The contrast could hardly be more striking.
When Confederates attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln responded by immediately quintupling the size of the U.S. Army, calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. As events soon demonstrated, this was a mere down payment. Utterly determined to repair the Union, Lincoln would stop at nothing to achieve his aim. In the bloody Civil War that ensued, virtually every household in the nation, both North and South, found itself called upon to sacrifice.
Similarly, when the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941 thrust the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wasted no time in putting the entire nation on a war footing. He directed immediate implementation of the War Department’s “Victory Plan,” calling for the creation of an army of some eight million. The draft, initiated a year earlier on a limited scale, expanded many times over, the state asserting unconditional authority to order male citizens to serve “for the duration.” To outfit fighting forces with the tanks, artillery pieces, fighter planes, and bombers they required, the federal government terminated the production of consumer durables, imposed wage and price controls, rationed scarce materials, and generally made it clear that nothing would impede the war effort. For Americans in and out of uniform, World War II became an all-encompassing enterprise. Other priorities would have to wait.
Not so with the global War on Terror. The attack of Sept. 11 elicited from the American people a universal sense of shock, anger, and outrage. But when it came to tapping the energies inherent in that instantaneous emotional response, the administration of George W. Bush did essentially nothing.
Instead of a Lincolnesque summons to “think anew and act anew,” President Bush instructed his fellow citizens to “enjoy America’s great destination spots.” Within weeks of the terrorist attack, he was urging folks to “Get down to Disney World in Florida.” Rather than announcing that the imperative of victory had now transcended all other priorities—in his day, FDR had pointedly retired “Dr. New Deal,” making way for “Dr. Win-the-War”—Bush thought it more important for Americans to “enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Americans took heed. Within remarkably short order, the country went back to business as usual. Almost as if 9/11 hadn’t happened, ordinary citizens resumed their single-minded pursuit of happiness. Rather than entailing collective sacrifice, “war” this time around meant at most occasional annoyances, the most onerous involving the removal of one’s shoes while transiting airport security. Although patriotic Americans acknowledged an obligation to “Support the Troops,” fulfilling that obligation generally meant displaying decals on the rear of an SUV. Should preventing another 9/11, or the even more devastating attack that officials ominously hint lurks just around the corner, oblige American consumers to tighten their belts and make do with less? Don’t be silly.
Bush the warrior-president has signaled his approval of this response. Instead of a call to service delivered via the local draft board, the commander in chief made a point of easing the burdens of citizenship. Through simultaneous spending hikes and tax cuts, he offloaded onto future generations responsibility to foot the bill for the present generation’s security.
Further, even as he declared that the events of 9/11 had thrust the United States into a global conflict likely to last for years if not decades, and even as he vowed to liberate the Islamic world and to eliminate evil itself, the president carefully refrained from suggesting that such an enterprise might require expanding the U.S. military services. Despite the extraordinary challenges said to lie ahead, the president assumed from the outset that the all-volunteer force as it existed on Sept. 11 provided the United States all that it needed to wage a protracted global war. From the outset, Bush and his lieutenants took it for granted that the regulars—0.5 percent of the entire population—backed up by a modest number of reservists would suffice to get the job done.
On the one hand, according to Bush, the United States after 9/11 embarked upon a mighty endeavor, a life or death struggle against an implacable enemy. On the other hand, the president’s actual policies suggested prevailing in that endeavor would not require anything remotely comparable to a mobilization of the nation’s resources. Notwithstanding the throwaway line from his second inaugural summoning the nation’s youth to “make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself,” President Bush clearly expects the nation to triumph even while serenely persisting in its comfortable peacetime routines.
How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction? How can we explain the disparity between a monumentally ambitious agenda that is making even some dyed-in-the-wool Reaganites squirm and policies seemingly designed to encourage popular complacency and self-indulgence?
One answer might be that in the inner circles of power the global War on Terror qualifies as a war only in a metaphorical sense, comparable, say, to the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs. But Bush has gone out of his way to correct any such misapprehension, first by invading Afghanistan, then by promulgating a doctrine of preventive war, and finally by implementing that doctrine through his invasion of Iraq. When this president speaks of a global war, he means precisely that—large-scale, open-ended military campaigns conducted in far-flung theaters of operations. Scholars might argue about whether among Muslims jihad refers to war as such or to a form of spiritual struggle. But when it comes to Mr. Bush’s jihad, the facts permit no such confusion.
A second, more plausible explanation for the apparent disparity between the president’s grandiose agenda and his willingness to let the country coast along undisturbed is to be found in the Bush administration’s view of modern war. During the 1990s, Republican Party elites (and more than a few of their Democratic counterparts) convinced themselves that old-fashioned warfare, which relied on large numbers of soldiers and massive arsenals of destructive but not terribly accurate weapons, had gone the way of the steam locomotive and the typewriter. A new model of high-tech warfare, waged by highly skilled professionals equipped with “smart” weapons, had begun to emerge, with the Pentagon far out in front of any potential adversary in grasping the significance of this military revolution.
This image of transformed war derived from, but also reinforced, the technology-hyped mood prevailing during the years just prior to Bush’s election in 2000. By common consent, the defining characteristics of this Information Age were speed, control, and choice. Even as it was empowering the individual, information technology was reducing the prevalence of chance, surprise, and random occurrences. Henceforth, everything relevant could be known and, if known, could be taken into account. The expected result was to lessen, if not eliminate, uncertainty, risk, waste, and error and to produce quantum improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.
The potential for applying information technology to armed conflict—long viewed as an area of human endeavor especially fraught with uncertainty, risk, waste, and error—appeared particularly attractive. Given access to sufficient information, man could regain control of war, arresting its former tendency to become total. Swiftness, stealth, agility, and precision would characterize the operations of modern armies. Economy, predictability, and political relevance would constitute the hallmarks of war in the Information Age.
Further, this new style of technowar relied not on the huge, industrial-age armies, but on compact formations consisting of select volunteers. Winning wars during the 20th century had required guts and muscle. Winning wars in the new century just dawning was going to emphasize the seamless blending of technology and skill, consigning the average citizen to the role of spectator. Fighting promised to remain something that other people were paid to do.
This vision of surgical, frictionless, postmodern war seemingly offered to the United States the prospect of something like permanent global military supremacy. Better still, at least among the activist neoconservatives who came to exercise great influence in the Bush administration, it held the promise of removing the constraints that had hitherto inhibited the United States in the actual use of its military power. With American society as a whole insulated from the effects of conflict, elites could expect to enjoy greater latitude in deciding when and where to use force.
These militaristic fantasies possessed an intoxicating allure akin to, complementing, and making plausible the ideological fantasies suggesting that the United States after 9/11 was called upon to remake the world in its own image. Hubris in the realm of military affairs meshed neatly with hubris in the realm of international politics.
Alas, as with seemingly brilliant military schemes throughout history, this attractive vision did not survive contact with the enemy. As so often happens, it turns out that our adversaries do not share our views of how modern war is to be conducted. At least, that has been the verdict of the Iraq War thus far. Launched with the breezy expectation that a tidy and decisive preventive war held the prospect of jumpstarting efforts to democratize the Middle East, Operation Iraqi Freedom has transitioned willy-nilly from a demonstration of “shock and awe” into something very old and very familiar: an ugly insurgency conducted by a tough, elusive, and adaptable foe. On the battlefields of the Sunni Triangle, technology and skill have a part to play; but guts and muscle will determine the outcome.
Whether the muscle of the existing all-volunteer force will prove adequate to the task has become an open question. Already, signs of eroding American fighting power, notably a sharp drop in reserve recruiting and retention, have begun to crop up. Steadily accumulating reports of misconduct by U.S. troops suggest that discipline is beginning to unravel.
This situation cannot be sustained indefinitely. Although the armed services today are by no means confronting the sort of crisis that toward the end of Vietnam brought them to the verge of collapse, the process of institutional decay has begun. Unless checked, that process may become irreversible.
The Pentagon is attempting to “manage” the problem, but such efforts can only go so far. A much-touted internal reorganization of the Army designed to increase the total number of combat brigades may be the equivalent of trying to get five patties rather than four out of the same pound of ground beef. Increasing re-enlistment bonuses, loosening recruiting standards, recalling retirees to active duty, imposing stop-loss policies to postpone the discharge of soldiers whose enlistments have expired, easing restrictions on the assignment of women to forward areas, increasing the reliance on contractors and mercenaries, all of these are mere stopgaps. None get to the core issue: Mr. Bush has too few soldiers doing too many things, while the rest of the country blissfully contents itself shopping and watching TV.
Some informed observers have argued that in the specific case of Iraq the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops is exacerbating rather than reducing existing security problems. That said, and recognizing that Iraq forms but one facet of the Bush administration’s larger project that aims to purge the globe of tyrants and bring about the final triumph of liberty for all, there can be no denying that a yawning gap exists between U.S. grand strategy and the forces that the Pentagon can call upon to implement that strategy.
In pursuit of the president’s goal of eliminating tyranny, American military forces today are badly overstretched. But the nation is not. In this yawning gap between breathtakingly grand ideological goals and the failure to raise up the instruments of power to achieve those goals lies the full measure of this administration’s recklessness and incompetence.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.