How we became a nation of warriors

Over the last century, militarism has warped our foreign policy -- and our soul. Can the budget crisis save them?

Topics: History, Budget Showdown,

How we became a nation of warriors

News travels fast across the red desert bush of remote Djibouti. Even as U.S. military reservists hurry to erect a small field hospital around a cluster of tents and vacant block houses near a desolate watering hole, dozens of tribespeople are waiting for treatment in orderly rows. They arrive with maladies of every sort — bad teeth, diarrhea, fevers, colds, arthritis. At the triage center, a middle-aged tribesman has had a thorn removed from the instep of his foot, a wound that had been infected for months. At the dental surgery station, Navy lieutenant Bill Anderson, an orthodontist from Northfield, New Jersey, will over the next few hours extract a dozen rotting or impacted teeth using instruments that sparkle in the late-morning sun. His patients endure their operations without so much as a wince or low groan, and he gives each one an antibiotic rinse to prevent infection.

It is 2008, and this Medical Civil Action Program, as it is known, is provided courtesy of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, an 1,800-man deployment of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. The base was established in Djibouti, an enclave of calm in an unstable area, immediately after the September 11 attacks. Al Qaeda units, it was feared, would take advantage of the chaos in neighboring Somalia and nest there. When no terrorists turned up, the task force was assigned to perform humanitarian initiatives with the guidance of the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department’s foreign assistance arm.

Embedded in the operation is a lone USAID official. Her minority status is symptomatic of a new age in U.S. foreign policy, one in which America, in peacetime as well as in war, is represented abroad more by warriors than by civilians.

Quietly, gradually — and inevitably, given the weight of its colossal budget and imperial writ — the Pentagon has all but eclipsed the State Department at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The process began just over a century ago, gathered pace with World War II, and hit its stride during the Cold War with a global empire that not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but was greatly enhanced by it. Even before terrorists struck the nation on September 11, America was spring-loaded for conflict on many fronts. A decade later, U.S. troops are engaged in the country’s longest war in addition to counterinsurgency and developmental assistance work throughout the world. At the same time, the capability of the nation’s diplomatic and foreign aid agencies has dramatically diminished. While four-star generals wield enormous influence among U.S. allies, ambassadors and senior USAID officials are regarded more and more as functionaries and contractors. They are saddled with chronic staff shortages, eroded language skills, and low morale. In an era of endless war, a growing share of diplomats and aid workers are assigned to missions in areas so hazardous they require armed escorts when traveling. And unlike their uniformed counterparts, they lack replacement staff for regular rotations. In the increasingly tight competition for humanitarian and development funds, they are losing out to the Pentagon, now the federal government’s fastest-growing source of foreign aid.

Even Robert Gates, the former CIA director and the defense secretary to both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has lamented the militarization of America’s presence overseas. He has called for a significant boost in the State Department-USAID budgets, so that diplomats and development experts can bring more to the evolving partnership between civilian agencies and the military in the battle for hearts and minds. This implies, of course, that military might is key to the resolution of America’s global challenges, when in fact it creates more problems than it solves. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, political leaders in Washington and their proconsuls abroad continue to behave as if U.S. hegemony is not only inevitable and necessary but sustainable and desired. It is a costly misperception that led, at least in part, to the September 11 attacks and America’s ruinous involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the geopolitical map shifting from a U.S.-centric world back to a Victorian era cluster of competing regional powers, the myth of American exceptionalism has been dispelled nearly everywhere but in Washington.

American militarism is unique for its civilian provenance. It did not follow a barracks coup or a popular call for a man on horseback to impose order on an unraveling republic. No martial law was declared and there is no military cabal pulling the strings of a nominal civilian authority. In fact, it is largely civilians who have played the dominant role in weaponizing foreign policy abroad and security policy at home.

However diverse in temperament and background, American militarists throughout the last century share common values and proclivities: In the algorithms of global affairs they see a simple contest between good and evil, and in engagement they see a graveyard filled with grand, game changing initiatives. Their reality is selective, a buffet rather than a set course meal, from which convenient facts may be selected and neatly presented. Their impulse is not to reason but to alarm, and they freely concoct dangers when real ones are unavailable. For much of the Cold War, they believed in a communist monolith that never existed. Until the day the Berlin Wall fell, they promoted Pentagon exaggerations of Soviet power abroad while overlooking its crippling weaknesses at home.

Today, they counsel an armed onslaught against an Islamist movement that cannot be subdued by force, and they agitate for a militarized response to a resurgent China, which, if pursued as effectively as their other star-crossed enterprises, will make a war between the United States and the world’s most populous nation all but inevitable. They have disparaged not only the agents of diplomacy but diplomacy itself, impoverishing the State Department and USAID and compelling the military to fill a growing share of what were once the roles and responsibilities of civilians. The Pentagon, wisely identifying such missions as a growth industry in the absence of a clear and present military threat, is very much along for the ride. A half century after Dwight Eisenhower’s historic warning about an aggrandizing “military-industrial complex,” American militarization is an established and probably immutable fact. It is a manifestation of the founders’ deepest fears and the worst betrayal of the nation’s republican ideals.

The lawyers, farmers, and merchants who shaped late-eighteenth-century America were preoccupied not with military adventures but with commerce. They had seen how permanent military bureaucracies in Europe had routinely eroded civilian authority and they emphatically rejected a standing army for their infant republic. In 1796 the outgoing President George Washington spoke for a nation of citizen-soldiers when he said that unity and neutrality would safeguard American interests far more efficiently than “overgrown military establishments which … are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

If the founders were suspicious of standing armies led by Prussian style general staffs, they held the European tradition of diplomacy in similarly low esteem — to the point of ambivalence about whether the United States should have a diplomatic corps. Serving President Washington as America’s first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson led a department with three clerks, two ambassadors, and ten counselors posted abroad. Even then, lawmakers considered high diplomacy a luxury and would deny the nation’s envoys the resources enjoyed by their counterparts across the Atlantic. There would be no European-style academies for the study of languages, culture, history, and protocol. Jefferson’s bud get, at $56,000, was so tight he was forced to sell a horse and some of his furniture to keep America’s overseas missions adequately funded.

For much of the nineteenth century, it was diplomats, more often than not men in morning suits and top hats, who represented the United States as it extended its sovereign frontier westward and beyond. William Henry Seward, secretary of state to presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, famously negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for the equivalent today of $95 million. John Hay, statesman, author, journalist, and one of the most agile and renowned American minds of his era, began his career in government at the age of twenty-two as Lincoln’s assistant private secretary. In 1898, as President William McKinley’s secretary of state, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War on terms favorable to Washington. In the early 1900s, he was an influential promoter of the Open Door Policy toward China, which gave Washington pole position in the extraterritorial rush among Western powers and Japan to colonize the coastal rim of China. Hay also shepherded the transfer of U.S. authority over what would become the Panama Canal from its French concessionaire.

Throughout his prolific career, Hay presided over some fifty bilateral and multilateral treaties. It was the high renaissance of American diplomacy and it succeeded too well. On behalf of a republic, Hay had negotiated the foundations of empire. It now required a military to build one.

Like so many of its recent wars, imperial America was itself a needless extravagance. The country is not an island nation like Britain or Japan, critically dependent on outside sources for raw materials and energy supplies. Nor was it forced to punch above its weight like tiny Belgium or Holland, wedged between rival and often hostile powers. The United States enjoyed a huge domestic market, was rich in natural resources, and was safely distant from potential aggressors. Instead of managing costly armies and imperial projects that had defined and debilitated Europe, America had wisely invested in the sinew and gray matter of a modern, self-reliant, and prosperous state: education, a transparent judicial system, railroads, seaports, agriculture, and industry.

The more America prospered, however, the greater its hunger for expansionism became. By the end of the nineteenth century, militarists in Washington and the media were angling for war with Spain and, sotto voce, its stable of dependencies. Bourgeois evangelicals who were already building churches and universities in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East knew that a colonial system meant whole new tributaries of redeemable souls for the netting. American industry, most prominently tropical food processors such as United Fruit Company and the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later known as the Dole Food Company), together with their financiers, similarly craved new markets and suppliers.

Opponents, meanwhile, argued that empire was antithetical to American ideals. In 1898 former president Grover Cleveland warned that expansionism was a “perversion of our national mission … to build up and make a greater country out of what we have instead of annexing islands.” A year later, the sociologist William Graham Sumner warned that Americans “cannot govern dependencies with our political system, and … if we try it, the state which our fathers founded will suffer a reaction that will transform it into another empire just after the fashion of the old ones. That is what imperialism means.”

To this, hegemonists had a ready answer: the nation’s colonial mission was a righteous enterprise, divinely inspired. Accepting his Republican Party’s nomination for governor of New York in October 1898, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a soaring, chauvinist oration. Admonishing a packed crowd at Carnegie Hall against “a life of fossilized isolation,” and with U.S. troops mopping up resistance in Cuba and the Philippines, Roosevelt played the White Messiah card. The American flag, he said, “stands for liberty and civilization. Where it has once floated, there must and shall be no return to tyranny or savagery.” It is no wonder that, while Franklin D. Roosevelt is the darling of the American left, militarists on the right are besotted with his excitable uncle.

Americans would have their empire, an enterprise rooted in the belief system of American exceptionalism that dates back to the seventeenth century, when religious exiles fancied the colonies a new Jerusalem ordained to Christianize a pagan land. Like the ideological impulse that drove it, American empire would differ from its European counterparts. There would be no colonial office, for example, no large administrative bureaucracies in villas and bungalows led by citizens from the mother stem and staffed by the foreign unfortunates. American empire would come in a carapace of large-scale military deployments and bases to accommodate them, together with pre-positioned arms depots and commissaries stocked with material goods from home. In concert with allied armies, key constituents in U.S. foreign relations, it would flex its expeditionary muscle through joint exercises with such code names as Cobra Gold and Team Spirit.

Geography, which made American empire unnecessary in the first place, now perversely accounts for its resilience. The United States, corseted as it is by two vast oceans, is the only country rich enough to afford the modern warships needed to patrol them. Most Americans, meanwhile, wrongly credit the warships, rather than the oceans, as the reason they can take security for granted. When the United States makes war, it does so in obscure, distant lands, and a vast majority of Americans are happily estranged from the conflicts waged in their name. For the 99.5 percent of the population that constitutes the civilian demographic, war is something experienced as a video game or an HBO miniseries, if at all.

Decades ago, when military service in America was compulsory, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Fred C. Weyand wrote that “the American Army really is a people’s Army in the sense that it belongs to the American people, who take a jealous and propriety interest in its involvement … The Army, therefore, cannot be committed lightly.” Weyand’s remarks are as dated as conscription. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has waged war eight more times than it did during its sixty-year confrontation with Moscow. Precisely because the U.S. military is professional and largely segregated from civilian society, it is deployed not only lightly but promiscuously, often out of domestic political imperatives rather than national security interests and in ways that evade public knowledge altogether.

As of 2007, the Pentagon acknowledged the concentration of 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees inside 909 military facilities in forty-six countries and territories. They included, for example, Balad Air Base in Iraq, which covers sixteen square miles, with an additional twelve square-mile “security perimeter” large enough to be seen from outer space. In August 2010, President Barack Obama declared that America’s major combat mission in Iraq was over. Balad Air Base, however, like Pentagon installations that have been around since the early years of the Cold War, is going nowhere.

The price of America’s military base network overseas, along with the expense of its national security state at home, is enormous. There is the Defense Department’s budget of more than $700 billion, of course, but beyond that is a host of related outlays that get little attention. There is the Department of Energy’s $20 billion expense for nuclear weapons research and storage. The country’s intelligence community, a subculture of sixteen agencies that engage in everything from satellite reconnaissance to cloak-and-dagger espionage, is funded from a “black” bud get estimated conservatively at about $75 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the federal government’s third-richest agency, with a funding mandate of over $120 billion, while the Department of Homeland Security draws nearly $45 billion. The Department of the Treasury spends another $25 billion or so underwriting veterans’ retirement plans. Add to all this the interest owed on the money Washington borrows to pay for national security — America is a net debtor, after all — and the bill comes in at well over $1 trillion. That is equal to nearly 8 percent of gross domestic product and more than 20 percent of the federal budget. (By comparison, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, the four countries Pentagon planners routinely trot out as conventional threats to the general welfare, have cumulative defense expenditures of less than $200 billion.) These are only the known costs of hegemony. In July 2010, the Washington Post published a three-part exposé of a post–September 11 “top-secret world,” a counterinsurgency network that had become “so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

In February 2011, facing trillion-dollar budget deficits for the next decade, President Barack Obama called for a five-year freeze on all domestic discretionary spending. But he exempted Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the entitlement programs that consume nearly two thirds of the federal budget, as well as funding for the Pentagon, the Veterans Administration, and homeland security, which accounts for nearly everything else. In late 2010, a presidential debt-reduction commission called for a 15 percent cut in the Pentagon’s procurement budget, a three year freeze in noncombatant military pay, and a reduction in its overseas deployments by a third. This met with howls of opposition, from the halls of Congress to the respected Small Wars Journal, an electronic journal focused on the culture and mechanics of counterinsurgency. Deep cuts in weapons procurement and research, argued its managing editor in a November 11 post, amounted to an unacceptable concession to “emerging peer competitors like China” while posing “higher risks to [U.S.] alliances in East Asia and around the Persian Gulf.” The federal bud get, it seems, has become a $3.8 trillion perpetual trust — rolled over annually by America’s foreign creditors — for the armed services and their contractors, the elderly, and the infirm.

Lawmakers from both sides of the legislative aisle are talking seriously about cutting defense outlays, a measure of how advanced is the nation’s fiscal decay. Unveiling the Defense Department’s 2012 budget, Secretary Gates placed several costly weapons programs on the chopping block and called for a “culture of savings” to replace the Pentagon’s “culture of spending.” Inevitably, that will put him on a collision course with politicians who cling to armaments projects for the employment opportunities they offer constituents back home. For them, the dividing line between national security and job security is all but invisible, and as a result even obsolete weapons have survived sustained attempts by Gates and his predecessors to have them killed. Moreover, long after the current budget debate is resolved, the State Department will still be struggling to make do with a fraction of the resources enjoyed by the Pentagon. Until that imbalance is reconciled, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy will only proliferate.

It is unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for a government to wage simultaneous wars while sparing all but a fraction of its citizens from their human costs. This creates its own kind of vulnerability. As the soldier-historian John McAuley Palmer noted between the world wars, professional armies subvert democracy because they “relieve the people themselves of the duty of self-defense … An enduring government by the people must include an army of the people among its vital institutions.” Elaborating on this, Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich has written that “the ideal relationship between the armed forces and democratic society is a symbiotic one, in which each draws nourishment from the other. Symbiosis implies intimacy … What ever its other merits, the present-day professionalized force is not conducive to civil-military intimacy.” 

State vs. Defense, the century-old competition between those who would confront America’s overseas challenges through diplomatic means and those who would subdue them by force of arms, is all but decided. The economic and political resources commanded by the latter group are vast and powerful, while the former has been reduced to a cadre of supplicants forced to beg before the lavish table of the national security state. Such a lopsided state of affairs has been abetted by a citizenry generally uninterested in the policies carried out in its name and unwilling to share in the burden of their prosecution. Only now, with the specter of bankruptcy looming over the national accounts, are some in Washington daring to contest the bill for, if not the value of, unchecked global hegemony.

Stephen Glain has been a journalist for twenty years. He spent four years in Hong Kong writing for the local South China Morning Post before joining the Wall Street Journal in 1991 with stints in Tokyo, Seoul, and then Tel Aviv and Amman. His articles on U.S. foreign policy, East Asia, and the Arab world have appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Financial Times, Gourmet, Smithsonian, Newsweek, The National, and The Progressive and elsewhere. Glain has appeared on WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate,” PRI’s “The World,” CSPAN and CNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” among others. He is based in Washington D.C.

Excerpted from “State vs. Defense” by Stephen Glain © 2011 Stephen Glain. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.

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