The next test came in the Gulf War. When the harvest from Desert Storm proved meager, this was interpreted as a function of President Bush's unwillingness to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Wohlstetter's theory was sound, his supporters believed, if only political leaders had the will to follow it to its logical conclusions. When President George W. Bush finished the job in 2003, Richard Perle credited his mentor Wohlstetter. This was "Albert's vision of future wars", Perle said in May 2003, "That it was won so quickly and decisively, with so few casualties and so little damage, was in fact an implementation of his strategy and his vision."

Will anything reverse the trend toward American militarism? Bacevich only touches on the question, but the answer may lie in the cost of militarism, or more accurately, a growing sense that the actual (as opposed to the advertised) benefits of militarism are vastly outweighed by its costs. After all, Americans do not embrace militarism in their personal lives. While they admire the professionalism, dedication and courage of members of the military, very few want their sons (or daughters) to serve.

Wilsonian ambitions remain a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, as evidenced by the president's soaring rhetoric in his second inaugural address and the 2005 State of the Union address. But the Washington Post reported in March that the public is growing weary. "People just think this is not our mission, that we should not be the democracy policemen", explained James Steinberg of the Brookings Institution. "Even though they think [the Iraqis] are better off, [Americans are] leery about the U.S. going out and doing these things." Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was even more blunt: "Americans don't like putting Americans in harm's way and fighting wars for humanitarian reasons. . . . [T]his means, by and large, the United States will not be spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet."

Time will tell. Hopefully, if public skepticism continues to grow, Americans will ultimately reject militarism. Critics can best facilitate this process by emphasizing time-tested American values such as Thomas Jefferson's "peace, commerce, and honest friendship, with all nations" or John Quincy Adams's affirmation that America "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" and "the champion and vindicator only of her own." Such principles successfully guided U.S. foreign policy for over 150 years and earned the respect and admiration of those abroad.

In the modern era, scholars must not merely document the flaws of militarism, but also offer an alternative that can address the types of threats that the Founders could not have imagined. This, thankfully, Bacevich does in the penultimate chapter. The book is well worth the purchase price if only for the ten principles that Bacevich outlines therein.

One hopes that Bacevich's background and reputation will inoculate him against charges that he is "un-American." Ultimately, his considerable intellectual skills--even more than his unique credibility and perspective as a former professional soldier and a political conservative--allow Bacevich to overcome such charges. He deserves enormous credit for his courage in attempting to reverse a dangerous tide. He will deserve still more credit if he is successful at doing so.

Essay Types: Book Review