Andrew Bacevich is an all-too-rare phenomenon in public discussions of foreign policy: someone with a lifetime of military experience who is not a pacifist or an anti-war leftie, but yet sees the corrosive effect that war has on our democracy, and writes about it, with eloquence, insight, and a sharp intelligence.
When Bacevich publishes an op-ed, it’s always worth the read. Here he is in today’s Washington Post, warning about a sea change in the way American leaders and the American people think about war — a change that, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the shift from the concept of military service as civic obligation to a military conceived as a chosen lifetime career (emphasis is mine):
Earlier generations of American leaders, military as well as civilian, instinctively understood the danger posed by long wars. “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War,” Gen. George C. Marshall once remarked. …
The wisdom of Marshall’s axiom soon became clear. In Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson plunged the United States into what became its Seven Years War. The citizen army that was sent to Southeast Asia fought valiantly for a time and then fell to pieces. As the conflict dragged on, Americans in large numbers turned against the war — and also against the troops who fought it.
After Vietnam, the United States abandoned its citizen army tradition, oblivious to the consequences. In its place, it opted for what the Founders once called a “standing army” — a force consisting of long-serving career professionals.
For a time, the creation of this so-called all-volunteer force, only tenuously linked to American society, appeared to be a master stroke. Washington got superbly trained soldiers and Republicans and Democrats took turns putting them to work. The result, once the Cold War ended, was greater willingness to intervene abroad. As Americans followed news reports of U.S. troops going into action everywhere from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans, from the Caribbean to the Horn of Africa, they found little to complain about: The costs appeared negligible. Their role was simply to cheer.
This happy arrangement now shows signs of unraveling, a victim of what the Pentagon has all too appropriately been calling its Long War.
The Long War is not America’s war. It belongs exclusively to “the troops,” lashed to a treadmill that finds soldiers and Marines either serving in a combat zone or preparing to deploy.
To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely “at” war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: “Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths.” In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.
As a result of the disconnected fostered by this conceptual shift, an “us versus them” mentality has taken root in the military that, in Bacevich’s view, connects directly to the brazen contempt for civilian control exemplified in the behavior of Gen. Stanley McChrystal:
The day the McChrystal story broke, an active-duty soldier who has served multiple combat tours offered me his perspective on the unfolding spectacle. The dismissive attitude expressed by Team America, he wrote, “has really become a pandemic in the Army.” Among his peers, a belief that “it is OK to condescend to civilian leaders” has become common, ranking officers permitting or even endorsing “a culture of contempt” for those not in uniform. Once the previously forbidden becomes acceptable, it soon becomes the norm.
“Pretty soon you have an entire organization believing that their leader is the ‘Savior’ and that everyone else is stupid and incompetent, or not committed to victory.” In this soldier’s view, things are likely to get worse before they get better. “Senior officers who condone this kind of behavior and allow this to continue and fester,” he concluded, “create generation after generation of officers like themselves — but they’re generally so arrogant that they think everyone needs to be just like them anyway.”
Right at this moment, Americans may be more focused on Afghanistan than they normally are because of the firing of Gen. McChrystal. Juan Cole comments on two recent polls that suggest Americans are deeply skeptical about the likelihood of succeeding in Afghanistan, and/or the advisability of continuing to try.
Why the “doom-and-gloom fest” after only nine years of war? asks Jules Crittenden, bless his heart. Why, Afghanistan isn’t even close to being the longest American war:
Christian Science Monitor isn’t quite ready to call it, poses it as a question … “Quagmire?” … in a doom-and-gloom fest that hits most of the usual quagmire buttons.
Starts by declaring Afghanistan our longest war yet, with an ironic reference to it as “the forgotten war.” (Super double ironic, because CSM apparently has forgotten that the original “forgotten war” just hit 60).
Ah, yes, the Korean War — born a week before I was, and still celebrating birthdays, just like me! Happy birthday, there, you old dog of a war! Many happy returns of the day, and many more to come, I’m sure!
Jules continues (added links are mine):
CSM woefully remarks that counterinsurgency is really hard, and cites two “recent major examples” … France in Algeria five decades ago and the United States in Vietnam four decades ago … to make the point. Speaking of forgotten wars, Iraq strangely is not so much as whispered in this quagmirography, although it is major, more recent, a win, and was accomplished by many of the same people who are now tackling Afghanistan, in defiance not only of opinion polls but of all the major media outlets that kept calling it a quagmire. This omission has become a standard feature of Afghan quagmire declarations, which also include stating that violence is rising, without noting that it remains well below Iraq levels. CSM falls down on the job, though, neglects to include the stock Afghan “graveyard of empires” bit.
Iraq a “win”? In the narrowest of senses, maybe. But you have to omit a whole let of context. Ironically, that is exactly what Jules does while complaining about others “omitting” the glad news of the U.S. “win” in Iraq. Which is why I took the initiative to add a few of those contextualizing links in Jules’ quote above.