The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by WarGermany was a militarized society in the 19th century. Japan was a militarised society in late 19th and early 20th century. The US only developed a serious persistent military force after World War II, but increasingly we are becoming a militarized society. This is why so many nations are afraid of us, and why the Economist recently reported a highly negative worldwide opinion of America.
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Oxford University Press, 270 pp., $28.00
Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic who now directs the study of international relations at Boston University. He has thus earned the right to a hearing even in circles typically immune to criticism. What he writes should give them pause. His argument is complex, resting on a close account of changes in the US military since Vietnam, on the militarization of strategic political thinking, and on the role of the military in American culture. But his conclusion is clear. The United States, he writes, is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.
Why does the US Department of Defense currently maintain 725 official US military bases outside the country and 969 at home (not to mention numerous secret bases)? Why does the US spend more on 'defense' than all the rest of the world put together? After all, it has no present or likely enemies of the kind who could be intimidated or defeated by 'star wars' missile defense or bunker-busting 'nukes.' And yet this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, 'preemptive' war, 'preventive' war, 'surgical' war, 'prophylactic' war, 'permanent' war. As President Bush explained at a news conference on April 13, 2004, 'This country must go on the offense and stay on the offense.'
Among democracies, only in America do soldiers and other uniformed servicemen figure ubiquitously in political photo ops and popular movies. Only in America do civilians eagerly buy expensive military service vehicles for suburban shopping runs. In a country no longer supreme in most other fields of human endeavor, war and warriors have become the last, enduring symbols of American dominance and the American way of life. 'In war, it seemed,' writes Bacevich, 'lay America's true comparative advantage.'
Bacevich is good on the intellectual roots of the cult of therapeutic aggression—citing among others the inimitable Norman Podhoretz (America has an international mission and must never 'come home'). He also summarizes the realist case for war—rooted in what will become the country's increasingly desperate struggle to control the fuel supply. The United States consumes 25 percent of all the oil produced in the world every year but has proven reserves of its own amounting to less than 2 percent of the global total. This struggle Bacevich calls World War IV: the contest for supremacy in strategic, energy-rich regions like the Middle East and Central Asia. It began at the end of the Seventies, long before the formal conclusion of 'World War III' (i.e., the cold war).
In this setting today's 'Global War on Terror' is one battle, perhaps just a sideshow, among the potentially limitless number of battles that the US will be called upon (or will call upon itself) to fight. These battles will all be won because the US has a monopoly of the most advanced weaponry—and they may be acceptable to the American people because, in Bacevich's view, that same weaponry, air power especially, has given war 'aesthetic respectability' once again. But the war itself has no foreseeable end.
As a former soldier, Bacevich is much troubled by the consequent militarization of American foreign relations, and by the debauching of his country's traditional martial values in wars of conquest and occupation. And it is clear that he has little tolerance for Washington's ideologically driven overseas adventures: the uncertain benefits for the foreign recipients are far outweighed by the moral costs to the US itself. For Bacevich's deepest concern lies closer to home. In a militarized society the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks. Opposition to the 'commander in chief' is swiftly characterized as lese-majeste; criticism becomes betrayal. No nation, as Madison wrote in 1795 and Bacevich recalls approvingly, can 'preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.' 'Full-spectrum dominance' begins as a Pentagon cliche and ends as an executive project.