Andrew Bacevich and Bernard Finel are like Nietzsche; they make me think, but often the opposite of what they want me to think. They have both written pieces about civil-military relations, focussing on the controversy surrounding Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stones profile. Bacevich argues that long wars ‘are antithetical to democracy’; protracted conflicts encourage praetorianism in the military, creating a rift between them and their civilian masters and loosening civilian control. Finel echoes this, alleging that ‘the notion that…civilian leaders cannot be trusted to wage our wars effectively is…increasingly common’. The events of last week are cited as proof. General McChrystal’s indiscretions and those of his aides are an indication ‘that the military’s professional ethic is eroding’ (Bacevich), and even contain the beginnings of the downfall of the Republic. ‘Contempt for civilian leaders is mainstream,’ says Finel, ‘the fringe of the military is now talking, essentially, about a coup.’ Amazingly, they have gotten all this from a bad pun on a vice-president’s name and some apt ridicule about an overbearing regional envoy and the logical conclusion is that we should either introduce mass conscription or never get involved in wars again. The problem with Bacevich and Finel is that their premise is a false one, and the history they use is flawed.
The premise that long wars create civil-military crises and can lead to the collapse of democratic government is false, and historical comparisons which Bacevich and Finel use are questionable. Firstly, the primary factor in a conflict is not its length but rather its makeup: who we are fighting, why we are fighting them and how we are fighting them. It is more likely that the makeup strains civil-military relations, whereas the length of a conflict can be simply a contributing factor. Secondly, from a historiographical standpoint, the premise is narrow in its terms-of-reference: it is limited to the modern era and American history specifically. Thirdly, as a result of this narrowness, the historical comparisons are wide of the mark. Bacevich and Finel make references to Rome, which is a poor example to use when discussing civil-military relations given the extent to which political and military leadership was integrated there. Caesar was not a general who overthrew his civilian masters; he was a politician who had control of an army and outfought his rivals, who also commanded field armies. It isn’t clear from his article if Bacevich is using Vietnam as an example; H. R. McMaster would certainly disagree that in that conflict the military dictated to its civilian masters. Take these three points together and the deeper, terrible meanings they attribute to ‘RollingStan’ seem contrived. One is left thinking that Bacevich and Finel see the events of last week either as a genuine crisis in civil-military relations or an opportunity to talk us into one, pointing to Afghanistan as the cause and thus garnering support for withdrawal.
Both explanations are possible. To be against the war is now to be against the counterinsurgency strategy, and Bacevich and Finel attack COINistas on the same grounds they attacked neoconservatives despite the two groups being very different. Last year, Bacevich ‘applied [his incandescent wit] like a blowtorch’ to David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla; labelling him a neoconservative and wanting to use counterinsurgency to continue/prolong the ‘Long War’ when we should avoid insurgencies altogether. ‘I actually agree with almost all the points he makes in his review’, Kilcullen wrote in reply, mainly because Bacevich’s arguments were ‘actually precisely the same argument I make in the book.’ Like Rory Stewart, Finel attributes an intellectual arrogance and dogmatism to COINistas that is arguably present in their work (advocating, ironically, a more humble foreign policy) compared to that of Exum or Kilcullen. And as McChrystal was ‘Mr. Afghanistan’ in the counterinsurgency calendar, it is easy to imagine Bacevich and Finel seeing his indiscretions as either proof of the threat COINistas pose to the Republic or an opportunity to discredit the current military policy. If the former, they have lost a sense of perspective; if the latter, they are being purposefully disingenuous.