Outlook: Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance

Jun 28, 2010

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, discusses his Outlook article titled ''Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance,' about Afghanistan, Iraq and the dangers of protracted conflict for military and civilian leaders.

Good morning.  I am looking forward to answering any questions about my Outlook piece.  I am grateful to the Post for allowing me to participate in this exchange.

Andrew Bacevich

Doesn't military disregard for civilian control predate Vietnam? In "Death of a President," Manchester noted that when Sec. of Defense McNamara and Jean Kennedy Smith went to Arlington in a downpour to look over the grave site, military men accompanying them held umbrellas over the senior military man present and over Ms. Smith--the woman--but allowed the Secretary of Defense, who was technically their superior, to get soaked. This was before opposition to the Vietnam War was widespread.

This is a good question that raises up a very complex issue.  Challenges to civilian control are not new.  Indeed, I'd say that at the top, civilian control is almost always contested -- senior officers and the institutions they represent pushing to advance a particular agenda and not always scrupulously observing the norms of proper behavior.  So the principle is one that citizens should never take for granted.

Dr. Bacevich, Thanks for your outstanding article. For a number of years, I've been following the changing regional and demographic trends of our entering cohorts of Army officers. The broad changes in the pool of those seeking an officers' commission, and where they are drawn from, is profound and deserves greater attention. The national realignment in Army ROTC program allocations since 1989 is perhaps the best lens to view this trend through.

In 2004, fully 59% of Army ROTC graduates hailed from the South while only a meager 18% were drawn from the Northeast. Since 1989, the Northeast saw its authorized number of Army ROTC programs slashed from 50 to 27 (note: these closures were unilateral decisions by the Army). In contrast, Alabama alone currently has 10 Army ROTC programs and Georgia has 9. States such as South Dakota (pop. less than 900K) and Utah (pop less than 3 million) have the same Army ROTC program allocation - 3 - as New Jersey (pop. 9 million) and more than NYC (pop. 8 million with 2 programs) or Chicago (pop. 3 million with 1 program).

Do you feel that the geographic and ideological narrowing of those joining our increasingly self-selecting officer corps contributes to the trends you describe? Do you feel that the worldview and attitudes of our current senior leadership contributes to the Army's continued movement away from Metropolitan America as a source of its future leaders? The emergence of a "warrior caste" in the U.S. is among my biggest concerns and I genuinely believe that these personnel trends are hastening its emergence. I would appreciate your thoughts and I greatly respect your work. Here are some graphics the WSJ produced on this trend that you may find informative.

Sincerely, Stephen K. Trynosky CPT, MS, USAR

You have put your finger on a very important issue.  If as a nation we are committed to the proposition of remaining the world's sole military superpower -- as indeed we are -- then we should take some care in ensuring that the officer corps reflects and remains tethered to the people that it purports to defend.  Geographic distribution is one measure that deserves attention, but there are others.  Although I cannot cite any statistics, I have a sense that today's officer corps is recruited inordinately from the ranks of the officer corps -- that is the sons and daughters of serving officers become the next generation of serving officers.  In a way, this is understandable and even admirable.  Yet taken too far, it can result in the emergence of an officer caste detached from civilian society.  It is for this reason (among others) that I believe that the service  academies be transformed from undergraduate institutions into "commissioning schools," that all officer candidates would attend after completing their education at a civilian college or university.

Please comment on the value of 'citizen' as opposed to 'career' military personnel entering and exiting our military forces and their potential to impact 'honesty', constitutional loyality, and our nation's protection from both foreign and domestic enemies. Harry Truman proposed a type of one-year rotation for all citizens back in 1945.

Well, this raises the question of National Service -- all of America's youth spending a year or more "in service" -- some in uniform, others not.  I find the idea to be tremendously appealing, but the cultural conditions don't seem to be right.

There is little I can add to this eloquent and profound warning. I would only ask the Washington Post to expand the author's biographical note so that readers realize this message comes from an academic who also wore his nation's uniform for most of his life and fought and bled for the nation. He knows the military culture of which he speaks.

I've done so, thank you. And here is Prof. Bacevich's Wikipedia entry and his Boston University bio.

Not only is this endless war, but it has resulted in an unbelievable inflation in military salaries, largely a response to keeping U.S. forces in far-off lands. If you look it up, you will find that based on his service (he is a Class of 1976 graduate of West Point), MdChrystal was earning $213,420 a year as a four-star general in the U.S. Army. Since he was serving in a combat zone, that is tax free money, again thanks of a Congress anxious to have enough troops to send to unpopular places. McChrystal's pension now is 50 percent of his salary, or $106,710 a year, but that will be taxable. This is not a military force, it is a mercenary force. You didn't address this directly, but there is an alternative, and that is to bring back the draft. It would be much more democratic, it would be cheaper, and it would be how we have fought all our wars in the past. And it would put a stop to the establishment of an imperial military, which is what I believe we now have in this country. I agree with you that the comments of McChrystal's staff and those of the general himself show an "us" versus "them" attitude that is dangerous in any democracy. But we _ or at least our elected representatives _ have made this situation. So distasteful are the memories of Vietnam that only a few voices in Congress today support the idea of having a draft, but I think we need a discussion to bring it back to save the military from itself. When the generals earn more than Supreme Court justices or members of Congress, something is terribly wrong. I think one thing is clear, and that is we would not have 10-year wars if we had a draft.

You overstate the point, but there is a core of truth to what you say:  "All Volunteer Force" is a euphemism.  Absent a generous package of pay and benefits (very much helped along by high unemployment), the Pentagon would be unable to fill the force.  Let me emphasize that in my view, the troops earn their money.  But we are kidding ourselves if we think that God and country can adequately explain why the young 18-year-old shows up at his local recruiter's office.

Is this partly the result of the Generals concluding the political objectives they have been given, for say Afghanistan, are unachievable?

That's what my wife thinks.  Her explanation for McChrystal's egregious misbehavior is that he was (consciously or unconsciously) looking for a way out.  Well, who knows?

I would note, however, that "the political objectives they have been given" are pretty much objectives that they chose.  McChrystal (and Petraeus) designed the McChrystal strategy.  It was not exactly shoved down their throat.

The Truman Administration put us on a path of "limited war". In other words, total war to win became obsolete because of the fear of nuclear destruction. Thus our military has been haltered a la Korea etc. It is certainly not hard to understand the conflict. Civilian leaders seek limited war (restore the situation to it's previous mark) whereas military personnel are trained/taught to win. As a retired Marine Office of 26 years service in Korea and Viet Nam it certainly rankled me. How do you view this division?

Candidly -- and I hope not disrespectfully -- I view your description of the issue as an oversimplification.  Sergeants and captains want to "win."  Generals know -- or ought to know -- that there are other matters in play.  Political considerations must remain paramount or war cannot possibly make any sense or be morally justifiable.

I found the article fascinating and thought provoking. My question is now that we have had this "standing army" for years...how do we "exit" these "long wars" and return to a citizen army with a common purpose?

The larger problem lies in the realm of foreign policy and the notion, deeply established in Washington, that destiny calls upon the United States to exercise "global leadership" -- one of the silliest and most pernicious phrases in our political lexicon.  If we shrink our foreign policy, then restoring good sense to our military policies will become feasible.

Often we read that the U.S. has the most professionaly trained military in the world. Along with that, we have the most advanced weaponry and air power vs. that of tribal warlords of Afghanistan. How is it that these militants, without this combination, are able to hold us in such a defensive position for all these many years? Richard Reidy

1. War is a tough business.

2.  We are not as smart as we think we are.

3.  Our adversaries are determined and possess advantages that they skillfully exploit.

4. What we're good at is not necessarily all that relevant to the problem at hand.

Prof. Bacevich, how does your thesis of endless war fit with the increasing "contracting out" of America's wars and security to groups like Blackstone (Xe), Dyncorp, and others? Don't these contractors also represent a potential threat to civilian/democratic control of the military and/or the state's monopoly of the use of organized violence?

Absolutely!  The privatization of war is a disgrace.  It benefits important interests in Washington, of course, and "we the people" don't care enough to demand that it be stopped.  So it will continue.

I earned a Ph.D. in military history after returning from Vietnam 40 years ago, and have been teaching Active and Reserve officers for the past 25+ years. I think respect for civilian authority has eroded substantially, especially over the last 15 years. Also more coarse behavior and cynicism in the officer corps. You think that has anything to do with heavy emphasis on "warrior spirit" and "warrior ethos?" Has SF mentality become the norm? If so, is that a good thing?

I've wondered about this.  The "warrior" business began when I was still on active duty (eons ago) and it left me uncomfortable in ways that I could never put my finger on.  Certainly we want our fighting forces to have a spirit that will serve them well in combat.  But in a democracy a soldier ought to be something more than simply a fighting man (or, today, woman).  I think that's why I prefer the word soldier.

Your worries are well worth taking seriously. Who is Marcus Flavius, and what is your ancient source for his comments? As a retired classics professor, I am eager to examine the context from which his apprehensions spring.

I am not a classics professor!  So I am unable to provide much by way of context.  If I remember correctly -- and I may not -- I first encountered the quotation back in 1972 or so.  I had recently returned from Vietnam and in a sort of through-the-back-door attempt to make sense of my experience had begun to read about the French war in Indochina.  At the time, a Frenchman named Jean Larteguy had published a couple of novels on the French -- one called The Centurians, the other The Praetorians.  I'm pretty sure Larteguy used the quote.

Are there any organizations engaged in political action to encourage adoption of your vision of American foreign and military policy (as laid out in the "Limits of Power")? Providing the intellectual framework is vital, but we also need people working in an organized way to make it happen.

There are organizations -- I think here, for example, of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy -- but none that have gained any political traction.  Forgive me for being cynical, but the institutions that wield power and exercise influence in this country have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo -- or at least they think they do.  

Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (military law) states " Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." Why have we not seen any action taken against Gen McCrystal on the basis of this?

I think it's not necessary to make the point.  McChrystal has been fired and humiliated.  A question might be at what grade he should be retired.  As a four-star?  Or at something less?  Stay tuned to see if Congress gives the matter any attention.  But don't count on it.

Shouldn't it be a two-way street? When civilian protesters insist on getting ROTC off college campuses, how much respect might the military feel in return for their civilian bosses? Granted the bosses and the protestors might not be the same people, although I suspect that sometimes they are... Since the Vietnam War at least, there has been a lessening of respect for the military generally among civilians (dare I say especially among Democrat and/or leftist civilians) and I can understand why some in the military return the compliment.

Where are civilian protesters demanding that ROTC be banished from campus?  To my knowledge (which may be imperfect) this hasn't happened in decades.

As a paleo-conservative, it disturbs me that the neo-conservatives, with their unquenchable thirst for military adventures, have such a stranglehold on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. With the military stretched and the country heading toward bankruptcy, are the neo-conservatives not only ideologically delusional but truly not conservative?

They have never been even remotely conservative, especially with regard to foreign and national security policy.  However, I'd say that they do not exercise that "stranglehold" to which you refer.  The Republican Party is not owned by the neocons;  instead, it's intellectually bankrupt.

Thanks very much for participating in this exchange.  My apologies for not answering more questions, but I've got to run.

Andrew Bacevich

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Andrew Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book is 'Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War,' forthcoming in August. Bacevich is a retired career officer in the United States Army. He graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War.
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