Review: Bacevich’s Breach of Trust
My review of Andrew Bacevich's latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.
My review of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, is in the latest issue of The National Interest under the title “Breach of Logic.”
Longtime readers may recall that I was a pretty strong critic of Bacevich a decade or so ago, seeing his writing on the Iraq War as more polemical than analytical. Over the years, though, I’ve come to respect and enjoy Bacevich’s writing and largely agree with his analysis on America’s penchant for military intervention. Alas, while this book is sprinkled with keen insights, it’s mostly ax-grinding that draws conclusions unsupported by the evidence.
Bacevich manages to undermine his central argument in his introductory chapter. According to him, “To sustain a massively unpopular war, the state had resorted to coercive means: report for duty or go to jail.” As a result, “Those less clever or more compliant ended up in uniform and in Vietnam.” Yet just two pages later, it is the all-volunteer force that enables the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “With the people opting out, war became the exclusive province of the state. Washington could do what it wanted—and it did.” Given that Washington was able to sustain a much more massive, exponentially more deadly war through three presidential administrations with a draftee force, it stands to reason that something other than switching away from conscription is the underlying issue.
Bacevich himself has repeatedly told us what that “something” is. In his 2005 work The New American Militarism, he argued that American foreign policy has historically been dominated by a desire to “reshape the world in accordance with American interests and values.” Indeed, he wrote, Americans see those as “so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable.” He also cited C. Wright Mills’s 1956 argument that the United States is possessed of “a ‘military metaphysics’—a tendency to see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution except through military means.”
Bacevich is much too good a historian—and too intellectually honest—to hide key evidence from the reader. Thus, he is consistently obliged to undercut his own case by pointing to inconvenient facts, yet seems not to notice that he is doing so.
BY FAR the most compelling charge that Bacevich levels against a professional force is that it violates the American social contract. He refers to the 1944 declaration by Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson that “in a democracy, all citizens have equal rights and equal obligations. When the nation is in peril, the obligation of saving it should be shared by all, not foisted on a small percentage.” Bacevich notes that America fielded a twelve-million-man force for World War II, including the sons of the president and other leading politicians, Hollywood idols, sporting heroes and other elites. Yet we’re not trying to raise a force of twelve million today, let alone the proportionally larger force for a national population that has more than doubled. It seems odd, indeed, to force those who would otherwise be wildly successful in their own chosen field to instead fight our wars.
Bacevich is particularly concerned with what he terms the “Great Decoupling” seen in the war on terror in which, unlike in the Civil War and World War II, fighting a war didn’t come with a radical transformation of the civil economy. Instead of rationing consumer goods and manning the factories, Americans not in uniform were told to go shopping and “enjoy America’s great destination spots” while receiving a tax cut. Whatever the folly of tax cuts while spending hundreds of billions of dollars fighting overseas conflicts, there’s no unemotional argument for imposing austerity on the public in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Civil War and World War II involved massive field armies slogging it out in symmetrical conflict; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were both lightning-fast regime-change missions followed by years of counterterror and counterinsurgency operations. Not only would we not have wanted to fight these wars with amateurs, but their cost was a small fraction of GDP compared to those earlier conflicts.
Bacevich romanticizes the Civil War and World War II as exemplars of an earlier golden era when “war was the people’s business and could not be otherwise. For the state to embark upon armed conflict of any magnitude required informed popular consent.” Alas, he laments, “In their disgust over Vietnam, Americans withdrew from this arrangement.” But this elides a rather important point: Americans fought in Vietnam under that arrangement. Nearly sixty thousand died in the most controversial war in our history. And most of them had no choice in the matter. No wonder Americans withdrew from the arrangement.
While the author musters a lot of evidence that there is something wrong with how many wars America fights and how it fights them, he never demonstrates that restoring a draft would solve any of those problems. Indeed, as evidenced by the recent showdown over Syria, Americans, weary from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seem to be addressing the fundamental issue all on their own by pressuring their representatives in Washington to shun avoidable wars.
Much, much more at the link; the review is some 4000 words. You see previous mentions and commentary about Bacevich on OTB here.
The argument that today’s professional military violates the social contract resonates with me. The Army in particular had the reputation as the people’s Army, i.e. closest to American society. As a retiree (AF) I am now in the civilian workforce albeit in the defense industry and I see firsthand through my interactions with the neighbors and friends that there is a perception about military that is somewhat disconnected with reality.
I think there is truth to the point that the disconnect allows our leaders to get us into international situations too easily because the consequences are now immediate to the American people. Heck, we weren’t even asked to pay a war tax.
After 12 years of warfare, there is a critical mass of death and injury in this country so as to make the consequences visible and therefore pushback is happening on a larger scale.
I appreciate Bacevich’s writing because it provides a point of view I had not considered and therefore made me think about the fundamental assumptions on how I viewed our military and the country’s role and behavior in the world.
A conscript army is great if you need a whole lot of men with basic weapons to throw at another country’s whole lot of men with basic weapons. But that’s not modern warfare, and it’s probably never going to be the warfare of the future, either. And even if America did go to a conscription system, there would still only be a very small percentage who would serve, because we couldn’t afford anything else.
Also, the technology of modern weapons systems means we couldn’t crank out short-term conscripts with any reasonable level of training. The days of pushing men through basic training and straight to the field are long past. It takes four months to train an infantry soldier to the most basic skill level, and most specialties even longer than that. And then there are more months of on-station training. Unless we conscripted for three or four years–something most Americans would probably reject–we’d be wasting a whole lot of money training a guy up for what would basically be less than a year of useful service.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that a professional volunteer military leads to something of a divorce from the larger society, but at the same time I don’t think modern warfare could be fought by any other type of military.
You mean the days of ‘Here is your rifle and here is your helmet. The front is that way’ are over? I’m simply shocked. What would Audie Murphy think?
Only skimming here, but have read his “The New American Militarism.”
I thought that he was talking about a progression and change from the conscription of Vietnam to the volunteer (and separate professional) army of Iraq.
It was part of the rise of American Militarism that the draft was needed in the 70’s and not in the 00’s.
This is part of Bacevich’s argument in “The New American Militarism,” which makes me mistrust the quotes and tilt given them, to be honest.
People saw a smaller, successful, professional, army, one which would not consume their sons with a new draft for each war. Basically that allowed them to like football fans. “Go team,” without the chance of personal injury or death.
The downside of war was put at further distance from middle class Americans. Re. bubbles, there are whole swaths of voters who know no son or daughter in the armed services.
@john personna: I think Bacevich gets the cart before the horse a bit, and that the changes in the nature of our military were driven more by changes in the nature of warfare than he seems to. (edit: this is just my impression based on James’ piece and your comments, I haven’t read the book.)
I don’t disagree with you on the downside, I just wonder how we could possibly eliminate it while maintaining a military that is effective in the context of modern warfare, and that wouldn’t suck up the entirety of the federal budget.
I think that’s the way James stacked it above. Have you read any of his books?
(edit myself, ah yes, I’d recommend one of the books)
More generally, we can do a little what-if. What if in addition to some trained core of troops, there was a draft ready to go?
What if voters knew that supporting a new war would mean that the draft would be fired, and they, or their sons and daughters, might be called up?
Those of us who want the country to be slow to war might like that.
As to what to do with all the less-trained bodies … well, maybe use troops to peel potatoes and drive trucks again.
Remember, that the rise of in-country contractors is also a huge factor that allowed the suspension of a wartime draft.
@john personna: Registration with Selective Service is still required of all American males when they turn 18, so there is at least the potential of a draft. And there’s always been that trained core of career officers and NCOs even in the days of conscription. We’re not very far off from being able to return to a WW2-type of war footing, should it become necessary.
Another argument in favor isn’t size, but duration–even if we don’t need a huge force, we could use conscription to increase the inflow of troops so that we don’t have soldiers doing multiple tours in very long wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. But even then, conscription would have to be several years. (Which might be beneficial, if the objective is to make Americans “slow to war,” as you put it.)
OK, but …
Basically a core professional armed forces, and contractors (including “from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working”) starts to look a bit imperial, a bit Roman.
I don’t remember failing Amerikas soldiers, I vote to elect officials that were against the wars and of course none of them won. If you voted for the war machine then thought yrs later this wrong at lest you made this far. They way the govt treats the returning soldiers, well I can’t think of a word/words on how I feel about other than complete discuss. Then again it’s only going to get worse, how sad for young people.
I really, really dislike the Orwellian renaming of mercenaries to “contractors”. I of course understand why it was done — because mercenaries have a bad name, and the US government doesn’t want to put out press releases announcing it’s hired 100 mercenaries to do base security at Bagram, for example — but on the other hand, this is just one more example of how we’re abusing language to sanitize an unpalatable reality. Let’s call mercenaries for what they are.
I agree with that completely, but also …
It is a paired thing. One the one hand active fighters are much better selected and trained, but on the other, anyone not fighting is likely to be a contractor.
One, I don’t think we can go back to conscripts; American culture has changed too much and it would not be accepted. I don’t understand why we maintain the fiction of a Selective Service System other than inertia.
Two, as has been pointed out, the nature of warfare has changed. I don’t see it going back. If we have wars on the scale of WWII, then that will end very badly given the lethality of weapons today.
Three, I suspect that the multipolar world that we have today is more stable in the aggregate than at anytime in the past. The hyperpower of the US after the fall of the Soviet Union was stabilizing in the short term but long term it is destabilizing. A smaller footprint of the US in the world may actually be more stabilizing in the long run. Yes, there will be conflicts but nothing on the massive scale of a world war.
@Rafer Janders: Partially agree. It depends on what the contractors are doing. It would also depend on how you define the term mercenaries. If they are in direct conflict and performing combat operations, yes. However, I would not characterize most of the contractors as mercenaries, they are support troops. Yes, there is a line where it can be blurred but by and large those performing cooking, cleaning, maintaining and other logistics tasks I would not consider them to be mercenaries.
But there’s room for argument here.
I”m not sure in what ways Bacevich is romanticizing the Civil War, but he might be missing a couple of points:
1. The North didn’t begin conscription until almost halfway through the war, and still few (about 2% to 8%) were conscripts or substitutes. There would have been no draft if it had been possible, particularly since it fueled violent protests and emboldened partisan mischief.
2. The “radical” economic changes were the economic policies of the Whig and Free-soil components of the Republican Party (tariff, infrastructure, defense, national bank, homesteading), and would have been pursued regardless of the war, though the withdrawal of the South made this easier.
@john personna: We hire a lot of local people as support on the bases. We’ve always done that, as anyone who has been stationed overseas can tell you.
Also, it seems to be a “thing” in that part of the world for third-country nationals to show up and look for work. You might be surprised how many people doing support-type work, even in the civilian sector, are from “somewhere else.” In Saudi Arabia, it’s Pakistanis; Kuwait, in my experience, has a lot of Filipinos. I wouldn’t expect Afghanistan to be much different.
Hence “from neither the U. S. nor the country in which they were working.”
Good point. The lethality a single soldier can bring to bear on the modern battlefield is far greater than in past wars. The availability of force multipliers like close air support is dramatically greater, because close air support as it’s done today did not exist during WW2.
So if I get the over-arching “professional soldier” perspective, it is that we need not (or cannot) ask citizens and voters to put their blood on the line.
What then should serve as a brake on military adventurism? Serving military are of course barred from lobbying for or against.
Can or would veterans associations fill the role?
Remember, the big political Jujutsu of the Bush years was that “support the troops” was make to mean “support the invasion” at a very critical juncture.
For a start, automatic war taxes. We could also revisit the War Powers Act which seems to have become totally ineffectual, assuming it ever was.
A well-informed electorate that understands the price paid.
I know, I know…but a guy can dream, right?
(Although I think the response to proposed intervention in Syria shows many Americans have reached a point where they are far less likely to support military adventurism…it’s too bad it took a bungled near-decade-long war and 4500 dead to get to that point.)
Most of the veterans’ organizations tend to shy away from opposition, as far as I can tell. Maybe they think opposition to military action will somehow end up being opposition to legitimate troop support.
Yes, indeed–people might be less prone to support military adventures if it cost them an additional 5% income tax every time we invaded somewhere.
Why wouldn’t you expect Afghanistan to be much different? It makes sense for people from other Third World countries to travel to places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for work, because those place are rich and peaceful. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is an impoverished war-torn hell-hole. It doesn’t exactly exert the same pull….
@Rafer Janders: Yeah, that occurred to me later on. It would take a bit more research to find out where the third-country nationals working in Afghanistan are from and how/why they decided to travel there.
@Rafer Janders: It seems Afghanistan does exert a pull–because the jobs pay quite well.
Africans in Afghanistan: When War Zones Become Lands of Opportunity
It is interesting that the upper income folk like the idea of a volunteer, rather a conscript, military. It just happens to coincide with their interest in not themselves ever ending up in the line of fire. Funny, that….
The plain fact is that a volunteer military often is an arrangement that looks a lot like a mercenary army. Essentially, the poor and the working class fight the war for pay,(often re-upping repeatedly) while the well-off cheer from the sidelines.
It’s great if someone goes off to fight for God and country. I suspect this is why James went, and many of his peers did as well. But the average soldier goes off to fight because he got a girl pregnant and he has to pay bills, or because he got a girl pregnant and wants to escape the situation, or because its the only way out of the ghetto or a dead end town or a dead end job. Even go to this day a few go because some judge gave them a choice between jail and the ranks. Another stat: one third of the women in the military are black. Is that because black women are far more patriotic than others? Hardly. Economics is the driver here.
The result is that for all the talk of what a fine thing the “professional” or “volunteer” army is, it is really an army made up of people who “volunteer” for economic reasons. And it is increasingly an army set apart from the rest of society.
Indeed. And remember how the western Roman Empire ended up.
@stonetools: The demographics of the Army are mostly the middle three quinitiles. Very few of the sons and daughters of the very rich volunteer to serve and most who do do so as officers. Very few of the sons and daughters of the very poor qualify to enlist. The other services, especially including the Marine Corps, are actually whiter and richer than the Army.
If you go to this page and scroll down to the graph labeled “Recruitment by Income Decile,” you’ll see the data support James’ statement. The very bottom and very top deciles are underrepresented and the fifth, sixth, and seventh are overrepresented.
James: “Given that Washington was able to sustain a much more massive, exponentially more deadly war through three presidential administrations with a draftee force, it stands to reason that something other than switching away from conscription is the underlying issue.”
Another way to phrase it is that the Cold War was an overarching part of life, and had come after WWII, that maintaining a large draftee force was a normal part of American life (and of course the post-WWII draft had many loopholes, which relieved some political pressure).
@Mikey: “Also, the technology of modern weapons systems means we couldn’t crank out short-term conscripts with any reasonable level of training. The days of pushing men through basic training and straight to the field are long past. It takes four months to train an infantry soldier to the most basic skill level, and most specialties even longer than that. And then there are more months of on-station training. ”
Note – in WWII, it took the US two years to build a division. In some ways, shorter than now, but it still took a looong time to get a good force put together. One can always throw men into battle with inadequate individual training, and no unit training, but they tended to get killed quickly, even in WWII.
I agree that the middle class and working class go into the armed forces. However, they are doing it because of economic circumstances-especially in these times . Can’t get the kind of good, secure job you aspire to? Go into the military. It’s a lot less “For God and country” and a lot more “This is the best ( or even ONLY way) to pay the bills”. Note the over representation of minorities with fewer job options. We all agree that the college educated, upper income folk are way under-represented in the military. They are happy to cheer folks on and “thank people for their service” though. Just don’t ask them to do any of the fighting.
We caused the deaths of up to half a million people for no good reason. Just dick swinging. Like Atrios said, how can the guy say this and not kill himself? How can W Bush not kill himself? If re-instituting the draft won’t stop this, how about trying Bush for war crimes? That might give his successors second thoughts.
The most egregious example of this–less than ten years after the end of WW2, no less–was the poorly-trained and even more poorly equipped Task Force Smith, which was defeated with 40% casualties at the beginning of the Korean War.
@stonetools: It’s never been exclusively “for God and country.” Draftees were mostly there because they had to be. At least the all-volunteer force is voluntarily present, whether they serve for love of country or for the GI Bill.