Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Is perpetual war our future?
By Andrew Bacevich
To appreciate the full extent of the military crisis into which the United
States has been plunged requires understanding what the Iraq War and, to a
lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These two conflicts, along with
the attacks of September 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece of George W Bush's
legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of a new, more realistic
In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way, spurred
by critics of Bush's policies on the left and the right as well as by
reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking, this effort has
thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken singly or together,
they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that provided the foundation
the president's "war on terror". In exchange for these received illusions, they
propound new ones, which are equally misguided. Thus far, that is, the lessons
drawn from America's post-September 11, 2001, military experience are the wrong
According to the first lesson, the armed services - and above all the army -
need to recognize that the challenges posed by Iraq and Afghanistan define not
only the military's present but also its future, the "next war", as enthusiasts
like to say. Rooting out insurgents, nation-building, training and advising
"host nation" forces, population security and control, winning hearts and minds
- these promise to be ongoing priorities, preoccupying US troops for decades to
come, all across the Islamic world.
Rather than brief interventions ending in decisive victory, sustained presence
will be the norm. Large-scale conventional conflict like 1991's Operation
Desert Storm becomes the least likely contingency. The future will be one of
small wars, expected to be frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual.
Although advanced technology will retain an important place in such conflicts,
it will not be decisive. Wherever possible, the warrior will rely on
"non-kinetic" methods, functioning as diplomat, mediator and relief worker. No
doubt American soldiers will engage in combat, but, drawing on the latest
findings of social science, they will also demonstrate cultural sensitivity,
not to speak of mastering local languages and customs.
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in October 2007, "Reviving public
services, rebuilding infrastructure and promoting good governance" had now
become soldiers' business. "All these so-called nontraditional capabilities
have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy -
where they must stay."
This prospect implies a rigorous integration of military action with political
purpose. Hard power and soft power will merge. The soldier on the ground will
serve as both cop and social worker. This prospect also implies shedding the
sort of utopian expectations that produced so much confident talk of
"transformation", "shock-and-awe", and "networkcentric warfare" - all of which
had tended to segregate war and politics into separate compartments.
Local conditions will dictate technique, dooming the Pentagon's effort to
devise a single preconceived, technologically determined template applicable
across the entire spectrum of conflict. When it comes to low-intensity wars,
the armed services will embrace a style owing less to the traditions of the
Civil War, World War II, or even Gulf War I than to the nearly forgotten
American experiences in the Philippines after 1898 and in Central America
during the 1920s.
Instead of looking for inspiration at the campaigns of U S Grant, George
Patton, or H Norman Schwarzkopf, officers will study postwar British and French
involvement in places like Palestine and Malaya, Indochina and Algeria.
In sum, an officer corps bloodied in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen the future
and it points to many more Iraqs and Afghanistans. Whereas the architects of
full spectrum dominance had expected the unprecedented lethality, range,
accuracy, and responsiveness of high-tech striking power to perpetuate military
dominion, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know better. They remain
committed to global dominance while believing that its pursuit will require not
only advanced weaponry but also the ability to put boots on the ground and keep
them there. This, in turn, implies a plentiful supply of soldiers and loads of
patience on the home front.
Were civilians of the Defense Department responsible?
Viewed from another perspective, however, the post-9/11 wars teach an
altogether different lesson. According to this alternative view, echoing a
similar complaint during the Vietnam era, the shortcomings of US policy in Iraq
and Afghanistan have little to do with the actual performance of American
forces in the field and everything to do with the meddling of bumbling
civilians back in Washington. In its simplest form, fault lies not with the
troops themselves, nor with their commanders, but with the likes of secretary
of defense Donald Rumsfeld, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, and
under secretary of defense Douglas Feith, who prevented the troops from doing
The charges leveled by Major General John Batiste, who served in Rumsfeld's
Pentagon but subsequently retired in disgust and became one of the defense
secretary's loudest military critics, are representative of this view.
"Rumsfeld's dismal strategic decisions resulted in the unnecessary deaths of
American servicemen and women," Batiste declared in September 2006. The former
general held Rumsfeld personally "responsible for America and her allies going
to war with the wrong plan".
But that was just for starters. Rumsfeld also "violated fundamental principles
of war, dismissed deliberate military planning, ignored the hard work to build
the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, set the conditions for Abu Ghraib
and other atrocities that further ignited the insurgency, disbanded Iraqi
security force institutions when we needed them most, [and] constrained our
commanders with an overly restrictive de-Ba'athification policy."
Nor was the problem limited to Rumsfeld himself. It included his chief
lieutenants. According to Batiste, Rumsfeld surrounded himself "with
like-minded and compliant subordinates who [did] not grasp the importance of
the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of
warfare." The overall effect was tantamount to murder: Rumsfeld "tied the hands
of commanders while our troops were in contact with the enemy".
Here lies the second preliminary lesson drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, one
that appeals to disgruntled military officers like Batiste, but also to
Democrats eager to blame the Bush administration for any and all sins and to
neo-conservatives looking to absolve themselves of responsibility for botched
wars that they had once cavalierly promoted. The corrective to civilian
arrogance and misjudgment is obvious: It requires tilting the civil-military
balance back in favor of the generals, untying the hands of senior commanders.
From this perspective, the most important lesson to take away from Iraq and
Afghanistan is the imperative to empower military professionals. The David
Petraeus moment of 2007, when all of official Washington from Bush to the
lowest-ranking congressional staffer waited with bated breath for General
Petraeus to formulate basic policy for Iraq, offers a preview of how this
lesson might play itself out.
Is a draft the answer?
There is also a third perspective, which blames the failures of Iraq and
Afghanistan on a problematic relationship between soldiers and society.
According to this view, the All-Volunteer Force itself is the problem. As the
military historian Adrian Lewis observed, "The most significant transformation
in the American conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the
atomic bomb was not technological, but cultural, social, and political - the
removal of the American people from the conduct of war." Only after 9/11, with
the Bush administration waging war on multiple fronts, have the implications of
this transformation become fully evident.
A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on the army's
overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily limited. Given a
choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities other than military
service, with protracted war diminishing rather than enhancing any collective
propensity to volunteer. It is virtually inconceivable that any presidential
call to the colors, however impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly
designed, or any package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse
Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars is no longer a
people's army, the people have little say in its use. In effect, the
professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The
troops fight when and where the commander in chief determines.
Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of civic
duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the
nation's defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War
did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it
ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing
tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became
something that Americans pay others to do.
So the third lesson of the Iraq War focuses on the need to repair the
relationship between army and society. One way to do this is to junk the
All-Volunteer Force altogether. Rather than rely on professionals, perhaps it
makes sense to revive the tradition of the citizen-soldier.
Proposals to restore this hallowed tradition invariably conjure up images of
reinstituting some form of conscription. In place of a system based on the
principle of individual choice, those unhappy with the AVF advocate a system
based on the principle of state compulsion.
The advantages offered by such a system are hardly trivial. To the extent that
Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the operational,