Civilian militarism, military civilians

January 04, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The continuing deployment in Bosnia of elements of the U.S. First Armored Division, against the opposition of Generals Mud and Flood, has again dramatized the role of the United States as the most important military power on earth, while again posing the question: Why?

It is prudent and comforting, if expensive, to possess military resources superior to those which could be employed against the nation, but the United States today has for practical purposes more military power than all of the rest of the world combined.

Many have described the budget and social distortions produced by this military spending. The Congress presses even more money on the Pentagon than the Pentagon asks. The United States is said to have become the ''national-security state'' Dwight Eisenhower was talking about when he warned against the ''military-industrial complex.'' There is truth in this; but something more subtle has also happened.

The standard history of militarism was published by Alfred Vagts, in 1937. In it he described militarism as an array of customs, interests, actions and thought ''associated with armies and wars and yet transcending military purpose.'' It is even ''so constituted that it may hamper and defeat the purposes of the military,'' which are limited to actual operations of war and the science of war.

This description only partly fits the United States today, but there are troubling concordances. One could argue that the United States has invented a new, ''civilianized'' version of militarism. For complicated reasons, civilians have become more militaristic than the military themselves.

The latter obviously do their duty, as in Bosnia. But battle is not what they want. In traditional armies, officers sought ''glory,'' a reputation for courage and honor that could be won only in battle.

The American army has always been profoundly civilian. Its military romantics, such as MacArthur and Patton, have always had to yield to bureaucratic priorities. The U.S. Army is not commanded, but managed. For many years the highest-ranking graduates of West Point chose the Corps of Engineers, not the infantry or cavalry. Today the road to high command is by way of an MBA.

Today's American services have successfully imposed their own rules about where and when they will fight. Before he retired as chief of the joint staffs, Gen. Colin Powell coolly laid out in a press interview those rules with respect to intervention in Yugoslavia. In an administration other than the Clinton administration it would have been considered insubordination.

You do not join the American army or navy today to be a warrior. You do it to learn a trade, or earn money for college, or to have a well paid retirement after 20 or 30 years. War -- even a deployment like that in Bosnia -- interferes with that. The troops resent it. Their wives complain that their husbands didn't join up for this. It interferes with the essentially civilian social reality of the American services.

The ideal United States

American military bases today are the economically secure, peaceful, racially integrated, full-employment family communities that no longer exist in the real United States. They even enjoy the universal free medical care that American civilian society has rejected for itself. The services have become not only a simulacrum of civilian society but an idealized version of it.

There is, moreover, among civilians a widespread conviction that military society has gone the right way, and civilian society gone wrong in the United States, so that the military are preserving and defending American values and ways of life against the disintegrative forces in the larger American society.

In the past, Americans saw themselves reflected in the values of their citizen army. Now they seem to long for the army's values to be established in civilian society. This seems fundamental to America's new civilian militarism.

Before 1940 the existence of a large standing army was unacceptable to most Americans. Mass civilian armies were raised for the Civil War and the First World War -- and dissolved immediately afterward. The civilian army of the Second World War was precipitously disbanded, a process reversed only by the new outbreak of war in Korea.

After that, conscription preserved the principle of a civilian army, but national service ended in 1973, victim of its abuse in the Vietnam War. That broke a crucial bond between Americans and what then became what Madison and others had opposed: a large and entirely professional standing peacetime military force, which has become the most powerful individual actor in Washington politics.

It was said that Prussia in the 19th century was an army which possessed a state. There is a non-polemical sense in which the same thing may be said about the United States today. There is one radical difference. America's military are not militarists. America's civilians have been militarized.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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