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An Excerpt from The New American Militarism


Andrew Bacevich is a Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, but he is also a graduate of West Point and a Vietnam Veteran. In his book, The New American
Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War
he examines the marriage of militarism and utopian ideology in American policy and questions why both conservatives and liberals have latched onto the revival of military power. Bacevich raises concerns about the militarization of America which should cause every American to pause and question our values.

Below is an excerpt from the preface of The New American Militarism which has just been released in paperback with a new afterword.

This is a book about the new American militarism—the misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions that have come to pervade the American consciousness and that have perverted present-day U.S. national security policy.

Implicit in the argument that follows, in the selection and interpretation of evidence, and in the conclusions drawn from that evidence is a set of presumptions or predispositions that ought to be made explicit. Although in researching and writing this account I have sought to be fair and to keep my own prejudices in check, the views expressed cannot be detached from the author’s personal background and outlook. Hence this brief prefatory note, consisting of four observations.

First, I am a Vietnam veteran. As one commentator famously noted, the United States military did not fight a decade-long war to preserve South Vietnam; rather, it fought a one-year war ten times over. My own year fell in the conflict’s bleak latter stages, from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971—after Tet, after the Cambodian incursion, and long after an odor of failure had begun to envelop the entire enterprise.

Several of my college classmates died in Vietnam. Other friends came away from the war physically or psychologically scarred, the boyhood chum and brother-in-law to whose memory this volume is dedicated not least among them.

For me, the experience was merely baffling and, indeed, has become even more so with the passage of time. Vietnam provides the frame of reference within which I interpret much else, a tendency that some readers may well judge excessive. But there is no point in trying to conceal what is probably self-evident: this book represents one manifestation of a continuing effort to sift through the wreckage left by that war and to reckon fully with its legacy.

Second, after returning from Vietnam, I stayed on in the U.S. Army and became a professional soldier. In essence, my service coincided with the latter half of the Cold War, an ostensibly simpler time that some have already made an object of nostalgia. But from a military officer’s perspective these were roller-coaster years. No one who served during the interval stretching from the abruptly terminated presidency of Richard Nixon to the crowded but abbreviated era of the elder George Bush will recall this as a time of stability or easy living.

Yet inside the cocoon of military life, there existed one fixed point of absolute and reassuring clarity. Those of us whose day-to-day routine centered on furiously preparing to defend the so-called Fulda Gap, the region in western Germany presumed to be the focal point of any Warsaw Pact attack, had no need to torment ourselves with existential questions of purpose. Indeed, our purpose was self-evident: it was to defend the West against the threat posed by Communist totalitarianism.

Here was the lodestar that endowed military service after Vietnam with its peculiar savor. Even when the country seemed not to care—and during much of that period it obviously didn’t—we were keeping the Soviets at bay and therefore preserving freedom. So at least we believed, with an unwavering conviction.

This—not conquest, regime change, preventive war, or imperial policing—we understood to be the American soldier’s true and honorable calling. That old-fashioned understanding of soldierly purpose, now perhaps rendered obsolete, also informs much of what follows.

The third point concerns politics, to which I am a latecomer. Although the prevarications and outright lies surrounding Vietnam had left the American military professional ethic much the worse for wear, enough of it survived that most young officers still understood in that war’s aftermath that when it came to politics they were to have none. To be a serving soldier in my day was by definition to be apolitical. Although many of us voted, we did so less as an expression of partisanship than from a sense of civic

Only upon leaving the army, already well into middle age, did I experience the raising of political consciousness that my fellow baby boomers had undergone back in the heady days of youth. As much in response to deeply felt religious convictions as anything else, I became a self-described conservative. During the 1990s I began to contribute with some regularity to magazines identified with the political right, including the Weekly Standard, National Review, and First Things.

As long as we shared in the common cause of denouncing the foolishness and hypocrisies of the Clinton years, my relationship with modern American conservatism remained a mutually agreeable one. But even before the disputed election of 2000 resolved itself, it became clear, to me at least, that conservatives were susceptible to their own brand of foolishness and hypocrisy. At that point, my ties to the conservative literary establishment began to fray and soon dissolved.

Today, I still situate myself culturally on the right. And I continue to view the remedies proffered by mainstream liberalism with skepticism. But my disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute. Fiscal irresponsibility, a buccaneering foreign policy, a disregard or the Constitution, the barest lip service as a response to profound moral controversies: these do not qualify as authentically conservative values.

On this score my views have come to coincide with the critique long offered by the radical left: it is the mainstream itself, the professional liberals as well as the professional conservatives, who define the problem. Two parties monopolize and, as if by prior agreement, trivialize national politics. Each panders to the worst instincts of its core constituents. Each is seemingly obsessed with power for its own sake. The historian Walter Karp’s acerbic assessment of early twentieth-century politics strikes me as equally
applicable to the early twenty-first century: “Behind the hoopla of partisanship, the leaders of the two parties worked together in collusive harmony.” The Republican and Democratic parties may not be identical, but they produce nearly identical results. Money buys access and influence, the rich and famous get served, and those lacking wealth or celebrity status get screwed—truths not at all unrelated to the rise of militarism in America….

Recent Comments

  1. Charles

    As someone who is (also) a Vietnam veteran, a former Army officer and a conservative, I tended to agree with many of the views of the author on modern trends. Only at the end did I find what musicians called “a clinker” (a note that doesn’t belong in the score)in a portion of the text not about modern history. The author refers to George Washington as a “soldier of surpassing greatness…” Contemporary accounts differ. Many of his countrymen thought Washington incompetent as a general. I suggest the author might want to read American Aurora by Rosenfeld for a contrary view of Washington’s generalship.

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