After serving in the U.S. Army for 23 years and retiring at the rank of colonel, Andrew J. Bacevich went on to publish several books (including 2010’s bestselling Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War) and teach history and international relations at Boston University. His latest, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, argues that the U.S. approach to national security is at odds with our democratic values.
You’ve said that you set out to write a conventional narrative history of post-WWII America; what you wound up with is a critique and, in some ways, a warning. What caused this shift in your focus?
After 9/11, U.S. military policy took a profoundly misguided turn, manifested above all by the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War. As that conflict dragged on, I became more and more convinced that the times called not simply for telling a story but for ringing an alarm. That’s what I intend Breach of Trust to accomplish: I want to alert Americans to the dangers inherent in having allowed a gap to develop between soldiers and society. That gap is harmful both to those who serve and to the country as a whole.
You write that “the way a nation wages war testifies to the actual character of its political system.” What have America’s recent military adventures taught us about American politics?
Breach of Trust argues that a military system rooted in the tradition of the citizen-soldier helped make the United States the most prosperous and most powerful nation in the world. As a consequence of the Vietnam War, Americans abandoned that tradition and opted instead for what the Founders had termed a “standing army.” This professional military is not without virtues, but its defects greatly outweigh its benefits. That’s what the experience since 9/11 should have taught us. Put simply, that standing army invites recklessness on the part of policymakers and inattention on the part of citizens. What’s the evidence? Iraq and Afghanistan—wars that we didn’t win, despite the enormous and wasteful expenditure of resources.
How do you see America’s military developing in the coming decades?
The book makes no pretense of being able to predict the future. Yet it’s more than apparent that reliance on a standing army is not making the United States more prosperous and more powerful. If anything, the reverse is true. Breach of Trust argues that it’s time for Americans to revive the tradition of the citizen-soldier that once served the nation so well. To put it another way, we need to reclaim ownership of our army, closing the gap between soldiers and society.