Chapter 3: The Military Crisis
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Author:  DWill [ Thu Nov 20, 2008 8:26 am ]
Post subject:  Chapter 3: The Military Crisis

We are repeating in Afghanistan the pattern of the Soviets, with the outcome, as Bacevich says, "much in doubt." Our prospects of success in Iraq seem bright only compared to the disaster that obtained since we began hostilities. Bacevich asks how this could be the fate of the most powerful military the world has ever known. He answers that military power can never have the power to change the world that we have invested in it. We have really invested in three illusions about military force.

Of the three illusions, the Weinberger-Powell doctrine seems the one that truly had something going for it. It was an illusion only in the sense that civilian leadership would not stick to it. The first Gulf War was the expression of Weinberger-Powell: limited actions for a limited goal, always in strict accordance with our true interests. In hindsight, we can see how right George H.W. Bush was not to order our military to proceed to Bagdad, although he was criticized for it (and eventually one-upped by his own son.)

Author:  DWill [ Sat Nov 22, 2008 11:31 am ]
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I've wondered about how we would designate Bacevich politically, as right or left, conservative or liberal. As someone else has said, maybe we shouldn't try to pigeonhole him in this way, but just evaluate his argument. Fair enough. But I think he can be categorized philosophically as a conservative. I would point to his view of warfare as an example. A philosophical conservative believes that enduring truths about human existence never change. It is the great mistake of generations to believe that they have altered these truths in some better direction, the conservative would say. Our military believed it had brought warfare under its rational control, made it a precise and predictalbe tool in our crusade to spread freedom. Bacevich says this ignores "war's essential nature" as "fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible," and he quotes Clausewitz's statement, "War is the realm of chance" (p. 156). No amount of technology can ever change this, Bacevich says. "Therefore, any notion that innovative techniques and new technologies will subject war to definitive human direction is simply whimsical" (p. 157). Bacevich then goes on to site an example of how easily all this mighty weaponry can be defeated by a simple device, the IED, that can be constructed for a few dollars.

Author:  JulianTheApostate [ Wed Nov 26, 2008 2:43 am ]
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I read this chapter a couple of weeks ago and found the arguments very convincing. For whatever reason, I decided to wait for other people to start the discussion.

Bacevich points out the disastrous status of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is obvious to anyone who's paying attention, and goes on to explain why. He emphasized three illusions the US leaders possessed about military power, which combined to create an erroneous view of the military as far more capable than they ended up being in practice. I agree with his overall conclusion: the US military isn't capable of imposing a friendly, stable, humane government in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

He then lists some lessons people learn from those military failures, and explains why those conclusions are flawed. Some people conclude that the US military should reorganize itself to better fight wars like the current ones, but Bacevich argues against starting such imperialistic wars in the first place. Some blame incompetent civilian leadership, but Bacevich points out that military leaders are also incompetent. Some people argue for conscription, Bacevich explains that the US population would never accept a draft.

The chapter ends with an important fundamental summary.
America doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller -- that is, more modest, foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the impreial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions.

Author:  DWill [ Wed Nov 26, 2008 10:19 am ]
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Thanks for that concise summary of the chapter. I wonder how Obama will do at reining in "the imperial presidency." This would seem to be one of the biggest political challenges for him. Once power is amassed in an office, it is hard to voluntarily let it go. Now that the Democrats are in power, they will naturally want their own man to exercise the powers they used to colmplain about when a Republican was in. Obama will have to withstand intense opposition from the right as well; they will accuse him of selling out and caving in if he uses more diplomacy and scales back our grandiose plans for the world.

Author:  JulianTheApostate [ Wed Nov 26, 2008 11:02 pm ]
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DWill wrote:
I wonder how Obama will do at reining in "the imperial presidency." This would seem to be one of the biggest political challenges for him.

During his campaign, Obama advocated increasing the US forces in Afghanistan. That indicates, disappointingly, that he won't reign in the imperial presidency. Still, he'll be a less extreme proponent of military imperialism than W has been or than McCain would have been as President, which isn't saying much. Now, it's possible that the current economic crisis will push Obama to spend less on overseas military adventures, but I wouldn't count on it.

As Bacevich argues throughout this book, there are strong institutional pressures towards an imperial presidency, regardless of who's in power. With Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Gates staying on as Secretary of Defense, and Obama appointing many people from the Clinton administration, I'm pessimistic about any major philosophical changes.

Author:  DWill [ Fri Nov 28, 2008 9:41 am ]
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But if we could at least lose the dangerous and unworkable "one-percent doctrine" cooked up by Dick Cheney, we'd be making progress. I think there is reason to think that Obama and Clinton won't be seeking to open up new fronts based on evidence that problems are brewing. We all want to be safe, but pre-emptive or preventive war is not in the end going to amount to anything less than imperialism and even tyranny.

Author:  LanDroid [ Sat Nov 29, 2008 10:46 pm ]
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DWill said He answers that military power can never have the power to change the world that we have invested in it. We have really invested in three illusions about military force.

It's important to list these illusions...
  1. "According to the first illusion, the United States during the 1980s and 1990s had succeeded in reinventing armed conflict. The result was to make force more precise, more discriminating, and potentially more humane." p. 127
  2. "According to the second illusion, American civilian and military leaders subscribed to a common set of principles for employing their no-dominant forces. Adherence to these principles promised to prevent any recurrence of the sort of disaster that had befallen the nation in Vietnam." ..."These principles found authoritative expression in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, which specified criteria for deciding when and how to use force" p. 128 - 129
  3. "According to the third illusion, the military and American society had successfully patched up the differences that produced something akin to divorce during the divisive Vietnam years. ...Never again would the nation abandon its soldiers." p.129

Author:  LanDroid [ Sat Nov 29, 2008 10:53 pm ]
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Re-reading Bacevich's responses to these illusions (pgs 130 - 131) - lordy this book is depressing - I can bring myself to quote only his response to # 3 above.
Tom Brady makes millions playing quarterback in the NFL and rakes in millions more from endorsements. Pat Tillman quit professional football to become an army ranger and was killed in Afghanistan. Yet, of the two, Brady more fully embodies the contemporary understanding of the term Patriot.

:cry: Painfully true... This also reminds me of how viciously right wingers attacked Pat Tillman's brother when he spoke out against our conduct in these wars.

Bacevich continues with how we're drawing the wrong lessons from these illusions - oy, this book is a painful read... Fortunately, he also states the lessons that we should be learning...
  1. "So the first lesson to be taken away from the Bush administration's two military adventures is simply this: War remains today what it has always been - elusive untamed, costly difficult to control, fraught with surprise, and sure to give rise to unexpected consequences. Only the truly demented will imagine otherwise." p. 159 - 160
  2. "The second lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan derives from the first. As has been the case throughout history, the utility of armed force remains finite."
  3. "The Bush Doctrine itself provides the basis for a third lesson. For centuries, the Western moral tradition has categorically rejected the concept of preventive war. ... to launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might pose a threat is just plain stupid. It doesn't work." p. 163
  4. "Finally, there is a fourth lesson, relating to the formulation of strategy. The results of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that in the upper echelons of the government and among the senior ranks of the officer corps, this has become a lost art." p. 165

"The four lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan boil down to this: Events have exposed as illusory American pretensions to having mastered war." p. 168

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