Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bacevich on Praetorianism

I’ve presumed that General McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview was merely an indiscretion, a case of his negligently allowing a journalist to record the sort of things that soldiers routinely say, but usually keep to themselves. Andrew Bacevich thinks that it’s much more than that:
“To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. . . . [W]hen it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

“Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants -- along with the conviction that ‘Team America,’ as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption -- suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.”
The lesson, according to Bacevich, is that modern democracies can’t afford to fight long wars. “The . . . American people,” he concludes,
“need to reclaim ownership of their army. They need to give their soldiers respite, by insisting that Washington abandon its de facto policy of perpetual war. Or, alternatively, the United States should become a nation truly ‘at’ war, with all that implies in terms of civic obligation, fiscal policies and domestic priorities. Should the people choose neither course -- and thereby subject their troops to continuing abuse -- the damage to the army and to American democracy will be severe.”
This thesis would never have occurred to me, but it sounds like it might be right. Read the whole thing.

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