The Semantics of Semiwar: Andrew Bacevich Takes on American Militarism

The Semantics of Semiwar: Andrew Bacevich Takes on American Militarism

For those not familiar with his work, former Army Col. Andrew Bacevich might seem an unlikely figure to spearhead some of the most incisive criticism of American foreign and national security policy available in print. But Bacevich – now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University – has built a career combining his on-the-ground knowledge of military culture with his skill for writing rigorous but accessible analyses like his 2008 bestseller “The Limits of Power.”

Bacevich’s latest book, “Washington Rules,” painstakingly outlines the historical, political and cultural forces that have culminated in the pandemic interventionism and power mongering that have become so entrenched they are often mistaken for the United States’ national identity. From the Cold War to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, “Washington Rules” thoroughly deconstructs the conventional wisdom that justifies American war making and dares to put in plain sight the inner workings of the unrelenting militarism that so many Americans – whether with pride or with anguish – take for granted.

Alissa Bohling: There’s a scene early in the book in which you describe visiting the Brandenburg Gate right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. You describe how that experience caused you to first begin to question the conventional wisdom about US military policy that you’d been immersed in for years as an Army officer and how that ultimately led you to pursue your current work. Although you mention that your family was there with you that day, there wasn’t really a place in the book to talk about how it was to share that moment of epiphany with them at your side. Did your family’s presence influence that experience?

Andrew Bacevich:
The word epiphany probably isn’t quite appropriate. It wasn’t so much that as I stood there at the Brandenburg gate, the scales fell from my eyes. Rather, it was that at that moment, seeds of doubt were planted. The things that I saw did not square with my expectations and it was from that point, I think, that I became increasingly willing to question things that I had simply taken for granted. And to be honest – if I remember correctly; it was 20 years ago – I don’t think I in particular shared my impressions with my wife at that time, because it really was simply seeds of doubt, rather than a moment of revelation.

If there were a moment or a point when I felt that my views underwent a fairly dramatic change, I think that moment was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Nine months before, in his famous West Point speech of 2002, he had laid out the doctrine of preventive war that really marked such a radical shift in our thinking about military power. But it was only when he went ahead and acted on all of that that I felt, very immediately and very strongly, that things were fundamentally amiss.

Bohling: One of the solutions you call for is for Americans to engage “seriously” with themselves and with others. This concept of “seriousness” seems to resonate with other thinkers right now as well; for example a Washington Post columnist recently commented that our current resistance to raising taxes during wartime is a sign that we are no longer “serious” as a country. I’m interested in your observations about what you see as some of the most egregious signs of Americans’ lack of seriousness and what a more serious engagement among citizens might look like.

Well, I think you’ve touched on one of them. We persist in thinking that we can have what we want with somebody else footing the bill. We now live in a time in which war has become, in effect, a normal condition for the United States, and yet we refuse to pay for the wars. So, on the one hand, these military adventures are said to be of extraordinary importance and, on the other hand, we pass off the responsibility for paying the bills to some future generation which will have had nothing to do with starting the wars. That, I think, is deeply irresponsible – and, in a very fundamental way, it’s also simply immoral.

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I think that we are also unserious in our willingness to really take stock of what our emphasis on military power has accomplished. One of the most commonplace aspects of our politics today revolves around widely shared respect for the American soldier and, by extension, for the American military. Now, I certainly have no problem with respecting the service and sacrifice of the American soldiers. But those expressions of support create obstacles to examining seriously what our emphasis on military power has wrought, and from my point of view – especially in the period since the end of the Cold War when we have, under both Democrats and Republicans, engaged in a large number of military interventions abroad – taken together, all that military activity is not making us safer, is not making us stronger, is not making us richer. Indeed, I would say that, on balance, just the opposite is the case: we are creating instability, we are inciting greater anti-Americanism and we are rapidly depleting our wealth with minimal gain in return.

Bohling: In the chapter “The Advent of Semiwar” – which describes the political culture that emerged during the Cold War to justify the exorbitant military spending that continues today – you make a point of reiterating Eisenhower’s warning that only “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” can keep the military-industrial complex in check. So much has changed since Eisenhower’s day, when it might have been hard to imagine an organization like WikiLeaks, which has gained a lot of attention, especially since they’ve released the Afghanistan war logs. I’m curious about where you think an organization like WikiLeaks might fit into the picture of a more informed citizenry.

The first thing I would say is that the institutions of the national security state are not committed to ensuring that we have an informed citizenry. The government doles out information to the extent that the government finds it useful to do so. When the government withholds information, it’s at least as likely that it is withholding information in order to conceal its own failures as to prevent sensitive information from falling into the hands of our adversaries.

In the specific case of the WikiLeaks episode, if it’s true that the leak was done by a serving soldier, then I do have some problems with that and the problem I have is that if we’re going to have a military, we need to have a military in which good order and discipline prevail, which means that we need to have a chain of command, and it means that responsibility needs to rest at the top of that chain of command, which is where civilian authority resides. If this leak was done by Pfc. Manning, that is an attack on civilian control of the military; that is an effort from someone at the bottom of the military to wrest authority from the President.

Bohling: One of the concepts you deal with in “Washington Rules” is this illusion that you refer to as the “cult of the modern presidency,” in which presidents assume the role of the ultimate decision maker, but are really just a medium through which other powerful people fulfill their own aims: If there was one thing that could begin to disrupt this illusion and dismantle the “cult of the modern presidency,” what might it be?

I think the media needs to stop treating everything that touches on the president as if it were a supremely important story. But I also think that even more important would be for Congress to play the role established for the Congress in the Constitution. To some degree, this infatuation with presidents and these exalted expectations of what the president can accomplish stems from our general sense that the Congress is entirely inept. So if Congress could simply step up to the plate, perhaps we wouldn’t have this distorted view of what a president was supposed to do.

Bohling: As a former Army officer, your message has a unique kind of credibility among enlisted readers. Can you think of a particularly impactful response that any of your previous books has received from a reader in the military?

By no means do I have my finger on the pulse of the military. What I do find heartening is that I do get, in fact today received, an email from a serving solider who has read my last book, “The Limits of Power” and finds value in it. The emails that I receive do not by any means constitute a scientific survey, but I do take them as evidence that within the ranks of the military itself, there is emerging a critical strain of thinking, there is emerging a recognition that the path that we have gone down with regard to our national security policy is defective. And of course it’s soldiers more than anybody else who end up being obliged to foot the bill for that. So I think there is a certain amount of receptivity in the ranks to some of the things that I write, and it pleases me to know that.

Bohling: In “Washington Rules,” you thoroughly illustrate two key belief systems – which you’ve named the “trinity” and the “credo” – that perpetuate permissive attitudes surround American foreign policy. As you define these concepts, you paint them as not so much evidence-based beliefs, but as beliefs that have come to be held almost on pure faith. Do you think the pervasiveness of this attitude of belief on faith is at all related to the way we’ve seen religion and politics conflated in this country?

I don’t think so, but the use of language that has a religious connotation, I employed that language intentionally, and I did so because I do believe that over time, as this national security consensus has taken root, that it has become, for people in the national security business, a kind of quasi-religion, in which certain practices are accepted as rooted in some type of necessity, of having a pragmatic basis, when they don’t. But as with religious belief, believers are simply not inclined to ask serious critical questions about what they are accustomed to accept as truthful.

Chicago readers: please join us for some scintillating conversation with Andrew Bacevich! The award-winning author and professor of international relations will appear in discussion with Jerome McDonnell, host of WBEZ’s Worldview, at the Chicago Temple, 77 W Washington, Chicago, on August 19 at 7 PM. Truthout is a cosponsor of the event.