Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
The inexorable rise of American militarism

William Pfaff, a longtime contributor and friend of the magazine, died in Paris on Thursday, at the age of 86. The advancing years had hardly slowed him at all—his most recent piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Armed and Dangerous,” appeared in our August 2014 issue, and the author was already batting around ideas for his next one. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1928, Pfaff was educated at Notre Dame. He spent time in the military, including a stint in an Army Special Forces unit (a decision he later attributed to a “bad case of Lawrence-of-Arabia fever.”) By the late Fifties, however, he had established himself as a notably trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy. Early and late, he urged Americans to see the world as it was, to remove their ideological blinders. In 1961, when he and Edmund Stillman published “A New Start in Foreign Policy” in Harper’s, that meant moving beyond the bipolar fixations of the Cold War. “This new decade,” they argued, “will see the beginnings of a many-centered world not unlike the pre-industrial seventeenth century, when Europe still shared power with the Osmanlis, the Moguls, and the empire of the Ch’ings, and its embryonic technology provided advantages of degree only and not yet of kind.” In subsequent decades, this prescient realist explored the toxic resurgence of nationalism, ridiculed the hypocrisies of the so-called War on Terror, and warned Americans to resist the interventionist itch—most recently, in Iraq and Libya. Yet Pfaff’s opposition was never reflexive. In his eloquent and informed prose, you could hear him thinking through the argument, testing it, sometimes wryly bumping up against its contradictions. He was an internationalist, a patriot, and a marvelously distinctive voice, who will be sorely missed.

On May 28 of this year, Barack Obama delivered an important speech to the graduating class of cadets at West Point. It included oblique attacks on Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and other geopolitical opponents, as well as denials of American decline, with invocations of Osama bin Laden’s demise and a weakened Al Qaeda. Obama did cite George Washington’s celebrated warning against foreign entanglements, and he decried “our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” But he also rejected neo-isolationism. Should democracy be threatened, he said, the United States will always respond. Military action will not be our first choice, but, if required, will be “proportional and effective and just.”

The speech reflected two problems that have dogged Obama’s presidency, both stemming from his earlier career as an academic, community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and state legislator. To begin with, he is the first American president since the Second World War who has never done military service.

This left him in a tenuous position to fulfill one of his primary campaign promises: victory in Afghanistan, followed by a rapid exit. When General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in the country, publicly proposed in 2009 that a “surge” of 40,000 more American troops would be required, the new president had no choice but to acquiesce. Had he refused, he would have been torn to shreds by his Republican rivals and the hawkish press, most of whom believed that a similar surge had turned the tide in Iraq. Two years later, there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war was costing $122 billion annually. More than three years later still, it has yet to be won.

Obama’s second problem was that he had no professional experience of international politics and foreign relations. For his secretary of state he chose Hillary Clinton — equally lacking in such experience, but a global celebrity thoroughly acquainted with the political elite and herself a past and future presidential candidate. Obama named two other prominent women to high posts, both of them noted for their background in international affairs and their commitment to humanitarian issues: Susan Rice and Samantha Power. And to balance the ideological books, he appointed Victoria Nuland, wife of the neo-conservative publicist Robert Kagan, to the State Department, in charge of European and Eurasian affairs.

Apart from winning in Afghanistan, Obama’s most urgent commitment was to pursue the so-called global war on terror (under another name), using methods set out by the Bush Administration while promising reform of those very same methods (rarely achieved). Next was reinforcement of the American position vis-à-vis Russia — and, more recently, China. Finally, there was the matter of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, part of an automatic commitment to support Israeli policies in the Middle East, requiring unwelcome interference in Arab affairs.

Five years later, the results are under critical fire. In his West Point address, Obama dwelled on his new strategy of projecting power at a distance. He promised to redouble foreign aid as an antiterrorism tool. He quoted John F. Kennedy on “the gradual evolution of human institutions” but also insisted that “America must always lead.”

His critics have not been placated. They want Syria bombed, and if possible Iran, and are disposed toward armed intervention in Ukraine — and if it should come to that, against China. Obama did not confront the question of whether such intervention is still embraced by the American public. Nor did he deal with the effect on American society of what now has been constant war since 2001, with more to come, nor its effect on the military services, and particularly the U.S. Army, to which I have had a certain personal attachment for seven decades.

I first put on my country’s uniform at age fourteen, in the fall of 1941, as a recruit to my high school’s Junior ROTC. This was in a cotton-mill-and-Army town in Georgia whose population would soon be doubled by the arrival of draftees. The (plugged) rifles with which we were taught small-arms drill and musketry were bolt-action Springfield ’03s: the U.S. Army’s standard rifle since shortly after the Spanish-American War, soon to be replaced by the semiautomatic M1 Garand. The standard Army sidearm, the Colt .45 automatic, had been adopted in 1911 because its predecessor had lacked “stopping power” against machete-wielding guerrillas during the Philippine insurgency of 1899–1902. It remained in service until 1985. The standard saddle (the Army still made use of horses and mules, the latter in Italy and Korea) was the McClellan — named after its designer, George B. McClellan, the dilatory commander of the Union forces during the early phase of the Civil War.

The student officers of our ROTC battalion wore Sam Browne belts and scabbards on parade, flashing their swords skyward as they shouted commands in cracking adolescent voices. After school, lolling about a drugstore soda fountain, tieless and with unbuttoned uniforms, we occasionally were asked by draftees on some mission in town, “Say, what kind of outfit are you guys from?”

The answer was that we were cadet stragglers from the old Regular Army. I refer to the Confederate-fighting, Indians-conquering professional force that had reconstituted itself following the War Between the States — the war to many readers of the local newspaper, which was still running obituaries of Confederate widows.

My Army was the people’s Army. Its essential character from the start was ethical and democratic.1 Its expanded wartime mission was to turn civilians into soldiers, mostly officered by civilian-life professionals: managers, craftsmen, foremen, teachers. The Army’s permanent core was a small number of officers and NCOs, often Southern, most of the former educated at West Point as engineers. Among its leaders it suffered many duffers and incompetents, but had included Grant, Lee, and Jackson, and continued to number Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley — figures of a certain moral distinction.

Later, during the 1950s, having caught a bad case of Lawrence-of-Arabia fever — then transmitted to adolescents via public libraries — I spent weekends and vacations in one of the earliest reserve units of Army Special Forces. There I was instructed that we were not “agents” when deployed but uniformed soldiers acting under the established laws of war, like the Franco-Anglo-American Operation Jedburgh teams (from which we were organizationally descended) dropped into France to support the Resistance. Our Cold War mandate was to instruct and supply locally recruited guerrillas in the event of a Soviet attack in Europe, and we were to treat prisoners honorably and act under Army regulations and Geneva rules at all times.

How the Army got from there to here is not often examined, nor are the consequences that have followed for the American nation. The old Army, which fought the Second World War and is today sentimentally celebrated as the embodiment of an ideal American society, failed first in Korea, after communist China’s intervention in support of the North Koreans. That war was fought to a stalemate, leaving behind the unresolved and anachronistic “suspension of hostilities” that persists to this day.

The quasi defeat in Korea militarized a Cold War that in Europe had been predominantly political, reliant on George F. Kennan’s policy of containment. As Andrew J. Bacevich has noted, it influenced military men and Washington officials to “see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution except through military means.”

This underlay the intervention in Vietnam, a debacle that badly shook the Army as well as the government and the public. Forced to carry out futile operations against an elusive and ubiquitous enemy, commanded by officers they had ceased to respect, the conscript troops were alienated and often mutinous. In response, the Department of Defense ended the draft in 1973 and an all-volunteer force was formed. The American citizenry was no longer to fight its wars: it would henceforth hire professionals to do so in American uniform, or on commercial terms as armed civilians. The people had opted out.

The enormity of this step took a while to absorb. In 1976, Army chief of staff General Fred C. Weyand described the

peculiar relationship between the American Army and the American people. The American Army really is a people’s army in the sense that it belongs to the American people who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement. . . . In the final analysis, the American Army is not so much an arm of the Executive Branch as it is an arm of the American people.

He was speaking too late — that Army, what I would call an innocent Army, was already gone.

What has taken its place? The new Army, unlike the old conscripted force, answers directly to the executive power of the government, only indirectly to Congress, and not at all to the American people (who merely work there). It certainly does not “own” the state, as was said in the past of the Prussian army, accountable only to a militarized Hohenzollern monarchy. Still, today’s military command and Pentagon bureaucracy are integrally linked to the aerospace and defense industries — and this partnership exerts a huge influence in the political arena, most notably in Congress. Dwight Eisenhower’s parting warning to the nation has been fulfilled.

Until the Cold War, the United States was a leading promoter of the extension of international law. That commitment had crumbled away by the Vietnam era, at which point the Army was ordered to invade neutral states and the CIA was put into the assassination-and-torture business. I happened to be in Vietnam (as a civilian) in 1968 and was invited to accompany a Phoenix Program agent calling on some of his clients in a nearby village.2 His silent bodyguard was a member of the country’s Nùng ethnic minority. The agent explained that he preferred a Nùng to a Vietnamese so as to avoid discussion when ordering someone peremptorily killed. After our visit to a very nervous family — the father was not at home and his wife and children seemed vague about his whereabouts — we returned to our jeep. The Nùng wordlessly handed me a carbine, indicating that I should cover my side of the road, which I sensibly did as we traveled back toward Da Nang.

Since then, the process has only accelerated. The 9/11 attacks put America’s new professional army on “the dark side,” as directed by Vice President Cheney (who maintains this stance, which might be called that of the devil’s advocate, in his recently published autobiography). In Iraq, it again was war against an indistinguishable mass of civilians and insurrectionists. The Army used cluster bombs, depleted-uranium munitions, torture, assassination, and indiscriminate imprisonment and perpetual incarceration for Muslim men found on, or wandering near, battlefields, or handed over for cash bounties by tribal warlords — all measures necessary to eradicate “global terror,” as more than one American president has explained.

Barack Obama renounced new large-scale military deployments earlier this year, when ordering his military “pivot” to Asia (an obvious provocation to China). He said that the United States would in the future rely on targeted killings, establishing, as the Washington Post put it, a “constellation of secret drone bases” in and around Arabia, the Horn of Africa, and other zones of unrest. My rigorously regulated and strictly soldierly Special Forces Command of fifty years ago now includes a unit committed to the worldwide assassination of civilians identified as terrorists. Indeed, this president lays claim to the prerogative of killing whomever the United States wishes, without due process or public consultation.

The New York Times recently noted that Special Operations Command has reported forty-nine suicides over the past two and a half years, twice the previous rate. Some stateside drone operators have apparently manifested something resembling PTSD. A proposal to award them medals for their successful missions seems to have been blocked by resistance within the military, in a kind of vestigial reflex. After all, killing enemy soldiers has historically been considered consistent with chivalry. Killing civilians has been seen as murder.

The governing Washington elite has shown little in the way of foreign-policy success since the unification of Germany. Certainly there have been no military victories since the Second World War. There was a 7,000-man invasion of Grenada in 1983 to counter supposed Cuban influence (5,000 medals of valor were distributed among the troops), and a 27,000-man invasion of Panama in 1989 to seize President Manuel Noriega, a former CIA collaborator wanted in Miami for drug trafficking.3 (He has now completed his prison term.) Add to that the killing of Osama bin Laden — as if that changed anything.

What has seemed most significant in recent events is the refusal of the American public, and presumably the congressional majority (had Congress been asked), to endorse President Obama’s proposal last year to bomb Syrian bases following the deployment of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war. The public was similarly reluctant earlier this year to step beyond economic and political sanctions in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of partition in Ukraine.

This suggests that the American people do in fact oppose enlarging their country’s military commitments. It does not, however, disprove the notion that a new militarism exists in the United States. Instead, it indicates that the phenomenon is confined to the foreign-policy establishment and to the military services themselves. And there the damage has been enormous. The old code of conduct, the historical sense of warfare as a tool of civilization, has been renounced — to the loss of us all. Instead, one commander in chief after another has dedicated himself to the battle between virtuous America and the non-Western world’s manifestations of sectarian violence and revolutionary ideology. This has proved futile, as we should know by now. Yet it is national policy, leading one knows not where.

is the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy. His article “What We’ve Lost” appeared in the November 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from

| View All Issues |

May 1987

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now