Our Undemocratic War Machine


Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)

A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.

A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.

A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”

Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace.  “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.” 

The military order is dissociated from the democratic principle.

A mythic formation that prevents the democratic principle from restraining the war machine is the belief that American global leadership and military dominance reflects the will of God. The myth blinds the nation to the paradox of having “a superb military that never gets the job done,” particularly since 9/11.

Bacevich points to a number of specific manifestations of an undemocratic, dysfunctional military establishment. There is no direct connection between citizenship and military service. Military service is voluntary, meaning that we rely disproportionately on the poor to volunteer, which is undemocratic. The bulk of the citizenry “support the troops” only ceremoniously, cheering on request. Congressional oversight of the military is pro forma for the most part. The constitutional provision for a Congressional declaration of war has been outsourced to the President, who can order even a nuclear attack without Congressional consent. And, yes, Daniel Ellsberg affirms, launching a nuclear first strike is still US policy. Moreover, US military budgets are routinely increased without raising taxes, making militarism seem economically painless, and thus unaccountable, to the public.

No wonder we find ourselves mired in “long, costly, inconclusive wars that sap the collective strength of the nation and may bring about its premature decline.”

Bacevich reckons that “the root cause of our predicament is the all-volunteer force. Only when we ordinary citizens conclude that we have an obligation to contribute to the country’s defense will it become possible to devise a set of principles for raising, organizing, supporting, and deploying U.S. forces that align with our professed values and our actual security requirements.”

No such principles are likely to arise undemocratically. The existence of the all-volunteer force is a symptom and cause of our predicament. So long as it remains in place, the public has ample excuse, bolstered by mythic conceit, to ignore rather than scrutinize a military establishment built to perpetuate war. Indeed, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his introduction to Bacevich’s post, Richard Nixon initiated the volunteer system when the draft, which produced something closer to a people’s army, had eventually eroded public support for the quagmire of Vietnam.

Perhaps Bacevich is correct about the draft, per se. I am reluctant to concur. It was not equitable. The rich and connected could dodge the draft. Professors anguished over giving low grades to young men with college deferments for fear of sending them to war. Even when they graduated, the war still raged, and they were conscripted. We all knew, or eventually learned, of friends from high school or college who did not make it back. If you were black, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out to the discomfort of white America, you were sent to fight and die in a foreign land for freedoms you did not possess at home.

Perhaps all of that is Bacevich’s point. “War is evil,” he writes. It can be justified only in extreme cases. It should be ended expeditiously rather than perpetuated endlessly. The people have to feel the pain to insist that a given war is wrong and avoidable.

Whether or not the draft is the answer, the larger point is that militarism thrives where it is unaccountable to the people and their representatives, when the citizenry is disengaged from the process of collective self-governance, and because the culture of democracy remains latent and depreciated.


One comment

  1. When Credence Clearwater Revival performed “Fortunate Son” nearly 50 years ago, they were singing for many vets who found themselves in the following situation:
    “Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
    Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
    And when you ask them, ‘How much
    should we give?’
    Ooh, they only answer C’mon! More!
    More! Yo”
    This past January, I celebrated my 50th anniversary of release from the People’s Army of the United States, drafted during LBJ’s big buildup to provide “replacements”. Fifty years later, we are still dealing with veterans
    wrestling with demons and afflicted
    with service-induced medical ailments,
    the war’s toll continues to mount.
    As John K. Fairbank wrote over 43
    years ago regarding the end of the Vietnam War: “Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.”
    Thank you, Bob, for your incisive remarks regarding this issue and the
    light you provide.


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