Blogs > Cliopatria > A Deceptively Pristine History

Aug 19, 2008 11:59 pm


A Deceptively Pristine History



Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and retired U.S. Army colonel, is a tremendously smart and accomplished scholar. Over the last several years, he has sustained a cogent critique of contemporary American militarism, and I've mostly agreed with his arguments about the politics of our own moment. But it seems to me that Bacevich has tended to build his arguments about our own troubling era on a fictionalized past. I'll give two examples, and tentatively suggest a possible explanation for Bacevich's uses of history.

First, from the transcript of a recent Bill Moyers interview with Bacevich:"There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of imperial adventurism with disdain."

That's seems so plainly wrong in so many ways, starting with the idea that Americans couldn't engage in"imperial adventurism" while sitting right here in the Western Hemisphere. (For fun, try putting it this way: Since Jamestown, Americans have been fiercely opposed to imperial adventurism.)

"Seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago" Americans somehow viewed imperial adventurism with disdain -- while fighting in the Philippines, landing troops in Honduras, occupying Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, and sending the Great White Fleet around the world. My goodness, how'd all this interventionism show up on the scene in 2008?

My own view, which I perhaps mistakenly understand to be not-too-controversial, is that the American militarism and colonialism of 2008 connect in obvious ways to the long historical stream of American practice. American"imperial adventurism" conquered a big part of a continent, then kept going.

My favorite story about 19th-century colonial adventurism is the one about Jefferson Davis's reaction, as secretary of war, to the news that army officers in San Francisco were successfully putting a stop to filibuster recruiting in that city: He ordered them to move their headquarters across the bay, where they'd do less harm. That's the dominant American view of imperial adventurism, I think.

Then there's the essay Bacevich wrote for the May 2007 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Titled"Warrior Politics," the essay lamented the Appeal for Redress movement among American military personnel who want Congress to bring the war in Iraq to a close.

The Appeal for Redress group, Bacevich warned,"heralds the appearance of something new to the American political landscape: a soldiers’ lobby. In formulating their appeal, men and women in America’s fighting forces claim a new prerogative: to engage in collective political action for the explicit purpose of influencing national-security policy."

A quick aside, here: Very shortly after I reported for my first assignment after infantry training, my first platoon sergeant pulled me aside, handed me a membership form, and told me that I would be joining the Association of the United States Army. You can read up on the AUSA's lobbying activity here. So a"soldiers' lobby"? Not so new.

Aside from the AUSA, though, there have been many soldier's lobbies throughout American history -- starting, arguably, with the soldiers of the Continental Army's Pennsylvania Line who marched out of their camp in 1781 under a committee of sergeants, determined to win back pay, much-needed clothing, and the release of soldiers whose terms of enlistment had expired.

We can find other examples without even moving beyond the Continental Army; I would call the officers involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy a soldier's lobby, for example -- and I would extend that description to the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary organization for Revolutionary officers and their ancestors that was founded originally to lobby for pensions.

There are probably arguments against this choice, but I think it's reasonable to call most veteran's organizations"soldier's lobbies," a choice that adds the Grand Army of the Republic and the Bonus Army to the list, not to mention the VFW and the American Legion.

In any case, even without the GAR, many groups of military personnel have tried to affect policy through organized action: a" colonels' revolt" during the Eisenhower administration, for example, or the organized groups of soldiers who refused to deploy to Vietnam.

I don't know Andrew Bacevich, but my guess is that his view of American military history is shaped by his professional background. A career soldier and West Point grad, Bacevich may have absorbed a history that was meant to teach him the boundaries of his profession: soldiers obey; our military institutions follow civilian authority; we are like this, not like that. That kind of history misses some big exceptions.

However well an officer's view of history served Bacevich in the army, then, it seems to steer him down some wrong paths in his generally impressive post-army career.




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Chris Bray - 8/20/2008

All good points, and thanks for this. I do think that enthusiasm for empire has consistently prevailed, even against vigorous opposition. I don't think overall that "we Americans sat here" opposing imperial adventure, even though some Americans did.


William Harshaw - 8/20/2008

I don't see America as monolithic, which Bacevich seems to and you don't dispute in your rejoinder. Didn't Colonel McCormick and the America First movement tap into the anti-imperialist strain that Bacevich describes? And there can be a difference between "interventionism" and "imperialism"--as in the aid to the Greeks in the 1820's.

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