Monday, April 10, 2006

a book worth reading ...

Book Review: The New American Militarism
April 10, 2006, Reviewed by Jim Miles - a Canadian educator

The invasion of Iraq is the ultimate expression of the new militarism, along with its associated unintended consequences.

The New American Militarism – How Americans are Seduced by War. Andrew J. Bacevich. Oxford University Press, N.Y. 2005. 270 pages.

With the American military spread across the globe in one form or another, and with it involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with it threatening to varying degrees, at least posturing, towards several other countries, including Iran, Syria, and North Korea, this book is a timely ‘modern’ history of that spread. It is not a history that examines the various causal lines of theses interactions from a global perspective, but is a well-defined critique of American modern history and how different influences have turned the American armed forces into a militaristic elite. In turn that reflects on the society that created it, a society that has adopted militarism as a positive pro-active step towards world domination.

A broad theme that keeps recurring is that of the ‘law of unintended consequences’. While “great and worthy achievements” may be made militarily they often “give rise to results other than anticipated and in some cases altogether perverse.” Coming out of the Vietnam War, the officer corps was determined “to reassert claims to professional autonomy and collective status that the war had destroyed.” That they were successful is obvious today “But that very success had unintended consequences, one of which was to give rise to militaristic tendencies antithetical to the well-being of the armed services.” Much later in his argument he says, “war had time and again proven itself to be all but ungovernable.” Even the “good wars” ending in 1918 and 1945 exacted “a staggering price from victor and vanquished alike” fostering “resentments or created temptations, leading as often as not to further conflict.”

In his preface Bacevich makes some very powerful statements, especially considering his WestPoint, Vietnam, Roman Catholic conservative background. His “Views have come to coincide with the critique offered by the radical left: it is the mainstream itself, the professional liberals as well as the professional conservatives, who define the problem.” While the United States has two political parties, although not identical (others abroad in the world can hardly see any difference) “they produce nearly identical results.” He recognizes the economic facts that “the rich and famous get served, and those lacking wealth or celebrity status get screwed – truths not at all unrelated to the rise of militarism in America.” With a clear concise and powerful statement like that, there is not much need to discuss corporate/political activities within the rest of his arguments.

What is discussed is clear and coherent. He begins with an overview of the juxtaposition of Wilsonian ideals and the militaristic ideas that have joined with them. Today, mainstream politicians, "see this armed might as the key to creating an international order that accommodates American Values.” This new militarism is based on money, as within the past year the U.S. has spent “more on defense than all other nations in the world together.” A second feature at its base is that of ultimate supremacy, within which mere superiority is not enough, it has to be “overwhelming.” Most recently, although not a new idea, but an idea that found a home with the younger Bush, this force needs to be projected around the world, and into space. Coercion has become an “all-purpose tool.” A final feature of the current mainstream political views is that those expounding them have never been involved with any actual combat duty.

From that position, Bacevich explores the history of the military establishment’s internal changes, originally intended “to begin the process of making it more difficult for civilian authorities to opt for war,” and to enhance the authority of the officer corps. That effort “by the first decade of the twenty-first century...had collapsed.”

The neocon history, its changes of associations and relationships as they morphed into power, looks mainly at Albert Wohlstetter and his protégés Norman Podhoretz and Paul Wolfowitz. The nuclear role is emphasized, the degradation of Islam became paramount, and just after the turn of the century “the doctrines of preventative war and permanent military supremacy were officially enshrined in U.S. policy.” The reinventing of strategy “Ended up providing a rationale for war launched in a spasm of strategic irrationality.”

The roles of the different presidents shows how they too were subject to the unintended consequences of their actions, from Nixon and Carter through Reagan, Bush, Clinton and to the current Bush. Reagan and Clinton in particular created the political myths that allowed militarism to succeed: military might as the main gauge of the nation’s strength; the soldier became the pre-eminent icon of patriotism and good; the ‘evil’ nature and military lead of the communists; and followed after all that by the Hollywood myths.

Fundamentalism takes a direct responsibility for the rise of the new militarism, and for the strong association of the United States with Israel, both in its role of settling the ‘disputed territories’ of Palestine, and in its broader role of being a forward based military enclave in opposition to Islam and terror. It is in Bacevich’s estimation one of the keystones for the militarists’ success, “were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism…becomes inconceivable.”

The American role in the Middle East started without military intervention but included covert operations and government overthrows, as they “needed assured access to cheap oil and lots of it.” Bacevich goes deeper than “blood for oil” indicating “Beneath the surface the aim was to guarantee the ever-increasing affluence that underwrites the modern American conception of liberty,” showing how every president after Carter endorsed this policy. It is in this section that parallels are drawn between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, with the Arab world seeing “the United States and Israel…conspiring to humiliate and oppress Muslims.” The invasion of Iraq is the ultimate expression of the new militarism, along with its associated unintended consequences.

The readers have to remind themselves that the core of this work is militarism and its rise and creation within the United States, focussing mainly on the period after World War II, but dipping into the past occasionally for a broader historical perspective. It is not a book that involves itself with the undercover covert activities of the CIA or the National Security Agency, activities which are covered in other well-qualified works. It is also not about corporate activities and the machinations of supra-national global organizations such as the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and others.

This mindset needs to be remembered in examining Bacevich’s “ten foundational principles” to control and the new militarism. While they can be argued with in the broader view of global relationships, a perspective he himself allows for, his conclusions appear reasonable within the role of ‘militarism’.

Within those parameters, the definition and focus on the military role and how it developed in the American mindset, and by not becoming involved with discussions on other government agencies and corporate roles, Bacevich succeeds remarkably well with his arguments. This is a strong, well-presented thesis on a well-defined topic.