Monday, August 18, 2008

Illusions of Grandeur

In two recent articles, Andrew Bacevich -- a graduate of West Point and Princeton, a retired US Army colonel and a veteran of Vietnam with a doctorate in American diplomatic history -- has focused on the illusions which spawned the War on Terror, and the illusions which persist in the rubble of its failure. "Valor does not offer the measure of an army's greatness," he writes in Illusions of Victory, "nor does fortitude or durability nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his Global War on Terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard."

Bacevich does not blame the soldiers on the ground. They have, he says, displayed more than their share of fortitude and durability. At the heart of America's failure lie three great illusions: the first is the misplaced belief that, in the 1980's and 90's, the United States reinvented military conflict. During this period, those in charge of the American military began to believe that, "by employing these new military techniques [like precision guided weapons] the United States could eliminate an obstreperous foreign leader and his cronies, while sparing the population over which that leader ruled." This confidence in new technology, says Bacevich in a second article, Is Perpetual War Our Future? Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era, trumped old truths -- particularly those of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote two centuries ago that, "War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder."

Bacevich says that the second great illusion was that both the officer corps -- and, more importantly, the civilian leadership of the armed forces -- had learned this lesson in Vietnam; and that it had found expression in the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine of overwhelming force: "Henceforth . . . the United States would fight only when genuinely vital interests were at stake. It would do so in pursuit of concrete and attainable objectives. It would mobilize the necessary resources -- political and moral as well as material -- to win promptly and decisively." But Mr. Rumsfeld, who had flown Navy jets in peace time, had no experience of the "realm of chance" which was the chief hallmark of military conflict. And his deputies, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, had no military experience at all. Most tellingly and most tragically, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had both worked very hard to stay out of Vietnam. Cheney, in particular, had claimed in a Congressional hearing years ago that he had "other priorities" at the time.

The third and last illusion was that the division between the military and the American public -- which had been exposed so painfully during Vietnam -- had been healed by the new All Volunteer Force. By professionalizing the military and by getting rid of the citizen soldier, those who disagreed with American policy would be marginalized, not having a personal stake -- like a member of the family-- in it. The problem was that, while the All Volunteer Force may have dampened criticism of the war, it placed an unequal burden on the troops.

These illusions persist in the wake of America's failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is those illusions which Bacevich is at pains to dispel. What are the real lessons which we should learn from this monumental failure? The first hearkens back to Von Clausewitz: "War's essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible. War's constant companions are uncertainty and risk. . . . War remains today what it has always been -- elusive, untamed, costly, difficult to control, fraught with surprise, and sure to give rise to unexpected consequences. Only the truly demented will imagine otherwise."

The second lesson is that, "As has been the case throughout history, the utility of armed force remains finite. Even in the information age, to the extent that force 'works,' it does so with respect to a limited range of contingencies."

The third lesson is the futility of the so called Bush Doctrine of preventive war. "History has repeatedly demonstrated," writes Bacevich, "the irrationality of preventative war. . . . For principled guidance in determining when the use of force is appropriate, the country should conform to the Just War tradition -- not only because that tradition is consistent with our professed moral values, but also because its provisions provide an eminently useful guide for sound statecraft."

The fourth and final lesson, says Becevich, is not to confuse strategy with ideology. "The president's freedom agenda, which supposedly provided a blueprint for how to prosecute the Global War on Terror, expressed grandiose aspirations without serious effort to assess the means required to achieve them. . . . The political elite that ought to bear the chief responsibility for crafting grand strategy instead nursed fantasies of either achieving permanent global hegemony or remaking the world in America's image. Meanwhile, the military elite that could puncture those fantasies and help restore a modicum of realism to U.S. policy fixates on campaigns and battles with generalship largely a business of organizing and coordinating materiel."

To some, Bacevich may sound like a wild eyed radical. However, he defines himself as a "Catholic conservative;" and he has urged conservatives to vote for Barack Obama. What he brings to the argument is historical perspective and his experience in Vietnam. More than that, he brings the tragedy of a father's personal and private grief. A year ago, his son -- a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army -- was killed in Iraq. Bacevich is a much wiser man than the man who currently sits in the Oval Office.

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