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Excerpt: Changing the Subject: How the United States Responds to Strategic Failure

Andrew J. Bacevich

Fig 1: Operation Mountain Viper (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis) (Released)

Excerpted from Chapter 9 of NOT EVEN PAST: How the United States Ends Wars edited by David Fitzgerald, David Ryan, and John M. Thompson.

A successful marriage is one in which partners find ways of reconciling their own individual needs with those they share as a couple. The challenge is to enable me and you to coexist with us in relative harmony. To indulge in wedding day illusions of being exempt from such challenges—to fancy that a new us transcends me and you—is to guarantee mutual disappointment. The sooner all parties jettison such illusions the better.

Similar challenges are infused into civil-military relations. There, harmonizing the interests of political leaders with those of the armed services in ways that serve the well-being of the nation as a whole requires more than solemn pledges of fealty and mutual respect.

Failed wars exacerbate such challenges. A marriage plunged into crisis due to the loss of a job or of a child may find partners unable to provide one another with solidarity and support precisely when they are most needed. So too with civilian and military leaders faced with confronting a military enterprise gone badly awry. In such circumstances, incentives to dodge painful truths by denying responsibility or offloading blame can become irresistible. As a consequence, problems contributing to failure fester, almost guaranteeing their recurrence at some future date. The way the American political establishment and the US military responded to serial failures first in Vietnam and then in its post-9/11 “War on Terrorism” offers a case in point. In both instances, civil-military dysfunction adversely affected the war’s actual conduct. In both, continuing dysfunction impeded efforts to discern why that failure had occurred and what corrective action might be in order.

The contemporary US civil-military relationship emerged during the early years of the Cold War, a direct result of a tradition-shattering decision to maintain on a permanent footing a large and powerful military establishment, pursuant to President Harry Truman’s 1950 approval of NSC 68 (“United States Objectives and Programs for National Security”) as a blueprint for rearmament. Prompting this break from past practice was the emergence of “national security” as an organizing principle of US policy, transcending mere “national defense” and consigning diplomacy to the status of afterthought.

The armed forces of the United States now became instruments of global power projection.1 As a result, questions related to recruitment, composition, equipping, and employment of those forces acquired unprecedented political significance. The increased salience attributed to military matters—along with the money and prerogatives at stake—drew senior admirals and generals into issues previously beyond their purview. The divide once separating the military and civilian realms blurred.

Renegotiating the rules governing civil-military relations played itself out in a series of contentious issues and often crises that occurred between 1946 and 1951. The issues involved related to the control of nuclear weapons, the size of the Pentagon budget, racial and gender integration, defense “unification,” the adjudication of service roles and missions, and the conduct of the Korean War.

Breached and battered, the principle of civilian control survived these crises, but in attenuated form. Without anyone paying much attention, the relationship between senior civilian officials and senior military officers had become deeply politicized. By the 1960s, mutual manipulation had long since displaced mutual respect as its defining characteristic.

Although the factors that made Vietnam such a debacle are legion, the absence of honest dialogue between President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the one hand and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on the other made a mighty contribution. Rather than providing their civilian bosses with unvarnished and forthright professional advice, members of the JCS fancied that they might game their civilian bosses into fighting the war their way. For their part, Johnson and McNamara viewed the brass not as a source of wisdom and counsel, but as a problem to be managed. In that regard, the JCS fell into the same category as the Congress, the press, or public opinion. While going through the motions of consultation, the real aim for Johnson and McNamara alike was simply to keep the JCS on board.

Much the same can be said of the post-9/11 wars, especially during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as Pentagon chief. Determined to prosecute the Global War on Terrorism his way without interference, Rumsfeld effectively marginalized the JCS and suppressed dissenting opinion coming from within the officer corps, most notoriously by his de facto silencing of army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki for daring to express reservations about US plans to invade Iraq in 2003. Although the defense secretary got his way, the results were not pretty. If the art of war requires that effective military action align with judiciously defined political purpose, then the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan stand on a par with Vietnam as examples of how not to do it.

The ultimate test of any system is how it responds to failure. Here too, it must be said, the existing American civil-military relationship leaves much to be desired.

Andrew J. Bacevich graduated from West Point and Princeton, served in the army, became an academic, and is now a writer. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of a dozen books, among them American Empire (Harvard University Press, 2002), The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Limits of Power (Henry Holt, 2008), Washington Rules (Metropolitan, 2010), and Breach of Trust (Metropolitan, 2013). His latest book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (Metropolitan Books), was published in 2020.

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How the United States Ends Wars
Edited by David Fitzgerald, David Ryan, and John M. Thompson

“We have endless books on the origins of America’s wars, but far fewer that examine the crucial question of how the conflicts are terminated. Not Even Past is therefore hugely welcome. Featuring lucid and penetrating essays by a stellar roster of scholars, the volume provides deep insights into one of the grand puzzles of the age: why the U.S. has so often failed to exit wars on its terms.” • Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University

Available in eBook, paperback, or hardback for 30% off with discount code SUMMER20 (valid until September 1, 2020).

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