Thursday, January 20, 2011

A review of "Washington Rules - America's Path To Permanent War", by Andrew J. Bacevich (U.S. Army Colonel, retired)

In "Washington Rules" Bacevich challenges and largely refutes the idea that Presidents of the United States have much effect on our country's use of military force. This is a startling idea and on the face seems false, but he makes a strong case that there is a bipartisan (or maybe non-partisan) consensus in favor of military intervention among the Washington players which is accepted by the american public. Reading Bacevich you come away thinking that even the Cheney/G.W. Bush "war of choice" in Iraq was more of a logical continuation of this policy than an abberation. I guess you could say that the pretext of weapons of mass destruction was not that much different than Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin incident, although Johnson was motivated more by what he felt was necessity than choice.

Bacevich shows how the change from using the military for defense to using it to (attempt to) advance U.S. interests began in the 50's during the build up of nuclear weapons. (I say "attempt" because it is doubtful that the results of intervention have benefitted our interests.) General Curtis LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, asked for and got the money and authority needed to give the U.S. overwhelming capability for destruction using nuclear arms. The quote below gives a window into the mood of the times:

"...Strategic Air Command and Gathering of Eagles, serious movies made by serious filmmakers, qualify as camp. Meanwhile, Dr. Strangelove, an exceedingly funny movie, retains its standing as a serious commentary on the absurdity of nuclear war..."

The public bought into the ideas in Strategic Air Command and Gathering of Eagles during the time when those ideas were the basis for policy, although they soon became laughable and horrific. But the damage was done and the legacy (multiplied many times over) is with us today and probably for years to come.

Vietnam was a sort of turning point, for a few decades making U.S. Presidents very reluctant to commit military forces, but Bacevich points out how quickly this lesson has been un-learned and erased from the national conciousness. In fact, Bacevich seems to imply that Gen. David Petraeus rewrote the Army Field Manual on Counter Insurgency precisely to justify this strategy in Iraq, when it had been discredited in Vietnam. The real lesson military brass learned from Vietnam, according to the author, is that operations that take very much time will lose public support. But this check has been removed by having an all-volunteer military. Now we have over one hundred thousand (I think this is the number) soldiers deployed in combat and most of us hardly notice. It makes an argument for bringing back the draft.

The best question posed in this book is:

Wouldn't it be sufficient if the United States' military budget was equal to the combined budgets of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, instead of
"40% of global arms spending and ... over six times larger than the military budget of China" ( How many of you knew this? It is clear that we have moved well beyond the motivation of defense.

My feeling is that by maintaining this huge military capability we create the temptation to use it. We need to take this option off the table. If our military budget were the size Bacevich suggests I don't think we'd be able to consider things like fighting a war in Afghanistan.