WASHINGTON, September 16, 2013 ― Andrew Bacevich is a bestselling author and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. Prior to that, he was an officer in the U.S. army for twenty-three years.
During our conversation, Bacevich discusses President Obama’s recent speech on Syria, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his latest book “Breach of Trust.”
Kevin Kelly: What was your reaction to President Obama’s address on Syria where he announced he will now be seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think it was close to being incoherent. You can sympathize with the President in the sense that developments have been occurring so quickly that I think it’s difficult for the National Security Apparatus to keep up. Right now, the speech basically, about eighty percent of the speech was making the case for why it was necessary for the United States to use force against Syria, and then the last part was a footnote saying “oh by the way, we’re not going to do that because of this eleventh hour peace proposal.” I think that the President further confused an already confusing policy.
Kelly: We just recently commemorated the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What lessons should Americans take away from that day?
Bacevich: Well, the George W. Bush Administration’s immediate response to the 9/11 attacks was to declare a global war on terrorism, which postulated that there is something called terrorism that can be defeated, postulated that war was the best way to do that, and that the war should be conducted on a global scale. That opened up the door to what has become a vast array of military efforts by the United States.
The Afghanistan War and the Iraq War were of course the two largest, but there have been others. The intervention in Libya, the attacks by missile firing drones in a variety of countries to include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. I think what we ought to be doing twelve years on is accessing the progress we’ve made. Has all of this military activity brought us closer to whatever victory we once imagined we were going to achieve?
My argument would be that we have spent enormous quantities of money, we’ve sacrificed large numbers of lives, we’ve certainly killed large numbers of people, but we ought to have learned by now that a global war on terrorism is a fundamentally flawed policy, and therefore there is a need to ask first order questions about what we are trying to get done, and how best to achieve our purposes.
In that regard, the debate over intervening in Syria, which of course has now been at least temporarily put on hold, I think ought to have provided the opportunity to ask those first order questions. Rather than to simply open up yet another front in this war somehow expecting that we would achieve in Syria a better outcome than we achieved elsewhere.
Kelly: Your book is about the isolation of the American public from their military. Briefly explain how we reached this point of isolation.
Bacevich: It’s not the result of some conspiracy, but I think an unintended, and for the most part, unforeseen consequence of ending the draft and creating the all volunteer force, has been to create a gap between the American people and their military. Now, the gap is camouflaged by rhetoric. The rhetoric of “we support the troops” or “thank you for your service,” but that is just rhetoric.
The reality is that the American people handed over ownership of their military to Washington, D.C…to the state. The state was glad to accept that ownership, and the state has then misused our military, to my mind. Has engaged in reckless and unnecessary wars, in which the very small percentage of Americans who actually serve have paid a great price to get very little in return, and it’s because of that disengagement of the American people that the state in many respects has gotten away with this.
I think that if we really do support the troops we want to make sure that they are not going to be misused, and the way to do that is to reconstitute the tradition of the citizen soldier. Abandoning our experiment with a professional military, and with the hope at least that a military based on the concept of a citizen soldier, would see the American people once again reengage with their military, and would put the people in a position, perhaps, to oblige political authorities to exercise a certain amount of self restraint and prudence when thinking about when and where to use military force.
Some people say well that means you want to reinstitute the draft, that’s actually not what the book argues. What the book argues is that it’s time for us to consider implementing a program of national service, which is somewhat different than the draft.
A program of national service says that all Americans owe service to the country.
Citizenship not only entails claiming prerogatives, but also imposes obligations. The program would see every able bodied eighteen year old, people coming out of high school; serve a term of service to the country in their community. Some people would choose to serve, let’s say two years in the United States military, the army, the navy, whatever.
The vast majority would serve elsewhere. They would serve in the Peace Corp, in working in the environment, would do Teach for America, a wide variety of other programs, but everybody would serve. My hope is that a program of national service would not only close the gap between the military and society, and perhaps lead us to more prudent military policies.
I think arguably it would enrich the prevailing concept of citizenship by helping young people. As they approach adulthood, understand that obligations go along with prerogatives when it comes to being an American citizen.
Kelly: You discuss in the book how the military’s image deteriorated during the Vietnam War. What did Washington do following the war in order to restore the American people’s faith in their military?
Bacevich: Well, two things, and the energy of this comes within the military itself. The generals who were responsible for the services in the wake of the catastrophe of Vietnam understood they had a big problem on their hands. One problem was that culturally the military was out of step, and over a period of years, somewhat reluctantly in some respects, the military got back in step culturally with the rest of society. M
Military policies today with regard to race, gender, even with regard to sexual orientation reflect prevailing attitudes in society as a whole. That was not the case, back at the end of the Vietnam War. There was a reconciliation of sort that at least made the military less politically radioactive.
Most of us I think have forgotten the widespread antipathy, particularly among young people, directed toward the military back let’s say 1970 or 1975. The military successfully responded to that through this cultural reconciliation. The second thing that happened in parallel with that is that the military undertook a series of internal reforms in the realm of tactical doctrine, of thinking about how to fight. These reforms emphasized in particular exploiting advanced technology.
I mean to oversimplify the point, the generals concluded after Vietnam that technology was our strong suit, and by exploiting advanced technology as much as possible we could achieve quick and decisive victories. If you want to reduce that idea to one phrase it’s “shock and awe.”
Remember the phrase “shock and awe” was in widespread usage at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s not that the generals were entirely wrong, technology is important in warfare. Technology does enable you to do certain things, but technology is not a panacea. I think that the military oversold itself on technology, and therefore was caught by surprise when it confronted in Afghanistan, in Iraq, frankly much earlier even in Mogadishu back in 1993 when the military confronted circumstances where technology didn’t provide the answer, they didn’t perform very well.
They didn’t win victories. That reform effort on the part of the senior military leadership produced at best mixed results.
Kelly: There are many figures in the book whom you cite in the book. For example, one is Smedley Butler. Can you describe who he was and why you’ve decided to mention him in your book?
Bacevich: Well, he‘s one of the great figures in U.S. military history. Certainly one of the most colorful. He was a marine who basically served from around the time of the Spanish American War into the 1930’s twice.
He won the Medal of Honor, retired as a major general in the United States Marine Corps having served in France in World War I, in China at the time of the Boxer exhibition, interventions in the Caribbean, and the day he took off his uniform he publically announced that in all of his service he had been a gangster for capitalism.
He took his uniform off and basically denounced U.S. foreign policy as imperialistic. This caused a great hue and cry, and ever since Smedley Butler has been a hero in the eyes of the antiwar movement.
As far as I am concerned, or in this book, what I find so fascinating is in speaking these truths, if we can consider them truths, he thought that they were truths; he waited until after he was out of the military to make this great revelation. I call that Smedley Syndrome because he’s not the only senior military officer who did this.
Other senior military officers have, for whatever reason, chose to speak important truths only after they retired. Meaning, after they were no longer in a position to do anything about it and the most recent example of this is General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan who President Obama fired, who once he was fired and in retirement McChrystal announced that he believed that the all volunteer force was defective.
He believed that the American people had to have skin in the game when the United States military was sent off to war. I agree with that judgment, but perplexed that McChrystal would wait until retirement to let us in on this insight.
Kelly: What can the American people do in order to end the isolation between themselves and the military that you describe in your book?
Bacevich: I think we need to seriously examine the question of what it means to be a citizen, and we need to recognize that the prevailing definition of citizenship is thin to put it mildly, and the antidote is to take seriously the conception of citizenship entailing obligations, and to look towards a program of national service as a way to affect that.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you that all of that is easy, but that is a very specific and concrete means whereby we can close the gap between the American people and their military, and arguably move towards having a more prudent and realistic military policy.
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