The Unintended Consequences

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I met Andrew Bacevich last week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Now Professor of International Relations at Boston University, Bacevich is a West Point graduate, a principled man on the conservative side of politics who considered it wrong for wealthy citizens to leave the fighting of America’s wars to the poor and disadvantaged. He fought with the US Infantry in the southern highlands of Vietnam, and his son, a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the United States Army, volunteered for duty in Iraq.

Bacevich senior was to have come to the Festival last year, but just before doing so, he received advice that his son had been killed in Iraq. He cancelled his engagement in Sydney, and sent a poignant letter explaining his absence. It’s a great pity he didn’t come then, but a cause for celebration that he has come now.

Bacevich is the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, one of the most trenchant accounts I have read about contemporary American military culture. It should give any thinking Australian pause about the growing influence of American doctrine, strategy, training, equipment and choice of weapons over the Australian Defence Force.

He asserts that modern American militarism began in the late 1960s as a reaction to the humiliating defeat in Vietnam. It was driven by military officers intent on rehabilitating their profession, intellectuals fearing that the loss of confidence at home was paving the way for the triumph of totalitarianism abroad, religious leaders dismayed by the collapse of moral values, strategists stung by the worthlessness of their war schemes, politicians on the make, and purveyors of pop culture looking for a buck.

He could have added, but doesn’t, that it was also driven by an avaricious weapons manufacturing industry, the largest and most technically advanced in the world.

During the 1970s and 1980s, America’s military rebirth led to a massive increase in military expenditure and an appreciable boost in the status of military institutions and soldiers. The Pentagon officially assigned to itself the mission of "shaping" the international environment through global dominance and an increased propensity to use force. A new aesthetic of war was conceived in which primitive barbarism gave way to surgical strikes by aircraft delivering smart weapons reinforced on the ground by fast-moving light infantry – a supposedly frictionless, post-modern spectacle in which mass becomes an impediment.

It became the function of soldiers to be exemplars, wrapped in a culture of honour and morality. It became the duty of politicians to pay them homage. "Failing to support the troops" was a sin punishable by political banishment. Just like in Australia.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 could have stopped the Pentagon in its tracks: with its massive and revitalised strength, who did the Pentagon have left to fight? As John Updike’s famous protagonist Rabbit Angstrom observed, "Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?" But, as if prompted by Washington (and he probably was), Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait, and "Operation Desert Storm" was conceived to repel him. Unlike the fiasco in Vietnam, the American military was now carefully scripted, tightly controlled to exert overwhelming force to achieve specific objectives, and with a clear exit strategy.

The inevitable victory against a demoralised Iraqi Army occurred, and the American military’s prestige was restored. But the officers’ corps was not allowed to rest on its laurels. From Desert Storm until November 2001, it was cajoled into a plethora of new interventions prompted by ethnic cleansing, genocide, failed States, civil war and terror. And those who did the cajoling, says Bacevich, were an unholy mixture of right-wing intellectuals, Hollywood moguls, and born-again Christians.

Norman Podhoretz, an aggressive New York intellectual, was the leading architect of the neo-right. He believed America to be the one true universal church, in which the declaration of 1776 was sacred scripture, the District of Colombia the Holy See, and the occupant of the Oval Office the supreme pontiff. To him, international evil was real. It could only be deterred by armed force, not diplomacy or persuasion, and the United States Military had a mission to stop it. Podhoretz enjoyed intellectual backing from the academic, Arthur Wohlstetter, and was followed by a cadre of neoconservatives including Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Richard Armitage and Paul Wolfowitz — the self-styled Vulcans — who so persuasively influenced the foreign policies of George W Bush.

According to Bacevich, Hollywood underwent a sea-change during the Reagan era. Films whose common theme was the awfulness of Vietnam — Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter — gave way to those with various Reagan-esque motifs about principled military heroism, including such blockbusters as An Officer and a Gentleman, and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Bacevich also points out the changing nature of American evangelical fundamentalism. For the first half of the 20th century, evangelicals had been mainly moralistic Congregationals and Unitarians, who regarded the army, with its hard drinking and swearing, as sinful. But after the Vietnam debacle, a pro-military attitude supplanted them. Modelled on the earlier preaching style of Billy Graham, a new breed encouraged patriotism and support for the military. It included Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority in 1979, and such dubious spruikers as Jim Bakker, Jim Dobson, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson and James Robison. Since 100 million out of 290 million Americans believe in the literal truth of the Bible, Robertson’s boast in 1980 that the Christian Right had enough votes to run the country may not have been an exaggeration.

In his seventh chapter, Blood for Oil, Bacevich constructs a thesis about where all this new militarism is leading. A popular American point of view, he asserts, is that war has always been thrust on America. World War I was started by Germany, World War II by Japan, and World War III (the Cold War) by the Soviet Union.

But we are now in World War IV. For Bacevich, the common American view — that it was started by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and his Baathist thugs, terrorists and radical Islamists — is wrong. It is a war whose fuse was lit by Washington as far back as 1944, when President Roosevelt guaranteed military protection to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia in exchange for cheap Saudi oil, for the purpose of preserving the American way of life. From this developed Washington’s ambition to control the whole Middle East.

Bacevich writes: "Here lay the driving force behind US actions in what became World War IV: not preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; not stemming the spread of terror; certainly not liberating oppressed peoples or advancing the cause of women’s rights. The prize was mastery over a region that leading members of the American foreign policy elite, of whatever political persuasion, had concluded to be critically important to the well-being of the United States."

Bacevich told Greg Jaffe in the Wall Street Journal: "When you use force, the unintended consequences are so large and the surprises so enormous that it really reaffirms the ancient wisdom to which we once adhered — namely, to see force as something to be used only as a last resort."

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