An excellent book By Andrew J. Bacevich 286 pages. Published by: Metropolitan Books, March 2010
U.S. Army colonel turned academic, Bacevich (The Limits of Power) offers an unsparing, cogent, and important critique of assumptions guiding American military policy. These central tenets, the “Washington rules”–such as the belief that the world order depends on America maintaining a massive military capable of rapid and forceful interventions anywhere in the world–have dominated national security policy since the start of the cold war and have condemned the U.S. to “insolvency and perpetual war.” Despite such disasters as America’s defeat in Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, the self-perpetuating policy is so entrenched that no president or influential critic has been able to alter it. Bacevich argues that while the Washington rules found their most pernicious expression in the Bush doctrine of preventive war, Barack Obama’s expansion of the Afghan War is also cause for pessimism: “We should be grateful to him for making at least one thing unmistakably clear: to imagine that Washington will ever tolerate second thoughts about the Washington rules is to engage in willful self-deception. Washington itself has too much to lose.”
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. He is the author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism and The New American Militarism. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. He is the recipient of a Lannan Award and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
What a refreshing and fascinating take on America’s current military policy. This author, professor, retired military officer, father of a fallen soldier, very articulately stated what you would think would be the obvious. The root cause of almost all war is most certainly business. Then governments and its town criers wrap it up in a message of God and Country, and most people buy it. Questioning the motives for sacrificing and taking lives should never be considered unpatriotic. Thanks to the publishers for being unconventional and giving this writer an outlet to be heard. [see author’s interview on cnn…]
Book Review by: Gerard De Groot, September 12, 2010
“We need some great failures,”
The muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in his autobiography. “Especially we ever-successful Americans — conscious, intelligent, illuminating failures.” What Steffens meant was that a people confident in righteousness need occasionally to be reminded of their fallibility. The past 50 years have produced failures aplenty — the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and Iraq among them. Unfortunately, as Andrew Bacevich and John Dower demonstrate, the light of failure has not penetrated the darkness of delusion. As a result, wars provide a repeating rhythm of folly.
“Washington Rules” and “Cultures of War” are two excellent books made better by the coincidence of their publication. In complementary fashion, they provide a convincing critique of America’s conduct of war since 1941. Steffens would have liked these books, specifically for the way they use past failures to explain the provenance of our current predicament.
Read “Cultures of War” first. It’s not an easy book, but it is consistently perceptive. Dower examines Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Sept. 11 and the second Iraq War, drawing disconcerting linkages. Pearl Harbor and Iraq, he feels, demonstrate how otherwise intelligent leaders are drawn toward strategic imbecility. Both attacks were brilliantly executed in the short term, but neither paid sufficient attention to the long-term problem of winning a war. More controversially, Dower pairs Hiroshima with Sept. 11, both acts of terror born of moral certitude. Osama bin Laden and Harry Truman justified wanton killing with essentially the same Manichean rhetoric. Motives, context and scale might have been different; methods were not. For both leaders, the ability to separate good from evil made killing easy.
In 1941, Americans drew comfort from the stereotype of the irrational Oriental. They assumed that the Japanese would be easily defeated because they were illogical — as their attack upon Pearl Harbor proved. That attack was indeed illogical (given the impossibility of defeating the United States in a protracted war), but it was not peculiarly Japanese. As Dower reveals, the wishful thinking, delusion and herd behavior within the court of Emperor Hirohito was a symptom of war, not ethnicity. The same deficiencies, in 2003, convinced those in the Oval Office that invading Iraq was a good idea.
Since the culture of war encourages patterned behavior, folly proliferates. This is the essence of the Washington rules that Bacevich elucidates. The rules dictate that protection of the American way of life necessitates a global military presence and a willingness to intervene anywhere. Power and violence are cleansed by virtue: Because America is “good,” her actions are always benign. These rules have pushed the United States to a state of perpetual war. With enemies supposedly everywhere, the pursuit of security has become open-ended.
The alternative, according to Bacevich, is not isolationism or appeasement, two politically loaded words frequently used to pummel those who object to Washington’s behavior. He advocates, instead, a more level-headed assessment of danger, advice all the more cogent since it comes from a former soldier. Iraq and Afghanistan did not threaten America; in fact, those countries and the world have become more dangerous because of heavy-handed American intervention. Nor does North Korea pose a threat. Nor did Vietnam.
One is reminded of John Winthrop, who, in 1630, told the future residents of Massachusetts Bay Colony: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Over subsequent decades, Winthrop’s sermon became the American mission, fired by self-righteousness and fueled by self-confidence. From that mission emerged the idea of Manifest Destiny — American ideals should spread across the continent and around the globe. Along the way, Americans lost sight of what Winthrop actually meant. His words were both inspiration and warning: Aspire to greatness, but remain honorable. Power lies in virtue. Winthrop envisaged a shining beacon, worthy of emulation. He saw no need to come down from the hill and ram ideals down the throats of the recalcitrant.
The power of virtue is Bacevich’s most profound message. Instead of trying to fix Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, he insists, Americans should fix Detroit and Cleveland. Instead of attempting to export notions of freedom and democracy to nations that lack experience of either, America should demonstrate, by her actions, that she is still a free, democratic and humane nation. Her real strength lies in her liberal tradition, not in her ability to kill.
Back in 1963, the Kennedy administration was faced with a steadily disintegrating situation in Vietnam. At a turbulent cabinet meeting, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked: If the situation is so dire, why not withdraw? Arthur Schlesinger, present at the meeting, noted how “the question hovered for a moment, then died away.” It was “a hopelessly alien thought in a field of unexplored assumptions and entrenched convictions.” The Washington rules kept the United States on a steady course toward disaster.
Those unexplored assumptions and entrenched convictions have now pushed the United States into a new quagmire. Despite that predicament, both Dower and Bacevich try to end positively. “If change is to come, it must come from the people,” argues Bacevich. Dower agrees. But these feeble attempts at optimism are the least convincing parts of two otherwise brilliant books. Barack Obama once promised that change was coming, but then quickly adhered to the old rules by escalating an unwinnable and certainly unaffordable war in Afghanistan. Failures, as Steffens hoped, have been illuminating, but after each flash of light, darkness has prevailed.
Gerard De Groot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and author of “The Bomb: A Life.”
Book Review by: Gary J. Bass, on September 3, 2010
In 1947, Hanson W. Baldwin, the hawkish military correspondent of this newspaper, warned that the demands of preparing America for a possible war would “wrench and distort and twist the body politic and the body economic . . . prior to war.” He wondered whether America could confront the Soviet Union “without becoming a ‘garrison state’ and destroying the very qualities and virtues and principles we originally set about to save.”
It is that same dread of a martial America that drives Andrew J. Bacevich today. Bacevich forcefully denounces the militarization that he says has already become a routine, unremarked-upon part of our daily lives — and will only get worse as America fights on in Afghanistan and beyond. He rips into what he calls a postwar American dogma “so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.” “Washington Rules” is a tough-minded, bracing and intelligent polemic against some 60 years of American militarism.
This outrage at a warlike America has special bite coming from Bacevich. No critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have brighter conservative credentials. He is a blunt-talking Midwesterner, a West Point graduate who served for 23 years in the United States Army, a Vietnam veteran who retired as a colonel, and a sometime contributor to National Review. “By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy,” he writes. But George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Bacevich says, “pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary — above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power — now appeared preposterous.”
From Harry S. Truman’s presidency to today, Bacevich argues, Americans have trumpeted the credo that they alone must “lead, save, liberate and ultimately transform the world.” That crusading mission is implemented by what Bacevich caustically calls “the sacred trinity”: “U.S. military power, the Pentagon’s global footprint and an American penchant for intervention.” This threatening posture might have made some sense in 1945, he says, but it is catastrophic today. It relegates America to “a condition of permanent national security crisis.”
Bacevich has two main targets in his sights. The first are the commissars of the national security establishment, who perpetuate these “Washington rules” of global dominance. By Washington, he means not just the federal government, but also a host of satraps who gain power, cash or prestige from this perpetual state of emergency: defense contractors, corporations, big banks, interest groups, think tanks, universities, television networks and The New York Times. He complains that an unthinking Washington consensus on global belligerence is just as strong among mainstream Democrats as among mainstream Republicans. Those who step outside this monolithic view, like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, are quickly dismissed as crackpots, Bacevich says. This leaves no serious checks or balances against the overweening national security state.
Bacevich’s second target is the sleepwalking American public. He says that they notice foreign policy only in the depths of a disaster that, like Vietnam or Iraq, is too colossal to ignore. As he puts it, “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”
Bacevich is singularly withering on American public willingness to ignore those who do their fighting for them. He warns of “the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service.” Here he has a particular right to be heard: on May 13, 2007, his son Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., an Army first lieutenant, was killed on combat patrol in Iraq. Bacevich does not discuss his tragic loss here, but wrote devastatingly about it at the time in The Washington Post: “Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless. Don’t believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life: I’ve been handed the check.”
Bacevich is less interested in foreign policy here (he offers only cursory remarks about the objectives and capabilities of countries like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran) than in the way he thinks militarism has corrupted America. In his acid account of the inexorable growth of the national security state, he emphasizes not presidents, who come and go, but the architects of the system that envelops them: Allen W. Dulles, who built up the C.I.A., and Curtis E. LeMay, who did the same for the Strategic Air Command. Both of them, Bacevich says, would get memorials on the Mall in Washington if we were honest about how the capital really works.
The mandarins thrived under John F. Kennedy, whose administration “was fixating on Fidel Castro with the same feverish intensity as the Bush administration exactly 40 years later was to fixate on Saddam Hussein — and with as little strategic logic.” The Washington consensualists were thrown badly off balance by defeat in Vietnam but, Bacevich says, soon regained their stride under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — setting the stage for George W. Bush. Barack Obama campaigned on change and getting out of Iraq, but when it comes to the war in Afghanistan or military budgets, he is, Bacevich insists, just another cat’s-paw for the Washington establishment: “Obama would not challenge the tradition that Curtis LeMay and Allen Dulles had done so much to erect.”
Bacevich sometimes overdoes the high dudgeon. He writes, “The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended ‘global war on terror’ without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords.” Which slightly mad German warlords exactly? Bacevich, an erudite historian, could mean some princelings or perhaps Kaiser Wilhelm II, but the standard reading will be Hitler.
And he underplays some of the ways in which Americans have resisted militarism. The all-volunteer force, for all its deep inequities, is a testament to American horror at conscription. He never mentions Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great New York senator who fought government secrecy and quixotically tried to abolish the C.I.A. after the end of the cold war. Although Bacevich admires Dwight D. Eisenhower for his farewell address warning against the forces of the “military-industrial complex,” he slams Eisenhower for enabling those same forces as president. Yet the political scientist Aaron L. Friedberg and other scholars credit Eisenhower for resisting demands for huge boosts in defense spending.
Bacevich, in his own populist way, sees himself as updating a tradition — from George Washington and John Quincy Adams to J. William Fulbright and Martin Luther King Jr. — that calls on America to exemplify freedom but not actively to spread it. It isn’t every American’s tradition (and it offers pretty cold comfort to Poles, Rwandans and Congolese), but it’s one that’s necessary to keep the country from going off the rails. As foreign policy debates in the run-up to the November elections degenerate into Muslim-bashing bombast, the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peace monger like Bacevich.
Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is the author of “Freedom’s Battle” and “Stay the Hand of Vengeance.”