Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Long wars are antithetical to democracy" (Andrew J. Bacevich)


So General McChrystal may get to retire with four stars after all, even though regulations seem pretty clear that he should have to have had the fourth star for three years, not his one. But the Obama administration "will do whatever is necessary" to get around the rule. (Meanwhile Bill O'Reilly, backed up by that odds-on favorite for "world's most pulingly dishonest guttersnipe," Bernard Goldberg, is speculating that McChrystal may have deserved his downfall for being -- or so it's rumored! -- a stinking liberal!)

"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."
-- Andrew J. Bacevich, in a Washinton Post op-ed piece,

by Ken

The American people avert their eyes from difficult truths? You're being much too kind, Professor Bacevich. Not just when it comes to war do Americans run kicking and screaming from difficult truths.

My goodness, what a strange feeling -- a Washington Post op-ed piece that makes a real point and sets you to thinking! How'd that slip past the usually hypervigilant Villager Fred Hiatt? Just to complete the thought begun in the title of this post:
Long wars are antithetical to democracy. Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government. 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.

"Earlier generations of American leaders," says Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, "military as well as civilian, instinctively understood the danger posed by long wars."
"A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War," Gen. George C. Marshall once remarked. The people who provided the lifeblood of the citizen army raised to wage World War II had plenty of determination but limited patience. They wanted victory won and normalcy restored.

The wisdom of Marshall's axiom soon became clear. 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.

And the situation was only made worse when the U.S. "abandoned its citizen army tradition, oblivious to the consequences." In its place," says Professor Bacevich. "it opted for what the Founders once called a 'standing army' -- a force consisting of long-serving career professionals." And "this so-called all-volunteer force, only tenuously linked to American society, appeared to be a master stroke" -- for a while. "Washington got superbly trained soldiers and Republicans and Democrats took turns putting them to work." Americans watched all these engagements from a distance. "The costs appeared to be negligible. Their role was simply to cheer."
This happy arrangement now shows signs of unraveling, a victim of what the Pentagon has all too appropriately been calling its Long War.

The Long War is not America's war. It belongs exclusively to "the troops," lashed to a treadmill that finds soldiers and Marines either serving in a combat zone or preparing to deploy.

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.

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. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants -- along with the conviction that "Team America," as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption -- suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction. [Emphasis added.]

The ignominious end of General McChrystal's career, Professor Bacevich says, "however clumsily, issued a warning that deserves our attention."
The responsibility facing the American people is clear. They need to reclaim ownership of their army. They need to give their soldiers respite, by insisting that Washington abandon its de facto policy of perpetual war. Or, alternatively, the United States should become a nation truly "at" war, with all that implies in terms of civic obligation, fiscal policies and domestic priorities. Should the people choose neither course -- and thereby subject their troops to continuing abuse -- the damage to the army and to American democracy will be severe.

We've seen, throughout the G.W. Bush and Obama presidencies, the obvious ways in which promoting perpetual wars encourages the degradation of democracy, in the all but automatic assault on even the most basic American liberties. Lunkheads like "Big Dick" Cheney and John "Dial Y for Torture" Yoo really believe that war gives the president powers beyond any kind of check whatsoever, which applied to perpetual war means . . . um . . . gulp . . .

That what we've already talked about may be only the tip of the iceberg seems to me something well worth thinking about. Again:

"Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government."

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At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Matt Osborne said...

"War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent...The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance...In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact."

George Orwell, 1984

At 9:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Indeed, Matt, that relates to our subject, doesn't it? Thanks!


At 4:22 AM, Blogger Serving Patriot said...

I was shocked when Wa Post ran this op-ed too! Fred must be on vacation or something...

McCrystal committed a violation of the UCMJ. The arrogance of his staff stinks with insubordination and violations of UCMJ Art 88 as well.

At least the CinC wrongfooted General Dave and passed the poisoned chalice to one of the most political generals in our service. I'm sure "The Man Who Would Be King" will do as poorly as Stan was doing. The question begs though, just how much longer will this go on???

But to give Stan his 4th star in retirement? Is this what the WH wants to spend its political capital on? YGTBFKM!!!!!! Un-f'in-believable!

Bacevich is absolutely right on laying some of the blame of our dire situation on the severing of citizen and soldier. Without the urgency of action that the citizen soldier brings to our overseas (mis-)adventures, wars such as these languish and kill, ruining both our treasury and our good name.

Without that link, too few understand what war really is. Like Brian Turner, an Iraq veteran, does:


It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Excellent thoughts, SP. I'm honored by both comments. I guess this sort of thing can happen when a piece like Professor Bacevich's WaPo op-ed gives us something substantial to think about.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether possibly Fred Hiatt really is on vacation!


At 12:54 PM, Anonymous me said...

We still have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. Obama is playing the part of Johnson. Who is the next Nixon coming up?

At 6:33 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Interesting, me.

There are plenty of Republicans who can do the sleaze-Nixon, but at present the children are in such a neanderthal state (especially while they're falling over one another trying to claim extreme-right credentials) that I'm stumped to think of one who could pull off a make-believe new-Nixon equipped with a "secret plan" to get us out of Afghanistan.

Not that he/she would need a real plan, any more than Nixon had a real plan to get us out of Vietnam. But who among those clowns could successfully pretend to have a plan?

Let me think about this some more. Anyone else have any thoughts?


At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Bob Kost said...

The question begs though, just how much longer will this go on?


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