I am about three years late as an early reviewer of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, by Andrew J. Bacevich, but even though it slipped through the cracks my uncorrected proof edition has long beckoned to me from the shelf, and now its time has come. I have read Bacevich before: his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, a kind of manifesto that essentially calls for a full reset of American military goals and direction grounded on pragmatism and realism, was a radical departure from the kind of analysis one would expect from a former military man billed as a “conservative historian.” Of course, the tragic stumbles into Afghanistan and Iraq and the aftermath of wars with no foreseeable end have provoked critical thinking on all sectors except the most stubbornly ideological, but to his credit Bacevich generally brings a refreshing new perspective to familiar conundrums, while occasionally striking a sort of utopian chord lacking specificity that might more often be found on the left rather than the right-of-center.
There is less ambiguity in Breach of Trust. Bacevich defines his thesis at the outset: Americans lack “skin in the game,” as it were, and thus are willing to tolerate unending wars because in an era of an all-volunteer army their children cannot be drafted and put at risk. Bacevich goes on to unsparingly indict this professionalization of the American military, not only by its reliance solely on volunteers but by the ongoing utilization of security contractors that operate as business entities rather than patriots with the interests of the nation in mind. Moreover, he decries the gainsaying of the “support our troops” mantra, which has become a diluted slogan for the real apathy most Americans lend to our endless wars. The latter especially resonated with me, for I have long said that “support our troops” is simply a forced euphemism for “support our wars.”
Breach of Trust opens with Bacevich as a young platoon leader in Vietnam 1970-71, with “fragging” becoming a popular act of resistance against authority, something no one in the military then or since has wanted to discuss out loud, a telling reminder that as Vietnam has devolved into myth there was indeed plenty of opposition to the war from within. It is worth pausing here to reflect on Bacevich’s background. A West Point graduate and combat officer in Vietnam, he went on to a career of some twenty-three years in the army, including the Gulf War, retiring with the rank of Colonel. (It is said his early retirement was predicated upon being passed over for promotion after he graciously took full responsibility for an explosive accident at a camp he commanded in Kuwait.) He went on to become an academic, and is currently Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. A longtime critic of George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventative war and the Iraqi conflict, which he has rightly termed a “catastrophic failure,” his own son was killed in Iraq in 2007. This resume attaches to Bacevich either enormous credibility or an axe to grind, or perhaps both. Regardless, his books are well worth the read.
Breach of Trust reminds us of our military tradition in the United States, which called for a small citizen army in peacetime that was vastly augmented in times of war by both volunteers and draftees, and then demobilized when the crisis passed. It was this kind of military that ended the rebellion of the Confederacy in the Civil War and defeated Germany and Japan in World War II. The realities of the Cold War era left much larger forces in place after WWII, but that tradition still held, at least until the unpopular draft of the unpopular war in Vietnam. The all-volunteer army was the legacy of that conflict, and Bacevich admits that he once favored this approach. Yet, it is the unintended consequences of this professional military machine that forms the core of Breach of Trust and Bacevich makes a persuasive case that the result has been a disconnect between most Americans and the faraway endless wars we are waging.
The “Prologue” is telling: he relates the story of a Red Sox game at Fenway on July 4, 2011 when the Lydon family – and millions of Americans watching the game on television – are treated to their surprise reunion with their daughter Bridget, a sailor serving on an aircraft carrier deployed in support of the war in Afghanistan, courtesy of the Pentagon and the Red Sox. It was a patriotic celebration while the nation publically renewed its pledge to “support our troops,” and then Bridget returned to war and the rest of the country went on with its business. Americans are always eager to fight the bad guys – with other Americans, that is, or with other Americans’ children. As I write this, in December 2015, the country is oppressed by a kind of irrational fear of ISIL. Still, when polled more than 60% of millennials advocated sending ground troops to Syria to combat ISIL but only 12% were willing to serve!
Breach of Trust reminds us that it has not always been this way and urges that it need not remain this way going forward. Towards the end of the book, however, Bacevich turns to the old notion of mandatory service for all Americans, either in the military or in some worthwhile peacetime endeavor, and I find this less than convincing. There are indeed perils to the professionalization of the American military that transcend public apathy to endless wars – historians can easily conjure up memories of Roman legions and the like; mercenaries always pose a threat to a republic, even if you turn your own citizens into those mercenaries with a uniform and a paid education. But would the country ever support mandatory service? Would a return to the draft ever fly except during an existential threat to our national survival? I don’t see it. Instead, in my view the focus must return to putting pressure on our national leaders to force a conclusion to our current military adventures, and insist that we maintain a strong defensive posture while turning to war only as an absolute last resort.
Bacevich has been a critic of American foreign policy since 911, but he has remained a voice in the wilderness. I would recommend this book, yet I doubt it will have the kind of influence it deserves. War has become almost an intrinsic part of our culture these days, and if we are not very, very careful, our addiction to it may one day destroy us.
On a final note, some may point to the loss of Bacevich’s son in Iraq as the spark to his epiphany that we are on the wrong track, but it actually long predated it. In fact, some less charitable souls contacted him after this tragedy to taunt him with responsibility for the death of his son through his political opposition to the war. At the time, Bacevich wrote, both he and his son were doing their duties to their country. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/25/AR2007052502032.html) In my opinion, it is our duty as citizens to hear what he has to say.