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

So the solution is not necessarily to make the military completely subservient to the Secretary of Defense?

No. This is where Eliot Cohen’s book Supreme Command is exactly on target. Open, honest, and candid dialogue is crucially important. My sense is that the dialogue between senior civilians and senior military officers is so distorted by posturing, game-playing, and bringing peripheral political considerations into the matter that the environment in which discourse happens is one in which there is great mistrust rather than openness and honesty. The issues don’t get addressed in a straightforward way. And that is part of the problem here.

Do you think there’s any need for an overall bureaucratic reorganization of the armed forces—for example, an updated Goldwater-Nichols Act?

I don’t know exactly what an updated Goldwater-Nichols act would propose, and I would probably want to see specific proposals before commenting. Having said that, I don’t believe that we can legislate healthy civil-military relations. We need to have people who are genuinely professional, genuinely committed to the national interest, rather than to some narrow and parochial interest—people who undertake their responsibilities honestly and fearlessly. And that needs to be the case both on the civilian side and on the military side. It’s not. I don’t think you can legislate a fix to the problem.

Your book The New American Militarism suggests that we have become more militarized as a society in recent years. But some would argue that the American public has in fact become increasingly disengaged from the politics of war. For example, we haven't seen the same sorts of organized protests on college campuses or marches on Washington that we saw during the Vietnam War. Can you speak to how we can reconcile what seems to be increased apathy toward war with the idea that we are becoming increasingly militarized?

From the archives:

"The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society" (July 1997)
U.S. military personnel of all ranks are feeling increasingly alienated from their own country, and are becoming both more conservative and more politically active than ever before. Do they see America clearly? By Thomas E. Ricks

I teach at Boston University and have observed that although our students are patriotic, that doesn’t translate into any particular enthusiasm for enlisting in the military. ROTC, which had become a contentious presence on many campuses during the Vietnam War is now readily accepted. The presence of ROTC at BU today is completely non-controversial. But despite the fact that there are now public professions of respect and warm regard for soldiers, as a practical matter, a large gap has opened up between the American Army and American society. For all kinds of reasons I think we need to close that gap, which means ensuring that the burdens of military service are shared more broadly across the spectrum of American society. We need to find ways to induce greater numbers of young people to serve.

Should we reinstate the draft?

From the archives:

"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the country needs it. By James Fallows

"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the Army needs it. By James Webb

It’s infeasible to have a draft. If, for whatever reason—and I cannot imagine what the reason would be—but if for some reason Congress passed a draft and the President signed it into law, I believe there would be massive civil disobedience that would gut the program before it even got off the ground. If indeed we want to close the gap between the army and society, it has to happen by finding incentives that will induce people from the middle- and upper-middle classes to serve voluntarily. The federal government could offer all-expenses-paid college educations to any soldier completing a term of service. Given the ever-increasing cost of a college education, that might provide a very attractive incentive to serve. To make that incentive effective, the government would probably have to reduce the availability of education grants and loans to non-veterans. Closing the gap is not going to be the result of some kind of compulsory service.

You also suggest in your piece that the American public is partly to blame for endowing soldiers with a sort of moral authority. In your book you flesh out this idea, explaining that our current attitude towards soldiers is due in part to a backlash following the Vietnam era, where the stature of the armed forces fell in the eyes of the public following incidents like My Lai. We then went from being antimilitaristic to revering the military. Do you think that Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, or Haditha will create a similar backlash or change our perceptions of soldiers today?

No, I don’t think so. I believe that Vietnam-era soldiers were collectively tarred with the brush from episodes like My Lai. One could overstate the case, but to some degree soldiers generally came to be viewed as baby killers. That’s not the case today, although we have had our episodes of abuse—whether we’re talking about Abu Ghraib or Haditha. It seems to me that there is not a tendency today to view the perpetrators of those kinds of episodes as representative of all soldiers. Lynde England will remain the face of Abu Ghraib.

Is there any reason for us to heed the soldiers who have signed the appeal? Couldn't one argue that the soldiers' lobby deserves our attention because the men and women serving in Iraq are better informed than the average American about what’s happening on the ground there? Not that we should listen to soldiers because they are potentially sacrificing their lives, but because they are eyewitnesses and have seen the futility of persevering in this war.

Yes, of course, individual soldiers speaking as individuals have every right to say, “This is what I saw, this is what I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I think it means”—especially once they’ve completed their military service. Those voices deserve to have a place in the public arena. However, as citizens, we should be concerned and troubled by the fact that a soldiers’ lobby has begun to appear. We should hope that it fails. And we should hope that it’s not followed by further lobbying efforts by soldiers.

How could soldiers appropriately make their voices heard?

Soldiers can speak out through congressional testimony, or through the writing of books, or movie scripts, or poetry. There are numerous ways we can try to make sense of our experiences of life and of the evolution of history.

Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.
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