The New Old American Militarism

By Robert Bateman

I find that I am in much the same boat as my fellow blogger Shawn when it comes to preferred defense intellectuals.

Like him, one of my favorites is Andrew Bacevich. In my case what really awoke me to Bacevich was his earlier work, in particular one which I read while stationed in Baghdad. His 2005 book, "The New American Militarism" starkly lays out an apparent truth: The United States has become increasingly addicted to the trappings of militarism and the use of military force over time. Particularly over the past 30 years or so, this thesis has applied to both parties. But underpinning that basic assertion are some other disquieting observations, such as the idea that it has been one party in particular which has deliberately attempted to market itself as the party which supports "traditional" American trumpeting their nominal support of the military, and the fact that at some point a large number of evangelical Christians abandoned their historical role as supporters for the poor and the weak around the world, and instead also adopted a mantra which advocated support of the military and the use of force overseas.

As Shawn pointed out, Bacevich is not one easily dismissed. His credentials go a long way towards shielding him from a Swift-Boating. He is a West Point graduate and career soldier, a Vietnam veteran, and a Conservative Catholic. He is sometimes described as a "paleocon." (Meaning, it appears, that he is a traditional conservative, in contrast to a neoconservative.) As such he is not someone any thinking individual can discount readily, nor tar with the accusation that he is an anti-military liberal. To my eyes he is dead-on in his analysis of these trends within America. But there is a counter-point to his thesis, as a recent article about military veterans running for Congress reminded me. Here is the money quote from the US News & World Report story:

"In the current Congress, about 2 in 5 senators and 3 in 10 House members are military veterans, though the proportion shrinks when it comes to combat service. Only 9 percent of senators and 0.5 percent of House lawmakers can make that claim.

...both chambers were flush with veterans after World War II. There were only 95 in 1941, but the number had swelled to 323 by 1959. That began dropping in the 1970s, in part because the draft ended in 1973, says Peter Feaver, a political scientist and military scholar at Duke University.

Feaver has examined military veterans in Congress and the cabinet from 1815 to the period leading up to 9/11. He concluded that the greater the preponderance of veterans, the less the likelihood of the United States engaging in military action, but as a corollary, when force is used, it's in a big way. "It's sort of like the Powell Doctrine. Force is used rarely but decisively," he says. Translated to barracks-speak: War is hell, but if you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar."

So, there may be a little irony in place here. "Militarism" is a behavior or set of beliefs which seems to be associated with people who have not actually been in the military. But the actual use of military force is inhibited when there are more former members of the military in Congress. Go figure.

By |  September 10, 2008; 12:21 PM ET  | Category:  Books , Wiser in Battle
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I may be missing something, but would not a significant portion of the 323 veterans who were members in 1959 have still been around when Johnson was practicing escalatio on the Vietnamese 6 years later? The logic saying that veterans are wiser about using force than people who learned everything they know about war from John Wayne movies is sound, but does not Vietnam rather weaken it?

Posted by: gluon1 | September 10, 2008 4:59 PM

gluon1 - You're using a single data point. So no, it doesn't weaken Feaver's argument, particularly since the argument is that when military veterans in Congress do support going to war, they want it done "in a big way." Feaver's point is not that they invariably get it right. It's that more often than not, they act as a brake on military adventurism.

I'm currently a visiting professor at the US Army War College. When I first got here, it was common for people to ask me if I'd been in the military -- by which they really meant had I been on active duty or, if a reservist, had been deployed overseas. I did spend eight years in the Army National Guard in the 1980s but went nowhere more exotic than Camp Grayling, Michigan. And although like all Guardsmen I did my initial active duty training at a regular army post (in my case Fort Sill, Oklahoma), and although like all Guardsmen I trained to a regular army standard, the sad fact is that for all practical purposes, around here I count as a lifelong civilian.

The sole point conceded to me is that I'm among the 1 to 3 percent of Americans alive today who have any military experience whatsoever -- a statistic I did not know until I got here. The dearth of military experience fosters a culture in which have scant basis on which to judge military matters, yet we can and do send troops overseas to do things and make sacrifices we can scarcely guess at -- and feel no obligation to educate ourselves because we "support the troops" with a bumper sticker or magnetic yellow ribbon. This is a big chunk of what Bacevich means by the "new American militarism."

Posted by: Mark Grimsley | September 10, 2008 5:46 PM

That your comment is so rare is an indictment on how "politically correct", and I use that in its proper form, militarism has become in the US. When we became "the only superpower" after dissolution of USSR, a few influential people decided that they could rule the world - literally.

Other nations know that when they have to resort to war, they have effectively lost far more than they'll ever gain. Our mistaken lesson has been that the US has more and bigger weapons so countries will do what we say - or we'll threaten them with our weapons.

Look at the way the Republicans ran congress as the "majority of the majority" with no consideration of anyone else. The resentment that grew out of that was palpable.

The problem with militarism is the unintended consequences. Where we once had friends in the world, we now have sycophants. We literally cannot count on any other country to support us without coercion or bribery.

I suggest reading Thomas P M Barnett for his China knowledge and insight that the US military NEEDS an opponent to justify F-22 and F-35s. SecDef Gates has finally figured out that F-22s are useless counter insurgency weapons.

If you want to see the fallacy of militarism in American policy, one need only watch 8 episodes of "Carrier" on PBS to wonder why we have a multi-billion dollar carrier task force of dozens of support and screening ships, over 100 aircraft, perhaps 10,000 Navy personnel....and nearly no bombs were dropped in Iraq in anger.

I like expensive exotic machines as much as the next guy. I know how to fly planes, know how to design planes, and work in electronic security. We just can't afford this fallacious militarist policy any longer. Sadly, a majority of Americans are unable to think clearly on the subject.

Posted by: National_Insecurity | September 11, 2008 12:04 AM

"war" is relative.

I'll try to read more on this. But, I'd be interested if Feaver knows what percentage of combat veteran-politicos at the time oppposed any of these:

I predict the next generation of combat veteran-politicos will be just fine with the status quo of Empire, and the flag waving that goes with it.

Perhaps the influx from Iraq II is just a prelude to going "big" against China.

Posted by: srv | September 11, 2008 12:59 AM

In Reverse Order:

SRV, I do highly recommend Peter's writing. I find him direct, logical, and generally he ensures his assertions are very well supported. Here's his c.v., skip to page four for the publications. ( ) Full disclosure, I know and like Peter. Even if he is a political scientist.

National_Insecurity: I don't do politics myself. Bad form in my profession (well, the military one, not the historian one, but you get the point). I will, however, try to correct one point. You said, "Other nations know that when they have to resort to war, they have effectively lost far more than they'll ever gain." This is not correct.

In one of the best little books I've read an Australian economic historian named Geoffrey Blainey laid out a fairly definitive and pretty straight forward (some might say "blindingly obvious) list of the reasons nations use force. The book is _The Causes of War_. (1973) Check it out. Blainey himself, since then, has been a bit political. But this very short treatsie is straightforward, digestible, and gives you a framework.

The bottom line, with reference to *your* point, is that nations go to war only when each of the combatants believe that they have more to gain by fighting than they do by not fighting. Blainey says it better, but that's the gist.

I'll leave off commentary on naval carrier battle groups for now. That's a topic for another time.

Posted by: Bob Bateman | September 11, 2008 5:02 AM

Grimsley's statistic now confirms what I've always known--I am special, if only because of 13 years of uniformed and domestic (e.g., spouse) service. In addition my personal experience, I had an opportunity to observe the changes between the waning days of the draft Army/beginnings of the "Modern Volunteer Army" and today's professional military.

I'm not impressed. Now my judgment may be clouded because, as a chubby, high-side of middle aged, "lady," I had more missions in Baghdad--to include areas close to Sadr City and "soft" vehicles-than my military colleagues, serving in the International Zone. It could be that a significant number of these uniformed individuals had no intention of stepping foot outside of the "heavily fortified" area or moving between the Zone and the Airport unless protected by armor plating, air support, and young soldiers with a finger on the trigger of a 50 cal. That said, they did spend a lot of time plotting on how to add to their chest decorations or talking about how stressed they were to live under the threat of constant rocket/mortar attack. Of course, an embarassing number could not distinguish incoming mortars from heavily loaded water trucks bouncing over speed bumps behind the Palace (AKA US Embassy). (I also include journalists in this last category, but that's a different story.)

The point of this is that the general public, lacking any familiarity with military life, culture, or service, cannot distinguish between legitimate defense issues and reasonable risk and fearmongering.

Posted by: LRoades | September 11, 2008 6:38 AM

"The sole point conceded to me is that I'm among the 1 to 3 percent of Americans alive today who have any military experience whatsoever -- a statistic I did not know until I got here."


A citation to this would be greatly appreciated. Frankly, I don't think that this number is anywhere near correct. The veteran population is a greater % of the national population though it is greatly skewed towards those 60+ and differs greatly from state to state.

Unfortunately, I see this number much the same way the Army touts that "less than 3 out of 10 young people are qualified to enlist." That statistic is pure bunkum and cannot be determined without a national muster of 18-30 year olds where they are required to take the ASVAB, a MEPS physical and go through a detailed "APPLE" screening with a recruiter. In any case, if only 3 out of 10 youth ARE qualified to enlist, why hasn't the Army recognized this and rearraigned its recruiting strategy/footprint to focus on those areas with a lower incidence of disqualiying conditions (e.g. asthma, drop-outs, criminal records, obesity)? Instead, the Army proceeds by "vertically" exapanding its recruiting pool by taking previously unqualified personnel (e.g. 41 year olds, Cat. IV testers and convicted felons) from the same micro-targeted zip codes it always has. The result are absurdities where NY with 19 million people is missioned with 9,582 ARNG soldiers while Mississippi with less than 3 million souls gets 9,591 authorized ARNG slots.

Where am I going with this? I am very leery of many of these internally arrived at "facts" provided by some in uniform. I find many of those "truths" used by senior leadership to justify the persistence of a "new American militarism" caused by the military CHOOSING to disengage itself from mainstream American life - and no service has chosen more to divorce itself from mainstream life since 9/11 than the Army (recruiting ads aside).

This "1 to 3 % veteran" meme fits nicely with the "warrior caste" concept foisted on the Army and an unwitting public by GENS Schoomaker, Cody, Casey and LTG Stultz. If they can click their heels and convince their subordinates to see themselves as a persecuted military caste of "warriors" - a term the US has never used to describe its servicemembers - they have succeeded in redfining the Army's relationship to the nation it serves.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | September 11, 2008 12:34 PM

Personally I think the Reagan administration began the egregious use of militarism as a domestic political weapon. Who can forget the bemedalled Ollie North justifying his unethical, illegal conduct in the name of protecting America -- and his family? What would the impact of his testimony had been if he'd worn a blue suit?

However, it's reached a new level with the Bush adminstration, where men who've never served don the mantle of the "warrior". Dick Cheney smirking about "enhanced interrogation techniques", or the disgusting trashing of Max Cleland and John Kerry.

This is part of a cultural war within the US. One side is arrogating to itself patriotism: to disagree with them is treason. To question the use of military force is to denigrate our soldiers. Its operatives think of themselves as warriors.

To paraphrase Aeschylus the truth is a casualty in this war.

And another thing! The US Army should not be turning itself into a counter-insurgency force. The neocon model of the US Army as a nation-building force is wrong. As a democracy, the US has other, more effective methods of waging this type of war. To turn Clauswitz on his head, politics is the continuation of war by other means. All we have to do is behave in a manner consistent with our stated principles, and eventually, we'll win. Because, you see, we are the good guys. Or at least we were.

Rant ends..

Posted by: DanPatrick | September 11, 2008 1:25 PM

IRR Soldier - You were right to question the statistic. An article in the December 2004 issue of Population Bulletin states that "nearly 26 million Americans living today have served in the military--24 million of these veterans are men, 12 million are over age 60." Since the current US population is a bit over 305 million, 8 percent of Americans now alive have served in the military. And the percentage is larger still when one excludes Americans under enlistment age.

So either I garbled the statistic (entirely possible) or the officers who quoted it to me were mistaken. If the latter, the low statistic underscores a common perception around here. It's exemplified in a comment I heard while watching the 9/11 memorialization coverage with a group of officers. When a reporter noted that America was today at war, one officer said, with a tinge of bitterness, "America's not at war. The DoD [Department of Defense] is at war." Contrasting the sacrifices of military families with the complete lack of sacrifice on the part of the rest of us, it's hard to disagree.

The balance of your comment, btw, I found very interesting. Thanks for taking time to post it.

Posted by: Mark Grimsley | September 11, 2008 5:33 PM


I would certainly agree and like to associate myself with the idea that the "warrior culture" is neither a culture nor is it filled with actual warriors. I really dislike that term, and will probably get around to writing about it at some point.

And, like Mark and IRR and a few others, I am really worried about the Army (and USMC) inclination towards self-isolation and de facto martyr claims. It does not serve the nation well.

Posted by: Bob Bateman | September 12, 2008 11:08 AM

Please address the notion that American foreign policy relies so predominantly on the military as its primary instrument because it is the only organization that is organized, equipped, trained to actually step outside the borders and actually "do" things.

There are plenty of NGOs that can step outside the borders and do things but they aren't O/T/E by the US government and thus aren't subject to its control. Isn't a large part of American militarism the result of only having one credible tool in the tool box, a hammer, and thus every problem begins to look like a nail? Why do we have to keep relying on the US miilitary to be the visible arm of our foreign policy? Especially when many, including those we're there to help, can't see past the uniforms and weapons...and resent our presence. If we're going to keep showing how America can be the force for good we have always been...shouldn't there be some other department other than DoD that can solve problems too...without the uniforms and weapons?

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | September 12, 2008 1:47 PM

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