The American Military System Dissected
by Andrew Bacevich
The purpose of all wars, is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium A.D. Far be it from me to disagree with the esteemed Bishop of Hippo, but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating.
I’m not a saint or even a bishop, merely an interested observer of this nation’s ongoing military misadventures early in the third millennium A.D. From my vantage point, I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine’s dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.
War is evil. Large-scale, state-sanctioned violence is justified only when all other means of achieving genuinely essential objectives have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable. A nation should go to war only when it has to — and even then, ending the conflict as expeditiously as possible should be an imperative.
Some might take issue with these propositions, President Trump’s latest national security adviser doubtless among them. Yet most observers — even, I’m guessing, most high-ranking U.S. military officers — would endorse them. How is it then that peace has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective? Why has war joined death and taxes in that select category of things that Americans have come to accept as unavoidable?
The United States has taken Thucydides’s famed Melian Dialogue and turned it inside out. Centuries before Augustine, the great Athenian historian wrote, “The strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.” Strength confers choice; weakness restricts it. That’s the way the world works, so at least Thucydides believed. Yet the inverted Melian Dialogue that prevails in present-day Washington seemingly goes like this: strength imposes obligations and limits choice. In other words, we gotta keep doing what we’ve been doing, no matter what.
Making such a situation all the more puzzling is the might and majesty of America’s armed forces. By common consent, the United States today has the world’s best military. By some estimates, it may be the best in recorded history. It’s certainly the most expensive and hardest working on the planet.
Yet in the post-Cold War era when the relative strength of U.S. forces reached its zenith, our well-endowed, well-trained, well-equipped, and highly disciplined troops have proven unable to accomplish any of the core tasks to which they’ve been assigned. This has been especially true since 9/11.
We send the troops off to war, but they don’t achieve peace. Instead, America’s wars and skirmishes simply drag on, seemingly without end. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing, a circumstance that both Augustine and Thucydides would undoubtedly have found baffling.
Prosecuting War, Averting Peace
How to explain this paradox of a superb military that never gets the job done? Let me suggest that the problem lies with the present-day American military system, the principles to which the nation adheres in raising, organizing, supporting, and employing its armed forces. By its very existence, a military system expresses an implicit contract between the state, the people, and the military itself.
Here, as I see it, are the principles — seven in all — that define the prevailing military system of the United States.
First, we define military service as entirely voluntary. In the U.S., there is no link between citizenship and military service. It’s up to you as an individual to decide if you want to take up arms in the service of your country.
If you choose to do so, that’s okay. If you choose otherwise, that’s okay, too. Either way, your decision is of no more significance than whether you root for the Yankees or the Mets.
Second, while non-serving citizens are encouraged to “support the troops,” we avoid stipulating how this civic function is to be performed.
In practice, there are many ways of doing so, some substantive, others merely symbolic. Most citizens opt for the latter. This means that they cheer when invited to do so. Cheering is easy and painless. It can even make you feel good about yourself.
Third, when it comes to providing the troops with actual support, we expect Congress to do the heavy lifting. Our elected representatives fulfill that role by routinely ponying up vast sums of money for what is misleadingly called a defense budget. In some instances, Congress appropriates even more money than the Pentagon asks for, as was the case this year.
Meanwhile, under the terms of our military system, attention to how this money actually gets spent by our yet-to-be-audited Pentagon tends to be — to put the matter politely — spotty. Only rarely does the Congress insert itself forcefully into matters relating to what U.S. forces scattered around the world are actually doing.
Yes, there are periodic hearings, with questions posed and testimony offered. But unless there is some partisan advantage to be gained, oversight tends to be, at best, pro forma. As a result, those charged with implementing national security policy — another Orwellian phrase — enjoy very considerable latitude.
Fourth, under the terms of our military system, this latitude applies in spades to the chief executive. The commander-in-chief occupies the apex of our military system. The president may bring to office very little expertise pertinent to war or the art of statecraft, yet his authority regarding such matters is essentially unlimited.
Consider, if you will, the sobering fact that our military system empowers the president to order a nuclear attack, should he see the need — or feel the impulse — to do so. He need not obtain congressional consent. He certainly doesn’t need to check with the American people.
Since Harry Truman ordered the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, presidents have not exercised this option, for which we should all be grateful. Yet on more occasions than you can count, they have ordered military actions, large and small, on their own authority or after only the most perfunctory consultation with Congress. When Donald Trump, for instance, threatened North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen,” he gave no hint that he would even consider asking for prior congressional authorization to do so. Trump’s words were certainly inflammatory. Yet were he to act on those words, he would merely be exercising a prerogative enjoyed by his predecessors going back to Truman himself.
The Constitution invests in Congress the authority to declare war. The relevant language is unambiguous. In practice, as countless commentators have noted, that provision has long been a dead letter. This, too, forms an essential part of our present military system.
Fifth, under the terms of that system, there’s no need to defray the costs of military actions undertaken in our name. Supporting the troops does not require citizens to pay anything extra for what the U.S. military is doing out there wherever it may be. The troops are asked to sacrifice; for the rest of us, sacrifice is anathema.
Indeed, in recent years, presidents who take the nation to war or perpetuate wars they inherit never even consider pressing Congress to increase our taxes accordingly. On the contrary, they advocate tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest among us, which lead directly to massive deficits.
Sixth, pursuant to the terms of our military system, the armed services have been designed not to defend the country but to project military power on a global basis. For the Department of Defense actually defending the United States qualifies as an afterthought, trailing well behind other priorities such as trying to pacify Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province or jousting with militant groups in Somalia. The United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all designed to fight elsewhere, relying on a constellation of perhaps 800 bases around the world to facilitate the conduct of military campaigns “out there,” wherever “there” may happen to be. They are, in other words, expeditionary forces.
Reflect for a moment on the way the Pentagon divvies the world up into gigantic swathes of territory and then assigns a military command to exercise jurisdiction over each of them: European Command, Africa Command, Central Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Pacific Command. With the polar icecap continuing to melt, a U.S. Arctic Command is almost surely next on the docket. Nor is the Pentagon’s mania for creating new headquarters confined to terra firma. We already have U.S. Cyber Command. Can U.S. Galactic Command be far behind?
No other nation adheres to this practice. Nor would the United States permit any nation to do so. Imagine the outcry in Washington if President Xi Jinping had the temerity to create a “PRC Latin America Command,” headed by a four-star Chinese general charged with maintaining order and stability from Mexico to Argentina.
Seventh (and last), our military system invests great confidence in something called the military profession.
The legal profession exists to implement the rule of law. We hope that the result is some approximation of justice. The medical profession exists to repair our bodily ailments. We hope that health and longevity will result. The military profession exists to master war. With military professionals in charge, it’s our hope that America’s wars will conclude quickly and successfully with peace the result.
To put it another way, we look to the military profession to avert the danger of long, costly, and inconclusive wars. History suggests that these sap the collective strength of a nation and can bring about its premature decline. We count on military professionals to forestall that prospect.
Our military system assigns the immediate direction of war to our most senior professionals, individuals who have ascended step by step to the very top of the military hierarchy. We expect three- and four-star generals and admirals to possess the skills needed to make war politically purposeful. This expectation provides the rationale for the status they enjoy and the many entitlements they are accorded.
America, the (Formerly) Indispensable
Now, the nation that has created this military system is not some “shithole country,” to use a phrase made famous by President Trump. We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people. We believe in — indeed, are certain that we exemplify — freedom, even as we continually modify the meaning of that term.
In the aggregate, we are very rich. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century we have taken it for granted that the United States ought to be the richest country on the planet, notwithstanding the fact that large numbers of ordinary Americans are themselves anything but rich. Indeed, as a corollary to our military system, we count on these less affluent Americans to volunteer for military service in disproportionate numbers. Offered sufficient incentives, they do so.
Finally, since 1945 the United States has occupied the preeminent place in the global order, a position affirmed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. Indeed, we have come to believe that American primacy reflects the will of God or of some cosmic authority.
From the early years of the Cold War, we have come to believe that the freedom, material abundance, and primacy we cherish all depend upon the exercise of “global leadership.” In practice, that seemingly benign term has been a euphemism for unquestioned military superiority and the self-assigned right to put our military to work as we please wherever we please. Back in the 1990s, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it best: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
Other countries might design their military establishments to protect certain vital interests. As Albright’s remark suggests, American designs have been far more ambitious.
Here, then, is a question: How do the principles and attitudes that undergird our military system actually suit twenty-first-century America? And if they don’t, what are the implications of clinging to such a system? Finally, what alternative principles might form a more reasonable basis for raising, organizing, supporting, and employing our armed forces?
Spoiler alert: Let me acknowledge right now that I consider our present-day military system irredeemably flawed and deeply harmful. For proof we need look no further than the conduct of our post-9/11 wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
These myriad undertakings of the last nearly 17 years have subjected our military system to a comprehensive real-world examination. Collectively, they have rendered a judgment on that system. And the judgment is negative. Put to the test, the American military system has failed.
And the cost so far? Trillions of dollars expended (with trillions more to come), thousands of American lives lost, tens of thousands of Americans grievously damaged, and even greater numbers of non-Americans killed, injured, and displaced.
One thing is certain: our wars have not brought about peace by even the loosest definition of the word.
A Military Report Card
There are many possible explanations for why our recent military record has been so dismal. One crucial explanation — perhaps the most important of all — relates to those seven principles that undergird our military system.
Let me review them in reverse order.
Principle 7, the military profession: Tally up the number of three- and four-star generals who have commanded the Afghan War since 2001. It’s roughly a dozen. None of them has succeeded in bringing it to a successful conclusion. Nor does any such happy ending seem likely to be in the offing anytime soon. The senior officers we expect to master war have demonstrated no such mastery.
The generals who followed one another in presiding over that war are undoubtedly estimable, well-intentioned men, but they have not accomplished the job for which they were hired. Imagine if you contracted with a dozen different plumbers — each highly regarded — to fix a leaking sink in your kitchen and you ended up with a flooded basement. You might begin to think that there’s something amiss in the way that plumbers are trained and licensed. Similarly, perhaps it’s time to reexamine our approach to identifying and developing very senior military officers.
Or alternatively, consider this possibility: Perhaps our theory of war as an enterprise where superior generalship determines the outcome is flawed. Perhaps war cannot be fully mastered, by generals or anyone else.
It might just be that war is inherently unmanageable. Take it from Winston Churchill, America’s favorite confronter of evil. “The statesman who yields to war fever,” Churchill wrote, “must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
If Churchill is right, perhaps our expectations that senior military professionals will tame war — control the uncontrollable — are misplaced. Perhaps our military system should put greater emphasis on avoiding war altogether or at least classifying it as an option to be exercised with great trepidation, rather than as the political equivalent of a handy-dandy, multi-functional Swiss Army knife.
Principle 6, organizing our forces to emphasize global power projection: Reflect for a moment on the emerging security issues of our time. The rise of China is one example. A petulant and over-armed Russia offers a second. Throw in climate change and mushrooming cyber-threats and you have a daunting set of problems. It’s by no means impertinent to wonder about the relevance of the current military establishment to these challenges.
Every year the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain and enhance the lethality of a force configured for conventional power projection and to sustain the global network of bases that goes with it. For almost two decades, that force has been engaged in a futile war of attrition with radical Islamists that has now spread across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa.
I don’t know about you, but I worry more about the implications of China’s rise and Russian misbehavior than I do about Islamic terrorism. And I worry more about changing weather patterns here in New England or somebody shutting down the electrical grid in my home town than I do about what Beijing and Moscow may be cooking up. Bluntly put, our existing military system finds us focused on the wrong problem set.
We need a military system that accurately prioritizes actual and emerging threats. The existing system does not. This suggests the need for radically reconfigured armed services, with the hallowed traditions of George Patton, John Paul Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Chesty Puller honorably but permanently retired.
Principle 5, paying — or not paying — for America’s wars: If you want it, you should be willing to pay for it. That hoary axiom ought to guide our military system as much as it should our personal lives. Saddling Millennials or members of Generation Z with the cost of paying for wars mostly conceived and mismanaged by my fellow Baby Boomers strikes me as downright unseemly.
One might expect the young to raise quite a ruckus over such an obvious injustice. In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed their righteous anger over the absence of effective gun controls in this country. That they aren’t comparably incensed about the misuse of guns by their own contemporaries deployed to distant lands represents a real puzzle, especially since they’re the ones who will ultimately be stuck with the bill.
Principles 4 and 3, the role of Congress and the authority of the commander-in-chief: Whatever rationale may once have existed for allowing the commander-in-chief to circumvent the Constitution’s plainly specified allocation of war powers to Congress should long since have lapsed. Well before Donald Trump became president, a responsible Congress would have reasserted its authority to declare war. That Trump sits in the Oval Office and now takes advice from the likes of John Bolton invests this matter with great urgency.
Surely President Trump’s bellicose volatility drives home the point that it’s past time for Congress to assert itself in providing responsible oversight regarding all aspects of U.S. military policy. Were it to do so, the chances of fixing the defects permeating our present military system would improve appreciably.
Of course, the likelihood of that happening is nil until the money changers are expelled from the temple. And that won’t occur until Americans who are not beholden to the military-industrial complex and its various subsidiaries rise up, purge the Congress of its own set of complexes, and install in office people willing to do their duty. And that brings us back to…
Principles 2 and 1, the existing relationship between the American people and their military and our reliance on a so-called all-volunteer force: Here we come to the heart of the matter.
I submit that the relationship between the American people and their military is shot through with hypocrisy. It is, in fact, nothing short of fraudulent. Worse still, most of us know it, even if we are loath to fess up. In practice, the informal mandate to “support the troops” has produced an elaborate charade. It’s theater, as phony as Donald Trump’s professed love for DACA recipients.
If Americans were genuinely committed to supporting the troops, they would pay a great deal more attention to what President Trump and his twenty-first-century predecessors have tasked those troops to accomplish — with what results and at what cost. Of course, that would imply doing more than cheering and waving the flag on cue. Ultimately, the existence of the all-volunteer force obviates any need for such an effort. It provides Americans with an ample excuse for ignoring our endless wars and allowing our flawed military system to escape serious scrutiny.
Having outsourced responsibility for defending the country to people few of us actually know, we’ve ended up with a military system that is unfair, undemocratic, hugely expensive, and largely ineffective, not to mention increasingly irrelevant to the threats coming our way. The perpetuation of that system finds us mired in precisely the sort of long, costly, inconclusive wars that sap the collective strength of a nation and may bring about its premature decline.
The root cause of our predicament is the all-volunteer force. Only when we ordinary citizens conclude that we have an obligation to contribute to the country’s defense will it become possible to devise a set of principles for raising, organizing, supporting, and employing U.S. forces that align with our professed values and our actual security requirements.
If Stormy Daniels can figure out when an existing contract has outlived its purpose, so can the rest of us.