Interviews May 2007

The Activist Soldier

Andrew J. Bacevich, author of "Warrior Politics," talks about the increased politicization of the American military and its troubling potential consequences

Amid all the finger-pointing and contested policies surrounding the war in Iraq, there is one sentiment that seemingly everyone can endorse: "Support our troops." The men and women who choose to serve in America's armed forces risk their lives to protect our national security. Even those who return home safely often do so only after having experienced stresses that the rest of us would have a difficult time imagining. One might think that the extraordinary commitments and burdens these men and women shoulder entitle them to a greater voice than most in shaping our country's direction. But do they?

In his May article, "Warrior Politics," Boston University history professor Andrew J. Bacevich takes a considered look at a new antiwar movement now being fomented by a group of junior members of the military who have joined together to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The movement's founders cite a tradition of activism that dates back to the Vietnam era: Jonathan Hutto, a Navy seaman who has been a leading figure, was reportedly stirred to action by the 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Hutto connected with the book's author, David Cortright, and an Iraq War veteran named Liam Madden, and on January 16 of this year, they presented their statement—"An Appeal for Redress from the War in Iraq"—to Congress, along with the signatures of more than 1,600 fellow servicemen and women. The number of signatures has now grown to over 1,700, and members of the military continue to add their names at a Web site dedicated to the cause. Although soldiers walk a fine line when speaking out while wearing a uniform, those who have signed the appeal assert that they are acting within the bounds of appropriate behavior; the appeal's Web site explains that according to military law, soldiers have the right to "complain and request redress of grievances against actions of their commanders" and "to make a protected communication to [a member of Congress]." So far, the higher-ups seem to agree. As Marc Cooper recently noted in the Nation, when questioned about the appeal, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that active-duty personnel are free to express their views to Congress as long as they are not violating military law.

Bacevich is not so sanguine. Although he shares the soldiers' view that the war in Iraq has been bungled, he cautions that it is a mistake to believe that soldiers' risks and sacrifices entitle them to a special platform for dissent:

On matters of policy, those who wear the uniform ought to get a vote, but it's the same one that every other citizen gets—the one exercised on Election Day. To give them more is to sow confusion about the soldier's proper role, which centers on service and must preclude partisanship. 

His recent book, The New American Militarism (2005), similarly warns against assuming that soldiers are entitled to moral superiority and speaks to the broader danger of basing our national identity and sense of self-worth on military prowess and accomplishments. Bacevich would prefer a more realistic, non-idealized attitude toward the armed forces. As he sees it, open dialogue between military and civilian society is of utmost importance. Through clear-eyed understanding, our country can effectively honor the respective roles and responsibilities of both soldiers and civilians.

We spoke by telephone in mid-March.

—Justine Isola

In 1969, more than a thousand active-duty soldiers signed a New York Times ad calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Jonathan Hutto has described the Appeal for Redress as a movement that follows in the footsteps of the soldiers' lobby during the Vietnam War. You don't claim that the appeal is unprecedented, but why do you see it as new and noteworthy?

I see the appeal as new and noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that it represents a collective effort on the part of serving soldiers to influence national security. Secondly, the traditional or standard politicking by the American military typically occurs at the senior ranks of the military, but the organizers and the majority of the participants in the appeal for redress are junior enlisted soldiers. This is military politicking from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Do you think that soldiers who have signed the appeal are acting within their rights?

No, I don’t. I think that although it’s being styled as an appeal—that is to say it’s being advertised as if it were equivalent to the individual appeal connected to individual grievances, this is in fact a petition. It is a collective political act and it’s not intended to redress a particular problem of either an individual soldier or even of the 1,700 soldiers who have signed it. It’s intended to bring about a change in U.S. national security policy. I myself think that the policy that the appeal addresses—namely the Iraq war—is an utterly misguided policy. I think the war is unnecessary. It has been utterly bungled. But I don’t believe that it ought to be the place of soldiers acting collectively to try to put pressure on members of Congress, or on Congress collectively, in order to bring about a change in policy. That really begins to undermine the principle of civilian control, which we all should be careful to guard.

Is there someone who needs to step in and put a stop to the appeal?

The people who should speak to this as unacceptable are the members of Congress who are the recipients of the appeal. Members of Congress ought to say, “We welcome appeals from individual soldiers with regard to individual problems, but we view as inappropriate and improper any action intended to bring about changes in national security policy.”

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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