The Great Divide


Regardless of who wins the presidency in November 2008, rethinking the premises of U.S. military policy will be an urgent priority. Grasping the scope of the problem requires an appreciation of three overarching themes that have shaped the narrative of American military experience since Vietnam.

The post-Vietnam narrative began with the “Great Divorce,” engineered in the early 1970s by President Richard Nixon. When Nixon abolished the draft, he severed the relationship between citizenship and military service. Although that was not Nixon’s purpose, it was one very clear result of ending conscription. Contributing to the country’s defense now became not a civic duty but a matter of individual choice. That choice carried no political or moral connotations.

The Great Divorce gave birth to a new professional military with an ethos that emphasized the differences between soldiers and civilians. Out of differences came distance: after Vietnam, members of the officer corps saw themselves as standing apart from (or perhaps even above) the rest of society. More than a few members of the public endorsed that view. In the lexicon of the Founders, the nation now relied on a “standing army,” although Americans during the last quarter of the twentieth century chose to call it the all-volunteer force.

The second narrative thread emerged during the 1980s. This was the “Great Reconstitution,” largely the handiwork of Ronald Reagan. Throughout his presidency, Reagan lavished attention and funding on the armed forces. Over the course of that decade, soldiers shed their post-Vietnam malaise and gradually recovered their sense of self-confidence. New weapons, revised doctrine, and improved training techniques endowed U.S. forces with an unusually high level of competence, at least in the arena of conventional conflict.

Above all, the Great Reconstitution converted the officer corps to the view that technology held the secret to future military victories. The ultimate expression of this view was the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” According to this concept, information technology was transforming the very nature of war itself, with the United States uniquely positioned to exploit this transformation. By the end of the 1980s, the United States had achieved military preeminence; something like outright and unchallengeable supremacy now seemed to lay within its grasp.

By the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the restoration of U.S. military might had captured popular attention and gained widespread public approval. Citizens again professed to admire soldiers. They certainly admired the missile-through-the-window capabilities of advanced military technology. Although admiration did not annul the Great Divorce brought on by the end of the draft, it made the separation more amicable. Expressions of public support for the troops became commonplace. Yet “support” in this context was akin to what sports fans provide to their local professional baseball or football franchise. Offered from a safe distance, it implies no obligation and entails no risks. It is more rhetorical than real.

During the 1990s, the first two narrative threads combined to produce a third. This was the theme of “Great Expectations,” which found members of the political elite looking for new ways to tap the potential of this technologically sophisticated, highly professional military. Armed force accrued positive connotations: hitherto employed to wreak mayhem, it now became an instrument for fixing things. One result was the discovery of new missions like peacemaking, peacekeeping, and “humanitarian intervention.” Another result was to remove any lingering reluctance about employing military force abroad.

During his single term as president, George H. W. Bush made substantial headway in dismantling the inhibitions implied by the Vietnam Syndrome. Bill Clinton completed the task: during his eight years in the Oval Office, armed intervention became so frequent that it almost ceased to be newsworthy. Yet George W. Bush did most to promote the theme of Great Expectations. After 9/11, the forty-third president committed the United States to a policy of preventive war, the so-called Bush Doctrine. As part of his “Freedom Agenda,” he also vowed to use American power to liberate the greater Middle East, end tyranny, and vanquish evil from the face of the earth.

Tacitly affirming the Great Divorce, Bush committed the nation to these breathtaking goals without calling on Americans themselves to play a role or make any sacrifices. Bush intended to remake the world without mobilizing the country. The people would remain spectators.

Responsibility for implementing the Freedom Agenda, therefore, fell almost entirely on the shoulders of the all-volunteer force. As commander-in-chief, Bush did not even press Congress to expand the size of the force. Apparently, he assumed that the Great Reconstitution had made the standing army unstoppable. Even as he embarked on an open-ended global war, the president did not question that assumption.

This proved to be a serious miscalculation, as events in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown. The indisputable lesson of those two wars is this: The United States lacks sufficient military power to achieve the objectives outlined in Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Means and ends are wildly out of whack. We have too much war and too few warriors. No amount of technology can close that gap.

To put it another way: the Great Expectations of the 1990s are exhausting the military created by the Great Reconstitution of the 1980s. Meanwhile, abiding by the Great Divorce of the 1970s, the American people content themselves with cheering from the sidelines.

For the next president, restoring U.S. military policy to a sound basis is likely to prove a daunting proposition. Change will not come easily. On the one hand, the president will have to contend with advocates of the Bush Doctrine and Freedom Agenda who even now—with the Iraq war five years old and the Afghanistan war halfway through its seventh year—stubbornly insist that everything will come out all right. On the other hand, the president will have to deal with an officer corps that remains deeply wedded to habits developed over the past several decades.

The president will need new themes to replace the now-discredited themes of the post-Vietnam era. Here are three possibilities, one related to the use of force, one to basic national-security strategy, and a third to civil-military relations.

With regard to the use of force, the United States should revert to the just-war tradition. The next president should explicitly abrogate the Bush Doctrine, which is both normatively and pragmatically defective. Put simply, preventive war is wrong and it doesn’t work. Never again should the United States wage a war of aggression. Instead, we should treat force as a last resort, to be used only after exhausting all other options. We should wage war exclusively for defensive purposes. Adhering to the just-war tradition will go far toward alleviating the current disparity between ends and means.

When it comes to strategy, the United States should adopt a policy of containment. The next president should give up any fantasies about ending tyranny or expunging evil. Those tasks fall within God’s purview. While violent Islamic radicalism does pose a serious (although not existential) threat to our security and that of our allies, the proper response to that threat is not global war but a concerted effort to prevent the Islamists from doing us harm. This implies an emphasis on effective defenses, comprehensive intelligence collection and surveillance, and aggressive international police work—not the invasion and occupation of countries in the Islamic world.

With regard to civil-military relations, the next president will face an especially daunting challenge. What we need appears quite clear: for American citizens to acknowledge their own accountability for what American soldiers are sent to do and for all that occurs as a consequence. To classify Iraq as “Bush’s war” is to perpetrate a fraud. Whether that conflict is moral or immoral, essential or unnecessary, winnable or beyond salvaging, it is very much the nation’s war. Vacuously “supporting the troops” while carrying on for all practical purposes as if the war did not exist amounts to an abdication of basic civic responsibility.

As long as Americans persist in seeing national security as a function that others are contracted to perform, they will persist in this unaccountability. In this regard, the restoration of civic responsibility will require first restoring some connection between citizenship and military service. We need to reinvent the concept of the citizen-soldier. Yet we need to do so in a way that precludes conscription, for which next to no support exists in the Pentagon or in the public at large.

This is a tall order. Yet until we repair our democracy, repairing the defects in our military policy will remain a distant prospect.


This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Also by this author
Before Camelot

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads