Historian Chalmers Johnson reviews four recent books on American militarism, a subject on which he has made important contributions with Blowback (2000) and The Sorrows of Empire (2004).  --  Of the four volumes reviewed, one is a book that “every thoughtful American should read,” one is “a waste of time,” and two others earn more qualified endorsements....

By Chalmers Johnson

** Four books, four views of American militarism -- trouble ahead, trouble behind **

San Diego Union-Tribune
March 27, 2005


Many American leaders and intellectuals are truly distressed over our role in the world and the loathing our policies have elicited in virtually every country on Earth. These four books provide important confirmation that they have good reason to be.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Army officer for 23 years, Vietnam veteran, self-described "Catholic conservative" and today a professor at Boston University. Until the election of 2000 he wrote for such neo-conservative journals as Commentary and the Weekly Standard. Today, he observes in The New American Militarism, "My disenchantment with what passes for mainstream conservatism, embodied in the present Bush administration and its groupies, is just about absolute." He contends that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a "war launched in a spasm of strategic irrationality" and that the "war on terrorism" is camouflage for a scheme to steal oil from the countries that have it.

For the past 50 years, Stanley Hoffmann has been a senior professor of international relations at Harvard, long-time book reviewer for the Council on Foreign Relations and doyen of establishmentarian foreign policy intellectuals. In Gulliver Unbound, he finds that "Bush is more than a little devious and often vindictive. He doesn't hesitate to lie, either in domestic or in foreign policy." On Iraq, Hoffmann argues that it is "an absurd situation: War had been declared in the name of the world struggle against terrorism, and victory has favored the installation of terrorism in Iraq."

David Rieff (son of the late Susan Sontag, to whom At the Point of a Gun is dedicated) used to be a "humanitarian interventionist" who passionately argued that the United States, as the world's richest and most powerful country, had a moral responsibility to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo to protect the Muslims and the Albanians from Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing. He also deplored the Clinton administration's failure to send troops to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, observing that "The genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 claimed more lives more quickly than any campaign of mass murder in recorded history." Today, he has changed his mind. He now finds that humanitarian intervention is only a clever propaganda cover for American imperialism. This book is his confession of disillusionment.

Nancy Soderberg has had a long career as a Democratic Party staffer, assisting both the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns and working for six years on the foreign policy staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Under President Clinton, she served for five years as an official of his National Security Council and for three years as a member of the U.S. mission to the United Nations. The Superpower Myth, while not a wholly persuasive defense of Clinton's foreign policy, is a condemnation of Bush's. "While Clinton used force to get parties back to diplomacy," she writes, "President Bush, buying into the superpower myth, primarily used diplomacy to justify force."

The jewel in this collection is Bacevich's The New American Militarism. He has a very important story to tell and tells it well.

As a result of defeat in Vietnam, he 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.

Stanley Hoffmann's short book is a colloquy between himself and the French historian and former Hoffmann student, Frédéric Bozo, concerning the 2003 American-French contretemps over Bush's intention to invade Iraq. Hoffmann endorses the policy of French president Jacques Chirac and foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, whereas Bozo questions whether Franco-American relations need have been so severely ruptured if the French side had been more flexible.

These positions are not surprising. Although born in Vienna in 1928, Hoffmann lived, was educated and taught in France from 1929 to 1955, when he joined the Harvard faculty, whereas Bozo was educated in the United States. The result is a lively, intelligent exchange that often brings to light hitherto poorly understood aspects of prewar diplomacy. For example, ever since December 2002, Washington knew that France was willing to send substantial troops to Iraq if there was an agreement on a joint military operation. However, France wanted to pursue the U.N.'s inspections before any resort to force, whereas the United States wanted to put an end to those inspections and start military operations at once.

Hoffmann and Bozo usefully conclude by outlining what they think should be done now in the Middle East and in Iraq. They recommend reforming "the struggle against terrorism by giving priority to the fight against Islamic jihadists," "spending far more energy on a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem," "a statement by the coalition of its intention to withdraw its forces [from Iraq] by a certain date," "a 'normalization' of the size and nature of the U.S. Embassy" in Baghdad, "elimination of formal U.S. advisers in [Iraqi] ministries," "granting the Iraqi government the right to ask for military operations" plus "a commitment not to launch any [military operations] unless they are so requested" and "no foreign bases [to] be established in Iraq."

Gulliver Unbound can be read in one sitting and contains a great deal of wisdom, not least of which is the observation that "Iraq has become a trap for the Americans and a godsend for the terrorists."

David Rieff's volume is a collection of 13 of his previously published articles, five from the New York Times Magazine during 2003 and 2004, with short commentaries on them. He says, "This book is . . . an argument with some of the positions I have taken in the past."

Unfortunately, his earlier defenses of humanitarian intervention are not particularly well informed, and his current reappraisals even less so. For instance, he makes no mention at all of the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, entitled "The Responsibility to Protect" (Ottawa, 2001), which would answer most of his questions about when and how a nation such as the United States can legitimately violate another nation's sovereignty in order to defend innocent civilians from imminent attack. These are precisely the problems posed today by the genocide being perpetrated by the government of Sudan in Darfur. Rieff is so disappointed by earlier U.N. interventions in the Balkans and Africa that he declares, "I am no longer an interventionist." One wants to say, "So what?" This does not solve any of the difficult problems posed by genocide and ethnic cleansing, and Rieff's petulant positions are of little consequence. His book is a waste of time.

Nancy Soderberg's The Superpower Myth is another matter. Her work is a long, detailed insider's narrative of Clinton's foreign policy and an outsider's critique of Bush II's. Scholars will welcome it, but should use it with caution. Its value lies in its comprehensive coverage of American foreign policy since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the present time; its weaknesses are its platitudinous premise that Clinton was effective -- "By 2000, the U.S. was accepted by most nations as working for, and an indispensable leader in, the search for progress" -- and its utter orthodoxy on matters that remain highly controversial.

Give her credit in one respect: She devotes a chapter to the United States' and other nations' failure to do anything at the time of the genocide of close to a million Rwandans, and says forthrightly, "Those of us involved in the events at the time still struggle with understanding our actions."

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.

--Chalmers Johnson's latest book is The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan, 2004), now available in paperback.

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Excerpt from The New American Militarism: “Several decades after Vietnam, in the aftermath of a century filled to overflowing with evidence pointing to the limited utility of armed force and the dangers inherent in relying excessively on military power, the American people have persuaded themselves that their best prospect for safety and salvation lies with the sword. Told that despite all of their past martial exertions, treasure expended, and lives sacrificed, the world they inhabit is today more dangerous than ever and that they must redouble those exertions, they dutifully assent. Much as dumping raw sewage into American lakes and streams was once deemed unremarkable, so today "global power projection" -- a phrase whose sharp edges we have worn down through casual use, but which implies military activism without apparent limit -- has become standard practice, a normal condition, one to which no plausible alternatives seem to exist. All of this Americans have come to take for granted: it's who we are and what we do.”

From Gulliver Unbound: “Nothing wholly good can come out of a war that resulted from a mix of self-deception and deliberate deception, waged in part of the world in which alien control has for a long time fostered turmoil and tragedy. The presence of terrorism is not an invitation to empire, but an incentive for finding policies that reduce its appeal, and for pursuing the terrorists in ways that do not help them multiply. In the case of the Middle East, an exit from Iraq, combined with a new effort by the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to create a livable Palestinian state, would mark a return to reality, to good sense, and to morality.”