By David Swanson
Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” is a good summary of the past 65 years’ worth of war thinking in Washington, D.C. “Prior to World War II,” he writes, “Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.” For the past 65 years or so, Bacevich writes, these beliefs have been Washington’s “sacred trinity”:
“an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.”
The people putting this expansion of Manifest Destiny into practice, Bacevich writes, have not fundamentally been presidents, as everyone believes, much less Congress, as the Constitution would have had it. “Pretending to the role of Decider, a president all too often becomes little more than the medium through which power is exercised.”
Bacevich highlights the roles of two men in establishing structures of war power, Allen Dulles at the CIA and Curtis LeMay at Strategic Air Command. They established the power, for themselves and their successors, respectively, to do anything at all in secret, and to determine nuclear weapons policies. And they established the practice of lying about Soviet military threats as a means toward escalating the already dominant U.S. military.
Bacevich describes President John Kennedy as taking some of these powers into the White House. “The methods devised by Allen Dulles and the methods perfected by Curtis LeMay worked in tandem to create an aura of secrecy, prestige, and power that now allowed presidents to assert and exercise quasi-imperial prerogatives.” And Bacevich points to LeMay’s public descent from revered wise man to dangerous buffoon as illustrative of the damage the Vietnam War did to Washington’s rules, damage that did not last long at all.
“Failure in Vietnam seemingly left the Washington rules in tatters,” writes Bacevich. “That within five years of Saigon’s fall they were well on their way to reconstitution qualifies as remarkable. That within another decade the American credo and sacred trinity had been fully restored deserves to be seen as astonishing.”
Bacevich repeats this sort of astonishment in the course of the story he tells, including when the end of the Cold War slows the U.S. war machine down even less than defeat in Vietnam did, and including when counter-insurgency theories are resurrected for General David Petraeus’ “surge”. Each time Bacevich is right to be astonished, but in each case the astonishment is lessened, I think, to the extent that one views war proponents as frauds rather than well-intentioned fools. That those in power, profiting financially and electorally from wars, immediately argue for more war is simply to be expected. That they persuade others to share their beliefs is, indeed, astonishing, albeit less so to the extent that one examines how our communications system works — something Bacevich does not do. The five year recovery post-Vietnam may have a recent parallel. By 2005, Washington’s war lies were in worse than tatters, but by 2010 it was considered impolite to mention that excuses for wars were lies.
By the time we get to Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, Bacevich is writing as though presidents are Deciders. He notes that the United States could now go to war without inconveniencing most of its people, and that wars tended to give boosts to presidents’ approval ratings. This was a major change, but another came when the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became understood as permanent or at least open-ended. And the military adopted a policy of “counter-insurgency” that involved primarily non-military work. This is another astonishing revolution, as Bacevich points out, except that — as far as I can tell — the military is not actually following its new policy. Are we putting 80% into civilian efforts? Last time I looked it was more like 4%.
“Washington Rules” was written before General Stanley McChrystal ended his career but not before he did things that should have ended it. When, in Bacevich’s account, McChrystal publicly pressures President Barack Obama to escalate Afghanistan, Bacevich returns to his discussion of the 1950s: Presidents are not the real power.
As in his past books, Bacevich does a terrific job of nudging the reader away from belief in popular militaristic and patriotic myths, in the direction of some beginning grasp of reality. And he explicitly charts a wiser course, a new “trinity”:
“First, the purpose of the U.S. military is not to combat evil or remake the world, but to defend the United States and its most vital interests. Second, the primary duty of the American soldier is in America. Third, consistent with the Just War tradition, the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self-defense.”
Of course, that doesn’t resemble any just war tradition, and eight years ago the just war theorists were explaining the need to attack Iraq. The ONLY duty of the American soldier should be to defend the United States, minus any extraneous “vital interests.” But this is vast progress, and Bacevich describes himself in the introduction to his book as “a slow learner” who didn’t begin paying attention or asking questions until he was 41. He must also be a fast learner, because from that point on he’s come to understand and explain the U.S. empire as well as anyone.
But there are two areas in this book in which I think Bacevich is still resisting adequate questioning of orthodoxy. The first is in his understanding of U.S. news media. The media is never mentioned, except for a passing reference to media executives in a list of those benefitting from current policy. Repeatedly Bacevich laments the public’s backward attitudes, never considering where they come from if real, or noticing when the public is actually far ahead of what passes for “public discourse.” Does Bacevich know that a majority of Americans oppose the current wars? Even when Bacevich’s generalizations about the public may be fair, he omits any notice whatsoever of the sizable minority that opposes war mongering. Bacevich’s examples of heretics who have resisted the march to permanent war are always those with power and the prestige of having spent years going along, rather than early leaders or those with the most penetrating analysis. In Bacevich’s world a “left-leaning” publication is The New Republic.
The second place I see acceptance of the official story as getting in the way of Bacevich’s narrative is in his apparent belief that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Bacevich’s argument that people like Dulles held the reins of power would be stronger and look very different if he acknowledged the well-documented push-back against Kennedy’s firing of Dulles and Kennedy’s steps toward peace. According to Bacevich, “There is no evidence that any lessons drawn from his administration’s Cuban encounters had a positive effect on the way it dealt with Vietnam.” Kennedy, in Bacevich’s account, wanted war and more war in Vietnam, and everything was up to him. “At the White House, the president and his lieutenants were in charge of everything, including the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Yet, on October 11, 1963, Kennedy issued a secret order for a withdrawal of 1,000 troops from Vietnam in National Security Action Memorandum 263. Two years earlier, as described in James Douglass’ “JFK and the Unspeakable” Kennedy successfully blocked public discussion of troop escalation by planting the false story in the media that his generals were against it. Yes, Kennedy mostly went along with the Washington Rules, but he tested their limits and apparently found them.