Thursday, July 1

Well, There's Your Problem Right There

Andrew Bacevich, "Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance". June 27

I'M recovering from two minor shocks this week, the second being last night's Channel 8-assisted revelation that Indiana Sixth District Choirboy Mike Pence is really, really, really in favor of extending unemployment benefits to, well, the unemployed who've lost benefits, and feels their pain so acutely that he's driven to explain--for local consumption--why he's voted against doing so at every opportunity since the 2008 elections. It's the Budget, don't ya know. Gotta draw the line somewheres. It ain't like we're in the perfect fiscal shape we enjoyed back in October of 2008.

The second was that Colonel Bacevich (USA ret) is in fact even older than I am, which I hadn't guessed, and which means that at least one of us had a first-hand perspective of Vietnam (Bacevich served, in country, as they say when they are trying to sound like they know something) that differs a bit from what they call Reality, which is what they say when they don't know what else to call it. I vote him.

Do not get me wrong. Bacevich served, and, furthermore, he lost a son, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr., in Iraq. He was perceptive about the risks of that war early on, and in print. He's a professor of International Relations at Boston U., and a Princeton Ph.D., and he makes any number of good points here. I'm the mouthy idiot. It's just my continuing insistence that what this country really needs Divine protection from is not Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, but the Middle: "Conservatives" for Obama and Democrats for Unlimited Militarism Provided Everyone Feels Good About It.
Long wars are antithetical to democracy. Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government.

The American Revolutionary War took eight and one-half years. The Civil War took four, and for at least the last three of those Lincoln expended considerable energy convincing the North to continue, and jailing those who disagreed. Our share of the Second World War was over in three and a half, but public sentiment was just as solidly behind it on V-E Day as it was on Pearl Harbor Day. Even before Congress shut down the draft in 1972, half the men in Vietnam were enlistees.

So I'm gonna say this: either there's something about Afghanistan which justifies the switch from 9/11 Changed Everything! to Quagmire!, or there's something about the modern American public which is shallow, fickle, ill-informed and easily (mis)lead, or the toxins are particularly potent this time. Or all three.
Not least among those values is a code of military conduct that honors the principle of civilian control while keeping the officer corps free from the taint of politics. Events of the past week -- notably the Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's dismissal -- hint at the toll that nearly a decade of continuous conflict has exacted on the U.S. armed forces. The fate of any one general qualifies as small beer: Wearing four stars does not signify indispensability. But indications that the military's professional ethic is eroding, evident in the disrespect for senior civilians expressed by McChrystal and his inner circle, should set off alarms.

Because before last week, who ever heard of an arrogant General contemptuous of his civilian bosses? Apart from anyone who's ever taken a cursory glance, I mean.
In Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson plunged the United States into what became its Seven Years War. The citizen army that was sent to Southeast Asia fought valiantly for a time and then fell to pieces. As the conflict dragged on, Americans in large numbers turned against the war -- and also against the troops who fought it.

Okay, again: my experience is anecdotal, but that's at least one more anecdote than anyone offers in support of the idea. I sorta came in at the tail-end of things, but I knew several people who served, some of whom were close enough to my age for me to know them well. And I opposed that war from the time I was old enough to learn what was going on, first in a sort of generalized Christian pacifist sense, later from beneath the full weight of our monumental historical error and moral failing. I never heard anyone in my peer group express actual contempt for the troops, because we were all in the same boat, the one on a collision course with the Selective Service. And we all knew how unpleasant and life-altering were the alternatives. It may've been different if one went to West Point. But I'm tired of the easy calumnies, Colonel. The guy I knew who came back from Indochina without the legs he'd walked in on was cared for, in the remaining half-dozen years of his life, by Hippies. And not particularly clean ones.
After Vietnam, the United States abandoned its citizen army tradition, oblivious to the consequences. In its place, it opted for what the Founders once called a "standing army" -- a force consisting of long-serving career professionals.

For a time, the creation of this so-called all-volunteer force, only tenuously linked to American society, appeared to be a master stroke. Washington got superbly trained soldiers and Republicans and Democrats took turns putting them to work. The result, once the Cold War ended, was greater willingness to intervene abroad.

Iran, Yugoslavia, Uruguay, Greece, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Lebanon, Panama, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Panama, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Cambodia, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Iran, Libya, Bolivia.

Ring any bells, Professor? It's a list of direct foreign military interventions, manpower or materiel, between the beginning of the Cold War to the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. (It excepts covert actions.) Not exactly my definition of Reticence.

The truth is actually found on the reverse of that coin: we felt able to continue shoving around fifth-rate powers because we weren't conscripting armies of anti-war voters. (Since 1989 the list reads: Iraq/Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Haiti, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Colombia, Iraq, Haiti, Pakistan, and Somalia. If that was a sudden change in Batting Average we wouldn't exactly suspect steroid use.) It's like after 1971 we gave everybody with a couple bucks in his (or her, another issue we conveniently avoid) pocket unlimited Cheney Deferments.
To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama's insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely "at" war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: "Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths." In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

Exactly, sir. But, again, some of the truth is hiding on the backside. Would we be in Afghanistan if there'd been an honest accounting of the risks we faced (let alone a Kreskinesque revelation of how long we'd be stuck there, or an honest appraisal of the costs from Mitch Daniels)? The only way we were even able to send an insufficient number of troops to invade Saddamland eighteen months later (including a bunch we'd plucked away from, oh, Afghanistan) was the steadfast refusal to increase their number by conscription; otherwise we couldn't have met the Bush/Cheney Pre-Election Celebration Parade (budget: $1 million) set for 2005. The all-volunteer army hasn't increased our willingness to use force at the first threat, real, perceived, or humbug; it's made it politically possible to continue to do so at the rate we've grown comfortable with. The American public doesn't tune out wars just because someone else is paying the price; it tunes out questions about starting them before they happen.
Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend.

Well, to begin with, the Services are uniformly behind the deal, and a fuck of a lot of people seem untroubled by the $4.7 billion the Pentagon spends each year to keep the Rah Rah going. It may well be that all-volunteerism has increased insularity and hubris, but it's not like they were unknown before. You can add to the natural right-wing tendency of military officers throughout the globe and history sixty years of post-war hubris, nuclear age assumption of limitless spending, particularly technological spending, and the fact that you guys have gotten away with losing every major conflict since 1946 with the exception of twice defeating Saddam Hussein's Vapor Army, and still convince everyone you're invincible. Leave us not act like America's Praetorians do not now enjoy the very set of circumstances they sought to fabricate after Vietnam; nor the one Curtis LeMay could only have dreamed of in 1946, twenty years before he and George Wallace could only have dreamed of the sort of electorate that today makes Sarah Palin a star. After Vietnam the military seems actually to've done some soul-searching, but once Reagan turned the spigots back on Full it began to fade (we're excepting the Air Force in all this, on the grounds that it is always and unfailingly Stark Raving Fucking Nuts). By the time of Mission Accomplished, On to Damascus! we were worse off than before. I have no idea what the Emotional Component is in all this. And I don't care. What I do know is that the professional soldier is not supposed to be Half Advertising Exec, regardless of his competence in the role.


R. Porrofatto said...

Spot fucking on. I'm about your age give or take a year and I also resent that knee-jerk "against the troops who fought it" crap. It's usually intended to not only delegitimize our opposition to the war, but to redeem those who supported the disaster; sure, they bolstered a cause that led to the deaths of 58,000 troops, but at least they never "turned against" them. (Similar to the "me wrong for the right reasons / you right for the wrong reasons" Iraq invasion bunch now.)

The one item Professor Bacevich omitted from his essay that has made endless war(s) -- volunteer or conscripted -- so perennially American is the bottomless well of money we apportion to "fight" them, and I don't hear many people talking about cutting our defense budget, even to where it's finally less than the combined total of the rest of the fucking world's. "Peace Dividend" was one of the more charmingly quaint post-Cold War fictions to have passed the lips of George Bush I and Maggie Thatcher, but saying it didn't stop them from turning the hounds loose at will.

scripto said...

"And I opposed that war from the time I was old enough to learn what was going on, first in a sort of generalized Christian pacifist sense, later from beneath the full weight of our monumental historical error and moral failing."
And lastly from the sense that there was absolutely no good reason in 1972 to go get my ass shot off. Gung ho at 16, not so much at 19 when disaster was imminent. The consensus from those returning was that it was a totally fucked up situation.

"I never heard anyone in my peer group express actual contempt for the troops..."
Me neither. Another urban legend. Why would we? The troops had the best dope.

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Blakenator said...

Great post that is spot on. The totally agree the reason these misadventures are continuing is the tactic Cheney/Bush used, continued by Obama, of keeping the real cost of war hidden from the public. My fondest dream is to see all these chickenhawks be forced to go marching off to war.

StringonaStick said...

Agreed. I'm keeping a link to this post just to have a handy list of all locations of our military adventurism (sans covert), so nicely arranged in temporal order.

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