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Stabbed in the Back – Once Again?

October 24, 2013

Andrew J. Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (New York: Henry Holt, 2013)

In the wake of the Vietnam War, the military leadership of a traumatized U.S. Army formulated the so-called Abrams Doctrine, a Total Force structure designed to preclude U.S. policy makers from recklessly injecting the armed forces into protracted and expensive conflicts.  The new system, named after General Creighton Abrams, placed combat service support units into the Reserves. It was expected that such a structure would force elected leaders to be more deliberate in assessing the Nation’s interests and more discriminate with the use of our armed forces. Similarly, the doctrine sought to ensure that both the Executive and Legislative branches would have to mobilize popular support before the nation would face any more quagmires like Vietnam.

Needless to say, the Abrams Doctrine and the accompanying reorganization was not successful in producing the type of restraint and prudence that policymakers thought it would. Now, Dr. Andrew Bacevich is reviving the post-Vietnam debate in a new book, Breach of Trust. In which he advocates a return to a conscript Army that would ensure that every community in American has “skin in the game” in terms of family and friends in the armed forces.

Dr. Bacevich is no stranger to the American defense community.  A Vietnam veteran, retired Army officer, respected Boston University professor, and searing critic of U.S. defense policy, Bacevich pulls few punches in his criticisms of the U.S. policy community.  As in Vietnam, the strategic fault is laid on both policymakers for ill-conceived missions and an intellectually weak officer corps for mismanaging the force.  What is new here is the addition of the American people who “except as spectators,” have “abrogated any further responsibility for war in all of its aspects.”

Indeed, in Breach of Trust, it is you and I who have abused our professional warriors.  Bacevich finds fault in the American public’s contrived spontaneity and superficially ritualistic support for troops who have been excessively deployed in thankless wars. He argues that we have abdicated any responsibility for their mal-deployment.  “When the state heedlessly and callously exploits those same troops, the people avert their gaze,” Bacevich claims.  “Maintaining a pretense of caring about soldiers, state and society actually collaborate in betraying them.”

The principal target of Bacevich’s screed is today’s military manpower system, the All Volunteer Force (AVF). In his view, it is a blight that has undercut our democracy and underwritten a recklessness in America’s entry into wars of dubious value.  To our author, “The way a nation wages war—the role allotted to the people in defending the country and the purposes for which it fights—testifies to the actual character of its political system.  Designed to serve as an instrument of global interventionism (or imperial policing), America’s professional army has proven to be astonishingly durable, if also astonishingly expensive.”

To Bacevich the problem lies, at least in part, “with a perversely undemocratic military system that condemned soldiers to waging something like perpetual war at the behest of a small coterie of Washington insiders, while citizens passively observed from a safe distance.” Because the decision to go to war is made in isolation from American society write large and the consequent burdens of that decision are shouldered by a tiny segment of the population, “the state no longer requires the consent, direct participation, or going support of citizens.  As an immediate consequence, Washington’s penchant for war has appreciably increased…A further result, less appreciated but with even larger implications, has been to accelerate the erosion of the traditional concept of democratic citizenship.”  Bacevich is misreading the last two wars.  Our problem was caused by poor strategic planning, rigid military cultures adhering to outdated modes of war, and a lack of updated doctrine in counter-insurgency.

Bacevich’s simple but flawed solution to this predicament: a return to citizen-soldiers and national service.  Instead of using a small professional force to do the country’s heavy-lifting and global policing on behalf of an apathetic citizenry, Bacevich argues for a citizen army conscripted from all strata of society.  There are some merits to this argument, as Michael Howard noted after the Vietnam War, in ensuring that popular support is sustained.  He also argues – more persuasively in this reviewer’s view – that the United States should not enter into wars without taxing itself or funding its conflicts.“  Any war not worth paying for is not worth fighting,” he asserts I could not agree more.

However, while Breach of Trust does an admirable job identifying the problem, it falls short in offering a solution. Having spent the better part of 190 pages railing against America’s reliance on a mercenary AVF (supplemented by private contractors, which are another target of Bacevich’s complaints), Bacevich devotes roughly two pages to defending his preferred national service model.  This section is far too superficial and fails to examine any implications with the same relentless critique of the current force.  Bacevich acknowledges the usual range of national service options for American youth (hospitals, parks, health care, Peace Corps, etc.) but overlooks the costs payoff paying for this vast expansion of government (even at minimum wages).  Nor does he bother to deflect arguments from those who might question the right of a government to tax a portion of each cohort to serve in the military or alternative modes of service.  Moreover, given the makeup of the country’s population, we can only expect to employ some 20 percent on military and national options.  Even if expanded to options at the Department of Homeland Security (TSA, Border Patrol, Customs, etc), the vast majority of American youth will never serve.  While these options will generate a better sense of civic duty, they risk putting an equal number of lower income workers out of work.

Overall, the reader is put off by the author’s obdurate refusal to explore the downsides of his option.  He never examines the effectiveness of his preferred force, which might be considered less professional and result in a less prestigious institution.  A conscripted force would presumably be less adequately prepared for major combat, since the force would be largely concentrated on individual training of each year’s influx of trainees.  Such a force certainly would not be more efficient, as a larger number of trainers and a larger infrastructure would need to be established to manage a larger training pool of trainees conscripted for two-year enlistments, compared to today’s longer term force.  No doubt the force could be trained in individual skills, but it would lack proficiency in higher order, collective tasks.  Such a force would be hardly competent in the environment posed by the complex character of contemporary conflict.

While I am sympathetic to a more disciplined and discriminate use of America’s sword, the reduced readiness and slower response times built into the “Bacevich doctrine” would consign both allies and our own forces to a more unstable world and increased risks.  Sadly, this does little for those who would be serving on the Republic’s behalf and highlights Bacevich’s lack of realism.

Finally, Bacevich’s naïvely assumes that, under his proposed system, future Presidents would constrain themselves from needless wars and that this less ready force would not be tested.  Recent history suggests that Presidents find distinctions between “wars of necessity” and “wars of choice” useful only in academic debates. Moreover, we should not have to remind ourselves that future adversaries get a vote on the character of each conflict.  Sending a drafted force of short term enlistees that are less than ideally trained in tomorrow’s contingencies does not do them any favors.  Our enemies will not stop to consider what segment of society they hail from.

In sum, Breach of Trust is a good chance wasted.  The idea of national service merits a thoughtful argument, but you won’t find it here, because Bacevich prefers to provoke rather than promote a serious debate.  This incomplete inquiry should have been challenged by its editors for a more comprehensive evaluation of its proposals rather than this shallow soliloquy.  The best one can hope for this book is that it catalyzes a much needed debate for a  pragmatic solution to democratic participation and strategic effectiveness.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.  This review reflects solely his own views and not that of the U.S. Department of Defense or NDU.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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5 thoughts on “Stabbed in the Back – Once Again?

  1. Having not read the book, I have to ask – does Bacevich even acknowledge history prior to the Cold War?

    In America’s history, the draftee Army of the 3rd quarter of the 20th century is a glaring anomaly. for most of our history, the Army has been an all-volunteer force, except during major wars, starting with the Civil War (and even then, at least for the Union side, most of the troops were volunteers).

    For most of the 19th century, most of those troops of the very tiny Army spent most of their time on frontier duty, fighting intermittently with Indians. No declaration of war from Congress, and the burden fell much more than today on the poor and immigrants.

    The biggest change is the large scale replacement of the traditional isolationist attitude in Washington with an interventionalist one. There’s probably a dissertation, or at least a master’s thesis, to be written on whether this stems from the larger Progressive urge to (have the government) “do something” when they see a problem.

  2. Having served briefly in the all-volunteer army of my adopted country, I can honestly say conscription is a bad idea. Why? Well, “what is the way of the warrior? The way of the warrior is death.” Besides becoming aware of one’s own mortality, witnessing death of those one cares about is also likely. Worse for the vast majority of people, the thought of killing others inspires horror and causes psychological problems when forced to do this against their will (as was often the case with conscript armies), while the few (1-4%) who possess the “killer instinct” are often misunderstood, marginalized and feared by both their mates and higher command- I’m speaking from personal experience here. I’ll take an AVF with good commanders and wise leaders over a conscript force with inflexible, uneducated (or both) commanders and strategically incompetent politicians any day of the week, although as was seen with U.S. Armed Forces, multiple deployments cause problems of their own. In my short experience, incompetent commanders, a peacetime mentality, risk aversion, unwillingness to understand and accept the warrior ethos, xenophobia, racism, sexism, lack of funding, antiquated training methods and facilities, ill-discipline, abuse of recruits to the point of death (by exhaustion or suicide), intimidation, cover-ups, harassment by Military Intelligence etc. were daily occurrences. In my opinion, the only consolation is that the U.S. Armed Forces are better in all respects than most defense forces around the world and in one way or another, problems get sorted out more often than not, although the lack of willingness of citizens to hold successive administrations accountable for involvement in ill-advised and badly run wars is troublesome and indirectly caused many unnecessary soldier deaths. The debate on AVF vs. Draft will probably never be settled because neither system is fully satisfactory, but whichever side soldiers (past and current) fall on, it is a debate worth having.

  3. As a post script, I wish to add that I’ve tried repeatedly to join the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, but was prevented from doing so by U.S. immigration legislation, and would have been glad to go five times to Afghanistan instead of wasting my time in the poor excuse of an army I served in, where race and gender counted (and still counts) more than patriotism, drive to excel, professionalism and willingness to be a warrior.

  4. Draftees are indeed the ‘odd’ fixture with the US military. Calls for national service were heavily debated in the late 40’s, and 50’s (even into the 60’s and 70’s) but it was politically decided to NOT go there. As a result, we have returned to the real traditional membership of our forces. Why this is a problem comes down not to the return, but to the cavalier attitude of the population to the use, conditions, and status of the armed forces (also not a real shocking change in the traditional views). The only way to really ‘influence’ this is with the popular culture (soldiers are not ‘killers’), and in making sure that the change in the way our reserve forces (National Guard, and Federal Reserve) is really known and understood. The reserves used to go only on declaration of war, but that was changed, so they go out and come back with the resulting problems to their own family and employers. Perhaps ‘selecting’ members of congressional and White House staffers to be ‘deployed’ for a few months (and of course NOT paid what they get for that job, but wages of the roughly equal level military position) might help clarify these things for the ruling elite?

  5. I don’t think it’s fair to fault the book for not offering a more thorough argument for an alternative to the AVF. Most of it is a history–and a fine one–of the army’s recent history, especially it’s (successful) efforts to shape itself into an institution capable of surviving the end of the Cold War, and its (less successful) endeavors at navigating our contemporary conflicts. This it does very well.

    As to Dave L.’s point that conscription has been generally limited to “major wars, starting with the Civil War,” that’s essentially true. And while by many measures Iraq and Afghanistan and the GWOT aren’t “major wars,” they’re not the Seminole Wars, either. Their cost, their implications, and their consequences in this new, interconnected globe we live in, indicates that even small wars can have big consequences. We need some way of getting the citizens of this republic to be more aware of the enormity of what their nation is doing.