War and American Society in the 21st Century

In Pursuit of Folly: War and American Society in the 21st Century


Human violence has myriad forms – domestic (wife beating), accidental (car wrecks), voluntary (soccer), spectator (professional sports) – the list is extensive. War is one highly specialized kind of human violence. Individuals do not make war, but socio-political entities like tribes and states do.  What is the relationship then, between war and society, and what implications does this relationship have for citizens of the United States in the 21st century? Three books published during the past five years present perspectives on these questions. Chalmers Johnson (The Sorrows of Empire), Andrew J. Bacevich (The New American Militarism) and Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater), as well as a recent documentary film (Why We Fight) attempt to assess the meaning of war within the context of contemporary America. Their assessment is ultimately unsatisfying. We are forced to search for a more comprehensive point of view, and to propose rules to govern America’s use of war as a national policy.

Chalmers Johnson is a political liberal whose ideology bleeds into his work through passionate adjectives and adverbs. His book is permeated with anger directed at U.S. foreign policy, particularly that of the Bush Administration. In his effort to make broad, dramatic statements, Johnson is often inaccurate for effect (“Rome ruled all the known world except for China”). He also takes frequent shots at free market capitalism without building a sufficient bridge to connect this specific economic system to his damning examples of decisions made in ancient Rome and present-day Washington. Setting his excessive language aside, Johnson builds an internally-consistent, coherent picture of the post-9/11 America as “the New Rome”, by which he refers to the extreme changes in political thinking that occurred after those tragic events (J, p.3). He portrays 9/11 as an example of “blowback” caused by our own imperial actions (J, p.121). Further, he charges that the citizens of the United States choose not to recognize that they dominate the rest of the world in the role of sole Empire (J, p.1). He observes that, like Rome, America’s domination has spread so far that its original form of governance can no longer cope with the scope and complexity involved. We now require permanent armies to protect our distant outposts. Johnson implies that we must make a choice between our traditional self-concept of the United States as a freedom-loving, democratic republic, or as a military Empire bent solely on serving its own needs.

Rather than demobilizing at the end of the Cold War, the United States moved beyond its traditional ideal as a defensive power and began to experiment with the role of world policeman. It is easy to agree with Johnson that this was a significant turning point for a constitutional democracy. The U.S. “began to test the waters with a variety of new capacities”, most significantly the recent George Bush concept of preventative war (J, pp. 21-22). In an equally disturbing move, administrations of the past forty years failed the “Proconsul Question” and shifted the center of gravity of foreign policy from the State Department to the Department of Defense, thereby resolving into “military empire”. In using this phrase, Johnson explicitly states that he does not mean that the United States has a militarized institution focused on its own preservation, but rather that the military has taken over tasks previously reserved for the civilian side of the government. We will see later that Andrew Bacevich takes the opposite viewpoint, that the professional military is indeed bent on self-preservation and empowerment.

Johnson traces the slow growth of U.S. military power across the nation’s two centuries. He illustrates how politicians repeatedly took advantage of military strength to pursue personal and imperial agendas, whether those agendas belonged to Wilsonian idealists or 21st century neocons. In his fervor to make a point, Johnson is immoderate, for instance categorizing all foreign interventions as “de facto imperialism” and lumping together Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo as examples (J, p.214).  In his point of view, “humanitarian interventions” do not exist in the post-Cold War period – and probably never did. Instead, all such actions are imperialist (J, pp. 3, 72). Johnson’s assertion conflicts with history. Many of these actions were requested by the “world community” on the basis that only the United States had the combination of military capability and political resolve to commit to them. Further, while the United States often concludes basing agreements following military interventions, in the specific cases Johnson cites, the U.S. withdrew and left no physical imperial structures behind.

Johnson likewise plays loose with his description of the present nature of U.S. global dominance. He briefly introduces an accurate and comprehensive concept – hegemony – which adds cultural and economic influence to military might, but thereafter categorizes all forms of influence as “imperialism” in order to leverage the more sinister implications of his theme. For example, he characterizes the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as instruments of economic hegemony intended solely for the enhancement of American influence (J, p. 264). This is suspect reasoning. If so, then why are the majority of IMF and World Bank loans written off before they are completely paid? These loans and grants help third-world countries to modernize, industrialize, and improve health conditions. Should such actions be condemned as naked imperialism? Johnson’s argument requires an expanded justification to hold up against such easy criticism. In the simplistic form presented, it is easily criticized.

More broadly, The Sorrows of Empire requires a rebalancing of its arguments. Johnson uses more space than necessary to describe such matters as DOD budgets, or to detail the actions of rogue elements like Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scheme (J. pp.56-59, 78-79, 130). These sections are undoubtedly entertaining to readers who are not familiar with such subjects, but they divert attention from his thesis. In contrast to the attention given to peripheral issues, Johnson skims over the crucial ideological rationalizations that Washington uses to justify the non-defense use of military power. He builds a reasoned case that our current interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are driven primarily by “oil, Israel and domestic politics”, but then fails to reconcile these factors with the many other influences that he mentions, producing a muddled list of rationales (J, pp.215 – 253). Despite these criticisms, Johnson succeeds in making his point that the United States stands at a philosophical crossroads regarding its Imperial ambitions. He warns that “imperial overstretch (and the) inability to reform” consistently doomed previous empires regardless of geographical region, historical period or economic system (J, p. 310). By his reckoning, the United States must act immediately to reverse the evolution of empire. If we do not act promptly, we will face the loss of democracy and our constitutional rights, we will live in a state of perpetual war, and the nation will descend into bankruptcy (J, p. 285).

Jeremy Scahill is not a historian but an investigative journalist. As such, his Blackwater reads like a New York Times feature article on the Fallujah ambush that has been padded out to book length. The tone of the book is “Oh Ain’t it Awful”, but there is no clearly-stated thesis. Scahill alerts us to the phenomena of outsourced mercenary services and raises the alarm; then moves on to anecdotes. Sensationalism is more important than rigorous analysis, which is left for others. Instead, Scahill provides many entertaining vignettes regarding various officers and employees of the Blackwater Company. Connective narrative is spotty and disjointed. A disciplined historian would propose a systematic examination of the outsourcing of non-combat roles in the contemporary U.S. military, and would then question if these mercenary forces can be controlled by constitutional mechanisms. Scahill provides only a half-hearted attempt. The organization of the work is haphazard, and while Scahill clearly views the Blackwater organization with alarm, he shotguns a variety of concerns from crusading neocons to Caspian oil pipelines, and from high salaries to secret budgeting practices, all without a coherent development of his murky theme. He frequently interrupts his narrative to raise other interesting issues – for instance, how Christian fundamentalist ideology influences mission – but these are often tangential to the implied thesis that the policy of outsourcing military services is a grave mistake (S, p. 299-304).

To an even greater extent than Chalmers Johnson, Scahill uses hyper-expressive characterizations to popularize his prose. For instance, he frequently describes Blackwater employees in terms of “GI Joe” metaphors, using images of testosterone-pumped bodies and excessive amounts of war “gear.” Such ellipses interrupt any attempts to establish analytical narrative flow. For example, his description of a firefight in Najaf is gripping, but he fails to capitalize on this over-long segment by discussing the broader implications of mercenary violence to U.S. foreign policy (S, p. 122-132).

The strongest parts of Scahill’s work emerge when he traces the recruitment of death squads and former right-wing paramilitary soldiers into mercenary units serving the United States. He also raises valid concerns regarding the revolving-door procedure by which government officials enter the “Beltway Bandit” establishment and then use their influence and insider contacts to win contracts with their former departments (S, pp. 147-158). Unfortunately, he focuses his discussion almost exclusively on the actions of one individual, Cofer Black, and neglects to extrapolate this phenomenon into a broader perspective.

Blackwater could easily benefit from a more detailed comparison of contemporary American with the Roman Empire, when the republican citizen army slowly converted to a permanent professional force and eventually became infused with mercenaries. The end result of this cautionary example was a military dictatorship based on a mixed professional/mercenary army that was responsive to the head of state, but not to the citizenry or to the Senate. Scahill misses opportunities to step back and describe the big picture. He repeatedly describes the trees (colorful vignettes) and not the forest (the outsourcing issue). For instance, he mentions the use of heavily-armed Blackwater mercs in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the firm’s expansion of mercenary services into non-US markets, but typically fails to frame the fundamental questions involved (S, pp. 321-332; 366-378).

Scahill’s approach to the question of war and society in contemporary United States is echoed in the documentary film Why We Fight. The film is better organized and it presumes to ask more fundamental questions, but it employs the same method of listing hit-and-miss snapshots of how the current “system” works. The film’s thesis is presented a highly oblique manner. Only the segments from a Chalmers Johnson interview directly state concern over how U.S. military policy is practiced today (Doc Film). Perhaps because both these works are intended for popular audiences, and were not written by historians, they avoid the more straightforward statements and analysis found in Johnson and Bacevich.

Andrew Bacevich unburdens his ideological and philosophical biases in the Introduction to his book. Thereafter he presents an objective and evenhanded set of arguments. Disenchanted as he is from both the political left and right, he maintains that the “system” is fundamentally corrupt and that it “functions in ways inconsistent with the spirit of genuine democracy” (B, pp. xi-xii). Armed with this skeptical approach, Bacevich develops a balanced perspective on war and society in contemporary America. Like Johnson, he is alarmed that America’s political leaders intend to use its military supremacy to reshape the world to conform to their individual interests and values. They can do this, he contends, because the American public “has come to define the nation’s well-being in terms of military strength and military ideals” (B, p.2). Like Johnson, he traces this attitude through American history, with particular attention to the public anxiety that developed during the Great Depression and the Cold War and eventually reached full flower in reaction to Vietnam. It was Vietnam, he believes, that taught the officer corps that civilian politicians were not to be trusted with deciding when and how to go to war. He patiently builds the case that the U. S. military has assumed non-traditional powers in reaction to repeated political blunders, and out of a need for self-protection.

Bacevich paints the twentieth century as an age in which ideologues from Wilson and Lenin to Hitler and Pol Pot used military force in an attempt to reshape the world to fit their dreams. The United States has not yet learned the punishing lesson of this conceit. The present debate in Washington is not about whether to use American military superiority to further political and ideological objectives. The debate is over whose ideological objectives – right or left – to pursue. For example, the political right wants to seize oil and assure foreign markets. The political left wants to provide humanitarian aid and unseat the authoritarians the political right put in place. But as Bacevich reminds us, the Constitution does not “commit or even encourage” the United States to employ its military power to save the rest of mankind from their errors (B, p. 209). Furthermore, he asserts, perpetual war undermines democracy.

The volunteer army is the consequence of developments as diverse as advances in military technology and the direct reporting of battle casualties. The result is a U.S. army which, in Bacevich’s view, now sees itself as culturally and politically separate from the rest of society (B, p.30). Military professional elites vigorously protect the institution and its privileges. Bacevich views this development with apprehension because he believes that a republican democracy requires a civilian army. Furthermore, he agrees with Clausewitz that there are practical limits to what military power alone can achieve. These limits have been ignored by various 20th– century governments, including the present Bush administration. Alternatives means of statecraft should be utilized – or at least attempted – in place of the hammer.

Bacevich is convinced that the U. S. military has evolved into a self-sustaining organism. He appears to believe that this was not always the case. To the contrary, the United States has had a standing army of some size for its entire history, and the professional officer corps has habitually perpetuated itself for reasons ranging from patriotism to career self-interest. Bacevich also believes that conscript armies are far less political that standing professional armies because the conscripts eventually return to citizen status. He supports this argument with appropriate examples. The new American militarism, he contends, “materialized as a reaction to profound disorientation and collective distress” in the wake of a humiliating defeat (Vietnam) and cultural upheaval (B, p.225). If militarism is the consequence of pervasive social anxiety, then an event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks easily lend themselves to further growth of the “new imperialism” phenomenon. It thus comes as no surprise that Bacevich views the post-Vietnam move to an all-volunteer army as a mistake. He strongly recommends that we “revive the moribund concept of the citizen-soldier”, proposing that the republic “can safeguard itself against militarism by assuring that the army has deep roots among the people” (B, pp. 217-218). Once again, the parallel with imperial Rome is compelling.

The New American Imperialism contends that our present circumstances were caused by the confluence of many factors, among which were a military elite intent upon reforming the profession, conservative Christians reacting to an apparent loss of public morality, Evangelicals supporting Israel as a requirement for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, intellectuals who feared the fate of the Weimar Republic, and other factors (B, pp.132, 207).  While Bacevich sees oil as one contributing factor to growth of military empire, as Johnson does, he is more focused on the underlying philosophies of contemporary political players as the principle driving force behind American Imperialism. Both the political right and the political left have seized upon military power as the tool to create their dream worlds. Bacevich traces the growth of non-elected ideological agents and their influence in Washington, with particular attention to the impact of neocons on the Bush Administration. These ideologues are committed to a train of reasoning in which “American global domination is benign (and) failure to sustain its imperium would result in global disorder, and nothing works like force“(B, pp.83-84).

Of the four works, only Bacevich’s gives us a concrete list of recommendations to correct the negative trends of post-Cold War America (B, pp. 208-223). The most fundamental of these are: a return to Constitutional limits and separation of powers, the modeling of military forces explicitly for national defense, the principle of the use of force as a last resort, and the corresponding requirement to develop and enhance “alternative instruments of statecraft.” Stated simply, Bacevich yearns for a return to the American value system that hypothetically governed the nation in the past.

All these works express deep concern about the present state of American democracy. They raise alarms about the probable future of our republic if these trends are not countered. The very fact that so many such commentaries currently find print has serious implications for the United States. With Johnson and Bacevich in particular as our reference points, we can attempt to draw some conclusions of our own.

War is the means of resolving conflicts and obtaining political goals through systematic violence. It has existed as long as men have formed tribes and states. Although modern societies have essentially outlawed the use of violence to resolve individual disputes, we have not been effective in outlawing war as a means to resolve disputes between states. Alternative means of resolution are available, such as diplomacy, economic power, intelligence and the development of internal and external alliances. The best strategies often result from combinations of all these “levers”. But when a people believe they have an overwhelming military advantage, or believe that their survival is at stake, they will regularly neglect these other options and commit to war as a simple solution. Various elements, ranging from domestic ideologues and news media to terrorists and religionists, can utilize social anxiety to further their own objectives. The challenge for contemporary America is to temper its anxieties and to explore alternative approaches rather than habitually resorting to military strength.

Warfare is the servant of political goals. In the modern world, the planning and execution of war are highly organized by the state, which claims a monopoly on the use of coercive force. Like any other organized collective behavior, society will attempt to limit the practice and scope of war, and to create rules for its implementation. To those who are skeptical about society’s ability to place limits on warfare, we note that in over forty years of intense ideological conflict and proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, neither side resorted to its arsenal of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. It is thus appropriate that we set aside our loathing for the inherent violence of warfare and inquire why it occurs and how it is implemented.

History shows that warfare rarely delivers a neat solution to our problems. Finality may be achieved in rare case such as Rome’s destruction of Carthage, but typically there are limits to what force alone can attain. As Clausewitz observed, military force is seldom sufficient to bring about an absolute resolution of an issue. It is to be used “with the intermixing of other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mittel). Furthermore, despite the use of adjectives like “surgical” and “limited”, military force is a blunt and simplistic tool. Military tactics and strategies have many moving parts, but they can only be applied successfully in a narrow range of circumstances. Even the simplest of policy objectives will typically encounter far greater environmental complexity than military coercion can resolve. Consequently we must be certain that we define our priorities clearly, and that we understand what national goals are implied – and created – by the resort to military force.

The first part of our challenge is to determine the philosophical and psychological basis of war within society. As the human race evolved over the past ten thousand years, it learned how to leave many of its primitive social practices behind. Although we still have religions, we no longer sacrifice our firstborn children to satisfy the anger of the rain god. Although we still enjoy violent sports, we no longer require our gladiatorial combats to be finalized with the death of the participants. Certainly we can learn to place pragmatic limits on how we conduct war? This desire for limits implies the second part of our challenge: to carefully balance the application of military force against the nature and environment of a given danger.

If we must use war to resolve disputes, then in addition to setting rules of engagement, we can assure that the magnitude of our military response is appropriate to the threat. Many weapons, as well as the manner of their deployment, were developed for conflict scenarios that are, at least for the present, unlikely. It is popular today to speak of the advantages of “asymmetric warfare”, where one side deploys clearly superior technologies, strategies or raw numbers against another. Clausewitz tells us that “direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration” in warfare. But set-piece battles between superpowers are not what we are faced with today. What if the enemy never offers formal battle? In a world where one party enjoys a clear advantage, it is suicidal to fight in a conventional manner, as in the Iraqi army’s attempt to resist the Desert Storm invasion. Since the mid-20th century, the successful response to asymmetry is irregular warfare or insurgency, as in Vietnam or present-day Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is that U.S. forces, designed and armed with capabilities for conventional set-piece battles, respond with “what they got”, thus producing an asymmetrical response which in turn alienates both the civilian population of the enemy country and the U.S. domestic citizenry. This is but one example that calls for serious reassessment of how we will fight when we conclude that we must. Weapon systems and strategies developed to assure air superiority or blunt a Fulda Gap invasion will not solve an imbedded insurgency. New weapons and new strategies are required.

If we want to preserve the United States as a democratic republic, then its very nature generates unique requirements. The challenge for a democracy is to build a defensive capability suitable for perceived and likely threats. It is not to enable the creation of a military empire. It is not to create a capability to respond to all threats, no matter how improbable. The maintenance of this capacity must in turn be balanced against the potential for uncontrolled growth within the military establishment and its support structure, which may prove “inauspicious to liberty”, as George Washington warned us. Clear policies are a requirement for setting the balance points. The United States clearly crossed an imaginary but significant line when George Bush committed to preventative intervention against a potential unfriendly power. Chalmers Johnson correctly argues that Bush’s action replaced U.S. foreign policy with military empire. This fateful decision highlights the final category of required balance. We must restore the decision-making balance designed into the U.S. government through the concept of “separation of powers.”

Finally, it is imperative that the citizens of the United States have a rigorous national debate regarding the uses of its awesome military power. The poles of that debate are already encapsulated in the Powell Doctrine, designed to prevent foreign intervention based on whim or expediency, and the Albright Argument that military superiority should be used to correct the ills of the world. Powell proposed specific rules for military engagement: overwhelming force, clear objectives, and a clear mandate. Such rules, coupled with a volunteer army of the size required to fight only defensive wars, would practically limit all but the most essential engagements. Only the most serious threat would lead to conscription, mobilization of the National Guard, and deployment of our most advanced weapon systems. Powell did not foresee that George Bush would commit to an Iraq War requiring long-term use of the National Guard, or that he would promulgate his own doctrine of preemptive war. The Obama administration will not correct these mistakes by simply repudiating George Bush’s folly. America needs to choose between Powell and Albright.