America At War

America At War August 18, 2016

“Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band is a paean to everything a Southern man loves—cold beer on a Friday night, jeans that fit just right, the radio turned up, sunrise, the “touch of a precious child,” Moma’s love, and, of course, chicken. Near the end, the song turns patriotic:

I thank god for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring.
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives
So we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love.

“So we don’t have to sacrifice”: It’s a jarring turn of phrase. In an earlier day, Americans were expected to share the sacrifices of our armed forces. No longer. We honor soldiers who give the ultimate sacrifice so that we don’t have a give up a damn thing. Zac Brown doesn’t take the next step, but George W. Bush did: We honor the sacrifice of our soldiers by not giving up a damn thing, by drinking our beer, eating our chicken and shopping for those just-right jeans. Our contribution to the war effort is defiantly to “enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed” (Bush 43).

In several books (2009’s American Empire and 2013’s The New American Militarism), retired Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich has argued that current American foreign policy is founded on precisely this premise: We’ll do whatever it takes to preserve our way of life, self-indulgent though it may be. In his recent America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich highlights a particular dimension of our creed of freedom: oil. We can’t live the American dream of mobility without it, so we gotta have it. If the rest of the world reels, so be it. If it means that we have to throw ourselves into four decades of war on the other side of the globe, so be it. We must preserve our freedom.

By Bacevich’s count, we are in the midst of a fourth war in the middle east, each a predictable result of our failures in the previous war. He takes Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran, as a starting point for his history. Throughout the 1980s, we intervened, tragically, in Lebanon, supported mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran while secretly funneling arms to Iran. The liberation of Kuwait from Iraq was the second Gulf War. The 1990s look like an interim, but Bacevich reminds us that even then we were patrolling the borders of Iraq, running an occasional sortie, and fighting in Somalia, not to mention the related war in Kosovo. Throughout, we had troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, one of the provocations that led to the third war. After 9/11, we followed the Soviet lead with an invasion of Afghanistan and then of Iraq. In the current fourth war, we have been dealing with the murderous aftermath of our adventuring that is known as the Islamic State.

Bacevich’s book is a military history of the past 40 years, but my interest is more in the political, policy, and cultural lessons that he draws. One of his recurring themes is American overconfidence in the military, often in situations that are not susceptible to military solutions. This is an expression of a deeper illusion that the US “possesses not only the wisdom but also the wherewithal to control or direct” the historical forces we meddle with (364). We don’t even understand those forces. Bacevich charges that the early formers of American Middle East in the 1970s ignored religion (38) and he observes that we even helped stoke jihadism because it inspired Afghans and their allies to fight the Soviets (58-9). We simplify by personalizing; every successive enemy is embodied in an individual who is denounced as the next Hitler.

Because policymakers don’t understand life on the ground, they plunge us into unwinnable conflicts: “While the commitment of raw military power might get things off to a good start, a faulty grasp of underlying political dynamics leaves the United States susceptible to ambush, both literal and figurative” (147). As a result, we make matters worse: “American purposes and U.S. military policy in the Islamic world have never aligned. Rather than keeping threats to U.S. interests at bay, a penchant for military activitism, initially circumspect but becoming increasingly uninhibited over time, has helped to foster new threats” (362).

The scope of our aims is breathtaking. Obama has scaled back the rhetoric, but Bush responded to 9/11 with a global war against terrorism, sometimes spun as a global war against evil. Bush simultaneously defended the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Followed through, this is a prescription for perpetual war. As Rumsfeld put it in the aftermath of 9/11, we must “move swiftly . . . go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not” (quoted 222). “Related and not”—that covers every conceivable everything. Rumsfeld had the clarity to recognize that permanent war was the price we had to pay for sustaining our way of life. A week after 9/11, he said, “we have a choice either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way they live, and we . . . chose the latter.”

Doubtless he had in mind the restrictions on freedom that would follow if we were more vigilant about terrorism. But the point applied more widely. We have, as Rumsfeld recognized, a choice, and four decades of war was not the only choice we could have made. Bacevich has surprisingly positive things to say about Jimmy Carter’s much-maligned “malaise” speech, which Hendrik Hertzberg characterized at the time as “an exercise in national pastorship” (quoted 20). As policy proposal, the speech was a plea in favor of American energy independence, but Carter set oil shortages and dependence on OPEC in the context of a failure of American values and a “crisis of confidence.” We are at a crossroads. One road, he said, depends on “a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.” The other path was the path of true freedom, which requires “common purpose and the restoration of American values.” Energy was one of the “battlefields” on which America’s destiny would be determined (quoted 19-20). Carter’s sermon was dismissed and soon enough he had adopted the “Carter Doctrine,” declaring that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States . . . and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force” (quoted 28). Modesty, restraint, and self-examination were out the window.

Bacevich is a punchy, darkly sarcastic writer. He’s no apologist for radical Islam; he knows that America fights evil men and regimes throughout the Middle East. A realist who overtly places himself in the Niebuhrian tradition, his motto might be Psalm 20: “Some trust in horses and some in chariots.” He has little respect for foreign policy experts, and only slightly more for the top brass of the military. He never speaks ill of American troops, and he is the furthest thing from an American-hater. A graduate of the US Military Academy and a 23-year Army veteran, he has the ethos to pull off an account driven by quiet rage at American hubris and naivete.

It’s a rage that he deftly passes on to his readers. That’s what Bacevich wants. He lays the blame for the lack of a “serious challenge” to ongoing war at our feed: “Thus far, at least, Americans themselves appear oblivious to what is occurring. . . . In a fundamental sense, the war is not their concern” (369).

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