The Postmodern Military

By Foster, Gregory D. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Postmodern Military


Foster, Gregory D., Harvard International Review


The Irony of "Strengthening" Defense

The tortuous elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency was the first clearly postmodern presidential election--less because of its debt to surrealism than because of the supreme irony that has pervaded the election's resolution and aftermath. Here was the United States, the world's pre-eminent bastion of democracy, relinquishing the selection of its head of state to a nonelected judiciary. Here too was the most technologically advanced nation in the world made hostage to electoral hijacking by its own antiquated voting machinery.

In the final analysis, though, it is in the realm of military affairs that irony may have its most profound and lasting impact. For starters, Bush, having parroted the prevailing mythology that there is a revolution in military affairs afoot, has selected for his national-security team a distinctly nonrevolutionary group of traditionalists notable for their establishmentarian conception of military roles. Furthermore, having likewise promised throughout his campaign to renew the trust between the president and the military, Bush has set the stage for succumbing to a parochial military establishment united in its single-minded thirst for more funds and armaments.

Interestingly enough, the ultimate irony of Bush's assumption of office is closely intertwined with the irony of his assumption of command. On the one hand, despite a political environment that seeks visionary leadership, Bush will be forced to enact only the most modest policy measures through a deeply divided Congress. On the other hand, having repeatedly promised to strengthen the military as commander-in-chief, he now unknowingly finds himself in a position where truly strengthening the military could mean quite the opposite of what he and the traditionalists around him had in mind. Grasping this difference and then articulating it to others will call for unusual vision and courage. If Bush steps up to the challenge, he will do himself--and the United States--an invaluable service.

Myth of Military Revolution

During the campaign, Bush declared that, if elected, he would order immediate reviews of both US overseas deployments and military-force structure, strategy, and procurement. If he follows through on the promise to conduct such reviews, he and his advisers must make two counterintuitive moves. First, they must jettison the empty "revolution in military affairs" rhetoric until they are willing and able to invest it with legitimate meaning. A true revolution, capable of providing the United States with a permanent military advantage, would entail perhaps more than any presidential administration would be willing to undertake. A true transformational upheaval could entail the elimination of the Marines, tanks, or submarines; the dismissal of at least one leg of the nuclear triad that is comprised of sea-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and manned bombers; or the wholesale replacement of lethal by nonlethal weaponry. Needless to say, no such dramatic measures have captured the ima ginations of those who claim expertise in military matters.

So there is no revolution. Rather, we are on the cusp of a grand evolution from a prolonged historical period of "Hot Wars," in which the actual use of military force was the central element of statecraft; to a highly compressed period of Cold War, in which the nonuse of the military beyond threat-making was statecraft's defining element; to the current period of "New War," in which nonmilitary instruments of national power and nontraditional uses of the military predominate in statecraft. The hope is that society will eventually evolve to a state of "No War," in which enduring universal peace (what Immanuel Kant called "perpetual peace") is the prevailing condition, and militaries become obsolete.

Self-styled realists, including the Bush advisors, continue to dominate the discourse of national-security affairs. …

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