Saturday, July 17, 2010

The New American Militarism

Excerpt from the preface of Andrew Bacevich's "The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War"

The final point concerns my understanding of history. Before moving into a career focused on teaching and writing about contemporary U.S. foreign policy, I was trained as a diplomatic historian. My graduate school mentors were scholars of great stature and enormous gifts, admirable in every way. They were also splendid teachers, and I left graduate school very much under their influence. My own abbreviated foray into serious historical scholarship bears the earmarks of their approach, ascribing to Great Men—generals, presidents, and cabinet secretaries—the status of historical prime movers.

I have now come to see that view as mistaken. What seemed plausible enough when studying presidents named Wilson or Roosevelt breaks down completely when a Bush or Clinton occupies the Oval Office. Not only do present-day tendencies to elevate the president to the status of a demigod whose every move is recorded, every word parsed, and every decision scrutinized for hidden meaning fly in the face of republican precepts. They also betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works.

What is most striking about the most powerful man in the world is not the power that he wields. It is how constrained he and his lieutenants are by forces that lie beyond their grasp and perhaps their understanding. Rather than bending history to their will, presidents and those around them are much more likely to dance to history’s tune. Only the illusions churned out by public relations apparatchiks and perpetuated by celebrity-worshipping journalists prevent us from seeing that those inhabiting the inner sanctum of the West Wing are agents more than independent actors. Although as human beings they may be interesting, very few can claim more than marginal historical significance. So while the account that follows discusses various personalities—not only politicians but also soldiers, intellectuals, and religious leaders—it uses them as vehicles to highlight the larger processes that are afoot.

Appreciating the limits of human agency becomes particularly relevant when considering remedial action. If a problem is bigger than a particular president or single administration—as I believe the problem of American militarism to be—then simply getting rid of that president will not make that problem go away. To pretend otherwise serves no purpose.


The bellicose character of U.S. policy after 9/11, culminating with the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, has, in fact, evoked charges of militarism from across the political spectrum. Prominent among the accounts advancing that charge are books such as The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson; Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, by Noam Chomsky; Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire, edited by Carl Boggs; Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, by Clyde Prestowitz; and Incoherent Empire, by Michael Mann, with its concluding chapter called “The New Militarism.”

Each of these books appeared in 2003 or 2004. Each was not only written in the aftermath of 9/11 but responded specifically to the policies of the Bush administration, above all to its determined efforts to promote and justify a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

As the titles alone suggest and the contents amply demonstrate, they are for the most part angry books. They indict more than explain, and whatever explanations they offer tend to be ad hominem. The authors of these books unite in heaping abuse on the head of George W. Bush, said to combine in a single individual intractable provincialism, religious zealotry, and the reckless temperament of a gunslinger. Or if not Bush himself, they finger his lieutenants, the cabal of warmongers, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and senior Defense Department officials, who whispered persuasively in the president’s ear and used him to do their bidding. Thus, according to Chalmers Johnson, ever since the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991, Cheney and other key figures from that war had “wanted to go back and finish what they started.” Having lobbied unsuccessfully throughout the Clinton era “for aggression against Iraq and the remaking of the Middle East,” they had returned to power on Bush’s coattails. After they had “bided their time for nine months,” they had seized upon the crisis of 9/11 “to put their theories and plans into action,” pressing Bush to make Saddam Hussein number one on his hit list.6 By implication, militarism becomes something of a conspiracy foisted on a malleable president and an unsuspecting people by a handful of wild-eyed ideologues.

By further implication, the remedy for American militarism is self-evident: “Throw the new militarists out of office,” as Michael Mann urges, and a more balanced attitude toward military power will presumably reassert itself.

As a contribution to the ongoing debate about U.S. policy, The New
American Militarism rejects such notions as simplistic. It refuses to lay the
responsibility for American militarism at the feet of a particular president
or a particular set of advisers and argues that no particular presidential election holds the promise of radically changing it. Charging George W. Bush with responsibility for the militaristic tendencies of present-day U.S. foreign policy makes as much sense as holding Herbert Hoover culpable for the Great Depression: whatever its psychic satisfactions, It is an exercise in scapegoating that lets too many others off the hook and allows society at large to abdicate responsibility for what has come to pass.
The point is not to deprive George W. Bush or his advisers of whatever
credit or blame they may deserve for conjuring up the several large-scale
campaigns and myriad lesser military actions comprising their war on terror. They have certainly taken up the mantle of this militarism with a verve not seen in years. Rather it is to suggest that well before September 11, 2001, and before the younger Bush’s ascent to the presidency a militaristic predisposition was already in place both in official circles and among
Americans more generally. In this regard, 9/11 deserves to be seen as an event that gave added impetus to already existing tendencies rather than as a turning point. For his part, President Bush himself ought to be seen as a player reciting his lines rather than as a playwright drafting an entirely new script.

In short, the argument offered here asserts that present-day American
militarism has deep roots in the American past. It represents a bipartisan
project. As a result, it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, a point
obscured by the myopia and personal animus tainting most accounts of
how we have arrived at this point.

Great Book. Worth Reading.

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