Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Review: The New American Militarism

I finished reading The New American Militarism on the plane yesterday, great book and heartily recommended. Bacevich describes himself as a conservative critic of the Iraq invasion, which he sees as resulting from the institutionalization of militarism within American society. The book pointedly avoids blaming Bush or administration officials, instead looking at a series of broad cultural dynamics, both civilian and military. These include briefly,
  • Conservative christians, who adopted a seige mentality in the wake of the cultural changes in the 60's.
  • The idolization of the military in the 80's and 90's, in a generational reaction against perceived injustices in the 70's.
  • The development of smart weapons and the broader seperation of military and civilian society, which made "clean" war seem like a possibility.
This resolves a problem I had with an earlier work, American Empire. There he argued for a fundamental continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations, which I didn't buy. The discussion here implies a continuity of circumstance more then in the actions and initiatives of the presidents, and Bacevich states explicitly in the preface that
What is most striking about the most powerful man in the world is not the power that he wields. It is how constrained he and his lieutenants are by forces that lie beyond their grasp and perhaps their understanding. Rather then bending history to their will, presidents and those around them are much more likely to dance to history's tune.
Bacevich at the end offers a surprising reinterpretation of the last 30 years, where he adopts the neocon lingo of World War IV with a twist: instead of radical Islam waging war against a sleepy Western world he sees America fighting for political dominance of the broader Middle East, in a continuation of the western tradition going back to Alexander the Great. This idea is offered as a sketch, and I'd like to see him use another book to flesh it out.

This is good stuff with continuing relevance, particularly for those confused by why so little has changed under Obama.

UPDATE: I added this to the book review site with an addendum here.

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