SWJ Book Review: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country

SWJ Book Review: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew J. Bacevich. Published by Metropolitan Books, A Division of Henry Holt And Co. NY, 2013 (238 pages)

The United States has been mired in unwinnable protracted wars in the Greater Middle East for twelve years and running. Despite having eliminated Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the United States Armed Forces seems unable to win wars it has begun over a decade ago. Although there has been a plethora of books and articles written about the permanent war and the “national security state” supposedly concocted by the Washington elite, many fail to examine the ethical dimensions of the ongoing war that has become untenable.

In his latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, the retired Army Colonel and Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich delves into the implications of frayed civil-military relations for America’s geopolitical strategy and the well-being of America’s democracy. The “decoupling of the people from the war” worries Bacevich, because he believes that the solution ultimately lies with the informed and involved citizenry.[1]

The author is merciless towards those whom he deems responsible for the quagmire in the Greater Middle East. George W. Bush and the Neocons are blamed for having “depleted the nation’s stores of moral capital leaving in its wake cynicism and malaise along with chronic dysfunction.”[2] Of President Obama’s foreign policy, he discerns in the President’s predilection for covert operation echoes of Nixon’s “proclivity for skullduggery and dirty tricks.”[3] In a chapter entitled “Searching for Dragons to Slay,” the professor jabs at the officer corps for “conjur[ing] up new dangers to which only Abe’s army could offer the necessary response.”[4] Pundits and academics are also collectively blamed for their pliancy and passivity.

However, he reserves his harshest criticism for the apathetic citizenry for exacerbating the current crisis. Indeed, in the author’s attempts to answer the question, “But who exactly was this we?[5] one finds throughout the book a recurrent motif at work. Those familiar with the professor’s previous books may recall the formulaic refrain that Bush wanted as much as possible for the American public to forget that they were engaged in a war.[6] And since the public saw no need to foot the bill or sacrifice their own lives for the lofty cause, “war became exclusively the province of the state rather than the country as a whole.”[7] This decoupling in Bacevich’s view is pernicious because it bankrupts the nation, thereby, forcing our posterity to pay for the permanent war.[8]

As he had done in his previous books, Bacevich employs historical analysis to identify the origins of the public detachment from America’s wars. He contends that whereas Franklin Roosevelt masterfully prosecuted a people’s war during World War II,[9] after the war, maintaining two types of army—one drawn from conscripts and another made up of professional soldiers—became unsustainable due to the unpredictable nature of the postwar wars.[10] The failures of the dual tradition became manifest during the Vietnam War. As Bacevich puts it: “Counterinsurgency abroad [in Southeast Asia] found their counterpart in insurgency within” in the form of open insubordination, drug problems and racial tension. [11]

Bacevich notes that although Richard Nixon might have accurately gauged the prevalent public zeitgeist by terminating the draft, ending the conscription ironically provided him with the latitude to escalate the war in Southeast Asia.[12] More importantly, Nixon’s decision to repeal the draft had far-reaching consequences for the future of America’s geostrategic posture in that the All Volunteer Force (AVF) eventually came to underestimate its adversaries. That is, since the AVF fancied that it had successfully redeemed its reputation in the aftermath of the Gulf War, both the public and the officer corps alike came to believe that America’s extant military capability was more than sufficient for destroying third-rate armies.[13] When the military proved incapable of ending wars it started, both Bush and Obama privatized the conflicts by turning to unscrupulous mercenary firms to fight alongside the troops.[14]

Even though I agree with most of Bacevich’s arguments, I find flawed his assertion that the American citizens remain indifferent to America’s misguided foreign policy because they are content to let the military to do the fighting for them. Such argument underestimates the pervasive public skepticism against American commitments overseas. If vociferous public outcry against intervention in Syria offers any proof, it is worth noting that according to the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of those surveyed believed that Congress should oppose armed intervention. What explains this fierce opposition, according to Robert W. Merry of the National Interest, may be the collective awakening of the public to the possibility that the Washington elites may have “led the nation astray” on foreign policy initiatives. Simply put, even if American citizens choose not to serve, they still have their “skin in the game.”

Despite Bacevich’s flawed premise that the American public at large remains oblivious to America’s ill-conceived entanglements abroad, Bacevich’s analyses in this book are nonetheless spot-on. Events in Af-Pak and in Iraq demonstrate that the United States Armed Forces had been incapable of winning protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in the Greater Middle East or successfully exporting its freedom agenda. Equally important, the war on terror offers us an object lesson on the limits of imperial might and the attendant costs of occupying sovereign countries not our own. The Iraq War alone cost the United States $1.7 trillion and eventually squandered the goodwill of America’s allies

Most importantly, Breach of Trust disabuses the readers of the mistaken belief that an institution as undemocratic as the United States Armed Forces can and should be used to spread American democratic ideals. In so doing, this weighty book forces its readers to ponder what corrective measures, if any, the public can take to ensure that the United States never veers off its ideals and raisons d’être.

I believe that the answer may not necessarily lie in serving the nation as the professor suggests, but in being informed and in being vocal to keep the powers that be accountable. Such is the essence of what it means to be an active citizen.

[1] Andrew Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country Metropolitan Books, A Division of Henry Holt And Co. NY, 2013, p. 32

[2]ibid., p. 29

[3] ibid., pp. 126

[4] ibid., pp.84

[5] ibid., pp. 29

[6] ibid., pp. 30

[7] ibid., pp. 32

[8] ibid., pp. 35

[9] ibid., pp. 27

[10] ibid., pp. 49-50

[11] ibid., pp. 52

[12] ibid., pp. 57

[13] ibid., pp. 98

[14] See Chapter 9

 

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Comments

I don't like the phrase "The United States has been mired in unwinnable protracted wars...". We may not have been able to bring these wars to a place where we can say won, but that doesn't mean that somebody else could not have done it or that it couldn't be done. Because the US can't do it doesn't mean its impossible, just that we can't do it. I've seen that phrase used in other places and it bugs me because I think it just evidence of American arrogance and excuse making.

Mr. Lee is right that it is flawed to find the American people content to ignore what is going on. Other people have faulted us for that also. The people are ready, willing and able to respond to whatever is asked of us in my view. The problem isn't with the people, it is with the leaders. They aren't willing to ask us. If Mr. Bush had said something Churchillian instead saying go shopping, people would have responded enthusiastically. But he didn't. None of the elite leadership class is willing to ask. It is like they are afraid to. If they are, then they don't know the Americans. Our problem is our leaders and how we select them.

"The United States has been mired in unwinnable protracted wars...".

Agree, it's weak for the reasons you stated and it's a tactic to establish a premise without any analysis of the problem. It always strikes me as intellectually dishonest.

There is nothing intellectually "dishonest" about my work. After all, with what evidence can you honestly say that the United States has won or is winning in the Greater Middle East? First, the indigenous people view the American troops as occupiers and not liberators. How else can one explain the surge in green-on-blue attacks? Second, the United States fought two wars simultaneously without the adequate resources and budget to sustain the commitment. And after the government shutdown and sequestration, can you honestly say that the United States can stay the course? Third, according to the Washington Post in July, only 28% of the American people view the war in Afghanistan as worth fighting for: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-25/world/40862986_1_afghan-wa....

I have to quibble slight with one comment regarding "an institution as undemocratic as the United States Armed Forces." I am confident that the author is alluding to the fact that the military is not run democratically. However, I would say that the US military is one of the most democratic institutions because of the sacrosanct American principle of civilian control of the military. In my opinion even though it is not run "democratically" internally it is very much subject to democratic rule by our elected leadership and is an example of the proper relationship of the military to its government and its people in a democracy.

Note that I am not commenting on the efficacy using the military to spread democracy. That is a completely different discussion.

That is what I meant. However, Professor Bacevich does question the wisdom of using American troops for spreading democracy on Chapter 10 (See pp. 139-140).

Good review! I would call out this line however:

"When the military proved incapable of ending wars it started, both Bush and Obama privatized the conflicts by turning to unscrupulous mercenary firms to fight alongside the troops."

The private security companies (PSC's) were a fraction of the size of the military (20,000 at most, mostly Iraqis) and were not hired to go after insurgents, but rather to protect nouns (people, places and things), from insurgents, looters and criminals.

I haven't had a chance to read Prof. Bacevich's book, but I look forward to his perspective on the PSCs.

-Doug Brooks

Oh, he doesn't have anything nice to say about PSCs. Trust me.

There is a SWC thread 'The Andrew Bacevich collection', which started in April 2007, with 42 posts and 2,300 views. Link: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=2739

In Post 64, in September 2008.'Cavguy' has part of a Bill Moyers interview of Andrew Bacevich, which warrants posting here:

'I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.

('Cavguy' highlighted this passage)And then we really turn away. We don't want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That's not supporting the troops. That's an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it - there's something fundamentally immoral about that'.

Morals:
This will likely tick off some folks here. What are morals? I have seen and heard definitions, several times. But what is it really? The truth of the matter is that morals are a point of view and nothing more. Combined with religion, beliefs, taboos, superstitions, situation, location, logic, prejudices, they form a set of internal personal rules which govern actions, thoughts and thought processes, etc. of both individual people, other groups (families, units and tribes etc from as small as two people to billions) and societies.In the long run this will is for the basis for laws, rules, regulations, statues. Morals are also constantly evolving within individuals and societies, though not at the same speeds. Additionally the smaller the group the faster the change and the large the group the more general they become. Outside influence and manipulation can affect this.

Bottom Line: Except in specific instances and in the broadest sense can moral obligations/responsibility and morals themselves be imposed broadly or applied to anyone but yourself. This is why some drink, but think drugs are bad... But others use drugs but wont drink...

Nor should ever one use the term moral obligation/responsibility or attempt to apply specific morals to anyone against their will, In order to be morally obligated, they must feel morally obligated... In order to feel moral responsible they must take moral responsibility... And if they do not, you cannot make them. You may hold them (laws, rules etc) accountable
But if they don't believe it matters or is important, they will not be morally accountable.

And that's the biggest problem with morals the Government and Military (at least the Army) have. They have tried to impose them in areas that they have no business doing so (and they will say it is to protect, increase mission readiness) but it is really because at the top the thought is that these should be what is morally right... Honestly who's business is it who a person sleeps with? Answer: no ones. So why does the Army worry about it so much? Because the morality policy do.

And other thing to consider is that when they do that, they lose credibility.

Is homosexuality immoral? I believe it is. But what I believe doesn't matter to the Army because, the Army says it is ok.

This is why the "Army Values" and the way it is rubbed in our faces all the time mean nothing... Because if you haven't got by the time you enlist or commission, you are not going to have them... But you can pretend you do and as long as you don't get caught you are golden. Example: GEN Peteraes affair... I will bet in his career he sent some body packing or down the river for adultery. But it was ok for him either because his moral point of view is different than the Army's or he realized that it was an issue that the Army really shouldn't involve itself in.

Civic Responsibility:
I agree and it started back during Vietnam... And will continue and grow as long as personal responsibility is lacking.

One the flip side of the coin a lot of the problems with insubordination etc faced by the Military during Vietnam and now stem from unwanted responsibility placed on someone.

Why do you think the book "Star Ship Troopers" was and is still so popular?

I am very much aware of what the Professor has written and said since I am a big admirer of his writings.