Mark Twain famously wrote that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Unfortunately, today’s wars seem to lack even that infinitesimal saving grace. Could one American in ten actually name the five countries the U.S. bombed last year? Or the seven we bombed annually from 2011–2018? Not bloody likely. What we have, in Andrew Bacevich’s view, is a populace that “apart from ritualistic gestures intended to ‘support the troops,’ have become largely indifferent to the role this country plays in global affairs.”
Over the past two decades, Bacevich has developed into the most trenchant critic of American foreign policy to come along since Noam Chomsky. And with a CV that includes West Point graduate, retired U.S. Army colonel, father of a soldier killed in the Iraq War, editor of a book called American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, it has not been possible to dismiss him as part of the “blame America first” crowd.
In introducing his recent cri de coeur, After the Apocalypse, Bacevich compares it to a brief volume that French historian and citizen-soldier Marc Bloch wrote in a “white heat of rage” immediately following his nation’s lightning defeat in the Second World War. While “The generation to which I belong`has a bad conscience,” Bloch wrote in Strange Defeat, Bacevich himself says that “With some honorable exceptions, the generation of Americans to which I belong has traded its conscience for a mess of pottage.”
Bacevich’s central concern is “American exceptionalism” and “the vainglory pervading the American ruling class,” as exemplified by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s statement that “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future,” words spoken, he notes, as the Clinton administration was preparing “another round of air strikes, deemed necessary by authorities in Washington who had persuaded themselves that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to the United States.”
Yet demented as the crowd at the top may be, Bacevich appears even more troubled by the breadth of the shallowness of American thinking. Citing a 2007 Memorial Day event in his home town of Walpole, Massachusetts that he addressed, along with the town’s state senator and representative, he writes, “entering its fifth year, the Iraq War had obviously not gone well. To my astonishment those two legislators, their duties not even remotely related to military affairs, each launched into a rousing presentation that offered variations on Albright’s theme: The ongoing war was a righteous one; the troops were certain to prevail; the eventual triumph of freedom and democracy was assured.”
The former military man spares few and little, stating that while “Over the course of its national existence, the United States has done important and admirable things. It has also committed grave sins.” The list of sins includes: Imperialism — from the settler nation’s nineteenth century Manifest Destiny, through the attempted overthrows — some successful, some not — of governments Washington didn’t like in Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, and most recently “the misguided wars launched in the wake of 9/11.” Militarism, including “a Pentagon budget easily surpassing that of any plausible combination of adversaries; some eight hundred military bases scattered in some 140 countries around the globe; and a penchant for armed intervention that finds U.S. forces perpetually at war.”
And “most troubling of all … U.S. involvement in the intentional killing of noncombatants, which is always wrong and can never be justified by ‘military necessity.’” Here he aims right at the aura of the “Good War” and the “Greatest Generation.” Recalling that President Franklin Roosevelt called upon the early Second World War combatant governments to agree that they would “in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations,” he then brings up the inconvenient truth that after the U.S. entered the war it proceeded to kill an estimated 410,000 civilians in the bombing of German cities (in consort with the United Kingdom), and a comparable number in Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More recently there were the half million civilians killed in the American air war on Southeast Asia in the1960s and 70s. And the “comprehensive campaign aimed at leveling North Korean cities” that “exterminated a million or more noncombatants,” the mention of which must count as one of the book’s most impressive points, in that most Americans who know anything about that war — even on the left — appear to consider this massacre somehow retroactively justified by the governments that later emerged in North Korea.
In more recent matters, he asks “why did inaugurating a Global War on Terrorism ever seem like a good idea? Who invested that proposition with plausibility?” Believing that this “truly bum idea” will ultimately be remembered in the company of Prohibition, the war on drugs, and the Laffer Curve, he recognizes that proponents of such fiascos generally devote themselves to covering their tracks. Still, he finds it remarkable that in 2020 both the Marine Corps planning document “Force Design 2030” and the Navy’s “Battle Force 2045” would contain “not a single reference to the … experience in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
So far this century, he finds the orthodoxy at the top decidedly bipartisan: George W. Bush creating “out of whole cloth an Axis of Evil” and starting two wars; John McCain, “committed to winning the ongoing war, whatever the cost”; Barack Obama, who “tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” and committed to a “comprehensive $1.7 trillion program to outfit the U.S. nuclear arsenal with new warheads, bombers, submarines, and missles”; Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state “engineered an armed intervention in Libya that unleashed the forces of anarchy there,” followed by one of the cruder comments made by a world leader in recent years when she said of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, “We came. We saw. He died”; Donald Trump who “abandoned even the pretense of Washington playing the role of an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”; Joe Biden, who “as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee … ardently supported the 2003 Iraq invasion,” and as a candidate, “surrounded himself with members of the post-Cold War foreign policy establishment devoted to preserving a global Pax Americana.”
Bacevich, however, does give Trump credit for one thing — not laboring “under the illusion that America is great because it is good” — as Hillary Clinton had averred in her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech. He cites Trump’s response to a question about his friendly attitude toward Vladimir Putin, whom his interviewer called “a killer.” “There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied, “You think our country’s so innocent?” A burst of candor, Bacevich writes, that was “never to be repeated.”
Interestingly, Bernie Sanders gets no mention in the book. Possibly the simple fact that he failed to win the presidential nomination is sufficient explanation, but this reader would be hard pressed to imagine him placed within the spectrum of the above mentioned candidates. A better world was indeed possible.
The overriding problem, as Bacevich sees it, is “A narrow conception of national security” that “satisfies the needs of armed forces and the military-industrial complex,” but “leaves the American people vulnerable to whatever misfortune befalls them next.” He points out that in 2020 an American aircraft carrier was put out of action for the first time since World War II. Terrorist attack? No, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was forced to shore by COVID-19, demonstrating for Bacevich that true national security would involve things like U.S. retaining “within its borders the ability to manufacture the wherewithal required to address any health emergency on any scale,” the ability “to anticipate and respond to climate-exacerbated natural disasters, both at home” and in cooperation with Canada and Mexico, and energy independence.
What would happen if Bacevich had his way? Simply “wholesale transformation of national security policy on a scale not seen since the outbreak of the Cold War.” Referring to the recent defund the police movement, he says, “If there is defunding to be done, it should begin not with the police, but with the Pentagon.” Among his major suggestions is American withdrawal from the 80-year old North American Treaty Organization: “The United States should … proclaim ‘Mission Accomplished’ and move on to more pressing matters.” He also proposes that the U.S. “liquidate the U.S. military presence in the Greater Middle East. United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) should close up shop.”
Bacevich does, however, appear to have one blind spot in his sweep-the-decks thinking — East Asia where he sees potential for a new Cold War with China and even the “possibility of an actual shooting war.” There he thinks that the U.S. should “continue to maintain a military presence.” But the fact is that, objectionable as some of China’s domestic policies may be, and threatening as some American corporate interests may find China’s growing global economic reach, its territorial interests appear to be strictly confined to land that historically has been part of China. And since it’s hard to imagine that anyone as level headed as Bacevich would consider a land war with China to be a sane prospect, it would seem that his advice regarding the Middle East — “De-emphasize military presence in favor of diplomatic engagement” — would apply equally well to this arena.
That lapse notwithstanding, we’d certainly be far better off if D.C. policy makers started listening to voices like Bacevich’s instead of continuing to go back to the crowd that told them the Iraq War was a good idea.