It has been fascinating to follow the discussion sparked by Andy Bacevich's short but incisive piece on "" in the Atlantic. However, two elements of the essay have been overlooked. Bacevich's core complaints are less about the structure of the U.S. Army (or the military more broadly) or its operational doctrine than they are about the underlying issues of the limits of American power and civil-military relations. The analysis of the John-Nagl-versus-Gian-Gentile debate is merely a framework for these larger questions.
Editor Bacevich (International Relations and History/Boston Univ.; Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, 2010, etc.) provides the beginning and ending chapters in this collection of historical and analytical pieces that, combined, claim: there really wasn’t much of an American century; it was always an illusion, anyhow; it has been extraordinarily arrogant and purblind to believe that America was unlike other empires and that its way of life is suitable for the rest of the world. The pieces share a conventional academic structure, which eventually becomes tiresome: introduction, body, conclusion—don’t any of these notable contributors know how to frame an essay in a fresher, more engaging way? They also share an anti-imperialist, leftish slant that will allure some readers and alienate others. David M. Kennedy begins with an essay about American military power and our decision to put most of our chips on air power. Several contributors—Emily S. Rosenberg, Jeffrey A. Frieden and Eugene McCarraher—highlight economic aspects of the topic, variously attacking materialism, the arrogance of the business mind and the effects of globalization on the American economy and way of life. Others looks at the effects of immigration and race, historical antecedents (Manifest Destiny, the Truman Doctrine), military misadventures since World War II (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq) and the influence of some significant players on the stage, among them Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Randolph Bourne and Charles Beard. Many attack Republican administrations, though McCarraher has some sharp words for President Obama, sharper ones for Thomas J. Friedman.
And so to the second question. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the conventional-force advocates are looking for ways to constrain what they see as an unhealthy American, exceptionalist tendency to meddle in other peoples' political affairs. Bacevich has long made this argument and makes it again in the Atlantic article, though by proxy. He approvingly quotes Gentile's critique of Nagl's "breathtaking" assertion about "the efficacy of American military power to shape events."
Realism -- that is, a cold-blooded assessment of costs and benefits -- is no small virtue in the exercise of power. But this, along with realism about the limits of technology, was a central theme of Gates' speech at National Defense University. And he allowed as how "we are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon." Yet he went on to say "that doesn't mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales." This is not, as Bacevich portrays it, of "inescapable eventuality" of wars to come, or America's predestined strategic fate, it's an overdue recognition that we don't just get to fight the wars that are congenial to generals.
Bacevich similarly disparages at the quality of the war-policy debate, and it's hard to disagree. But quality is no more the measure of democratic legitimacy than is any particular outcome. As a matter of the historical record, America's domestic debates about war have generated more heat than light. And, when it came to Iraq, what is remarkable in retrospect is how long it took to translate civilian guidance -- President's Bush's oft-stated goals of a stable and representative government in Baghdad -- into military policy. The Decider decided; alas, the commander-in-chief did not sufficiently command, and the uniforms, too frequently, shirked.