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Bacevich and the “end of military history”

August 1, 2010

Andrew Bacevich has a new piece out which argues we have reached “The End of Military History.” It is worth reading the piece in full, because it is provocative. Bacevich strips down the Western way of war:

Expressed in simplest terms, the Western military tradition could be reduced to this proposition: war remains a viable instrument of statecraft, the accoutrements of modernity serving, if anything, to enhance its utility.

He then argues that WWI and WWII began to shatter this “grand illusion.” War became too costly to wage and win, even victorious states had decided that war, for them, was no longer a viable instrument of statecraft. But as incisive of a critique of total war may be, this does not at all refute the proposition that war is a viable instrument of statecraft. Total war became too risky to reliably fulfill political ends, and indeed, Western Europe and Japan did adopt markedly less militaristic stances in the wake of WWII than in earlier times. But did the Soviet Union adopt such a stance in the wake of WWII? Did the French? Of course, all were set back, and certainly there were many instances of military might translating into poor political outcomes. But the demilitarized posture of Europe and Japan today reflects as much the sheer military superiority of the United States, which was willing to defend its allies from the Soviet Union as an assurance that the world would not revert to pre-WWII anarchy.

To extrapolate from one brief period in history that some grand transformation in the nature of war and diplomacy has changed is difficult, to conclude it from this period in history is impossible. The conditions which make Bacevich’s thesis plausible are mutable. American military might is so great that its Western allies need not divert their energies from other concerns, and most of these liberal, Western, democratic states are geographically removed from threats and diplomatically enmeshed with the American hegemon. As for America’s rivals, rarely has a great power enjoyed such disparity between its own forces and those of potential challengers. There is the so-called resurgent Russia, currently wracked with demographic decline, efforts to modernize the military, and plenty of socio-economic difficulties. There is China, the strongest candidate for challenging America’s global dominance. But it has a long way to go in military modernization, economic growth, and internal reform. India is more likely to become a future friend than foe, and in any case remains best by regional rivalries and developmental needs. Because these rivals cannot be too confident in victory against the US, they are discouraged from attacking its allies or partners of interest, further reducing the need for Western states to pursue war as an instrument of statecraft.

In the absence of serious military foes, or strong advocates for a reduction in the global presence established to confront and contain earlier ones, the US has succumbed to a temptation to undertake many ill-informed wars of choice. WWI and WWII were historically unusual wars, for America not only waged them as total wars, but sought total victories. Rather than simply seeking to defeat the enemy’s military or its foreign policy goals, and pursue limited changes in the internal politics and conditions of the hostile state beyond the territory it sought to detach or control, the US has too often attempted grand transformations of the vanquished. This strategy was born of the total conflicts of WWI and WWII, where the US and its allies sought to demilitarize, democratize or dissolve its enemies, and then integrate them into a global liberal order, bringing about a wholesale transformation in their domestic political affairs . These aims have more in common with Roman conquest than the norm of war in human history. In defeating the Axis powers in WWII, the Allies and the Soviet Union achieved these ends at incredible human and economic cost.

After WWII, however, the US became more and more eager to apply this concept of total victory in its military aims. To wage a war to bring liberalism to other peoples and pacify the international system brought sanctifying clarity to violence, particularly after the existential threat and sense of political necessity vanished with the end of the Cold War. So we saw missions of nation-building, international human rights and regime change in the 1990s and after 9/11, but are these conflicts really proof that the Western way of war, so broadly defined, is now a relic that only Americans and Israelis stubbornly cling to?

The proposition that wars directed towards internal transformations of political processes or transformations of the international system are failed endeavors is certainly sensible, but it does not follow then that all forms of war will fail as viable instruments of statecraft. Today, we have cases of states such as the US and Israel seeking total victories without total warfare. Despite launching wars dedicated to transforming Iraq and Afghanistan into modern liberal states, the US has not employed the many hundreds of thousands or millions of troops it fielded in WWII or Vietnam, or even the 10% of GDP to defense expenditures during the latter conflict. Unsurprisingly, trying to do so much more with less has wrought strategic disaster for the country and great hardship for that tiny sector of society which takes up the burden of volunteering to serve in the military.

Can we really conclude that military history and the Western way of war are over? Certainly not – the norm in human history is limited wars, where the end of conflict leaves the enemy politically authority still standing in generally recognizable form unless the victor annexes it. When Justinian and other Byzantine emperors could not reproduce Rome’s feats and reconquer the rest of the empire, did that prove that war was no longer a viable instrument of statecraft? No, it simply proved that at times, attempting to totally defeat the enemy and politically control the territory was an incredibly risky and costly proposition, and that in waging war, enemies were best left to live after their mitigating or defeating their threatening aims, and that war should be avoided when possible in favor of diplomacy and economic suasion. Similarly, the US no longer has the economic strength or political will to undertake that modern relative of conquest, regime change and nation-building. Insurgents’ abilities to resist modern military technology and operations has indeed grown, and America’s (and Israel’s) willingness to pay for the large costs of defeating them has decreased (Israel’s recent wars, though no less fraught with strategic disappointment than America’s, tend to end more quickly when it becomes clear they will not achieve their desired effects).

This says nothing about war’s ability to protect defined national interests and limited strategic goals. War is absolutely a viable instrument of statecraft in that sense. I disagree with Bacevich on his interpretation of the Six-Day War and the Gulf War, that Israel and the US were soon at war with these countries again does not prove that these wars did not inherently achieve their intended aims. The Arab states could no longer countenance a “total war” to destroy Israel (the 1973 Yom Kippur war sought more limited changes in the territorial status of the Sinai and Golan heights) after 1967, and after 1991, Iraq’s ambitions of territorial expansion or Gulf hegemony were impossible (it was purely by choice that America intervened in 2003). War only fails as an instrument of statecraft if we assume that war’s political purpose is to permanently destroy a threat, and even beyond that, convert those threats to partners or allies. This Manichean view of force is at odds with history, particularly the experiences of the Greeks, the Byzantines, and Europe in the 17th-19th centuries. Seeking to destroy and reconstitute enemy societies and permanently alter the international system, particularly without the moral and material support for establishing a Roman-style empire, were destined to either frustrate the conquering power or, if they succeeded, leave them over-committed and vulnerable to rising rivals. Perhaps its time we adjust to notions of victory where, even if not all our enemies can become our friends, neither can we eliminate all our enemies. It would be a sobering view of history, but an accurate one.

The problem here is not that military force can no longer achieve political ends, it is that states such as the US and Israel have a tendency to use military force when it is inappropriate for the political context. In the sense that military power without truly imperial resource commitments cannot achieve Fukuyama’s universal political end-state, we could said to be at the “end of military history,” with Iraq and Afghanistan as America’s last botched experiments in armed utopianism for some time. Bacevich concludes:

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

Bacevich emphasizes that “doing so doesn’t actually work,” but really, we should emphasize its constant and poorly conceived use. Our military is still useful, it’s our statecraft’s lack of clarity, limits and overconfidence in the military’s ability to fulfill its visions of grandeur that is the root of the problem.

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