The Demilitarized Soldier: Andrew Bacevich, American Foreign Policy and Breach of Trust

By Tom GallagherFebruary 22, 2014

The Demilitarized Soldier: Andrew Bacevich, American Foreign Policy and Breach of Trust

Breach of Trust by Andrew J. Bacevich

ANDREW BACEVICH is a man you won’t meet every day — a former army officer writing about the military who is untainted by militarism. By the end of the first paragraph of his new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, I was already a fan. I think I’d actually been waiting for this book to appear ever since I tuned into a World Series game last fall and got nine innings of exhortations to “support our troops” along with my play-by-play. Although I knew Major League Baseball, the network and the various sponsors were doing this in part to serve their various corporate bottom lines, was I still obligated to feel the solidarity with the people our country had sent on the dreadful missions depicted in the film clips? 

Bacevich describes a similar experience: going to a Fourth of July Red Sox game in Boston’s Fenway Park where there was an air force contingent standing at attention in front of a giant flag, a navy color guard, a marine corps choral ensemble, F-15Cs flying overhead — all assembled to “support our troops.” He, however, simply dismisses the whole thing as “a masterpiece of contrived spontaneity,” his lack of hesitancy probably deriving from the fact that he attended West Point and served for 23 years. Ain’t no one going to question his “patriotism” or “support for the troops.” I read on eagerly.

To Bacevich, who currently teaches history at Boston University, that tawdry Fenway display exemplifies the role the American public is now expected to fill in our foreign policy. Stand and cheer — but otherwise, butt out because “War no longer qualifies as the people’s business.” These days, he writes, “in formulating basic military policy and in deciding when and how to employ force, the state no longer requires the consent, direct participation, or ongoing support of citizens.” 

If reduced to a phrase, this book would be a call to reinstate the draft. But regardless of where you fall on that question — and I don’t concur with the author — this scathing critique of America’s state of permanent war is not to be missed by anyone who understands — or suspects that there’s something going terribly wrong here. And Bacevich certainly has no illusions about what things were like the last time the US had a draft; he readily acknowledges that “by the early 1970s, on the graffiti-scarred walls of barracks or latrines, FTA (Fuck the Army) became as omnipresent as KILROY WAS HERE had been in an earlier day.” And it was far worse than that, really — not only had “the army [...] ceased to be an effective fighting force,” but “in increasing numbers,” soldiers “not only refused to comply, but were engaging in acts of resistance,” a practice then known as “fragging.”

To stanch this growing alienation and revolt within the military, the US turned to the all-volunteer army, whose current marginal relationship with American society Bacevich contrasts to World War II, a war he considers to have been a “communal undertaking” to a degree beyond any prior. That was a time when the famous, the prominent and the wealthy all served and the nation subjected itself to rationing. Bacevich, however, is not one to exaggerate or embellish his argument; he allows how World War II-era rationing was “inconvenience packaged as deprivation.” Nor does he overstate the American role in that war, noting that while “the price of defeating the Axis promised to be high [...] FDR intended, wherever possible, to offload that price onto others, while claiming for the United States the lion’s share of any benefits.” In his assessment, victory turned on two factors: “the weakness and vulnerability of the Japanese economy” that was roughly only a tenth the size of the US, and “the prowess and durability of the Red Army.” 

On the latter point, he reminds us that while American casualties were quite substantial — over 400 thousand killed — the combined number of military and civilian deaths in the Soviet Union exceeded 20 million, and cites historian H.P. Willmott for a benchmark: “In any week of her war with Germany between June 1941 and May 1945, the Soviet Union lost more dead than the total American fatalities in the Pacific War.” Shortly thereafter, of course, our principal ally soon became our principal Cold War threat and “Soviet power and the ambitions ascribed to Soviet leaders from Joseph Stalin to Leonid Brezhnev [...] served as an all-purpose rationale for the vast national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II,” Bacevich writes. Today, it seems a fair bet that not one American in 50 realizes that the USSR/USA Second World War casualty ratio ran 50-1 in their “favor.”  

While it may at first seem odd for Bacevich to reach this far back in history to construct his argument, it does ultimately reflect an astute recognition of just how crucial a factor the national perception of America’s heroic role in the Second World War has been in our government’s ability to shape subsequent military policy. That policy, “forged in Korea and reaching maturity in the early 1960s” developed “a large citizen-soldier army designed for the ostensible purpose of keeping the Cold War cold, yet providing a formidable force-in-being available for commitment whenever that war showed signs of turning hot.” It was this “army that in 1965 deployed to Vietnam, where it met with catastrophic failure.”  

The volunteer military that followed has taken the country in many unforeseen directions. For instance, unlike many other sectors of American society, it welcomed blacks and by the 1990s it had become the only place where you might routinely find blacks bossing whites. Inevitably gays were recruited and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” controversy would be a major engagement on the road to gay rights. At the same time, “with the supply of male volunteers insufficient to sustain the nation’s armed forces,” Bacevich writes,

militarists who care about little apart from sustaining a capacity for global military action and feminists obsessed with eliminating all vestiges of discrimination have formed an improbable alliance. As a consequence, the ongoing campaign for gender equality sustains rather than undercuts America’s propensity for war.

Meanwhile, “Hurry up and wait” was becoming a slogan of the past, as the volunteer army suddenly made soldiers’ time a valuable commodity and ultimately led to the contracting out of services once strictly the province of the military, with the result that “as of 2010, contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan had some 260,000 employees on their payroll — more than the total number of troops committed to those theaters,” Bacevich reports. Not that we were seeing any savings, mind you — by 2012, the spiraling logistical expenses of these remote wars, combined with the private sector’s healthy profit motive resulted in the army spending a million dollars per year to maintain each soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though a Private First Class was only making $1757 a month.

Bacevich sees himself as neither left nor right because, as opposed to “the Occupy movement [that] blamed Big Business, especially Wall Street” for the nation’s recent economic decline, or the “Tea Party movement [that] blamed Big Government,” he considers the source of our economic malaise to be the relentless wars of the past decade. And in this, he thinks, “Perhaps the people were not victims but accessories.” For after all, “On the subject of war, Americans can no more claim innocence than they can regarding the effects of smoking or excessive drinking.” You see, Bacevich’s subtitle —  “how Americans failed their soldiers and their country” — refers not just to our leaders, but to us all. For this former military man, foreign policy, too, is a matter of personal responsibility. And this reviewer, who is about as far from being a military man as you get, could not agree more.

“Apathy toward war is symptomatic,” he argues, “Shrugging off wars makes it that much easier for Americans [...] to shrug off the persistence of widespread hunger, the patent failures of their criminal justice system, and any number of other problems.” Sadly, this argument seems nearly exotic in the current American context. Although he cites Pat Buchanan, Howard Zinn and Immanuel Wallerstein for their efforts to turn public opinion against the endless war mentality, he recognizes that “the critique they fashioned barely dented the reigning foreign policy consensus.”  

One of the less obvious legacies of 9/11 is the degree to which it has skewed American perception of reality, so that we can maintain over 700 foreign military bases and have operatives in over 130 countries and still feel beleaguered. Breach of Trust addresses a fundamental numbness pervading the country. It starts at the top, where “assassination, once considered beyond the pale, has now emerged as a core function of the chief executive, the president himself choosing individual targets and periodically updating the nation’s ‘kill list.’” But it extends throughout society. Since Vietnam, Bacevich writes, “along with Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan [...] US ground forces have intervened [...] in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo;” we’ve had “special missions secretly entered in Iran [...] and Pakistan;” while “quasi-covert operations occurred in El Salvador, Honduras and Columbia;” we’ve sent “marines to patrol the western Coast of Guatemala” and “bombs and missiles have [...] rained down on Libya, the Sudan and Yemen.” And yet “tuned out Americans are generally no more familiar with these events, their causes, or their connection to one another than they are with why the First Seminole War happened or how it led to the Second Seminole War.” When it’s turned out we’ve killed the wrong people in one of our drone strikes, Bacevich finds, “As far as the American media were concerned, the death of a few nameless Somalis or Pakistanis carried about as much newsworthiness as a minor traffic accident.”

The rank and file soldier doesn’t count for much either. Noting a 2012 survey that rated Enlisted Military Soldier the third worst job in America — behind only lumberjack and dairy farmer — Bacevich laments the fact that “in 2011, the year the Iraq War ended, one out of every five active duty soldiers was on antidepressants, sedatives or other prescription drugs” and argues that in calling increasingly on the National Guard, often for multiple combat tours, “The military thereby voided the implicit contract that had defined the terms of service for these part-time soldiers — that the nation would call on them only in extreme emergencies — and converted them in effect into an adjunct of the active-duty force.” His empathy does not extend all the way up the chain of command, however: “The impulse to refashion the army into an instrument of global interventionism for use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan,” did not originate “with Donald Rumsfeld nor with any of his immediate predecessors as secretary of defense,” he concludes, but rather “army leaders had chosen that course.” 

Now about the draft: If we accept Bacevich’s devastating argument that American foreign policy has fundamentally become a criminal enterprise — which I do — our first priority will be to redirect it toward actually operating on the principles on which most Americans might prefer to believe it currently does operate. Bacevich believes restoring the draft would address that question by making our foreign policy an actual life-and-death concern for the entire population rather than just for “the 1 percent whose members get sent to fight seemingly endless wars” as is the case now. His argument does not convince me, however, for the very simple reason that the Vietnam War occurred when such a draft was in place. The existence of that draft allowed the US government to send an invading army to Southeast Asia that at one point numbered half a million. And for all the damage we have done to all of the countries mentioned above, none of it really compares to Vietnam, where civilian casualties may have run as high as 2,000,000. (Anyone needing a refresher on just how horrific the Vietnam War was would do well to read Nick Turse’s recent Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.) The recent difficulties our government has experienced in mustering the desired troop levels for Afghanistan and Iraq would actually appear to be a powerful argument against reintroducing the draft.

There is a perhaps even a stickier issue that remains, though. If we assume for the moment that our foreign policy will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future — which, unfortunately, seems quite a reasonable assumption — we are left to ask whether it would be preferable that the people serving in our wars do so voluntarily or because they were drafted to be there. In the former case, we understand that the military is likely to disproportionately represent groups with fewer options in life. In the latter, we are coercing people to serve in morally objectionable operations. I find no easy answer to this question, but I see no evidence that it would disappear because a draft would change our foreign policy for the better. 

But this argument takes nothing away from this zinger-filled book. When Bacevich writes sentences like, “Once George Bush promulgated (and Barack Obama subsequently endorsed) the depiction of present-day Iran as a country led by madmen, the possibility that the Iranians might have some legitimate gripes with the United States — the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 along with the CIA’s overthrow of a democratically elected government in 1953 offering two glaring examples — became inadmissible,” I think, “Wow — I wish someone would run for president and talk like that.” Then I think, “Hey, I’d just like to see someone say that sort of thing on the news – anyone!” And then there’s his recognition that “for members of a national security elite committed to the proposition that positioning American troops on foreign soil solves problems, acknowledging that such deployments may actually exacerbate them requires stores of honesty and self-awareness that they do not possess.” 

Hopefully, Bacevich’s efforts will contribute to a growing understanding of the damage that the current makers of our foreign policy are doing. And hopefully this understanding will not come too late — his greatest fear is that “having forfeited responsibility for war’s design and conduct, the American people may find that Washington considers the grant of authority irrevocable. The state now owns war, with the country consigned to observer status.” 


Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!