The Chronicle Review

Warrior Nation

Larry Towell, Magnum Photos

October 24, 2010

"Endless War" is how The New York Times headlined its review of the Boston University historian Andrew J. Bacevich's new book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. It's a headline that will work just as well if the Times decides to review Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War by Richard E. Rubenstein, a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University. In fact, either Bacevich or Rubenstein could accurately have chosen "Endless War" as his own book's title.

The occasion for both books, as well as for the City University of New York journalism and political-science professor Peter Beinart's recent The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is the start of the 10th year of continuous (and at least seemingly endless) war by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and—factoring in what the Times estimates is "roughly a dozen" secret military campaigns against terrorist groups based in other countries—around the world . Add those to the list of previous wars and military operations during the past 30 years: Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama,  Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Bacevich, Rubenstein, and Beinart agree that war has been a prominent feature of American life for a very long time. They just disagree over how long and, by implication, how deeply embedded war is in America's identity as a nation. Unfortunately, as pessimistic as each of them is about the future (pretty pessimistic), their outlook may not be gloomy enough.

Bacevich regards the start of the cold war in the late 1940s as the beginning of an era of perpetual war in which, for the first time, "military might emerged as central to the American identity." The "Washington rules" that he says dominate the nation's elected government and permanent security apparatus are based on a "credo"—namely, that the United States alone must "lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world." 

 This credo, Bacevich argues, is made manifest in a "trinity" of operational imperatives: "maintain a global military presence" of bases and fleets around the world, "configure its forces for global power projection" to enable rapid military action anywhere, anytime, and "counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism." Remarkably, the end of the cold war made no difference at all in either credo or trinity. "Once the Soviet threat disappeared," he observes, "with barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership." 

 Beinart by no means slights the importance of the cold war in The Icarus Syndrome. He regards it as the beginning of an era marked by "the hubris of toughness"—"toughness" because it involved standing up to communist aggression the way Chamberlain should have stood up to Hitler, and "hubris" because it was based on "the belief that you've discovered a formula that works in all situations." 

 But for Beinart, the excesses of cold-war toughness that ultimately mired the United States in the Vietnam War were not the first instances of hubristic overreach in American foreign policy. For that he goes back to Woodrow Wilson's "hubris of reason," which arrogantly assumed after the Allied victory in World War I that the United States could solve the world's problems by employing the same rational processes with which Wilson and other Progressive leaders were tackling  America's problems at home. The Paris Peace Conference's dilution of the president's idealistic Fourteen Points  for governing the postwar world and the Senate's rejection of the League of Nations  were among the unhappy results of Wilsonian overreach.

Rubenstein, after pausing at the start of Reasons to Kill to puzzle over Tocqueville's observation that Americans are "fond of peace" because it "allows every man to pursue his own little undertakings," traces the roots of American bellicosity further back than either Bacevich or Beinart.  He cites a study showing that even in colonial times, "there was either a declared war or a conflict for 79 of the 179 years from just before the founding of Jamestown until 1785, nominally the end of the Revolution."  Rubenstein also mentions research by the political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, who in their 2004 book Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force, record 111 "militarized interstate disputes" that the United States initiated from 1812 to 1992.

Rubenstein argues that a proclivity to war sank deep and enduring roots in American soil for two small reasons and one big one. The first small reason is the early settlement pattern that made Scots-Irish immigrants—warriors for more than six centuries in defense of their native land against the English—the dominant ethnic group in the southern frontier; the second is the "Billy Budd syndrome," in which Americans have long been "blinded by uncritical trust in authority," even when it leads them into unnecessary wars against countries like Mexico, Spain, and North Vietnam. The big reason is that Americans are a religious people who won't fight unless convinced that their cause is just but who are easily persuaded that lots of causes are just. Those include "self-defense" broadly construed, an "evil enemy," "patriotic duty," and their "unique virtue" as "liberators and peacemakers, not selfish imperialists."

All of these books are worthy efforts to explain why the United States, itself scarcely touched by foreign invasion, spends so much time fighting abroad. With the partial exception of Bacevich's Washington Rules, however, all of them neglect or underplay the importance of two critical Vietnam-era decisions: the replacement of the draft-based army with the All-Volunteer Force (AVF)  and the roughly simultaneous expulsion of Reserve Officer Training Corps units from many elite campuses. Taken together, those decisions have made the nation's inclination to war and other military action greater than at any time in its already war-saturated history.

The volunteer forces came into being in 1973  as a byproduct  of President Richard Nixon's decision to end the draft and thereby take the steam out of the campus-based anti-Vietnam War movement. Rubenstein attributes all sorts of idealistic motives to the antiwar activists ("peace, friendship, race and gender equality, economic justice," etc.),  but the truth is that Nixon was right. The demonstrations pretty much ended as soon as college students no longer had to worry about being drafted when they graduated or dropped out of school.

Congress has consistently anted up whatever funds were necessary to attract enough young people, most of them working class, to fill out the enlisted ranks. But where would the officers come from? Objecting to the war, many elite universities, chiefly in the East but also in the Midwest (the University of Chicago) and West (Stanford), had already shown ROTC the exit.  Subsequently, those colleges  reaffirmed their policy of exclusion in protest of Congress's 1993  "don't ask, don't tell"  law banishing outed gays and lesbians from the military. Today the armed services aren't sure it would make economic sense to return ROTC from exile if the gates were reopened, as seems likely at Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and elsewhere as soon as "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed or decisively voided by the courts.

How have these decisions made the United States even more prone to war than Bacevich, Rubenstein, and Beinart think? First, both the volunteer forces and the ROTC expulsions turned the military's recruiting gaze southward, to the region of the country (still rich in Scots-Irish ethnicity and culture) most supportive of the armed forces as an institution and of war as an instrument of national policy. In 1968 ROTC had 123 units in the East and 147 in the South.  Just six years later, Southern ROTC units outnumbered those in the East by 180 to 93. Alabama, with one-fourth the college population of New York City, has 10 ROTC units compared with New York's two.  As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out last month in a speech at Duke University, "With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success."

Forty percent of enlisted men and women are now Southerners, and the officer corps speaks with an even stronger Southern accent. As a consequence, like the South generally, the military has moved rightward into the Republican Party. "Reversing a century and a half of practice," laments the University of North Carolina military historian Richard H. Kohn,  based on surveys he helped to conduct, "the American officer corps has become partisan in political affiliation, and overwhelmingly Republican." In his new book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations,  Jason K. Dempsey  reports that in 2007 Republicans outnumbered Democrats 49 percent to 12 percent among senior officers. At West Point, Dempsey found, "enough officers overtly endorse the Republican Party that many cadets apparently conflate an identification with the Republican Party with officership." 

 Second, the end of the draft and ROTC's banishment from many elite campuses mean that a steadily declining share of those in Congress and the upper reaches of the executive branch have served as either officers or enlistees. Until 1995 the percentage of veterans in Congress was consistently higher than in the country as a whole. Since then it's been lower—around 30 percent and shrinking. 

The result: Fewer and fewer of the civilian decision makers who now send troops into battle know what war is like. Apart from the moral queasiness this ought to induce, there is a tangible consequence. Feaver and Gelpi show statistically in Choosing Your Battles that throughout American history, the government's likelihood of initiating the use of force has consistently gone up whenever the percentage of veterans in Congress and the cabinet has gone down.

Feaver and Gelpi also report that although the military is typically reluctant to use force, if compelled to do so, it "argues strenuously that the force should be overwhelming and decisive." This argument, when presented to policy makers who have led entirely civilian lives, almost always prevails. The theme that shines through Bob Woodward's new insider account of Obama's Wars, for example, is that despite sustained and even heroic efforts by the president, he was unable to make the military give him realistic options in Afghanistan that didn't involve committing more than 30,000 additional troops.

Finally, the all-volunteer force, by eliminating any real possibility of conscription, has severed the connection between passive disapproval and active opposition to war. Support for the war in Iraq in public-opinion polls fell farther faster in the mid 2000s than support for the Vietnam War ever did. But antiwar opinion in the Vietnam era turned into antiwar protest in ways that more recent antiwar opinion has not. Astonishingly, after President George W. Bush's war policy was rebuked by the voters in the 2006 midterm election, he was able to deploy an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq with scarcely any organized opposition in Congress or the country. Nor did Obama's own "surge" in Afghanistan generate effective protest of any kind. It is inconceivable that antiwar college students would have remained politically inert if there was any chance that they would be drafted to fight in the wars they oppose.

What can colleges do to mitigate these developments, which taken together have heightened the already great American proclivity to war that Bacevich, Beinart, and Rubenstein document in their books? Forget about trying to bring back the draft. The technologically complex modern military needs long-term volunteers, not short-term draftees, to function effectively. The all-volunteer military isn't going anywhere.

ROTC is different. Colleges that have kept their doors shut can begin by reopening them. As the Stanford historian David M. Kennedy argues, excluding ROTC for the past four decades has simply ensured that elite universities, "which pride themselves on training the next generation's leaders, will have minimal influence on the leadership of a hugely important American institution, the United States armed forces." "It's clearly best," Kennedy told the Stanford faculty, "for our democracy to have, among its military officers, citizens who have a liberal education at the best universities in the country."

But reopening the doors to ROTC, a military institution that is understandably chary of being burned again by some future campus controversy (an especially unpopular war? military harm to the environment?), won't be enough. Colleges and universities need to put out the welcome mat so that students are encouraged to consider military service as an option for at least part of their lives—en route, as some of them will turn out to be, to high public offices in which they will make decisions about war and peace in years to come. One form of welcome would be to top up ROTC scholarships so that high-tuition institutions are affordable to service-oriented young people. More generally, though, colleges should take to heart an argument made by Josiah Bunting III, the Vietnam-era army-major-turned-novelist who later became president of Hampden-Sydney College and superintendent of Virginia Military Institute.

Writing in The American Scholar in 2005, Bunting observed that the long-term benefit to society of Teach for America—the program that recruits high-flying college grads to spend two or three years teaching in difficult public schools—is that later in life, when they are in positions of influence, "they will know the costs and difficulties and sometimes dangers of such duties. So it should be with ... soldiering in behalf of the American people." That's not a programmatic plan of action, but it is an animating spirit that individual colleges and universities would do well to adopt and then apply to their own distinctive circumstances.

Books discussed in this essay

Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force by Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi (Princeton University Press, 2004)

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris by Peter Beinart (Harper, 2010)

Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations by Jason K. Dempsey (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War by Richard E. Rubenstein (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)

Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books, 2010)

Michael Nelson, a former editor of The Washington Monthly, is a professor of political science at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.