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Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
Posted on Jan 27, 2011
By Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch
By 1950 at the latest, those policymakers (with Kennan by then a notable dissenter) had concluded that the possession and deployment of military power held the key to preserving America’s exalted status. The presence of U.S. forces abroad and a demonstrated willingness to intervene, whether overtly or covertly, just about anywhere on the planet would promote stability, ensure U.S. access to markets and resources, and generally serve to enhance the country’s influence in the eyes of friend and foe alike—this was the idea, at least.
In postwar Europe and postwar Japan, this formula achieved considerable success. Elsewhere—notably in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and (especially after 1980) in the so-called Greater Middle East—it either produced mixed results or failed catastrophically. Certainly, the events of the post-9/11 era provide little reason to believe that this presence/power-projection paradigm will provide an antidote to the threat posed by violent anti-Western jihadism. If anything, adherence to it is exacerbating the problem by creating ever greater anti-American animus.
One might think that the manifest shortcomings of the presence/power-projection approach—trillions expended in Iraq for what?—might stimulate present-day Washington to pose some first-order questions about basic U.S. national security strategy. A certain amount of introspection would seem to be called for. Could, for example, the effort to sustain what remains of America’s privileged status benefit from another approach?
Yet there are few indications that our political leaders, the senior-most echelons of the officer corps, or those who shape opinion outside of government are capable of seriously entertaining any such debate. Whether through ignorance, arrogance, or a lack of imagination, the pre-existing strategic paradigm stubbornly persists; so, too, as if by default do the high levels of military spending that the strategy entails.
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Among other things, the ’60s destroyed an American consensus, forged during World War II, about the meaning of patriotism. During the so-called Good War, love of country implied, even required, deference to the state, shown most clearly in the willingness of individuals to accept the government’s authority to mandate military service. GI’s, the vast majority of them draftees, were the embodiment of American patriotism, risking life and limb to defend the country.
The GI of World War II had been an American Everyman. Those soldiers both represented and reflected the values of the nation from which they came (a perception affirmed by the ironic fact that the military adhered to prevailing standards of racial segregation). It was “our army” because that army was “us.”
With Vietnam, things became more complicated. The war’s supporters argued that the World War II tradition still applied: Patriotism required deference to the commands of the state. Opponents of the war, especially those facing the prospect of conscription, insisted otherwise. They revived the distinction, formulated a generation earlier by the radical journalist Randolph Bourne, that distinguished between the country and the state. Real patriots, the ones who most truly loved their country, were those who opposed state policies they regarded as misguided, illegal, or immoral.
In many respects, the soldiers who fought the Vietnam War found themselves caught uncomfortably in the center of this dispute. Was the soldier who died in Vietnam a martyr, a tragic figure, or a sap? Who deserved greater admiration: the soldier who fought bravely and uncomplainingly or the one who served and then turned against the war? Or was the war resister —the one who never served at all—the real hero?
War’s end left these matters disconcertingly unresolved. President Richard Nixon’s 1971 decision to kill the draft in favor of an All-Volunteer Force, predicated on the notion that the country might be better served with a military that was no longer “us,”only complicated things further. So, too, did the trends in American politics where bona fide war heroes (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain) routinely lost to opponents whose military credentials were nonexistent or exceedingly slight (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), yet who demonstrated once in office a remarkable propensity for expending American blood (none belonging to members of their own families) in places like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was all more than a little unseemly.
Patriotism, once a simple concept, had become both confusing and contentious. What obligations, if any, did patriotism impose? And if the answer was none—the option Americans seemed increasingly to prefer—then was patriotism itself still a viable proposition?
Wanting to answer that question in the affirmative—to distract attention from the fact that patriotism had become little more than an excuse for fireworks displays and taking the occasional day off from work—people and politicians alike found a way to do so by exalting those Americans actually choosing to serve in uniform. The thinking went this way: Soldiers offer living proof that America is a place still worth dying for, that patriotism (at least in some quarters) remains alive and well; by common consent, therefore, soldiers are the nation’s “best,” committed to “something bigger than self” in a land otherwise increasingly absorbed in pursuing a material and narcissistic definition of self-fulfillment.
In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. Rather than Everyman, today’s warrior has ascended to the status of icon, deemed morally superior to the nation for which he or she fights, the repository of virtues that prop up, however precariously, the nation’s increasingly sketchy claim to singularity.
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