Friday, January 10, 2014

Breach of Trust: A Book Report

Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew J. Bacevich

Short review: Read it. It is worth reading.

Longer review: Bacevich is very good at systems analysis, but his synthesis and suggestions are a little shaky. He himself recognizes that.

I've read Bacevich's Limits of Power, and I think he is right on in predicting (if things stay the same) America's eventual collapse through perpetual war, the enrichment of out-of-touch elites (as well as private contractors, and members of the military-industrial-congressional complex, and I leave it to the reader to work out the Venn diagram), and the approaching privatized serfdom of anyone who isn't an elite (I believe the term is "niggerization").

He makes a similar argument in this book comparing the American Imperium's current taste for war to Imperial (and its extension, National Socialist) Germany, which couldn't see an answer that didn't involve shooting at the problem.

He goes further to suggest that U.S. foreign policy has undergone Israelification: anticipatory defense, preemptive war, and a display of a take-no-guff pugnacity. Considering Israel is a small country surrounded by hostile neighbors, and America is an immense country with no enemy even remotely close to it, one wonders how we arrive at this policy. But here we are, and, combined with the Pentagon's desire for full spectrum dominance, results in America looking like the biggest, most oppressive goon on the planet.

He places America's chickenshit behavior squarely at the feet of an indifferent American public, as well he should.  But the method, the displacement of the citizen-soldier for a volunteer professional army (as result of which, he contends, America, once a nation reluctant to enter into foreign wars without some personal stake on the part of the citizenry now freely engages in adventurism), I need to work that over a bit before I agree, if I do.

A corollary to this thesis is that all the failed wars America has waged (and in Bacevich's view, all wars after 1945 are failed wars) are the result of this public indifference, and I would agree with this. Consider the public reaction to the first Gulf War, which supposedly broke the back of Vietnam Syndrome, piling on to the mood of  unthinking triumphalism, followed by disaffection with a mild recession, ultimately resolved with still more consumer distractions, with most of the public ignoring the actual situation:
"Yet facts evident at the time ought to have warned Pentagon leaders against nursing utopian expectations. Those facts included not only the Somalia debacle (the true preview of things to come) but also the survival of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad; the failed uprising by Iraqi Shiites and Kurds after Desert Storm that saddled Washington with unforeseen enforcement and protection responsibilities; the emergence will-nilly of a "dual containment" policy directed against both Iraq and Iran; and the establishment of a large scale military presence in the Islamic world, inducing lethal blowback in the form of terrorist attacks directed against U.S. forces  and American interests. The actual legacy of Desert Storm was to plunge the United States more deeply into a sea of difficulties for which military power provided no antidote."
However, though the fault of America's unfortunate foreign escapades must surely be place at the feet of John Q. Public, I am not convinced that the systemic problem is entirely through abandonment of the  the so-called citizen-soldier militia. In fact, save for occasional dissent (and even that usually after the fact and sometimes with the outcome going badly) Americans have displayed a remarkable bloodthirstiness, bellicosity, and full-throated approval of kicking the shit out of (almost invariably) lesser opponents.

The Mexican War, the hundreds of Indian wars, the Spanish-American War all serve as examples where a citizen-soldiery stood ready to exercise a vigorous belligerence, with nary a thought as to the consequences.

Bacevitch suggest some form of return to the draft, perhaps a national service requirement with only some (presumably vetted) portion of young people seeing military service. Public apathy being what it is, Bacevitch doesn't hold out much hope for it. I would agree, and I would suggest there is no systemic solution to his complaints.

Uncorrelated Dog Ears from the book:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt surely must stand as the second greatest (behind Lincoln, possibly) president we have had. It was he who brilliantly took a jug-eared, slack-jawed rube of a nation, and turned it into a jug-eared, slack-jawed, world-striding titan. This really is worth an essay all on its own.
"...although achieving victory would require shared sacrifice, the president would seek to limit the pain and suffering that Americans would actually endure. The price of defeating the Axis promised to be high. Yet FDR intended, wherever possible, to offload that price onto others, the while claiming for the United States the lion's share of any benefits... the outcome of World War II turned, above all, on two factors: in Europe, the prowess and durability of the Red Army; in the Pacific, the weakness and vulnerability of the Japanese economy".
On the ineffectual and blinkered views of both the left and the right:
 "Yet a people who permit war to be waged in their name while offloading onto a tiny minority responsibility for it's actual conduct have no cause to complain about an equally small minority milking the system for all it's worth. Crudely put, if the very rich are engaged in ruthlessly exploiting the 99 percent who are not, their actions are analogous to that of American society as a whole in its treatment of soldiers: the 99 percent who do not serve in uniform just as ruthlessly exploit the 1 percent who do."
Where it stands now, and has since at least 1917. Again, the centenary of that conflict deserves any number of essays:
"Having forfeited responsibility for war's design and conduct, the American people may find that Washington considers that grant of authority irrevocable. The state now owns war, with the country consigned to observer status." 
"...efforts by intellectuals (or quasi intellectuals) eager to do the bidding of power more than offset the efforts of those intent on holding power accountable... (the essayist Randolph) Bourne bitterly opposed U.S. involvement in World War I. A great majority of American intellectuals had shared that position - until President Woodrow Wilson declared it incumbent upon the United States to join hands with Great Britain, France, and Russia in making the "world safe for democracy". With that, the intellectual stampede in favor of war commenced. Wilson depicted the war as a contest pitting civilization against barbarism. Not buying this line, Bourne took out after intellectuals who did. "Only in world where irony is dead" he wrote, "could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy"... to believe otherwise was to allow a faux patriotism to eclipse independent judgement. Yet once Congress declared war, a demand for slavish compliance swept through editorial offices and faculty lounges like a hurricane. "In a time of faith" Bourne wryly observed, "skepticism is the most intolerable of insults"."

1 comment:

  1. So a guilty pleasure of my sci-fi addicted youth was Piers Anthony's Battle Circle trilogy. I found it simultaneously titillating, entertaining, and informative, specifically wrt the levels of ruthlessness required to maintain good working civilization at a certain scale, and, the indispensable role of a meritocratic warrior class in maintaining such a civilization at a certain scale.

    Hands-down, the most honorable, civilized, capable, and decent people I've had the good fortune of meeting, working with, and being influenced by, are men of a prior generation who were conscripted and who then made the most of the system they found themselves embedded in. I would call them citizen-soldier-scholars - because without exception - they each maximized the educational opportunities presented to them in the service, and each rose from enlisted man to the rank of major or lt. cmdr, and in a few instances, flag officer.

    I don't think any other experience in the modern era can rival the span of access, exposure, and responsibility that the citizen/soldier/scholar experience post WW-II offered a deep and wide cross-section of American men. WW-III's coming, and with it a draft - not only because it will be an existential conflict - but also because the only way to implement the massive social engineering required to take us from here to where we need to be is in the compulsory context of military training.