Monday, March 28, 2005

American Blitzkrieg 

Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire, reviews four new books on American militarism: Gulliver Unbound, by Stanley Hoffman; The Superpower Myth, by Nancy Soderberg; David Rieff's At the Point of a Gun (which he describes as "a waste of time"); and The New American Militarism, by Andrew J. Bacevich, which gets his nod as the "jewel" of the bunch:
As a result of defeat in Vietnam, [Bacevich] contends, the American military profession was thoroughly discredited and even dishonored by such events as the My Lai massacre and the high command's attempts to cover it up. In the 15 years following Vietnam, the officer corps undertook to reform our military. "For American officers," Bacevich writes, "the starting point for retrieving professional legitimacy lay in avoiding altogether future campaigns even remotely similar to Vietnam. ... American officers responded to failure in ways reminiscent of German officers during the 1920s and 1930s. ... Even as the agony of Vietnam was playing itself out, the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 provided American military officers with a template for how wars were supposed to be fought. ... At its core, the new U.S. doctrine was a throwback. It was blitzkrieg, invented decades earlier by the Germans, more recently refurbished by the Israelis, now dressed up with somewhat longer range, somewhat more accurate, and somewhat more lethal weapons."

The debut of the new, post-Vietnam military was the first Iraq war of 1991. It "served as a dramatic announcement that efforts to reconstitute American power had succeeded – indeed had surpassed the expectations of the officer corps itself."

But, "In the end, the effort to rebuild American military power while restricting its use, initiated by [Gen.] Creighton Abrams and carried to its fruition by [Gen.] Colin Powell, failed. Or, more accurately, because that effort generated a capacity for global power projection surpassing anything the world had ever seen, reticence about how and where to use that power soon went by the board."

Powell tried strenuously to restrict the post-Vietnam use of force to matters of vital national interest, to wars with concrete and achievable objectives, in which the United States had strong popular and Congressional support, where the use of force was a last resort, where there was a clear "exit strategy" and a determination to employ overwhelming force. This so-called "Powell Doctrine" went down to defeat in 1993 when U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright openly asked Gen. Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" The general had no answer.

"It had taken the officer corps fifteen years, from 1975 to 1990, to recover from Vietnam," Bacevich writes. "It took another fifteen years, from 1990 to 2005, to fritter away most of what the reform project had wrought. By the time of [Gen. Wesley] Clark's botched Kosovo campaign, cracks in the edifice were clearly becoming visible. It was left to the administration of George W. Bush to complete the demolition."

Bacevich concludes that "The war that the officer corps prepared itself to fight was the war in which the prospects of actually having to fight were most remote." The use of our armed forces to intervene in civil wars, ethnic cleansings and nation-building operations (for example, in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq) exposed how inappropriate an instrument they actually were for the foreign policy problems the United States faces. Worse, "the Abu Ghraib [torture of captives] debacle showed American soldiers not as liberators but as tormentors, not as professionals but as sadists getting cheap thrills." In light of the defeat in Vietnam and its effects, one shudders to think what the fallout will be from the Iraq disaster.

Bacevich's main argument, only briefly outlined here, is the most powerful and compelling part of his highly original analysis. He also has chapters on the role of neo-conservative thought, Christianity and militarism, the baneful influence of civilian strategists (such as Albert Wohlstetter, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's teacher at the University of Chicago), and what he calls "World War IV," the attempt by the United States to dominate the Middle East in order to guarantee our oil supplies. He concludes with a chapter on what to do, which is utterly sound if politically impossible. Every thoughtful American should read this book.

Of the range of issues covered by these authors, the most important is American militarism. It is the handmaiden and unavoidable consequence of U.S. imperialism, which alienates peoples and nations around the world. We were warned against it by George Washington in his farewell address ("Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty," 1796) and by Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address ("In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," 1961). Militarism accelerates the hollowing out of American democracy, and, as Bacevich puts it, "If history is any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure."

One need look no further than President Bush's proposed budget for 2006, in which he cuts civilian expenditures across the board but raises outlays for the military to a record $419.3 billion – not including costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending on nuclear weapons or support of our retired and wounded veterans. This calamitous state of affairs threatens not only our own lives but is capable of inflicting unimaginable harm on the rest of the world.

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