Andrew J. Bacevich’s publisher should send a copy of his Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War to President Obama, so important is his message and so authoritative his brief. His realistic and reflective thesis is that during the past half century and to the present day the United States has pursued a flawed foreign policy based on a triad of questionable premises — the need for global presence, the projection of power, and the need for self-determined interventionism. Rationalized upon varying claimed provocations — the Cold War, dominoes of creeping communism in Asia, international terrorism — this triad invariably has led us into failed and very costly misadventures. The triad has been propagated by the military officer corps, the permanent foreign policy establishment in government and in think tanks, and their complementary corporate contractor sponsors. It has governed Republican and Democratic administrations, conservative and liberal governments, and has cost the country dearly in lives and treasure. This good versus evil policy — like evangelical religious crusades — has afflicted humankind in the names of peace and democracy. Packaged as righteous patriotism that makes critics appear weak and faithless, this credo has monopolized modern presidents, most recently inhibiting President Obama’s ability to fix Cleveland and Detroit rather than Baghdad and Kabul, to use Professor Bacevich’s metaphor.

For those who may be anguishing about this country’s current actions in Afghanistan (approaching year 10), Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules provides scholarly evidence and practical experience to support that anguish. A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran, now a retired (after 23 years) Army colonel, Bacevich brings the perspectives of two careers — military and academic — to his critique of conventional wisdom about statecraft. On a personal level, Bacevich is the father of a soldier son killed in Iraq in 2007 — his family has suffered profoundly for the foreign policy he considers and condemns here. After switching careers and mindsets about the role of military might, Bacevich questions prevailing American foreign policy and our “willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places.”

Bacevich’s review of American military theory is an interesting instruction to readers. Classic theories based on the overwhelming force of military might evolved to the more modern version of “faster, bigger, sleeker,” elite manpower, contract warriors, and minimal accountability. The new “aesthetic of war” is choreographed and uses media, and it substitutes “velocity for mass” as one general described. More important, and relevant to the current debate about Iraq and Afghanistan, are the ideas of global counter-insurgency and of “generational war.” Also, part of this new form of war is the notion of “winning the hearts and minds” of foreign populations as a soldierly priority. That process is, Bacevich says, a “drawn out and dirty” endeavor. It also puts soldiers in a new role requiring cultural and social engineering — law enforcement, economic development, institution and nation building — instead of waging war toward a victorious end. Were it possible, where does it end? To end terrorism, are we to democratize and pacify Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then Somalia, and Iran, Yemen, the globe?

Bacevich argues that our foreign and military policy has become unaffordable and dangerous. Our post WW II credo — hubris, Bacevich calls it — allowed benign purposes to rationalize preventive wars, now an “ill-defined and open ended global war on terror without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like.” Our statecraft has involved staggeringly excessive military (and nuclear) capabilities, “veiled in secrecy,” in pursuit of global interventionism, first in Southeast Asia, later in the Persian Gulf. All run by the permanent armament industry, shades of Shaw’s Major Barbara.
All recent presidents and governments, Republican and Democratic, have bought into the “catechism of American Statecraft” promulgated by our national security apparatus that America must organize and police the world. A state of permanent crisis warrants high levels of military spending and the nurturing of a warrior class accountable only to what Bacevich calls “semi-warriors.” Bacevich states, “Semiwarriors created the Washington rules. Semiwarriors uphold them. Semiwarriors benefit from their persistence.” So the wars continue endlessly. President Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex.” They are our de facto government that operates the triad that Bacevich describes. From such a culture, no president starts with a clean slate, as President Kenney learned in Cuba, LBJ in Vietnam, and President Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eisenhower’s enduring warning dramatizes today’s dilemma. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocked fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he wrote, equating the costs of bombers and fighter planes to the costs of schools, hospitals, and homes. These distorted values, the former general-statesman wrote, “is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Bacevich describes how Allen Dulles at CIA, and Curtis LeMay at SAC combined to propagate this post World War II policy that “The whole world is the arena of our conflict.” Righteous warriors, bolstered by their certitude of their cause, and protected by self-policing, these two very different kinds of men combined their complementary powers into what Bacevich calls “the ying and yang of the New Security State.” Their perspectives were propagated in ensuing years, in different contexts and varied situations, with similar results, by McNamara and Bundy, Kissinger, Albright, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz on behalf of their presidents.

Bacevich argues, “The curtain is now falling on the American Century.”
Perpetual wars and misadventures require, in Bacevich’s judgment, “an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm” for which this country has paid dearly internationally and domestically. There are better alternatives, Bacevich argues, to our national security state, a “wasting asset” in his judgment. The alternative has historic roots in the words of George Washington and John Quincy Adams that the United States “go[es] not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” He quotes the more recent admonitions of George Kennan and William Fulbright that it is not the duty nor the right of the United States to sort out all the world’s problems while neglecting those at home. One modern general (David Shoup) has complained we’ve become “a militaristic and aggressive nation.”

Bacevich’s preferred policy is not isolationism or passivity, but a revision of national priorities, the end of preventive wars which Bacevich deems a “moral and strategic abomination,” and the return of the citizen soldier to replace the professional military establishment and its private security contractors. Today, .05 of the population bears the burden of military service. It was the public draft that led to the pressures to end our involvement in Vietnam.


On a recent walk through small villages in Cornwall and Devon, I ambled around centuries-old churches, each with modest cemeteries invariably marked by worn gravestones. There, each hamlet honored its war dead, heroes to king and country. The people in those small villages didn’t and don’t start wars, but they die in them. There, as in this country, the politicians who start wars never die in them; they just send off young men (recently women, too) to carry out their policies and ideologies.

Those politicians may be evil, like Hitler, or well-intended and high-minded, like the responsible American foreign policy officials since WWII. They sent off their young countrymen to various unnecessary wars, cruel assignments proudly endured. This pattern is what Andrew Bacevich demonstrates so poignantly in Washington Rules. The best and brightest, as the ironic label noted, as well as the arrogant and the devious, have sent America’s youth to death and destruction, and bankrupted the country, to fight cold wars, stabilize foreign societies, and curb terror (often by imposing it).

Gravestones and broken people are the evidence of how wrong it is to submit to the injunctions of the endless power brokers who invoke patriotism, religion, benign governmental policies to rationalize other people’s sacrifices. Bacevich’s Washington Rules should be required reading not only for our president but for all of us, because until the current policy of perpetual war changes, and there is no end in sight, we are paying too terrible a cost.

This review was published in the November 2010 issue of Washington Lawyer, The Official Journal of the District of Columbia Bar.