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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The Effect of the Vietnam War

In your book you look at a number of factors so that we understand that all of this change doesn't suddenly happen because Bush 43 is elected president and we are attacked by al Qaeda. Let's talk about some of those evolutionary changes that were going on in our society. One thing that you emphasize greatly, which picks up on what you were talking about before as you spoke of your first book and how you came to an understanding of how the military responded to the nuclear technology, is the way the military changed after the Vietnam War, to make sure that a situation like Vietnam did not happen again. In the end, the military's primary goal was to protect itself and its institutional status, and it missed the bigger picture.

Yes. If I could just reinforce a couple things you said, very quickly, because at least in the argument I try to develop, they are crucial. The first one is that if an individual is not happy with what's going on in terms of our military policy, don't just blame President Bush. This is not some conspiracy that was foisted upon us by a bunch of crazy people in Washington in the aftermath of 9/11. Rather, 9/11 provided an opportunity for a group of people to implement with greater vigor a process that was already well under way.

The second thing you said is that American militarism has roots that go back a pretty [long] way, and the bulk of the book is devoted to trying to provide a considered answer to the question: "Where did this come from?" The simple answer to the question is that the new American militarism emerged in many respects as an unintended consequence of the reaction induced by the sixties and the Vietnam War. That period of time, that set of historical experiences in the eyes of many Americans were very positive -- here in Berkeley, I suspect, there are many students and faculty who would say the sixties was a positive time in American history, it was a time when the circle of freedom opened up, it was a time when old notions that had outlived their purpose were cast aside and the country was better for it.

I'm not questioning that view, but I would assert that there are tens of millions of other Americans who looked at the same set of events in the 1960s and said, "This is a disaster, that this is where the country jumps off the precipice, loses its way." "Losing its way" is most clearly manifested by the fact that we suffered defeat in Vietnam. These Americans, my argument is, saw in the reconstitution of American military power in the seventies and in the eighties the antidote to everything they had thought had gone wrong in the country in the sixties. Their intentions were, in a sense, honorable. They weren't trying to do bad to the country. They thought they were trying to save the country.

One of these groups is the officer corps. The officer corps of the Cold War up to Vietnam enjoyed substantial status and clout in Washington, certainly in contrast to where the officer corps had stood in American society in the nineteenth century and between the two World Wars. During the Cold War the officer corps' status was elevated in American society, and Vietnam shattered that. My argument is that when the officer corps came back from Vietnam it initiated a comprehensive program of military reform, an effort to rebuild the services, in particular my old service, the army, which was the one that was most devastated by the defeat in Vietnam; an effort to rebuild the services motivated chiefly by a desire to restore the military's collective status and its standing in the eyes of American citizens.

How can I make that claim? I make that claim by pointing out a very interesting and important point, and that is that when the U.S. military came home from Vietnam it didn't say, "Well, by golly, we're going to figure out how we got whupped and we're going to make sure that the next time we go fight one of those kinds of wars we're going to win." That's how the French army reacted to its defeat in Indochina. They said, "We're going to figure this out and we're going to win the next one." On the contrary, the American military came back from Vietnam and said, "We're never going to do that again. What we're going to do is we are going to reconfigure ourselves in this reform project so that we are prepared to fight the sorts of wars that we're most comfortable with, wars in which the generals are in control, not all the nagging politicians like Robert McNamara; wars in which there's a prospect of decision, victory, not just endless mucking around in jungles and in rice paddies, and wars in which the moral stakes will be clear and therefore we can enjoy popular support, rather than wars as was the case in Vietnam where the moral issues were murky," to put it mildly, "and the people mostly turned away and abandoned the military."

Well, where was the military going to find this war, the prospect of war, this contingency? The answer is Europe. So, the post-Vietnam military reform project instituted by the military was to get ready to defend Western Europe conventionally. Now, was it likely that that contingency was ever going to happen? The answer is no.

It became even more unlikely once the Cold War [ended].

But in a sense, that was part of the point. The purpose was not to rebuild the military to go off and fight wars which are nasty and terrible things. The purpose was to reconstitute the institution and somehow overcome the divide between the institution and the American people that had resulted from Vietnam. So, the officer corps became one of the important institutions that seized the reconstitution of military power as the antidote to its particular problems that came out of the sixties and its defeat.

As opposed to looking at and thinking about the way the world might change and anticipating new threats on the horizon.

Right. You will recall that when the Cold War ended, much to the surprise of everybody, at least most of us, a remarkably ironic episode [occurred]. Just as the Cold War ended, Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait, and literally, many of the forces that were in Germany that had been preparing for this big war against the Warsaw Pact that were about to be brought home where they were going to stand down instead were sent to the Persian Gulf to fight a war which turned out, in a sense, to be the war that they had wanted, except instead of being against a rather formidable Soviet army it was against this sort of rattle-trap, third-rate Iraqi army, although nobody particularly noticed that in celebrating what seemed to be a decisive victory.

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