I can still recall reading Andrew Bacevich’s 2005 article in the Wilson Quarterly, “The Real World War IV.” (Indeed, it was the subject of one of my earliest posts at Fors Clavigera.) It was a significant turning point for me, and articulated a lot of my growing cynicism about what passes for democracy in the post-9/11 United States. Eisenhower’s fears about the “military-industrial complex” have become so true we can’t even see it; instead, it has become a monster driven by a complicit, fawning “military-entertainment complex” (as Michael Hanby describes it) that lines the pockets of not only the Rupert Murdochs of the world, but the Sulzbergers as well.
Now, five years later, Bacevich’s wisdom still rings true for me, as glimpsed in the New York Review of Books review of his new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. “Washington Rules” is a shorthand for the militarist ideology which has seeped into American consciousness; indeed, it is “so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness, as to have all but disappeared from view.” In other words, it simply parades itself as “the way things are.” This is particularly biting coming from Bacevich who has credentials most hawks could only dream of. And Bacevich is no dove or pacifist. Nonetheless, I find his analyses important for Christians who are willing to take a step back from our immersion in the American machine. Gary Bass summarizes the heart of Bacevich’s critique:
Bacevich has two main targets in his sights. The first are the commissars of the national security establishment, who perpetuate these “Washington rules” of global dominance. By Washington, he means not just the federal government, but also a host of satraps who gain power, cash or prestige from this perpetual state of emergency: defense contractors, corporations, big banks, interest groups, think tanks, universities, television networks and The New York Times. He complains that an unthinking Washington consensus on global belligerence is just as strong among mainstream Democrats as among mainstream Republicans. Those who step outside this monolithic view, like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, are quickly dismissed as crackpots, Bacevich says. This leaves no serious checks or balances against the overweening national security state.
Bacevich’s second target is the sleepwalking American public. He says that they notice foreign policy only in the depths of a disaster that, like Vietnam or Iraq, is too colossal to ignore. As he puts it, “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”
Bacevich is singularly withering on American public willingness to ignore those who do their fighting for them. He warns of “the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service.” Here he has a particular right to be heard: on May 13, 2007, his son Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., an Army first lieutenant, was killed on combat patrol in Iraq. Bacevich does not discuss his tragic loss here, but wrote devastatingly about it at the time in The Washington Post: “Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless. Don’t believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life: I’ve been handed the check.”
It’s also no mistake that Frank Rich cites Bacevich in his recent, stinging critique of Obama’s presidency. All of those so-called “progressive” (or “red letter”) Christians who so eagerly backed Obama need to own up to the extent of his complicity in the new American militarism. Commenting on Obama’s recent speech about the Iraq war, Rich appeals to Bacevich:
Of all the commentators on the debacle, few speak with more eloquence or credibility than Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University who as a West Point-trained officer served in Vietnam and the first gulf war and whose son, also an Army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Writing in The New Republic after Obama’s speech, he decimated many of the war’s lingering myths, starting with the fallacy, reignited by the hawks taking a preposterous victory lap last week, that “the surge” did anything other than stanch the bleeding from the catastrophic American blundering that preceded it. As Bacevich concluded: “The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.”
Bacevich also wrote that “common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.” Americans’ common future demands it too. The war’s corrosive effect on the home front is no less egregious than its undermining of our image and national security interests abroad. As the Pentagon rebrands Operation Iraqi Freedom as Operation New Dawn — a “name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid,” Bacevich aptly writes — the whitewashing of our recent history is well under way. The price will be to keep repeating it.
We can’t afford to forget now that the single biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost. We willed ourselves to believe Paul Wolfowitz when he made the absurd prediction that Iraq’s oil wealth would foot America’s post-invasion bills. We were delighted to accept tax cuts, borrow other countries’ money, and run up the federal deficit long after the lure of a self-financing war was unmasked as a hoax. The cultural synergy between the heedless irresponsibility we practiced in Iraq and our economic collapse at home could not be more naked. The housing bubble, inflated by no-money-down mortgage holders on Main Street and high-risk gamblers on Wall Street, was fueled by the same greedy disregard for the laws of fiscal gravity that governed the fight-now-pay-later war.