Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B01
Long wars are antithetical to democracy. Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government. Not least among those values is a code of military conduct that honors the principle of civilian control while keeping the officer corps free from the taint of politics. Events of the past week — notably the Rolling Stone profile that led to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s dismissal — hint at the toll that nearly a decade of continuous conflict has exacted on the U.S. armed forces. The fate of any one general qualifies as small beer: Wearing four stars does not signify indispensability. But indications that the military’s professional ethic is eroding, evident in the disrespect for senior civilians expressed by McChrystal and his inner circle, should set off alarms.
Earlier generations of American leaders, military as well as civilian, instinctively understood the danger posed by long wars. “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War,” Gen. George C. Marshall once remarked. The people who provided the lifeblood of the citizen army raised to wage World War II had plenty of determination but limited patience. They wanted victory won and normalcy restored.
The wisdom of Marshall’s axiom soon became clear. In Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson plunged the United States into what became its Seven Years War. The citizen army that was sent to Southeast Asia fought valiantly for a time and then fell to pieces. As the conflict dragged on, Americans in large numbers turned against the war — and also against the troops who fought it.
After Vietnam, the United States abandoned its citizen army tradition, oblivious to the consequences. In its place, it opted for what the Founders once called a “standing army” — a force consisting of long-serving career professionals.
For a time, the creation of this so-called all-volunteer force, only tenuously linked to American society, appeared to be a master stroke. Washington got superbly trained soldiers and Republicans and Democrats took turns putting them to work. The result, once the Cold War ended, was greater willingness to intervene abroad. As Americans followed news reports of U.S. troops going into action everywhere from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans, from the Caribbean to the Horn of Africa, they found little to complain about: The costs appeared negligible. Their role was simply to cheer.
This happy arrangement now shows signs of unraveling, a victim of what the Pentagon has all too appropriately been calling its Long War.
The Long War is not America’s war. It belongs exclusively to “the troops,” lashed to a treadmill that finds soldiers and Marines either serving in a combat zone or preparing to deploy.
To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama’sinsistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely “at” war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: “Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths.” In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.
Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants — along with the conviction that “Team America,” as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption — suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.
To imagine that replacing McChrystal with Gen. David H. Petraeus will fix the problem is wishful thinking. To put it mildly, Petraeus is no simple soldier. He is a highly skilled political operator, whose name appears on Republican wish lists as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Far more significant, the views cultivated within Team America are shared elsewhere.
The day the McChrystal story broke, an active-duty soldier who has served multiple combat tours offered me his perspective on the unfolding spectacle. The dismissive attitude expressed by Team America, he wrote, “has really become a pandemic in the Army.” Among his peers, a belief that “it is OK to condescend to civilian leaders” has become common, ranking officers permitting or even endorsing “a culture of contempt” for those not in uniform. Once the previously forbidden becomes acceptable, it soon becomes the norm.
“Pretty soon you have an entire organization believing that their leader is the ‘Savior’ and that everyone else is stupid and incompetent, or not committed to victory.” In this soldier’s view, things are likely to get worse before they get better. “Senior officers who condone this kind of behavior and allow this to continue and fester,” he concluded, “create generation after generation of officers like themselves — but they’re generally so arrogant that they think everyone needs to be just like them anyway.”
By itself, Team America poses no threat to the constitutional order. Gen. McChrystal is not Gen. MacArthur. When presenting himself at the White House on Wednesday, McChrystal arrived not as a man on horseback but as a supplicant, hat (and resignation) in hand. Still, even with his departure, it would be a mistake to consider the matter closed.
During Vietnam, the United States military cracked from the bottom up. The damage took decades to repair. In the seemingly endless wars of the post-Sept. 11 era, a military that has demonstrated remarkable durability now shows signs of coming undone at the top. The officer corps is losing its bearings.
Americans might do well to contemplate a famous warning issued by another frustrated commander from a much earlier age.
“We had been told, on leaving our native soil,” wrote the centurion Marcus Flavius to a cousin back in Rome, “that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens [and to aid] populations in need of our assistance and our civilization.” For such a cause, he and his comrades had willingly offered to “shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes.” Yet the news from the homeland was disconcerting: The capital was seemingly rife with factions, treachery and petty politics. “Make haste,” Marcus Flavius continued, “and tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the empire.”
“If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the legions!”
Stanley McChrystal is no Marcus Flavius, lacking the Roman’s eloquence, among other things. Yet in ending his military career on such an ignominious note, he has, however clumsily, issued a warning that deserves our attention.
The responsibility facing the American people is clear. They need to reclaim ownership of their army. They need to give their soldiers respite, by insisting that Washington abandon its de facto policy of perpetual war. Or, alternatively, the United States should become a nation truly “at” war, with all that implies in terms of civic obligation, fiscal policies and domestic priorities. Should the people choose neither course — and thereby subject their troops to continuing abuse — the damage to the army and to American democracy will be severe.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War” will be published in August.