Andrew J. Bacevich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Military and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor and Director, Center for International Relations Boston University; May 9, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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American Militarism

Let's talk now about your new book, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, published by Oxford University Press. book coverWhat is the new militarism? How is it manifested?

I understand this is a loaded term, and when I say that there's a new American militarism, I don't mean that it's like German militarism or Japanese militarism. Just as we "do empire" in our own peculiar way, we have come to do militarism in our own peculiar way.

I define it in the book as including a couple things. One is a greatly overstated confidence in the efficacy of force, that force is an eminently useful tool in American hands and that therefore military power is an opportunity to be exploited rather than something to be viewed skeptically. That's one aspect of it.

The second aspect is that the militarism that I try to describe is reflected in a conviction that military power has come to be the chief emblem of national greatness. It's not the productivity of our factories or the quality of our education system, it's, by golly, that we've got twelve carrier battle groups, and that's what makes America stand apart from other nations of the world.

The third component of the new American militarism is a romanticization of soldiers and an inclination to at least give lip service to the notion of soldiers being America's best and brightest, and a group of people not simply set apart but morally superior to the average citizen.

That's how I describe the phenomenon. It manifests itself [in] a number of very concrete ways. First of all, it manifests itself in the size and configuration of our forces. When I was a kid growing up, a phrase like "British Empire," or "Royal Air Force," or "Royal Navy" -- these conjured up institutions that were to be reckoned with, were serious. But we live in a time now when the United States is spending more money on defense than every other nation of the world put together, spending an order of magnitude more money than all of our would-be adversaries put together, and far, far outspending even our what appear to be significant allies like Great Britain. We've got twelve carrier battle groups, they have none.

Today the United States Marine Corps, which most of us tend to think of as the force that charges over the beaches, has more attack aircraft than the Royal Air Force. And of course, the United States Marine Corps is actually one of three air forces we've got, because we've got the United States Navy and we've also got this thing called the United States Air Force. Today, the marine corps by itself has half again as many men and women in uniform as the entire British army. And of course, we have a second army that we actually call the Army. Although maybe most people aren't aware of it, the army actually operates its own air force, 5000 aircraft in the U.S. Army.

So, the answer to how this militarism manifests itself is, in part, in the size and configuration and the cost of these U.S. forces. But it also manifests itself in where they are. As you and I speak, we're sixty years after V.E. Day and we still have U.S. forces in Germany. We're almost sixty years after V.J. Day and we still have forces in Japan. We have forces in literally dozens of countries around the world.

I know you've had Chalmers Johnson on this program. Chalmers Johnson's account says we have forces in more than 100 countries around the world, and the number is increasing, not decreasing. Just in the last couple of weeks, the head of the Afghan government invited the United States to keep U.S. forces permanently in Afghanistan.

This is something we all know in a sense and sort of shrug off. We just sort of accept it. But militarism also manifests itself in an increased willingness to use force. During the Cold War, which was a time of heightened military awareness, we actually used force fairly infrequently. By my count there were six major interventions during the Cold War. Since the Cold War ended, in a period of both conservative Republican, at least ostensibly conservative Republican, and liberal Democratic administrations, we've come to use force almost on an annual basis. There've been nine major military interventions since the end of the Cold War, and the nine doesn't count innumerable lesser uses of force, like Bill Clinton launching Cruise missiles at Afghanistan or Sudan, or wherever the case may be. The use of force has become almost routine.

I could go on, but it's in things like that. The important thing to me is things that we have come to take for granted as part and parcel of our position in the world. In a sense, the most disturbing aspect of it is the extent to which these are things we just shrug off.

That's an interesting point, one of the striking things in all of this is the extent to which we're not aware of these things in our sense of our self [as a nation] ...

We're aware of them and yet we're not aware of what perhaps they really signify.

In your book you point out a number of things that are changing over time, for example, the whole notion of the citizen soldier. What has changed over time [is] the military notion that if you don't have a Soviet enemy anymore, then you don't need the forces that you have. Again and again, we don't recognize what's going on in the context of our own history or in the way the world has changed.

That's exactly right. It would be wrong to argue that we have been a peaceful people. We have not been a peaceful people. We have been a people where when we've identified an important cause or interest, we've dealt with it. Some of the causes have been very good causes, some of the causes have been pretty dubious. But there was a clear pattern to the way we constituted and maintained military forces over the first two centuries of our history. The pattern was when we needed big forces, we built them -- to fight Mexico and take California in 1846, to crush the Confederacy in 1861, to liberate Cuba in 1898. For those causes we would raise up a big force and after the crisis had past, whatever the crisis was, we would radically trim down the size of the force.

That what changes after the Cold War. We even did that after World War II, [but] not after the Cold War. After the Cold War -- again, with remarkably little debate, with remarkably little discussion of what're the implications of the course upon which we are embarking -- what we did was to commit ourselves to perpetual military supremacy. That is a commitment that has the endorsement of mainstream liberals as much as mainstream conservatives. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry endorse that notion as much as does George W. Bush.

Next page: The Effect of the Vietnam War

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See also: Interview with Chalmers Johnson (2004)