At the end of the Cold War, Americans said "yes" to military power.
The skepticism about arms and armies that pervaded the American experiment from
its founding vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became
enamored with military might.
The ensuing affair had and continues to have a heedless, Gatsby-like aspect,
a passion pursued in utter disregard of any consequences that might ensue. Few
in power have openly considered whether valuing military power for its own sake
or cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with American
principles. Indeed, one striking aspect of America's drift toward militarism
has been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature.
For example, when Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, ran for the
presidency in 2004, he framed his differences with George W Bush's national
security policies in terms of tactics rather than first principles. Kerry did
not question the wisdom of styling the US response to the events of September
11, 2001, as a generations-long "global war on terror". It was not
the prospect of open-ended war that drew Kerry's ire. It was rather the fact
that the war had been "extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted".
Kerry faulted Bush because, in his view, US troops in Iraq lacked "the
preparation and hardware they needed to fight as effectively as they could".
Bush was expecting too few soldiers to do too much with too little. Declaring
that "keeping our military strong and keeping our troops as safe as they
can be should be our highest priority", Kerry promised if elected to fix
these deficiencies. Americans could count on a President Kerry to expand the
armed forces and improve their ability to fight.
Yet on this score Kerry's circumspection was entirely predictable. It was the
candidate's way of signaling that he was sound on defense and had no intention
of departing from the prevailing national-security consensus.
Under the terms of that consensus, mainstream politicians today take as a given
that American military supremacy is an unqualified good, evidence of a larger
American superiority. They see this armed might as the key to creating an international
order that accommodates American values. One result of that consensus over the
past quarter-century has been to militarize US policy and encourage tendencies
suggesting that American society itself is increasingly enamored with its self-image
as the military-power nonpareil.
How much is enough?
This new American militarism manifests itself in several different ways. It
does so, first of all, in the scope, cost, and configuration of America's present-day
Through the first two centuries of US history, political leaders in Washington
gauged the size and capabilities of America's armed services according to the
security tasks immediately at hand. A grave and proximate threat to the nation's
well-being might require a large and powerful military establishment. In the
absence of such a threat, policymakers scaled down that establishment accordingly.
With the passing of crisis, the army raised up for the crisis went immediately
out of existence. This had been the case in 1865, in 1918, and in 1945.
Since the end of the Cold War, having come to value military power for its
own sake, the United States has abandoned this principle and is committed as
a matter of policy to maintaining military capabilities far in excess of those
of any would-be adversary or combination of adversaries. This commitment finds
both a qualitative and quantitative expression, with the US military establishment
dwarfing that of even America's closest ally. Thus, whereas the US Navy maintains
and operates a total of 12 large attack aircraft carriers, the once-vaunted
Royal Navy has none - indeed, in all the battle fleets of the world there is
no ship even remotely comparable to a Nimitz-class carrier, weighing in at some
97,000 tons fully loaded, longer than three [US] football fields, cruising at
a speed above 30 knots, and powered by nuclear reactors that give it an essentially
infinite radius of action. Today, the US Marine Corps possesses more attack
aircraft than does the entire Royal Air Force - and the United States has two
other even larger "air forces", one an integral part of the navy and
the other officially designated as the US Air Force. Indeed, in terms of numbers
of men and women in uniform, the US Marine Corps is half again as large as the
entire British army - and the Pentagon has a second, even larger "army"
actually called the US Army - which in turn also operates its own "air
force" of some 5,000 aircraft.
All of these massive and redundant capabilities cost money. Notably, the present-day
Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation, is 12% larger than the average defense
budget of the Cold War era. In 2002, American defense spending exceeded by a
factor of 25 the combined defense budgets of the seven "rogue states"
then comprising the roster of US enemies. Indeed, by some calculations, the
United States spends more on defense than all other nations in the world together.
This is a circumstance without historical precedent.
Furthermore, in all likelihood, the gap in military spending between the United
States and all other nations will expand further still in the years to come.
Projected increases in the defense budget will boost Pentagon spending in real
terms to a level higher than it was during the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989).
According to the Pentagon's announced long-range plans, by 2009 its budget will
exceed the Cold War average by 23% - despite the absence of anything remotely
resembling a so-called peer competitor. However astonishing this fact might
seem, it elicits little comment, either from political leaders or the press.
It is simply taken for granted. The truth is that there no longer exists any
meaningful context within which Americans might consider the question, "How
much is enough?"
On a day-to-day basis, what do these expensive forces exist to do? Simply put,
for the Department of Defense and all of its constituent parts, defense per
se figures as little more than an afterthought. The primary mission of America's
far-flung military establishment is global power projection, a reality tacitly
understood in all quarters of American society. To suggest that the US military
has become the world's police force may slightly overstate the case, but only
That well over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States
continues to maintain bases and military forces in several dozens of countries
- by some counts well over a hundred in all - rouses minimal controversy, despite
the fact that many of these countries are perfectly capable of providing for
their own security needs. That even apart from fighting wars and pursuing terrorists,
US forces are constantly prowling around the globe - training, exercising, planning,
and posturing - elicits no more notice (and in some cases less) from the average
American than the presence of a cop on a city street corner. Even before the
Pentagon officially assigned itself the mission of "shaping" the international
environment, members of the political elite, liberals and conservatives alike,
had reached a common understanding that scattering US troops around the globe
to restrain, inspire, influence, persuade, or cajole paid dividends. Whether
any correlation exists between this vast panoply of forward-deployed forces
on the one hand and antipathy to the United States abroad on the other has remained
for the most part a taboo subject.
The quest for military dominion
The indisputable fact of global US military preeminence also affects the collective
mindset of the officer corps. For the armed services, dominance constitutes
a baseline or a point of departure from which to scale the heights of ever greater
military capabilities. Indeed, the services have come to view outright supremacy
as merely adequate and any hesitation in efforts to increase the margin of supremacy
as evidence of falling behind.
Thus, according to one typical study of the US Navy's future, "sea supremacy
beginning at our shorelines and extending outward to distant theaters is a necessary
condition for the defense of the US". Of course, the US Navy already possesses
unquestioned global preeminence; the real point of the study is to argue for
the urgency of radical enhancements to that preeminence. The officer-authors
of this study express confidence that given sufficient money the navy can achieve
ever greater supremacy, enabling the navy of the future to enjoy "overwhelming
precision firepower", "pervasive surveillance", and "dominant
control of a maneuvering area, whether sea, undersea, land, air, space or cyberspace".
In this study and in virtually all others, political and strategic questions
implicit in the proposition that supremacy in distant theaters forms a prerequisite
of "defense" are left begging - indeed, are probably unrecognized.
At times, this quest for military dominion takes on galactic proportions. Acknowledging
that the United States enjoys "superiority in many aspects of space capability",
a senior defense official nonetheless complains that "we don't have space
dominance and we don't have space supremacy". Since outer space is "the
ultimate high ground", which the United States must control, he urges immediate
action to correct this deficiency. When it comes to military power, mere superiority
will not suffice.
The new American militarism also manifests itself through an increased propensity
to use force, leading, in effect, to the normalization of war. There was a time
in recent memory, most notably while the so-called Vietnam Syndrome infected
the American body politic, when Republican and Democratic administrations alike
viewed with real trepidation the prospect of sending US troops into action abroad.
Since the advent of the new Wilsonianism, however, self-restraint regarding
the use of force has all but disappeared. During the entire Cold War era, from
1945 through 1988, large-scale US military actions abroad totaled a scant six.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events.
The brief period extending from 1989's Operation Just Cause (the overthrow of
Manuel Noriega) to 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom (the overthrow of Saddam Hussein)
featured nine major military interventions. And that count does not include
innumerable lesser actions such as Bill Clinton's signature cruise-missile attacks
against obscure targets in obscure places, the almost daily bombing of Iraq
throughout the late 1990s, or the quasi-combat missions that have seen GIs dispatched
to Rwanda, Colombia, East Timor, and the Philippines. Altogether, the tempo
of US military interventionism has become nothing short of frenetic.
As this roster of incidents lengthened, Americans grew accustomed to - perhaps
even comfortable with - reading in their morning newspapers the latest reports
of US soldiers responding to some crisis somewhere on the other side of the
globe. As crisis became a seemingly permanent condition, so too did war. The
Bush administration has tacitly acknowledged as much in describing the global
campaign against terror as a conflict likely to last decades and in promulgating
- and in Iraq implementing - a doctrine of preventive war.
In former times American policymakers treated (or at least pretended to treat)
the use of force as evidence that diplomacy had failed. In our own time they
have concluded (in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney) that force "makes
your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems".
Policymakers have increasingly come to see coercion as a sort of all-purpose
tool. Among American war planners, the assumption has now taken root that whenever
and wherever US forces next engage in hostilities, it will be the result of
the United States consciously choosing to launch a war. As President Bush has
remarked, the big lesson of September 11 was that "this country must go
on the offense and stay on the offense". The American public's ready acceptance
of the prospect of war without foreseeable end and of a policy that abandons
even the pretense of the United States fighting defensively or viewing war as
a last resort shows clearly how far the process of militarization has advanced.
The new esthetic of war
Reinforcing this heightened predilection for arms has been the appearance in
recent years of a new esthetic of war. This is the third indication of advancing
The old 20th-century esthetic of armed conflict as barbarism, brutality, ugliness,
and sheer waste grew out of World War I, as depicted by writers such as Ernest
Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and Robert Graves. World War II, Korea, and
Vietnam reaffirmed that aesthetic, in the latter case with films like Apocalypse
Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket.
The intersection of art and war gave birth to two large truths. The first was
that the modern battlefield was a slaughterhouse, and modern war an orgy of
destruction that devoured guilty and innocent alike. The second, stemming from
the first, was that military service was an inherently degrading experience
and military institutions by their very nature repressive and inhumane. After
1914, only fascists dared to challenge these truths. Only fascists celebrated
war and depicted armies as forward-looking - expressions of national unity and
collective purpose that paved the way for utopia. To be a genuine progressive,
liberal in instinct, enlightened in sensibility, was to reject such notions
But by the turn of the 21st century, a new image of war had emerged, if not
fully displacing the old one at least serving as a counterweight. To many observers,
events of the 1990s suggested that war's very nature was undergoing a profound
change. The era of mass armies, going back to the time of Napoleon, and of mechanized
warfare, an offshoot of industrialization, was coming to an end. A new era of
high-tech warfare, waged by highly skilled professionals equipped with "smart"
weapons, had commenced. Describing the result inspired the creation of a new
lexicon of military terms: war was becoming surgical, frictionless, postmodern,
even abstract or virtual. It was "coercive diplomacy" - the object
of the exercise no longer to kill but to persuade. By the end of the 20th century,
Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University concluded, war had become "a spectacle".
It had transformed itself into a kind of "spectator sport", one offering
"the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not, happily, for the
spectator". Even for the participants, fighting no longer implied the prospect
of dying for some abstract cause, since the very notion of "sacrifice in
battle had become implausible or ironic".
Combat in the information age promised to overturn all of "the hoary dictums
about the fog and friction" that had traditionally made warfare such a
chancy proposition. American commanders, affirmed General Tommy Franks, could
expect to enjoy "the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given
In short, by the dawn of the 21st century the reigning postulates of technology-as-panacea
had knocked away much of the accumulated blood-rust sullying war's reputation.
Thus reimagined - and amidst widespread assurances that the United States could
be expected to retain a monopoly on this new way of war - armed conflict regained
an esthetic respectability, even palatability, that the literary and artistic
interpreters of 20th-century military cataclysms were thought to have demolished
once and for all. In the right circumstances, for the right cause, it now turned
out, war could actually offer an attractive option - cost-effective, humane,
even thrilling. Indeed, as the Anglo-American race to Baghdad conclusively demonstrated
in the spring of 2003, in the eyes of many, war has once again become a grand
pageant, performance art, or perhaps a temporary diversion from the ennui and
boring routine of everyday life. As one observer noted with approval, "public
enthusiasm for the whiz-bang technology of the US military" had become
"almost boyish". Reinforcing this enthusiasm was the expectation that
the great majority of Americans could count on being able to enjoy this new
type of war from a safe distance.
The moral superiority of the soldier
This new esthetic has contributed, in turn, to an appreciable boost in the status
of military institutions and soldiers themselves, a fourth manifestation of
the new American militarism.
Since the end of the Cold War, opinion polls surveying public attitudes toward
national institutions have regularly ranked the armed services first. While
confidence in the executive branch, the Congress, the media, and even organized
religion is diminishing, confidence in the military continues to climb. Otherwise
acutely wary of having their pockets picked, Americans count on men and women
in uniform to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. Americans
fearful that the rest of society may be teetering on the brink of moral collapse
console themselves with the thought that the armed services remain a repository
of traditional values and old-fashioned virtue.
Confidence in the military has found further expression in a tendency to elevate
the soldier to the status of national icon, the apotheosis of all that is great
and good about contemporary America. The men and women of the armed services,
gushed Newsweek in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, "looked like
a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. They were young, confident, and hard-working,
and they went about their business with poise and elan." A writer for Rolling
Stone magazine reported after a more recent and extended immersion in military
life that "the army was not the awful thing that my [anti-military] father
had imagined"; it was instead "the sort of America he always pictured
when he explained ... his best hopes for the country".
According to the old post-Vietnam-era political correctness, the armed services
had been a refuge for louts and mediocrities who probably couldn't make it in
the real world. By the turn of the 21st century a different view had taken hold.
Now the United States military was "a place where everyone tried their
hardest. A place where everybody ... looked out for each other. A place where
people - intelligent, talented people - said honestly that money wasn't what
drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings." Soldiers,
it turned out, were not only more virtuous than the rest of us, but also more
sensitive and even happier. Contemplating the GIs advancing on Baghdad in March
2003, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson saw something
more than soldiers in battle. He ascertained "transcendence at work".
According to Hanson, the armed services had "somehow distilled from the
rest of us an elite cohort" in which virtues cherished by earlier generations
of Americans continued to flourish.
Soldiers have tended to concur with this evaluation of their own moral superiority.
In a 2003 survey of military personnel, "two-thirds [of those polled] said
they think military members have higher moral standards than the nation they
serve ... Once in the military, many said, members are wrapped in a culture
that values honor and morality." Such attitudes leave even some senior
officers more than a little uncomfortable. Noting with regret that "the
armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve", retired
Admiral Stanley Arthur has expressed concern that "more and more, enlisted
as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than
the society they serve". Such tendencies, concluded Arthur, are "not
healthy in an armed force serving a democracy".
In public life today, paying homage to those in uniform has become obligatory
and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty of failing to "support
the troops". In the realm of partisan politics, the political right has
shown considerable skill in exploiting this dynamic, shamelessly pandering to
the military itself and by extension to those members of the public laboring
under the misconception, a residue from Vietnam, that the armed services are
under siege from a rabidly anti-military left.
In fact, the Democratic mainstream - if only to save itself from extinction
- has long since purged itself of any dovish inclinations. "What's the
point of having this superb military that you're always talking about,"
Madeleine Albright demanded of General Colin Powell, "if we can't use it?"
As Albright's question famously attests, when it comes to advocating the use
of force, Democrats can be positively gung-ho. Moreover, in comparison to their
Republican counterparts, they are at least as deferential to military leaders
and probably more reluctant to question claims of military expertise.
Even among left-liberal activists, the reflexive anti-militarism of the 1960s
has given way to a more nuanced view. Although hard-pressed to match self-aggrandizing
conservative claims of being one with the troops, progressives have come to
appreciate the potential for using the armed services to advance their own agenda.
Do-gooders want to harness military power to their efforts to do good. Thus
the most persistent calls for US intervention abroad to relieve the plight of
the abused and persecuted come from the militant left. In the present moment,
writes Michael Ignatieff, "empire has become a precondition for democracy".
Ignatieff, a prominent human-rights advocate, summons the United States to "use
imperial power to strengthen respect for self-determination [and] to give states
back to abused, oppressed people who deserve to rule them for themselves".
The president as warlord
Occasionally, albeit infrequently, the prospect of an upcoming military adventure
still elicits opposition, even from a public grown accustomed to war. For example,
during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, large-scale
demonstrations against President Bush's planned intervention filled the streets
of many American cities. The prospect of the United States launching a preventive
war without the sanction of the UN Security Council produced the largest outpouring
of public protest that the country had seen since the Vietnam War. Yet the response
of the political classes to this phenomenon was essentially to ignore it. No
politician of national stature offered himself or herself as the movement's
champion. No would-be statesman nursing even the slightest prospects of winning
high national office was willing to risk being tagged with not supporting those
whom President Bush was ordering into harm's way. When the Congress took up
the matter, Democrats who denounced George W Bush's policies in every other
respect dutifully authorized him to invade Iraq. For up-and-coming politicians,
opposition to war had become something of a third rail: only the very brave
or the very foolhardy dared to venture anywhere near it.
More recently still, this has culminated in George W Bush styling himself as
the nation's first full-fledged warrior-president. The staging of Bush's victory
lap shortly after the conquest of Baghdad in the spring of 2003 - the dramatic
landing on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the president decked out in
the full regalia of a naval aviator emerging from the cockpit to bask in the
adulation of the crew - was lifted directly from the triumphant final scenes
of the movie Top Gun, with the boyish George Bush standing in for the boyish
Tom Cruise. For this nationally televised moment, Bush was not simply mingling
with the troops; he had merged his identity with their own and made himself
one of them - the president as warlord. In short order, the marketplace ratified
this effort; a toy manufacturer offered for US$39.99 a Bush-lookalike military
action figure advertised as "Elite Force Aviator: George W Bush - US President
and Naval Aviator".
Thus has the condition that worried C Wright Mills in 1956 come to pass in
our own day. "For the first time in the nation's history," Mills wrote,
"men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable
end." While in earlier times Americans had viewed history as "a peaceful
continuum interrupted by war", today planning, preparing, and waging war
has become "the normal state and seemingly permanent condition of the United
States". And "the only accepted 'plan' for peace is the loaded pistol".
Monday: Role of the second-generation neo-cons
Andrew J Bacevich is professor of international relations and director of the
Center for International Relations at Boston University. A graduate of West
Point and a Vietnam veteran, he has a doctorate in history from Princeton and
was a Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of several
books, including the just-published The New American Militarism: How Americans
Are Seduced by War. This article is a slightly adapted excerpt from that book,
and is used by permission of Tomdispatch, of the author, and of Oxford University
(Copyright 2005 Andrew J Bacevich.)