The Hill's James Carville on war: How war became the new normal

When I agreed to do this column for The Hill, I never anticipated writing about a book. But then again, I never anticipated reading a book as timely and as provocative as Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew J. Bacevich.

By way of disclosure, I am a longtime fan of Bacevich, and he graciously accepted an invitation to talk to my political science class at Tulane University in 2010. It was then that we were discussing his book The Limits of Power. I found him to be in private much like his public demeanor: quiet and thoughtful. He developed a real rapport with my students.

Bacevich has hardly had an easy life. As an Army officer in the last days of the American defeat in Vietnam, much of his career was spent while the U.S. military was going through a difficult time reimagining itself to ensure it never looked anything like the U.S. military of that conflict. He is also a self-described conservative Catholic who was forced to endure scandals in the church and came to loathe the Iraq War (in which he lost a son), which was launched by a conservative president and his conservative advisers. I suspect that Bacevich is a man who deeply loves the Army, which, according to him and almost everyone else, has become the most troubled branch of our military. It is the “red-headed stepchild” of the armed services.

At any rate, the book’s superb opening, dare I say it, vaguely reminds me of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. And if you think that is feigned praise, read it. Bacevich draws you in at the prologue, in which he vividly describes the symbolic show of patriotism from Independence Day festivities at Fenway during a Boston Red Sox game. As he later puts it: “The actual relationship between soldiers and society consisted for the most part of prayers offered at Sunday services, pontificating by politicians of all stripes, and scripted rituals of respect inserted into celebratory occasions like the Super Bowl or the World Series.”

With the all-volunteer military, we as a society have become disconnected from our armed forces. And our military, like almost everything else in our country, has been outsourced. Bacevich notes that “as of 2010, contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan had some 260,000 employees on their payrolls — more than the total number of U.S. troops committed to those theaters.” And for those who are not contractors, today’s “professional” army is full of people we like to thank in the airport but then are able forget about afterward. Our soldiers have, in effect, become our roofers and lawn-care people. We respect what they do on a sweltering August day, but we really do not know them.

America’s small warrior class is less than 1 percent of the population. As a result, we are detached from military decisionmaking, leaving Washington to its own devices. And so war has become perpetual, the new normal.

Bacevich offers a stinging critique of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism. But he does not place blame on politicians alone. Ultimately, much of the fault lies with the American people. He notes that “popular attitudes toward war, combining detachment, neglect, and inattention, helped create the crisis in which the United States is mired.”

One is reminded of the great quote from the Pogo comic: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Unlike the “people’s war” of World War II, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were wars those people fought, or put more correctly, are still fighting. In contrast to World War II, citizens today have neither equal rights nor equal obligations. It’s a problem that perhaps bringing back the draft could solve, he posits. In addition to laying out his case for bringing back conscription, Bacevich also traces internal conflicts in modern U.S. military history, including “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the role of women in combat.

In doing so, Bacevich forcefully makes the case time and again that “the professional military has turned out to be a bad bargain, fiscally but also politically and morally.” Breach of Trust is a necessary and important commentary on modern American life.

One of the things Bacevich told my students at Tulane a few years back was that, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter.” Bacevich was clearly horrified at the arrogance of that statement.

I am certainly not suggesting that by reading Breach of Trust that it will change the way you live, but I can almost guarantee that, in these war-weary times, this timely and informative read will change the way you think.

Carville is a chief political correspondent for ARISE Television. He also serves as a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, Republican strategist Mary Matalin. His column will appear twice a month in The Hill.