Our troubled relationship with militarism

While debate continues around the war in Iraq, with critics seeing it as a lost cause and defenders describing progress, there remains relatively little examination in the US about the relationship between our country and our military.

On the most elemental level, the all-voluntary military has undercut the possibility of a broader protest movement (while also focusing the sacrifice on a small part of the population).

Yet larger issues are also in play, and I was reminded of this while reading Adam Reilly's excellent recent profile of Andrew J. Baevich in the Boston Phoenix.

The writings about the war of Bacevich, an Army veteran and professor at Boston University, have attracted wide notice, among liberals and conservatives, and for good reason. As Reilly notes, "his perspective -- that of a disaffected patriot and self-identified conservative who analyzes current events with an academic's depth and a veteran's moral authority -- has been invaluable, especially given the marked leftward leanings of most Iraq War critics." (In June, Bacevich received the news that his 27-year-old son, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, had been killed in Iraq.)

Reilly's profile is worth reading for a lot of reasons, but one of the best may be the light it sheds on this little-discussed topic:

The central claim of Bacevich’s latest book, The New American Militarism, which offers the fullest articulation of his thoughts, is that the US has a dangerously dysfunctional relationship with its military. We lionize the armed forces, we believe they’re capable of remaking the world in our own image, and we accept without question the notion that American military supremacy must be maintained and augmented. At the same time, we tell ourselves that force can be applied delicately, with minimal damage to our soldiers or to anyone else. And we take for granted — at least, a large segment of American society does — that military service is somebody else’s responsibility, not ours or our friends’ or our children’s.

Bacevich’s account of how this situation developed is filled with contingency and complexity, and there are precious few heroes. The leading lights of the Bush administration don’t receive flattering treatment, but neither do Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, and Wesley Clark. For that matter, neither do several prominent military figures — including Colin Powell, who Bacevich claims used the first Iraq War to bolster the military’s image and increase its autonomy.

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