Sunday, May 01, 2005

Colossus

Well, early morning CSPAN is often quite more entertaining and educational then day time or evening as much as I find the committee hearings on Social Security, Medicare and other financial debates, energizing.

I caught a segment on Andrew Bacevich's lecture or discussion or whatever one would call it, to the "Committee on Foreign Relations" regarding his new book, The New American Militarism fascinating if not slightly flawed.

Yes, I come right out and say it, this professor of International Relations at Boston University specializing in "American Diplomatic and Military History", started his book in the wrong century when he decided to discuss this alleged "New" American Militarism. Or, maybe he just decided to keep his focus on a narrow period of history and what caused the new "new American Militarism".

First, let me explain, during the conference, Mr. Bacevich explained that he was politically on the right. He considers himself more conservative then the current "conservative" party. Which, in many respects, I would agree with him when he states that the current administration is not exactly "conservative". Secondly, during the conference, he persistently points out that this "new American militarism" is not "new" in terms of being started by the Bush administration, but has been manifesting itself for years since the end of Vietnam and even more forcefully since the end of the Cold War, seeing its major manifestation, not in a Republican administration, but in the Clinton administration that was more likely to use American forces in a number of theaters for a number of issues including maintaining no fly zones in Iraq for eight years and routinely bombing targets, then Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, etc.

He conceives that this new militarism began during the post Vietnam era where the loss had a definite impact on the American psyche. Couple this with the established colossal enemy of the USSR and the fear of global war, and you have the American populace preparing itself for constant war. His perceptions are that it is not some fabled military industrial complex that forced the idea on America, but that the American psyche, the American people and its ideas that created this collosus.

He points out, vaguely, that, through out American history and beginning with the founding fathers, the idea of a large standing army required for "defense" was antithetical to the founding ideology and that, when armies were needed they were raised up, but when the war was over or the crisis over, the army was largely disbanded and only maintained for actual defense. He points to the Civil War, WWI and even WWII as periods that this occurred.

He did not leave the military out of this idea. He also points to the loss of Vietnam as having an effect on the officer corps and their idea that, never again would they be unprepared or unable to project military might or be sucked into a "quagmire". He uses Gulf War I as an indicator that this new idea was starting to take real shape in the amount of force that was brought to bear on Iraq.

I would agree with him on his concept that the first Gulf War was ambiguous even though it was presented as this megolithic victory, since it did not really achieve what it set out to, regional stability, but instead, set the stage for current events.

From his book, the opening Chapter on "Normalization of War":

At the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power. The skepticism about arms and armies that pervaded the American experiment from its founding, vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became enamored with military might.

The ensuing affair had and continues to have a heedless, Gatsby-like aspect, a passion pursued in utter disregard of any consequences that might ensue. Few in power have openly considered whether valuing military power for its own sake or cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with American principles. Indeed, one striking aspect of America's drift toward militarism has been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature. (...)

Under the terms of that consensus, mainstream politicians today take as a given that American military supremacy is an unqualified good, evidence of a larger American superiority. They see this armed might as the key to creating an international order that accommodates American values. One result of that consensus over the past quarter century has been to militarize U.S. policy and to encourage tendencies suggesting that American society itself is increasingly enamored with its self-image as the military power nonpareil.


I should go on to say that I don't totally disagree with every aspect of Mr. Bacevich's book, nor what he proposed on his discussion this morning, but I do disagree with him that this militarism is new, despite the periods of times he indicates that America disarmed.

During his discussion, he said that in the 19th century and early 20th century, Americans saw themselves as living in times of peace broken by occasional war where the last part of the 20th century and today, America sees itself as constantly preparing or acting on war, broken by moments of peace. He did point out that the world as a whole has not been particularly peaceful through out this time.

I would say that he has one aspect of this correct, that Americans have not always seen themselves as perpetually at war or had that perception, yet, the perception belies the reality of American history or the concept that America has only newly come to recognize and use its military power as a tool in foreign relations. He did admit, during his discussion, that he purposefully did not focus on the current global economic aspects of the "new" American security, but focused on the psychological aspects. This after a question from a member of the panel, who asked if the development of globalization and its financial impact on America was not also a reason why this manifested itself.

By the way, I should point out that Mr. Bacevich was in the military and is a devotee the Shinseky plan for Iraq. If you are going to go in, go in with overwhelming force, complete the job and get out ASAP. He has also authored a number of pieces for news organizations ranging from that point to comparing Iraq, not to Vietnam, but to the French war with the Algerians for independence beginning in 1954.

I suggest that you read the pieces and I will refrain from categorizing them except to say that I believe he was wrong on a few accounts, but you should read for yourself.

Now, the real issue that I had is Mr. Bacevich's assertions that this is a new fascination with military power and that it is essentially a new use of military power by American government as a policy tool instead of a use as a necessity.

One fellow on the committee did comment that he believed this actually began after Pearl Harbor and that those who lived through that period were also the ones that, during the end of the Vietnam War, seeing the evils of the perpetual draft, had recommended to Nixon to create the beginnings of this large standing army. This gentleman strangely felt compelled to apologize to those present for being one of the constructionists of this policy.

My thoughts are that, as a student of history, the concept that American military growth and use as a tool for policy making is new, seems very short sighted and possibly even misleading. The very first thing that came to mind was the official Marine Corp song that goes something like:

“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

Which alludes to a detachment of Marine Corp and several ships being dispatched to Tripoli in Algiers to depose the local despot who was essentially using the Barbary Pirates to raid all ships in the Mediterranean that belonged to countries not paying tribute. Well, that was the basis, of course the pirates would raid just about anyone if they could get away with it, tribute or not. The Americans did not feel compelled to pay such a tribute and felt that this was having a detrimental effect on their trade so off went the Marines to settle the problem.

It also alludes to the marine assault on the Castillo de Chapultapec in Mexico City during the Mexican-American War.

Frankly, I believe the use of military power as a tool for American Policy actually began around the war of 1812. I believe that war was essentially started over blockade of trade and the press-ganging of American sailors on to British ships? It didn’t actually begin when the British marched once again on American soil, but was being fought on the sea for several years before it came to a head.

Other incidents come to mind such as the Banana Wars post WWI that were essentially done to protect American interests in resources. But lets not forget the American-Spanish War at the end of the 19th century that was to get rid of a colonial power within our hemisphere (despite that whole hoopla about the sinking of the Maine). I believe it was Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. He wasn’t just talking about a baseball bat. He was in fact talking about the newly minted and ever expanding American Navy with its faster, well armed ships that manifested the British Dreadnought. Or before even that, when admiral Perry sailed into the Japanese bay at Edu (Tokyo) and fired his cannon across the city to announce the arrival of American power and demand the opening of Japanese markets to western, mainly American, trade after originally being blocked a few years before.

Panama?

One shouldn’t forget that the preceptor for WWII was the American expansion into Asian Pacific waters and establishment of bases there to protect American resources like rubber and oil, with the ensuing oil embargo on Japan who thought that America was encroaching on their own sphere of influence and hindering their ability expand empire, thus declaration of war and Pearl Harbor.

So, I would argue that, while his premise on the current American juggernaut is not completely improbable, it isn’t exactly correct to surmise this as a new concept of American power and policy.

I also question whether the size of the current standing army actually precipitates this possible coming of crisis. For instance, while he gives interesting numbers regarding defense spending on new technology and compares the size of the military to standing armies for Britain and a few other notables around the world (note that he never mentions a comparison to China which is the next standing leviathan in global military strength), he actually did not present in his discussion:

1) A comparison of the American standing military in number of members compared to the over all population, with percentages, compared to different points in history. Is today’s standing military larger in percentage of citizen members than any other time in history?
2) Comparison of the number of American military personnel enlisted today compared to total population, compared to similar numbers for Britain, France, Germany, and China. Are we really bigger and how much?

As for the American psyche newly allegorizing the military, I’d say that was bunk as well. It is only “new” in the last decade because the division over Vietnam did tear down the image of he American soldier as heroic and noble in the public eye and this is just changing back to how its always been. I’d say that Americans are well aware that it’s real men and women who perform the job;real people with real daily lives, families and problems. But, I’d say they are no more feted and ennobled than they were when Hollywood wrote the Sands of Iwo Jima or the Civil War period that saw the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. There are thousands of poems, stories, songs, plays, pictures that have been written or drawn depicting military life and great battles in American history, long before today.

I also think back to the first battle of Manassas. By all accounts, the local towns people turned out by the hundreds, if not thousands, with their picnic baskets, blankets and parasols to watch the first clash of the Titans. Of course, they were quickly dispossessed of the notion that it was going to be glorious and bloodless. Still, it didn’t stop people from immortalizing the military or ennobling it beyond what the reality of its actual soldiers might have rendered it.

I recall also the daguerreotypes (photos) of the soldiers posing in their uniforms. They weren’t simply photos for a reminder, but poses rendered for posterity often in the soldier’s best uniform and posing just so with their weapons.

In short, it’s not really a new idea or a strange new lesion on the American psyche. It has existed for centuries. Certainly, it has seemed to grow exponentially over the years, but I submit that is not because it has suddenly taken a greater place in our minds or government’s plans, but simply kept pace with and adapted to the rate of population growth, the development of technology and growth of global communication and transportation.

The only other thing he does have right is that we should be cautious with our continued growth and wary of its outcomes. Simply put, as proven through out history, as America expands, whether across the continent or into global markets, there will always be hostile entities and, as the ages go on, technology makes it more and more likely that a hostile entity will be on equal footing with America. We may not be forever up against third rate armies from third rate countries so we should not become too enamored with our quick wins and minimum losses.

Further, the ability now to do “surgical strikes” with minimal death, to Americans at least, and destruction, can sometimes lead to callousness and carelessness about the cost of war.

Strangely, I am reminded by an episode of the Original Star Trek, where they come on a planet and the warring parties having seen the terrible ugliness of war, decided that they can make it less ugly and stop the actual fighting by promising to put 30k of their citizens into a vaporizer every month, a cold offering to the god of war. Captain Kirk is suitably appalled since this cold blooded and callous activity keeps both sides from ever actually deciding on and enacting peace.

A lesson on the legitimate outcome of war; peace.

A fascinating subject and important to discuss, however, I believe this is another bogeyman, over played by a group of people who are as yet still scarred by the failed concept of Vietnamization of Vietnam and the fear that we go forth still to do it today and fail. There is further fear of trying to make the world in the American image, enforcing a doctrine on people who may never understand it nor except it and quite possibly be resentful.

Mr. Bacevich, during his speech was quite sure that the Iraq war only created more of something than was there in the first place. He also indicated that the concept of the “War on Terror” was inappropriate because it left us battling a tactic and not another people and that the war was actually against radical, fascist Islam.

Many, including me, have had a problem with the name of this war and its alleged intent. On the other hand, I’ve realized that the naming of this war was to avoid naming fascist, radical Islam as the enemy directly, even if it is, in order to be able to peel off parts of its adherents and deal with them separately instead of having them unite against us and causing full scale war.

A war that I believe Mr. Bacevich would warn against considering the implications of cutting off resources from the region and thus drawing in even larger players, like China, that would be sorely tested without said resources. So, he may not like the name and neither do I, but the strategy is taken right out of the cold war playbook.

So, while I appreciate Mr. Bacevich’s concern and note that it should be taken to heart, I find parts of his study to be hyped beyond historical significance, not fully exploring the American military growth and actual policies enforced from its inception.

Other books and articles:

Iraq is Algiers
Sensible, Limited War
Hour of the Generals
Review of “American Empire” by Andrew Bacevich

4 comments:

MichaelH121 said...

Again the anti America power rears it head.

He wants us to be equal with the other world powers.

The dems wanted to maintain the Cold War as is. Reagan wanted to WIN it.

We had no real numbers in the Military at the start of WWI. To our disadvantage.

We had around 100,000 men in the armed forces at the beginning of WWII by the end we had 16 million men under arms.

We have a smaller Armed force though we have a larger population. They are better trained, better armed, better protected.

And the NYT runs a story of the low death numbers because of battle-field treatment and evac. It sounded as though the NYT was sorry that more soldiers were not killed, because a low number halped Re-Elect GW. So they went on about how much harder the men who come back missing limbs are going to have it and basically it would have been easier on them to have died.

Typical of these types. If America wins it is bad, if the UN can claim victory such as Rawanda, oh wait they stopped a Commander from getting involved and the International soldiers as they left, CUT UP THEIR BLUE BERETS on the runway and stomped them into the tarmac in disgust.

UN good, France good, US always bad.

If they know what the people want, if they are "of the common man" then why do the libs keep losing political power?

Election after election since '94 they lost the House the Senate the Presidency the Governorships, the State Legislatures.....

I must be that their ideas are theirs and the large % of the media and academic elites, but us normal people don't seem to take a liking to them.

GW may not have all the answers, but at least he has some ideas. And he is willing to do something.

The libs offer only NO's and nothings and whine about not being able to get their message out. They got it out and the people threw them out.

Everytime they want us to Like France again or like them again they like the French step in the piles they are shoveling and we are turned off by the smell.

That's just my opinion, I could be right. :o)

Kat said...

Mike...I believe that this gentleman is of the Buchanan Republican persuasion. Truly conservative and believes that American military is not being used as the fore fathers intended, for defense and that the fore fathers would have frowned on expansionsim beyond these borders based on their ideas of america.

I simply disagree with him. I mean, who was it that did the Louisiana purchase? They did it for purposes of expansion and national security.

I believe this guy is just being rather choosy with his reading of history in order to support his theory that its a new thing.

Anonymous said...

The old "militaristic American" argument, this time from the right instead of the left. At least this Bacevich fellow isn't a left-wing loonie.

That said, it amazes me what some folks will call "militaristic". If they want to learn about militarism, read about pre-WWI Germany.

Kat said...

Anon...so true. Actually, I always thought that a militaristic society did more than use its military as a policy tool or find something ennobling about it. I though militaristic societies lived and breathed it, incorporated it in every aspect of their lives, like Medieval Knights or, more modern and accurate would be pre-WWII Germany where the children are enrolled into some prepatory militaristic organizations and then the whole society belongs to one kind of military or "civil defense" organization and lives their lives accordingly.

Or, Maybe that is Peter the Great or Nicholas. I believe Russia had a militaristic society.

Even Palestinian society could be much closer to militaristic with their young indoctrinated into fighting a guerilla war, marching with fatigues, cammo paint and guns.

That's why I said I thought he was overhyping the situation.

Fortunately, he didn't speak like a total loon, but I believe that his positions are being touted by the left as the antithesis of the Bush administration as if they were not more guilty on forwarding the idea than the rest.