The following excerpt is from Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by retired U.S. Army officer and current professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Andrew J. Bacevich. The U.S. Constitution begins, “We The People,” but this “we” is often forgotten when establishing who ultimately carries the responsibility of war. The implementation and execution of war have become abstract to the majority of a population that has never confronted it personally. As a society, our standard response is through symbolic acts, heralding servicemembers as heroes, but shouldering none of the responsibility or even reasonably questioning our actions abroad. War no longer holds the same significance to, nor does it garner the same reaction from, Americans as it did during World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Bacevich is critical of our war-numb society, and offers a new approach to mend this skewed relationship between the military and the public.
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The Great Decoupling
After September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush inaugurated the Global War on Terrorism, he saw another such victory ahead, one that would again refurbish and restore the nation’s sense of purpose. “This time of adversity,” the president declared in his 2002 State of the Union Address, “offers a unique moment of opportunity, a moment we must seize to change our culture.” With the Afghan War seemingly all but won and an invasion of Iraq in the offing, Bush laid out his vision of renewal. “For too long,” he lamented, “our culture has said, ‘If it feels good, do it.’ ” No more, however. With the advent of global war, Americans were finding inspiration in heroic new role models, the president believed. The implications promised to be transformative. “Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘Let’s roll.’ In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like . . . a Nation that serves goals larger than self.”
No such transformation ensued. Indeed, the way President Bush chose to wage his war ensured a contrary result. If anything, the war on terror, stretching across more than a decade, served to mask a preexisting cultural crisis while setting the stage for large-scale economic calamity. In stark contrast to the Civil War and World War II, it depleted the nation’s stores of moral capital, leaving in its wake cynicism and malaise along with chronic dysfunction. It impelled the country on a downward, not an upward, trajectory.
Embarking upon what he himself unfailingly described as an enterprise of vast historic significance, Bush wasted no time in excluding the American people from any real involvement. Choosing war, he governed as if there were no war.
“We have suffered great loss,” the president acknowledged in a nationally televised address shortly after 9/11. “And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment . . . The advance of human freedom . . . now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.”
But who exactly was this we? To whom was the president referring in his repeated and fervent use of the first-person plural?
It soon became apparent that Bush’s understanding of we differed substantially from Abraham Lincoln’s “we here highly resolve” at Gettysburg. It differed more drastically still from FDR’s in the post–Pearl Harbor declaration: “We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way.”
Bush did not intend his we to be taken literally. It was nothing more than a rhetorical device, a vehicle for posturing. Minimizing collective inconvenience rather than requiring collective commitment became the distinctive signature of his approach to war management.
From the very outset, Bush made it clear that he wanted members of the public to carry on as before. After all, to suspend the pursuit of individual happiness (defined in practice as frantic consumption) was to hand the terrorists a “victory.” So within three weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the president was urging his fellow citizens to “enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” To facilitate such excursions, the president persuaded Congress to cut taxes, a 2003 tax relief measure coming on top of one that he had already signed into law prior to 9/11.
In effect, George W. Bush inverted the stern inaugural charge issued by John F. Kennedy in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you.” After 9/11, citizens had no need to ask. The Bush administration sought to anticipate their desires. To purchase support for or acquiescence in his global war (and the invasion and occupation of two countries in the Greater Middle East), the administration, with congressional approval, distributed bonuses at home.
Americans had little difficulty interpreting the president’s prompts. In short order, the we called upon to advance the cause of human freedom took a backseat to the we called upon to enjoy life, whether in Disney World or elsewhere. Thus encouraged, Americans disengaged from Bush’s war, leaving to others the task of waging it.
The Three No’s
Senior military and civilian officials who managed World War II had viewed public support for the war effort as both critical and finite, an essential asset to be carefully nurtured and no less carefully expended. Throughout the war years, concern that citizens might balk at marching orders not to their liking remained omnipresent. Hence the pervasive propaganda aimed at sustaining morale on the home front while painting a bright picture of all that peace promised to bring in its wake. Hence, too, the determination of Pentagon planners to avoid asking of Americans more than they were willing to give.
After 9/11, the Bush administration freed itself of any such concerns. It did so by reformulating the allotted wartime role of the public. “We’re at war,” President Bush told his vice president on the morning of the attacks, and “someone’s going to pay.” What soon became clear was that the president’s definition of someone did not include the citizens of the United States.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “United We Stand” held sway as something akin to a national slogan, expressing shared hurt, anger, and determination. Not for long, however. Within a matter of months, although nominally “at war,” the nation began behaving as if it were “at peace.” Americans had by then settled on three first-person-plural axioms to describe the unofficial but inviolable parameters of their prospective wartime role.
• First, we will not change.
• Second, we will not pay.
• Third, we will not bleed.
According to the first postulate, Americans, heeding their president, refused to permit war to exact demands. Instead, they remained intent on pursuing their chosen conceptions of life, liberty, and happiness, unhindered and unencumbered. They would accept no reordering of national priorities intended to facilitate the war’s prosecution.
According to the second postulate, Americans had no responsibility to cover the financial costs entailed by war’s conduct. The books need not balance. Increases in military expenditures, therefore, required neither increased revenue nor a willingness to accept reduced services. Choosing between guns and butter was neither necessary nor acceptable. To fund war, the government simply borrowed.
According to the third postulate, actual participation in war became entirely a matter of personal choice. Service (and therefore sacrifice) was purely voluntary. War no longer imposed collective civic duty—other than the necessity of signaling appreciation for those choosing to serve.
As long as it abided by these proscriptions, Washington could pretty much make war whenever, wherever, and however it wanted, assured of at least tepid popular consent. In this decoupling of the people from war waged in their name lay the Bush administration’s most notable post-9/11 accomplishment. In place of a Lockean social contract based on the concept of reciprocal responsibility, a promissory note now provided the basis for waging war—and the people who so casually endorsed that note had no expectation of ever having to settle accounts.
As a consequence, war became exclusively the province of the state rather than the country as a whole. Invited to indulge in cheap grace, Americans willingly complied. Virtually from the outset, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism was never America’s war in the sense that Lincoln’s war and FDR’s war had been. It was—and at least in some quarters was intended to be—Washington’s war.
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From the Book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew Bacevich. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.