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March 16, 2012

Leon Wieseltier Thinks You Can Never Have Enough War
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Maddow - drift

I haven’t read Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift.  That is because, unlike The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, I am not a book critic. I am a national security professional.  This means that – also unlike Wieseltier – I spend my days immersed in the thinking and writing of defense experts and policymakers – in the U.S. government, in the military, in other nations, in the non-governmental sector.

Wieseltier has written a review of Drift in which he takes issue with, well, a lot of things – the fact that Maddow has a TV show among them.  But his core problem seems to be her suggestion that we might have a societal problem with “the artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities.”

He really ought to spend more time with defense intellectuals.  Since they tend to be men, many of them with chests of medals, and few of them given to open mockery, he might prefer them to Maddow, whose style he objects to as “perky” and “absurdist.” (Irrelevant question: there is a great literary and indeed political tradition of absurdism – has any of it ever before been described as “perky?”)

It appears that Wieseltier would be rather surprised to hear some of the things these serious folk have to say about the state of our society – and the extent to which we fetishize defense above all else to our peril.

My curriculum for him would start with Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich is a conservative cultural Catholic – he and Wieseltier would have lots to say to each other about ritual, institutions, and the decay of respect for both in American life. Bacevich is also a retired Army colonel and history professor who lost a son in Iraq.

At the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power. The skepticism about arms and armies that pervaded the American experiment from its founding, vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became enamored with military might… Few in power have openly considered whether valuing military power for its own sake or cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with American principles. Indeed, one striking aspect of America's drift toward militarism has been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature. [Bacevich, The New American Militarism, 2005.]

Then I would introduce him to Major General Charlie Dunlap, now a professor of law at the University of North Carolina. Twenty years ago now, Dunlap wrote an article called “The Origins of the Coup of 2012” in which a General Brutus and allies take over the reins from an ineffective civilian administration – and are handed them permanently in a national referendum. 

Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military's obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country's problems.

During the feckless debt ceiling debate last year, for part of which I found myself in the United Arab Emirates, explaining red-facedly why democracy really was a better system than “enlightened” autocracy, I thought of Duncan often.

Admiral Mike Mullen, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke out again and again about the sources of a healthy military coming from a healthy economy and society, including this:

"The most significant threat to our national security is our debt," he told CNN Wednesday. "And the reason I say that is because the ability for our country to resource our military -- and I have a pretty good feeling and understanding about what our national security requirements are -- is going to be directly proportional -- over time, not next year or the year after, but over time -- to help our economy.

"That's why it's so important that the economy move in the right direction, because the strength and the support and the resources that our military uses are directly related to the health of our economy over time."

Surely General Colin Powell needs no introduction. Wieseltier may be familiar with his work on education as the foundation for all aspects of a healthy society, including its defense. In addition, Powell has been pretty firm about the need to consider defense cuts as part of deficit reduction:

When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was chairman and [Dick] Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent. And we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers, so it can be done. Now, how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen, but I don't think the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can't be touched," he said.

Perhaps Wieseltier would like to grace the offices of the Council on Foreign Relations next Tuesday, when Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice present a task force report on the importance of education for our national security.

Senior military thinkers who are not, as individuals, national cultural figures (nor are they perky) have been worrying about the trend Maddow identifies for a while now. Whether Maddow’s book captures their concerns I don’t know.  Thanks to Wieseltier, I promise to pay full price for a hard-cover copy and find out.

But it would be a shame to miss this opportunity to merge the things book reviewers talk about with the ones military strategists worry about. Which is, after all, what Wieseltier says he wants. That, and a war with Syria.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified the author of “The Origins of the Coup of 2012.” As corrected above, the author's name is Major General Charlie Dunlap, not, as originally stated, Major General Charlie Duncan.

This blog is cross-posted on Alternet

Photo: Random House


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