This will continue to be the case for the foreseeable decades as the United States fights wars that are so far not yet even imagined. If these wars have been fought (as many have suggested) over the presence of the scarce resource of oil, the next wars may be fought over the even more precious resource of water.
Looking not too far into the future, the next wars may be fought over the consequences (the magnitude of which has not been determined) of climate change. As the surface of the world itself changes with rising seawater and increasing disastrous floods, hurricanes, and droughts, the nature of war is likely to change ever more dramatically and ever more quickly. Petraeus has proven to be the kind of military leader who can understand that strength is based on intelligence and flexibility, not a clinging to traditions and -- most importantly -- the fittest military is the one that is concentrating on preparing for the next war, not reliving the glories of the past.
The Way Forward is the Way Back
Andrew Bacevich's version of how war is changing, and how the America that fights wars is changing, is diametrically opposed to the vision that Petraeus puts forth. While the general's view is based on practical experience and a desire to save American lives, American values, and American strength, Bacevich's vision seems divorced from anything but right-wing politics. While politics and war are always partners, always two points along the same vector of power, Bacevich does not acknowledge the complex ways in which the two must interact if the pressures of history are to be handled.
Bacevich is very much intent on looking backward rather than forward. His focus is not the wars in which the United States in now engaged but on World War II, the archetype of the good war, the war in which America saved the world, making it safe for both democracy and capitalism. As is so often the case with conservative commentary, Bacevich is more interested in writing an elegy if not an actual eulogy for American exceptionalism. If Petraeus is focused on helping the armed forces learn how the rest of the world thinks so that they can be effective as both allies and combatants, Bacevich is focused on reminding Americans of what it was like when the country's might could make other nations at least pretend to think the way that we do.
Bacevich is focused on the lure of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a unique role in the world that no other nation can fill. Moreover, this model of American power and influence argues that not only does the United States have the potential to play a unique role, but it is required to do so. Bacevich spends much of the book recalling the glory days of the 1940s when the United States, through the ingenuity of its people and the might of its wealth and technology, was able to come to the rescue of the world.
There is nothing wrong, of course, in honoring and even lionizing the Great Generation. Except that there is quite a good deal wrong when crediting an early generation of soldiers and officers and the civilians who supported them comes at the cost of denigrating all other generations. Bacevich writes about an America that has become fat and lazy, a nation that has lost its way since World War II, a war that left the United States as "the strongest, the richest and . . . The freest nation in all the world." That assessment is probably accurate, but it is also irrelevant in ways that Bacevich does not seem to understand, or at least not in ways that Bacevich is willing to acknowledge.
The state of the nation after World War II was particular to the state of the world in the mid-1940s. The enemies that the United States defeated, the allies that it worked alongside of, the state of race and gender relations at home in the United States, the particular technological, medical, and scientific progress at the time -- all of these combined to make the country a safe and wealthy place. That particular set of variables will never be in place again, something that Bacevich is evasive (at best) about acknowledging.
Bacevich argues that what made America great in the decades following World War II was not based in anything specific about that historical moment but rather in the nature of the American national character. This is the core of his argument, because a "national character" is recoverable in a way that historical reconstruction cannot be. If Bacevich were to acknowledge that much of the success that America enjoyed after World War II were due to issues out of the control of the United States, then he would not be able to argue that America can once again fight and win wars the way it did in Normandy. If what has happened in the jungles of Vietnam and the mountains of Afghanistan is, however, due to a failure in the current generation of Americans, then there is some hope (he believes) that former military might can be regained.
One of the truly fascinating contrasts between Bacevich and Petraeus is how the latter understands that the United States is fundamentally like all other countries. For Bacevich, this is something to be denied as untrue and probably even immoral. Petraus describes the importance of narrative as a key psychological as well as political and cultural force in helping to build and maintain loyalty in an insurgent force.
The central mechanism through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed is the narrative. A narrative is an organizational scheme expressed in story form. Narratives are central to the representation of identity, particularly the collective identity of groups such as religions, nations, and cultures. Stories about a community's history provide models of how actions and consequences are linked and are often the basis for strategies, actions, and interpretation of the intentions of other actors. (Petraeus, 2007)
Petraeus will go on to describe how this dynamic fits in with how Al Quaeda functions. Before turning to that, however, it is highly informative to consider the passage above in terms of how it can be applied to the United States, or indeed to any nation.
Every nation, and indeed every relatively large community, has narratives that it tells itself. These are an important part of how culture is maintained. Americans are told the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, of Ellis Island and the melting pot, of how America saved the world from the Nazis. These help define us a people, which is something that Petraeus recognizes but that Bacevich does not. Petraeus writes that Al Qaeda uses narratives "very efficiently in the development of a legitimating ideology" creating a narrative that dictates that: "In the collective imagination of Bin Laden and his followers, Islamic history is a story about the decline of the umma and the inevitable triumph against Western imperialism. Only through jihad can Islam be renewed both politically and theologically" (Petraeus, 2007).
Bacevich is arguing much the same thing, although (of course) from the other side. He is arguing that America can only become America again by reclaiming the cultural identity that it had after World War II, a generation that knew how to pull together, a generation that knew how to sacrifice, a generation that knew who it was. If we could only go back to that world, to knowing how to live within our means. Bacevich argues that he is looking forward even as he looks back. Urging his readers to cast off the concept of exceptionalism, he at the same time sneaks it in through the back door.
He insists that the United States cannot rely on military force alone, and in this he is of course correct. He points to the limits of brute force in the current wars in which the United States is engaged, and in this he is also correct. And he is also correct that part of what has changed during the course of these wars is that Americans have become far too used to the idea of a war without end, a war without borders, a war that was never declared and so one that can never be ended.
So why does so much good sense fail to convince? Because his recommendations about how to end the kind of war that seems to have no end and that has so detrimentally pulled America off its true course are so thin. We must somehow return to being our own better angels, he suggests. Well, perhaps. But how does one begin to do so in a world in which we as Americans have become embroiled as much as our enemies in endless bellicosity?
For Bacevich everything has changed about war except the most important aspects of it: In his world, we continue to…