Breach of Logic

James Joyner
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
November-December 2013
Center for the National Interest
Andrew J. Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country [5] (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 256 pp., $26.00. FOLLOWING HIS graduation from West Point, Andrew J. Bacevich had a distinguished career as an army officer, retiring as a colonel and serving in both Vietnam and the Gulf War. He has since carved out a second career as an iconoclastic scholar preaching the evils of perpetual war. In numerous essays and books, Bacevich, who teaches international relations at Boston University, has ventilated his contempt and despair for America's penchant for intervention abroad, directing his ire at both the liberal hawks and neoconservatives. Throughout, his stands have been rooted in a cultural conservatism that sees America as having strayed badly from its republican origins to succumb to the imperial temptation.
Political Geography
United States, America, Vietnam, England
In his new book Breach of Trust, Bacevich expands upon his critique of American society and the military. Bacevich's central contention is that a chasm has developed between the two, one that ill serves both. He depicts a crisis in civil-military relations, one that rests on the transformation of the military into a separate caste in violation of the fundamental tenets of American democracy. Historically, it has been citizens who have shouldered the responsibility to defend the Republic. Relying on professionals, he argues, makes war too easy and those trusted with conducting it unaccountable. But just how compelling are these claims? Bacevich explains that he "began this book intending to write a conventional narrative history of U.S. civil-military relations since World War II," but ultimately decided to write on the problems created by America's "reliance on a force of military professionals who exist at a considerable remove from the rest of society." He would have been better served had he pursued the intended project. Instead, he has produced an unpersuasive work that vents myriad gripes and grievances while misattributing their cause. 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." Next in his 2010 work, Washington Rules, Bacevich references Henry Luce's 1941 Life manifesto clamoring for an "American Century" and exhorting his fellow citizens to "accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Bacevich rightly tells us that "at times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long service professionals." Yet a continuity exists: Call them the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism. The arguments in those two books are, on their face, much more in accord with the historical record. And indeed, 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. He cites statements by Winston Churchill and the Pentagon's Joint War Plans Committee that the populations of England and the United States would not put up with a long war of attrition. He says that this is why "compared to the losses suffered by the other major belligerents, the United States emerged from the war largely unscathed." It also helped that we joined World War II several years after the other nations and fought it as an away game and therefore took no casualties on the home front. But the democracies generally took few casualties compared to the autocratic states; the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan and China are the only participants who lost as many as five hundred thousand dead-and they all lost millions. Moreover, the United States lost over thirty-six thousand in Korea and fifty-eight thousand in Vietnam, both with draftee armies. In all of the wars and military actions over the four decades of the all-volunteer era combined, we've lost fewer than 7,600. The death of 266 volunteers was enough to send us high-tailing it out of Beirut; it only took forty-three in Somalia. While it's not inconceivable that the transition to an all-volunteer force has made us more risk averse rather than less-Bacevich himself has documented the emergence of a cult of worship of the military-the more plausible explanations lie elsewhere. Many of the interventions of the past decades, while small, were undertaken to further peripheral interests. The fact that the battles of the last two decades have been fought and documented almost instantaneously on television and, more recently, in social media has also personalized each casualty in a way that didn't happen even as recently as Vietnam. Military training, equipment and medical care have all improved radically, reducing the death toll. Regardless, there's simply no evidence that the fact that "somebody else" is doing the fighting and dying has made us less sensitive to the loss of American sons and daughters. Far from it. We're demonstrably much more sensitive to military casualties than we were during the most recent draft era and, indeed, any previous point in American history. 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. As a consequence of the Great Decoupling, Bacevich charges, "Washington's penchant for war has appreciably increased." This is nonsense. As Geoffrey Perret lays out, in a book Bacevich cites elsewhere, we are A Country Made By War. The book's subtitle: From the Revolution to Vietnam-The Story of America's Rise to Power. Consult a timeline of U.S. military operations and one finds a steady stream of them throughout every time period, seemingly irrespective of whether there's a draft on. Similarly, Bacevich repeatedly refers to George C. Marshall's declaration that "a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War," noting that we did just that in Iraq, with an all-volunteer force, but somehow overlooking the fact that we also did it in Vietnam with a conscript force-odd, considering he served there himself as a young army officer. Indeed, the war had passed the seven-year threshold by the time he left. Nor is this the only place that Bacevich goes badly astray. He notes that Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on ending the draft on the grounds that it was incompatible with freedom. Bacevich attributes this to "Nixonesque opportunism" aimed at undermining the antiwar protests and laments that "although Nixon had run for the presidency vowing to end the Vietnam War, eliminating the draft permitted him instead to prolong it." This is wrong. Nixon empaneled the Gates Commission, which recommended a move to an all-volunteer force in its February 1970 report. But the existing draft was scheduled to expire at the end of June 1971, and Nixon asked for and received a two-year extension. The draft did not end until June 1973-five months after the Paris peace accords ended U.S. combat operations in Vietnam and three months after the last American troops left South Vietnam. At times, Bacevich seems to be arguing against himself. He cites Lyndon Johnson's White House aide Joseph Califano's suggestion that "by removing the middle class from even the threat of conscription, we remove perhaps the greatest inhibition on a President's decision to wage war." Bacevich smacks him down: "Yet conscription hadn't dissuaded Harry Truman from intervening in Korea in 1950 or stopped Johnson from plunging into Vietnam in 1965, facts that sapped Califano's argument of its persuasive power." Indeed. And Bacevich's. BACEVICH ALSO provides a muddled account of social change in the military. He recounts the substantial improvements in the lot of the enlisted soldier that were necessary to "induce sufficient numbers of smart, able-bodied young Americans to volunteer for military service." He notes, "In peacetime, the army had treated the draftee as an unskilled day laborer, available to perform whatever tasks might need doing. In the volunteer army, a soldier's time acquired value. An increasingly costly commodity, it was not to be wasted on nonessentials." While seemingly cause for celebration, Bacevich detects in these changes the roots of the institution's own destruction. For one thing, routine drudge work-"scrubbing pots and pans, grooming the parade ground, and even guarding the front gate"-was farmed out to civilian contractors. It's true that pretty much every large company and organization in the country has done the same thing and, indeed, wouldn't even consider making its own employees perform these tasks. But, for Bacevich, "Here was another insurgency of sorts, for-profit enterprises taking over turf the army had previously claimed as its own. In pursuit of economy, the army forfeited self-sufficiency." Even worse, while draftees tended to be single and get out as soon as they were legally able, volunteers tended to get married, start families and reenlist. This is a good thing, no? Apparently not, in that it obligated the army to become "family friendly" and build child-care centers. Also, the wives were "no longer content to accept the designation of 'dependent' while offering their services as volunteers, that is, unpaid auxiliaries." This is truly a bizarre formulation. For one thing, it was not the wives of draftees who served as "unpaid auxiliaries." As Bacevich himself notes, the draftees were mostly young and single. It was the wives of the senior noncommissioned officers and officers who "volunteered" to run the social support network and keep the fires burning on the home front. Moreover, none of this was a function of ending conscription and going with an all-volunteer force; rather, it was a function of changes in society as a whole. The women's movement was under way at the same time as we were moving to an all-volunteer force and would almost surely have come to fruition even if we had not. Indeed, some of the same cultural changes that challenged conscript soldiering made treating its women as second-class citizens unacceptable. And that's to say nothing of the notion that we ought to augment a system where men are forced to serve in the military with one that likewise obligates their wives. Freedom isn't free, I guess. Similarly, Bacevich seems to lament the fact that "life for military families residing off-base became all but indistinguishable from the life of nonmilitary families living next door" and that "both on duty and off, the army became a place that Beetle Bailey would have scarcely recognized and into which he would not have been allowed entry." Offhand, these strike me as unalloyed goods. Quoting a young female recruit's 1975 prediction that "if there's another war, we'll be there because with this voluntary system the men who don't want to be here aren't here," Bacevich writes, "Male and female alike, Americans had abandoned collective obligation in favor of personal choice. Thanks to Richard Nixon, this applied to soldiering no less than to other pursuits." Why this is anything but cause for celebration, Bacevich does not disclose. Indeed, he concedes that, while there have been some unfortunate incidents along the way, overall women "performed admirably" in the war in Iraq. Beyond this, while active recruiting of women into positions formerly reserved for males was doubtless initially a necessary compromise to increase the pool of potential volunteers, the aforementioned changes in the society writ large would have forced it to happen with or without a draft. AFTER THE fall of the Soviet Union, Bacevich tells us, "For the Pentagon, peace posed a concrete and imminent threat. Generals who had slept undisturbed back when Warsaw Pact commanders had ostensibly been planning to launch World War III now fretted nervously over the prospect of their budget taking a hit." In response, Bacevich charges, army leaders "conjure[d] up new dangers" to which only the "army could offer the necessary response." And, he tells us, Saddam Hussein proved "a made-to-order helpmate." The problem with this is that when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. Army was still very much on a Cold War footing. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall months earlier, few were expecting the imminent collapse of the USSR. And the army brass, including Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were far from eager for war in Iraq against Saddam's mighty, battle-tested army. It was not until well after Desert Storm that the end of the Cold War suddenly became obvious to all. Browse through the archives of this journal, for example, and one will find talk of "The Coming Resurgence of Russia" and musings such as "If the Cold War is over, why do we still feel a chill wind?" in the spring of 1991. No doubt Bacevich nicely documents the exuberance with which the army embraced its post-Cold War transition into a lighter, smaller, more versatile force (if downplaying the extent to which it remained essentially a scale model of its predecessor). He suggests that Army Chief of Staff Gordon R. Sullivan and others in the brass were obsessed with demonstrating "continued relevance" and were "keen to put soldiers to work, taking on new assignments in unfamiliar places." The evidence here is slight. Indeed, Bacevich notes that "within two years of the Soviet Union's demise, Sullivan had discerned that the world was 'growing more dangerous.'" Sullivan identified a litany of problems: "ethnic and religious hostility, weapons proliferation, power struggles created by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, elimination of the fear of regional conflicts escalating to superpower confrontation, radicalisms of a number of varieties, rising expectations of democracy and free markets coupled with the inability of governments to meet those expectations." As it turns out, Sullivan was remarkably prescient. Furthermore, civilian international-relations scholars were writing the exact same thing at the time. It was hardly as if the army was alone in trying to divine the shape of the "post-Cold War" future; it was a full-blown industry. Oddly, Bacevich seems here to be arguing for a larger force-or, at least, the ability to rapidly create one via conscription should the nation so desire. Bacevich correctly notes that, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the force was "much too small for the tasks at hand. The quality differential-highly trained, extravagantly equipped troops-did not fully compensate for the shortage of numbers." Additionally, he points out that, with an all-volunteer force, "there existed no easy way to convert a too-small force into a sufficiently large one." As a result of this shortfall, a very high operations tempo became "the new normal" for active-duty soldiers. Yet, in contrast to the conscript force in Vietnam, "the army as a whole did not disintegrate, nor did troops in the ranks protest or revolt. They kept going back again and again to wars they could not win." The problems with this analysis are manifold. First off, it's by no means a given that having a substantially larger available force-even one comparably trained and equipped, much less an inferior version-would have made the difference in Iraq or Afghanistan. As in Vietnam, it's quite probable that the strategic goals were simply unachievable, especially at a price America was willing to pay. Second, to the extent that the missions to which we apply military force are in the nation's interests, it would seem beneficial indeed that the current force is ready, willing and able to absorb the bumps and bruises of the long fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and go on to the next fight. Third-and Bacevich's writings here and elsewhere make it clear he agrees-the solution to the problem of not winning unwinnable wars is rather obvious: stop fighting them. But that's a decision up to civilian policy makers, not the service chiefs. The common thread is one that Bacevich discussed at length in The New American Militarism: a large standing force. In the introduction to that book, he quotes James Madison: "War is the parent of armies." But it is also the case that armies are the parent of war. This is not because of some sinister cabal of war profiteers in a military-industrial complex-the merchants of death, as they were known after World War I-but rather because, in a world where presidents are constantly besieged to "do something" about myriad global crises, that "something" quite frequently has a military component. Over the last two decades, these forces have been routinely called up without backlash from the public or the citizen-soldiers themselves. Bacevich says, "The military thereby voided the implicit contract that had defined the terms of service for these part-time soldiers-that the nation would call upon them only in extreme emergencies-and converted them in effect into an adjunct of the active-duty force." Then again, this has now been the norm for more than two decades, going back to Desert Shield and Desert Storm and continuing without much break through the various humanitarian interventions of the 1990s and the war on terror. Those who signed up in recent years surely were not promised the "implicit contract" that was in effect when Bacevich and I served. Indeed, for all but the most senior members, the Reserve Component has always been an adjunct of the active force. Bacevich claims that "all options remain on the table" has become the "signature phrase of contemporary American statecraft." He further asserts: All it takes to bomb Belgrade, invade Iraq, or send Navy SEALs into Pakistan is concurrence among a half dozen people and a nod from the president. No need to secure prior congressional assent, certainly no need to consult the American people: that's what the all-volunteer force allows. But the all-volunteer force came into being with the end of the draft on June 30, 1973. Earlier that same year, Congress passed, over Nixon's veto, the War Powers Resolution, which sought to claw back some of the legislature's power over the use of force after decades of executive overreach. It's debatable whether the trend has accelerated since the end of the draft and, if it has, whether and to what extent the end of the draft contributed to said acceleration. By definition, however, something that happened well after a trend has been identified cannot be the cause of the trend. BACEVICH IDENTIFIES some genuine problems with the American military that ought to be addressed. He notes that there were some 260,000 contractors on American payrolls in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, "more than the total number of U.S. troops committed to those theaters." The expansion of private security contractors is indeed very expensive and wrought with issues of command and control. But he lumps in private security contractors who are de facto mercenary soldiers with those engaged in food service and other logistical duties; these are very different issues. In addition, Bacevich charges, with little evidence, that the explosion in contractors is the result not of a bloated, disconnected bureaucracy and a Congress failing in its oversight responsibilities but rather of a cozy relationship between members of Congress, retired generals and admirals, and the rich fat cats who stand to profit from massive government contracts amounting to legally sanctioned corruption. Bacevich reasons that, with a large conscript force, the military could go back to "guarding its own gates, hauling its own fuel and supplies, preparing its own rations, and disposing of its own human waste, not to mention doing its own thinking." But there's no obvious reason why it would want to-much less why Americans should consent to allowing their sons and daughters to be involuntarily conscripted to perform such menial tasks. To be sure, contracting out these functions is expensive, and there has been a good amount of fraud, waste and abuse. Bacevich cites several studies pointing to over $60 billion in such losses, equal to "about $1 for every $3.50 spent on contractors." But much of this money went to overseas firms, meaning it wasn't lining the pockets of American businessmen, politicians and other elites, and all of it was subject to the vast Pentagon contracting bureaucracy. A July report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is devastating in its critique of both Defense Department and USAID leadership on this issue. Such boondoggles as "moving forward with a $771.8 million purchase of aircraft the Afghan National Army cannot operate or maintain" will not be solved by the involuntary servitude of America's youth for latrine duty. The last third of the book is devoted to odd anecdotes calling out various pet peeves only tangentially related to the ostensible thesis. Considerable space is devoted to the sad saga of Colonel Theodore Westhusing, a 1983 West Point graduate who earned a PhD in philosophy at Emory studying military honor-only to commit suicide in Iraq when "his conception of honor collided with a radically discordant reality." After receiving an anonymous letter claiming that a government contractor was not only cheating the U.S. government but also committing human-rights abuses, Westhusing dutifully reported it up his chain of command to then lieutenant general David Petraeus-appending his own view that the allegations were unfounded and that the contractor was "complying with its contractual obligations." Inexplicably, Westhusing suddenly demonstrated a complete change of personality and, a week after alerting Petraeus, fatally shot himself with his service revolver. Rather than seeing this as an indictment of the army's mental-health system, Bacevich concludes that corrupt contractors and a leadership that looks the other way are to blame. Indeed, it was "a sacrificial act and should command the attention of anyone concerned about the health of the military profession." Bacevich sneers at an army psychologist's conclusion that Westhusing possessed a "surprisingly limited" ability to understand that some people sought to profit from war and instead believed "that doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do should be the sole motivator for businesses." That some seek to profit from war has been a fact of life since well before the American Revolution; it should surely not have been news to a highly educated army colonel in 2005, let alone so at odds with one's worldview as to prompt suicide. Yet, despite the fact that Westhusing's own report cleared the contractor in this instance, his death was somehow "the fire bell that rang in the night" and demonstrates that "in forging its lucrative partnership with defense contractors, the army to which he had devoted his life had sullied itself." Bacevich's solution: "Limit the nation's ambitions to those that a relatively small professional army can manage (which implies giving up on globalism) or . . . revive the citizen-soldier tradition (with globalism becoming contingent on a popular willingness to participate in war)." But these are not the only choices. Indeed, the more obvious response would be to expand the size of the professional force such that the tasks could be performed by uniformed troops subject to the chain of command, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the law of war. PERHAPS THE most disquieting passages in Bacevich's book appear toward its close. He says, "U.S. national security policy increasingly conforms to patterns of behavior pioneered by the Jewish state." He charges that the United States is "mimicking Israel" by treating relatively powerless foes as major threats, often through the preemptive use of force. He describes the bipartisan post-Cold War approach as a "quest for global military dominance" in which "the United States stumbled willy-nilly into an Israel-style condition of perpetual war-with peace increasingly tied to unrealistic expectations that adversaries and would-be adversaries will comply with Washington's demands for submission." Consequently, armed intervention went from occasional to commonplace. While the United States intervenes abroad militarily far too often, the evidence that a "quest for global military dominance" is the root cause is dubious. As Bacevich himself notes in The New American Militarism, "With the end of the Cold War, the constraints that once held American ideologues in check fell away." As the world's sole superpower, it should not be surprising that America's new status came with increased demands, both domestically and internationally, to "do something" whenever a major global crisis erupted. 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. James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed in this essay are his own.