Andrew J. Bacevich' 2005 The New American Militarism was perhaps one of the earliest accounts of an academic trying to come to grips with the foreign policy of the Bush administration. It was also an attempt to deliver a devastating critique not only of would eventually be Bush's foreign policy legacy, but with American foreign policy itself. Bacevich openly argues for a smaller U.S. footprint overseas and—in general terms—would like to see a more realist foreign policy being enacted. There are many such books on the market and only few of them are worth reading (see the latest by Brezinski for a monumental waste of time). But this one, even if it is not always convincing, is among those that are worthwhile. One caveat up front: Bacevich takes issue with the religious underpinnings of George W. Bush's Wilsonianism. That in itself is a legitimate argument to make and I confess I feel a little unease about the importance of religion in Bush's weltanschauung myself. That being said, Bacevich, in a rather telling instance, describes Bush's religious outlook as an aberration of the normal role of religion and what he seems to think is the true importance and meaning of religion and/or god. For a European scholar such attitudes are always a little disconcerting and Bacevich could have made a far more persuading argument had he realised that there is no right or wrong interpretation of any religion.
Having said all this, the most fundamental problem with Bacevich's book is that it often rests on misleading comparisons and arguments. This is not a small point to be directed against a book, so I feel inclined to give an example for that sort of problem. Right at the outset, Bacevich argues that the new militarism is evidenced not least by the fact that the U.S. spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined. Which is true, but somewhat misleading. For one thing, the U.S. is the world's economic powerhouse, larger than virtually any other economy on the planet. The result being that once you look at defence spending as part of GDP a far more accurate picture emerges, in which the US only ranks fifth, with roughly five percent of GDP being allocated to defence expenditures. But even that is still not too useful a picture. The really important question after all is, what does it buy and what does it get for its money. It does not need a professional background in military affairs to realise that the individual soldier in the U.S. armed forces is one of the best equipped in the world, receiving a decent pay and the security that comes with an expensive health care system for soldiers and veterans alike (Tricare). And that stuff costs real money and is the envy of servicemen in many a European army. Bacevich continues to compare the size of the Marine Corps to that of the entire British Armed Forces, concluding that the Marine Corps alone is lager than the entire army fielded by the United Kingdom. Again, on the face of it, that is correct and yet again, it is also misleading. For one thing the United Kingdom is considerably smaller, has less interests and can rely on a really well-equipped ally, which allowed for rather unreasonable cuts in the British defence budget in the first place. But the size of the Marine Corps does not present itself as a reasonably fitting counterpart for the sort of comparison Bacevich intends to draw. The Marine Corps was significantly expanded following 9/11, but it will also be drawn down in number once the war in Afghanistan comes to a close. The U.S. after all is a country that fields a navy in peace-time and raises an army in war-time. It has done so in all wars, so the abstract size of the Marine Corps is only a snapshot of a nation in war-time. But Bacevich argues that the size of the Marine Corps is indicative of the US government to resort to military solutions, instead of diplomatic ones. But for that to be true, he should have looked at the size of the Marine Corps on 9/10. What he is presenting here is nothing more than a circular argument.
The same holds true for another argument he is making, namely that during the Cold War, the United States staged a mere six interventions, whereas following the end of the Cold War it has already been up to nine, in which he includes quite a number of smaller operations. But that is again a gross distortion, for he fails to do the same for the period till the end of the Cold War and the number increases considerably, for it would then have to include missions such as the botched 1980 Iranian hostage rescue attempt ordered by Jimmy Carter, the Tanker War, the 1975 operation to free merchants in Cambodia that were taken hostage by the Khmer Rogue. By now, one gets the picture. But even if the number did increase, its more related to the fallout of the Cold War and the US being the sole remaining power that often had to deal with the consequences because it had to, not because it wanted to (the thing about the power vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union's demise and all that). After all, the US was not exactly keen to stop the genocide in Bosnia and did so only after it was becoming apparent that the Europeans could not do so themselves. One does not need to come to these conclusions, but making an argument for some sort of abundant militarism, one should at least engage this kind of argument.
Why oh why, then, did I add this book to the classics, the beloved reader might rightfully want to inquire? Well, for one thing, I have added books that are classics in their own right to this list before and Bacevich would have to be on the list of anyone who is seriously interested in civil-military relations. And that is precisely what Bacevich is good at. Wherever and whenever he takes issue with the demise of the citizen-soldier, he is at his best. His criticism of Colin Powell as a JCS chairman is among the best I've read and pretty solid in argumentation. This second chapter of his book is also by far the best of the entire book, the rest of it pales in comparison. The remaining chapters of the book are in fact somewhat of a disappointment. For one thing, his argument rests on the case that every single group he is looking at underwent some sort of militarisation over the past decades, the religious right, the Democratic Party, the economy, the cinematic culture, the intellectuals, etc. But there are two problems with that argument. On the one hand, I remain deeply sceptical that an entire society was militarised by its own doing. But secondly, Bacevich himself argues that much of this is a correction to the fallout of the Vietnam War that left large parts of the country critical of the military. If that is true, which I personally suspect it is, than this is not testimony to an overall militarisation of American society, but rather a return to pre-Vietnam level of support for the military and the role of the military in U.S. foreign policy.