The Normalization of War
by Andrew J. Bacevich
ZNet, April 21, 2005
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 U.S. response to the
events of 9/11 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, U.S. 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
to 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 U.S. policy
and to encourage tendencies suggesting that American society itself
is increasingly enamored with its self-image as the military power
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 military
Through the first two centuries of U.S.
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
U.S. military establishment dwarfing that of even America's closest
ally. Thus, whereas the U.S. Navy maintains and operates a total
of twelve large attack aircraft carriers, the once-vaunted [British]
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 ninety-seven thousand tons fully
loaded, longer than three football fields, cruising at a speed
above thirty knots, and powered by nuclear reactors that give
it an essentially infinite radius of action. Today, the U.S. 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 U.S. Air Force. Indeed, in terms of numbers
of men and women in uniform, the U.S. Marine Corps is half again
as large as the entire British Army--and the Pentagon has a second,
even larger "army" actually called the U.S. Army --
which in turn also operates its own "air force" of some
five thousand aircraft.
All of these massive and redundant capabilities
cost money. Notably, the present-day Pentagon budget, adjusted
for inflation, is 12 percent larger than the average defense budget
of the Cold War era. In 2002, American defense spending exceeded
by a factor of twenty-five the combined defense budgets of the
seven "rogue states" then comprising the roster of U.S.
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 Reagan era. According
to the Pentagon's announced long-range plans, by 2009 its budget
will exceed the Cold War average by 23 percent -- 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 U.S. military has become the world's police force may slightly
overstate the case, but only slightly.
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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
Thus, according to one typical study of
the U.S. Navy's future, "sea supremacy beginning at our shore
lines and extending outward to distant theaters is a necessary
condition for the defense of the U.S." Of course, the U.S.
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 U.S.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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 U.S.
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 9/11 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
The New Aesthetic of War
Reinforcing this heightened predilection
for arms has been the appearance in recent years of a new aesthetic
of war. This is the third indication of advancing militarism.
The old twentieth-century aesthetic 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 as preposterous.
But by the turn of the twenty-first 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 twentieth 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 his gods."
In short, by the dawn of the twenty-first
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 aesthetic respectability,
even palatability, that the literary and artistic interpreters
of twentieth-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 a perhaps 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 U.S. 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 aesthetic has contributed, in
turn, to an appreciable boost in the status of military institutions
and soldiers themselves, a fourth manifestation of the new American
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 hardworking, and they went about their business
with poise and élan." A writer for Rolling Stone 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
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 twenty-first 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
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 $39.99 a Bush look-alike military action figure advertised
as "Elite Force Aviator: George W. Bush -- U.S. 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."
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.
from The New American Militarism: How
Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew J. Bacevich
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com,
a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of
alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long
time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture
and The Last Days of Publishing.]
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