Andrew Bacevich. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 288 pp.

Jason Smith



In 1995, Michael Sherry wrote In the Shadow of War, which argued that militarism has permeated American politics and culture since the Great Depression. As Sherry looked to the future, however, he was cautiously optimistic, suggesting that perhaps this militarism was waning. Twelve years and one unfinished global war later, it appears that he was wrong. In The New American Militarism, historian Andrew Bacevich continues where Sherry left off. Bacevich argues that certain military, political, and religious groups found common cause in the wake of the Vietnam War. Though motivated by different interests, these groups nevertheless effected the same end, a new wave of American militarism. According to Bacevich, the resulting foreign policy is governed by the use of preemptive force, dismissive of peaceful avenues of statecraft, gluttonous in defense spending, and disdainful of governmental checks and balances. The new militarism transcends presidential administrations and political parties—it is systemic, pervasive, and dangerous. If we are to believe Bacevich, the stakes are nothing less than freedom itself.

Bacevich sees the roots of this resurgence in Wilsonian idealism. The melding of utopian ends with military means legitimated the expansion of American power. Meanwhile, the American people were lulled into a daze of militant self-righteousness. They watched Top Gun and Rambo, read Tom Clancy thrillers, and generally internalized the patriotic myths of Ronald Reagan. In such a world, much could be justified in the name of freedom and democracy.

The purveyors of the new American militarism are a curious mixture of military officers, neoconservatives, Christian conservatives, and defense intellectuals who generally did not intend to foster militarism so much as they wished to recoup what was lost in the wake of Vietnam. The military lost popular prestige and faith in the utility of force. Neoconservatives sought to reinvigorate the lost reverence for American ideals abroad. Christian conservatives bemoaned the immorality of the counterculture movement. Defense intellectuals aimed, once and for all, to adapt warfare to the imperatives of the nuclear age. Increased military power and its projection, particularly in the Middle East, served these ends. The result, according to Bacevich, is World War III, global in its scope and indefinite in its ends.

Bacevich concludes by identifying ten ways to curtail the new militarism, most of which focus on reviving Americans’ historic distrust of military power implicit in the Constitution. Bacevich is well-intentioned in this regard, and should be applauded for rightly proposing a more restrained foreign policy and increased national self-sufficiency. These principles, however, are abstract and idealistic, nothing concrete for the reader to grasp save budgetary cutbacks in defense spending. Implicit in the book, however, is the simple truth that military officers, politicians, and religious leaders did not take the right lessons from the Vietnam War. Instead of facing the reality of defeat, they went about repairing the damage by reasserting the status quo. Today we are engaged in a war reminiscent of that conflict. If the new militarism is to abate, perhaps Americans need only to take the right lessons away from this experience.

For Bacevich, like Sherry before him, the concept of militarism is problematic. Whenever it is uttered in reference to the United States there is a collective cringe, not only because it smacks of warmongers gone amuck, but also because of the fuzziness of the word itself. Bacevich cites a number of definitions, but generally is concerned with militarism insofar as it has “come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals” (2). But who defines the nation’s strength and well-being? At what point do military ideals reach nostalgic proportions? Bacevich is largely concerned with military, political, and religious elites, but is American culture militarized as well? The popularity of country singer Toby Kieth’s song, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” suggests that perhaps it is. Without a more comprehensive examination of popular culture, however, the existence of a cultural militarism remains unproven.

Criticism aside, this is an important book that advances the general argument of In the Shadow of War into the twenty-first century by taking into account the important events of the last six years. For military historians and historians of civil-military relations, Bacevich has some interesting things to say about the professionalism of the military’s officer corps since Vietnam. His portraits of generals Creighton Abrams, Colin Powell, and Wesley Clark are scathing. Historians in general will also appreciate the way Bacevich integrates militarism into the larger political, religious, and cultural milieu. Ultimately, The New American Militarism is a work that should spark debate and further scholarship while the immediacy of his subject and the clarity with which he presents it will appeal to a broader popular audience. Little more can be expected from such a short, but important, book.