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Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country

Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew J. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2013, 238 pp.

Prof. Andrew Bacevich pulls no punches in Breach of Trust as he argues for a return to the military draft system. He draws a sharp distinction between the “citizen-soldier” of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and the “warrior professional” of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a distinction clarifies his point: When going to war means putting the populace in harm’s way, the populace will be reluctant to go to war, and such reluctance may be just what a post–Cold War United States needs.

Although the author has ammunition enough to blame Congress, multiple presidents, the citizenry, senior military officers, many secretaries of defense and state, think tanks, pundits, and “Washington” in general, he levels his primary accusation against the American people. Bacevich posits that the all-volunteer force has resulted in “three no’s” emanating from the populace: (1) we will not change, (2) we will not pay, and (3) we will not bleed. Insofar as these criteria are met, the people will coalesce to “Washington’s war.” The only solution to this problem is to “repeal the three no’s. . . . Only [when Americans have skin in the game] . . . can they expect to have any say in how (and whether) the game gets played” (pp. 190, 191).

Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who holds a PhD from Princeton, is a professor of international relations and history and chair of Boston University’s International Relations Department. Clearly, he is supremely qualified to take on the project of assessing US domestic military policy from World War II to the present. Indeed, his critical eye and expansive research draw from the last 60 years both the causes and effects of President Nixon’s abolishment of military conscription.

The book makes four claims. After Vietnam the American people (1) abandoned the tradition of the citizen-soldier, (2) promoted the model of the warrior professional, (3) embraced militarized globalism, and (4) allowed for “contractor encroachment on matters that soldiers had once claimed as their own” (p. 137). Breach of Trust argues for and expands upon these four assertions.

Bacevich’s presentation of post–World War II American history is thorough and informative, but his position on conscription is weakened by hyperbole and incendiary language. What otherwise would have been a convincing, rational argument sinks too often to an overly rhetorical one. By way of example, he asserts that, leading up to 9/11, a perception existed that the Greater Middle East had become an “incubator of radicalism” (p. 165), without addressing whether that perception reflected reality. Similarly, in response to Gen Carter Ham’s claim that US Africa Command’s mission includes “sustained engagement,” Bacevich translates “engagement” to “preparing for war” (p. 169). Again, in acknowledging that a drafted Army may perform less competently than the current one, Bacevich glibly remarks that “crewing a tank or an artillery piece, [and] conducting patrols or ambushes are not rocket science” (p. 192), without acknowledging that conducting them well is, in fact, challenging. Further, conducting them well limits the collateral damage he bemoans 15 pages earlier. He chooses the term assassination to describe President Obama’s remotely piloted aircraft campaign while failing to recognize the legal distinction between assignation in peacetime and targeted killing in time of war. In these cases and many others, the author sacrifices clear and effective deliberation for appeals to emotion and cynicism.

Congress does not escape criticism. Bacevich has, in fact, modified the classic pejorative to include that body in the “military-industrial-congressional complex” (emphasis added) (p. 190). “For those who ride the gravy train,” he writes, “doing what’s necessary to keep it rolling takes precedence over contemplating . . . the wreckage left in its wake” (p. 124).

Certainly some of his points are valid, but it takes a great deal of care to determine which ones. After being subjected to a barrage of clever, loaded language and ad homonym caricatures, one ends up taking even the straightforward language with an ample dose of skepticism. This is not to mention the fact that for all his emphasis on conscription, Bacevich does little to counter his known opposition. Those in favor of an all-volunteer force will suggest that draftees cannot do the job as well as volunteers. The author seems to dismiss this claim with a wave of the hand. Fighting wars is “not rocket science,” after all. I would have preferred a good deal more discussion and analysis on this particularly sticky point.

The shining light in the case for conscription comes through Bacevich from Gen George C. Marshall (later secretary of state and defense). War conducted by a professional warrior class “is a criminal doctrine. . . . There must not be a large standing army subject to the behest of a group of schemers. The citizen-soldier is the guarantee against such a misuse of power” (pp. 195, 196).

All told, Breach of Trust is an important read for any active, Reserve, or Guard member. Those of us in the all-volunteer force tend to have a conditioned response against conscription. As unpopular as the idea is, Bacevich offers a rare voice in its favor. It is incumbent upon those who serve to wrestle with this issue and determine for themselves whether the United States stands to benefit from such a significant change.

Capt Joseph O. Chapa, USAF
AFIT Graduate Student
Boston College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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