America’s Endless Wars
Are Destroying this Great Nation
Can we stop the train before it crashes?
Terrence McNally and Andrew Bacevich
September 6, 2010
Andrew Bacevich speaks with a fairly unique mix of experience, authority,
passion and wisdom in questioning our nation’s priorities: specifically our
willingness to place so much of our national identity, wealth, attention,
moral practice, and finally the life and blood of many thousands of our
citizens and millions of those of other countries in the hands of our military.
A professor of history and international relations at Boston University,
Bacevich served twenty-three years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank
of colonel. He lost his son in Iraq. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy,
he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton
University. He is the author of several books, including The New American
Militarism; The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism; and his
latest, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
McNally: Your book, Washington Rules, opens with a moment that you offer
as a turning point: could you share that experience?
Bacevich: The moment occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I
was still in the army at the time. I’d spent a considerable time serving in
Germany with my family, but this was the first time we visited Berlin. I
wanted to visit the Brandenburg Gate, because for me, it had been for
decades this quintessential symbol of international politics in our time.
Late on a rainy, very cold winter night, we approached the Gate from the old
East Berlin side and found young men huddled between its columns peddling
bits and pieces of Soviet military gear: buttons, hats, parts of uniforms. I
bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet tank corps,
which broke about two weeks later. It was all junk, and the men, who clearly
were off-duty Russian soldiers, looked anything but ten feet tall.
At that moment – I’m not going to say my worldview was suddenly
transformed – but certain seeds of doubt were planted. I began to wonder if
I had misperceived the “other” that I was now confronting for the first
time. As I considered that possibility, I began to entertain the possibility
that I had misperceived many other things, and so began an intellectual
journey that has continued now for about 20 years.
McNally: You set forth on a process of inquiry and self-education to learn
what had been obscured to you in the past. You began this process while you
were still in the military?
Bacevich: Well, I left the army maybe two years later, and that’s when the
questions began to come fast and furious. I came to realize – and it’s not
some startling insight – that when you exist inside of an institution,
particularly an institution that has an all-encompassing role such as a
religious order or the military, it’s very difficult to view that institution
critically. It’s very difficult even to understand some of the assumptions that
define the institution’s view of truth. It’s only when you’re able to stand
apart from the institution, that critical thought becomes possible. When
I left the army in 1992, the process of seeking to identify and to answer first
order questions really began.
McNally: What do you mean by first order questions?
Bacevich: A couple of the first order questions that have preoccupied me:
What exactly drives US policy? What makes us do what we do with regard to
the rest of the world?
As a young boy growing up and as a serving officer, I generally accepted the
official view that we did what we did because it was necessary to respond to
external threat: that our policy in a sense was defensive and reactive. I
subsequently came to believe that’s not true. We do what we do largely in
response to domestic, political, economic and ideological imperatives, and
the motive for US policy emerges from within; it does not come from without.
A second first order question had to do with the nature of war and the
efficacy of force. I think most military professionals accept the conviction
within their professions that war continues to be an effective instrument of
statecraft. Despite my own service in Vietnam – which I recognized had been
a disaster – I still largely subscribed to that idea. It was only after I
got out of the army — and in particular after the US embarked upon what
seemed to be a never-ending series of interventions abroad, most of which
failed to deliver on the promises that had justified them — that I really
began to rethink my view of war itself.
McNally: What to you is the crucial evidence that America’s approach to
foreign and military policy is broken, that it doesn’t work?
Bacevich: I think that an effective approach to national security is one
that will keep us safe, and that will preserve and even enhance our
prosperity, thereby enabling citizens to pursue life, liberty and happiness;
and it will do all that at a relatively reasonable cost. And I think it’s
pretty clear, especially if we look at the post-9/11 period, that the
existing approach to national security policy – what I call the Washington
Rules – fails on every point. It’s not keeping us safe; it’s certainly
depleting our resources; it’s not building our prosperity; and it’s costing
a ton of money. The Washington Rules that I try to describe in the book
originated in the immediate wake of World War II. They were expressions of a
national security consensus that may well have worked at one time, but I
would argue strongly that they no longer work at all. This consensus, having
outlived its utility, is badly in need of being junked.
McNally: What are those rules? You say they consist of a credo and a trinity
of means, right?
Bacevich: The credo asserts a claim, and out of that claim comes a demand
that the United States be able to exercise certain prerogatives. The second
piece of the Washington Rules I label the sacred trinity, core principles
that define the way we conceive of and use our military power. The elements
of the sacred trinity are the following: first of all, a demand that the
United States exclusively maintain a global military presence; second, the
practice of configuring US forces not to defend the country, but so that
they can serve as instruments of power projection; and then finally, to
combine that global presence with those global power projection capabilities
to support a policy of global interventionism.
This sacred trinity is really what distinguishes the United States’ military
power. The Brits at one time had a dominant battle fleet; France in the time
of Napoleon had a people in arms; what we have is the sacred trinity. And,
to emphasize what I think is the key point, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed
McNally: You make the point that all of this consistently goes unquestioned,
and that both political parties and the mainstream media begin at second and
third order questions.
Bacevich: Exactly right. One of the reasons that I use religiously loaded
language — an American credo and the sacred trinity — to describe the
Washington Rules is that I think this approach to national security policy
has ascended to the point that it’s kind of a quasi-religion.
Washington subscribes to these principles as a matter of faith. There is no
empirical evidence to suggest that the American credo is valid or is true,
but every president, up to and including President Obama, in their speeches
and their language repeatedly — in somewhat different words from one
president to the next — reaffirms the credo. And the policies pursued by
the Pentagon, supported by the Congress, and largely endorsed by the
mainstream media, reaffirm the elements of the sacred trinity.
McNally: Let me read a piece of Obama’s speech last December when, after
the very public period of analysis, he announced that the US would send an
additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
“More than any other nation, the United States of America has
underwritten global security for over six decades, a time that for all its
problems has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted
from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, advancing frontiers of
human liberty. For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought
world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression.
We do not seek to occupy other nations; we will not claim another
nation’s resources or target other people because their faith or ethnicity
is different from ours. What we have fought for, what we continue
to fight for is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and
we believe that their lives will be better if other people’s children and
grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.”
To me, that very much has that sense – whether he and his speechwriters are
aware of it or not – of a credo handed down, untouchable and unquestionable.
Bacevich: It is such a sanitized version of our history in the past five or
six decades that it shouldn’t pass the laugh test. Yet I think it’s an
excellent example of the way political leaders perpetuate the credo: Obama
putting his own stamp of approval on an image of our role in the world that
everybody, at least since Franklin Roosevelt, has embraced.
McNally: Again using the religious metaphor, it’s as if someone ascends to
the cardinalship, and then publicly pledges allegiance to the credo that’s
been handed down to them.
McNally: What are the causes, the history and the culprits? In this book,
although you certainly deal with the present predicament, with Iraq and
Afghanistan, you also take us back. There are characters I hadn’t read about
in quite a while — Allan Dulles, Curtis Lemay and Maxwell Taylor. How did
we get here from the end of WWII?
Bacevich: I think the short version goes like this. When the national
security consensus was forged in the wake of WWII and the Washington
Rules came into existence, they were not entirely irrational. I think you can
make a strong case that American leadership and American military power
were necessary in order to try to deal with the wreckage left behind by the
war, to help to rebuild the liberal democratic world in order to resist the
ambitions of Joseph Stalin. But the world that existed at the end of the
1940s no longer exists today, yet people in Washington tend to act as if the
world has not changed at all.
So where did things go wrong? Things went wrong when the institutions —
the Pentagon, the CIA, components of the military industrial complex —
came to value the Washington Rules because they were good for the
institutions, and gradually lost sight of the extent to which adhering to this
national security consensus was good or not good for the nation itself.
Let’s get specific here. In the wake of WWII, our global military presence
first took shape in Western Europe and Japan, and it was probably necessary
in the near term. That presence abroad contributed to our safety and our
wellbeing. But fast-forward to the post-Cold War period and our increasing
military presence in places like the greater Middle East. You’d have to be
crazy to think that the American military presence in Saudi Arabia after the
first Gulf War, in Iraq after 2003, or in Afghanistan ever since 9/11,
contributes to stability and security. That presence abroad actually
enhances anti-Americanism and creates greater instability, but the Pentagon,
committed to the proposition that we need to maintain this global military
presence, is blind to the down side.
McNally: Let’s look at the current situation in Afghanistan. You note that
over the years there’s been flexibility in interpretation of the rules. For
example, Kennedy comes in, reverses Eisenhower’s stance, and ends up going
to Vietnam. Another example, Petraeus at one point seems absolutely against
anything that would ever be considered counterinsurgency and later becomes
the god of counterinsurgency. There’s flexibility with how we do what we do,
but never with why.
Bacevich: Periodically in this roughly six decade long period that the book
tries to evaluate, there arises a great desire to create new instruments of
military power that will make that power more useable. You cite two very
good examples of this tendency.
By the time we get to the end of the 1950s, the end of the Eisenhower era,
Ike and those around him had pretty much concluded that war as traditionally
conceived had reached a dead end, that nuclear weapons for the most part
made war unusable. Eisenhower’s policy was to wave the big stick of massive
retaliation to keep the Soviets from doing anything. The people that came
into office with Kennedy thought that was inadequate, they wanted to make
force useable. They pursued this idea under the rubric of flexible response,
one of the defective ideas that put us on the road to Vietnam.
Fast forward to the Iraq war and the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, when
the US, thinking that it achieved a great victory, suddenly found itself
faced with an insurgency and the prospect of never-ending conflict. Now
David Petraeus leads the way, but he’s not alone in trying to revive an
approach to warfare that once again would make American military power
useful. There is a reoccurring tendency to want to find ways to make force
McNally: The Founding Fathers are constantly referred to by the Right, more
than the Left, as the source of direction and wisdom. Yet, as you point out,
their counsel on foreign policy is absolutely the opposite of where we are
now and where we’ve been for the past 50 years. Let me read a quote of
yours: “We are headed towards ever greater more difficult economic times
that will result in us failing in our most fundamental obligation laid out
in the preamble of the Constitution which is to provide the blessings of liberty
for ourselves and our posterity. The path on which we have embarked and
which we continue to pursue is very much at odds with what the founding
purpose of this republic was supposed to be.”
Bacevich: To my mind, the most important word in that quote is “posterity”.
The purpose of the Union is not simply to act in ways that will make you and
me happy, but we are called upon to pursue a path that will also enable
those who follow us to have an opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and
happiness. Of course, everybody mouths that cliché, but our failure is
becoming increasingly apparent, above all, in the enormous debt that we are
piling up — not entirely due to our misguided national security policy, but
in part. I think that we are increasingly approaching the point where it’s
going to become impossible for posterity to have the same opportunities that
we have, and that is an enormously important reason to take stock of our
over-militarized approach to policy.
McNally: Let me remind people: When presidents, who now love to call
themselves Commander in Chief, take the oath of office, it is not to defend
our shores, our geography, or even our populace, it is to defend our
constitution. As you point out, Adams, Washington and others said our role
is as an exemplar not as an enforcer.
Bacevich: I think, to the extent that we have a responsibility to the world,
it’s time to renew that argument. Should we try to fulfill that responsibility,
as we have for the past 60 years, based on expectations of what military
power can do? Or is it possible that we can best serve others by
demonstrating that liberal values do have value? Could fulfilling the
aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the
Constitution serve at least modestly to help other peoples in other nations
to take their own paths toward self-determination — rather than acting, as
we do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as if we know best how to
determine their futures.
I find it preposterous that President Obama — someone who I think is a
tremendously smart man, someone who basically I respect — could believe
that we have the ability to create a state, create a government, create
institutions across the vast cultural divide that separates Afghans from
McNally: I walked along the beach the afternoon of 9/11, shell-shocked as we
all were, and I asked myself what question should we be asking now? And to
me it was, “Have we done everything we could to minimize the possibilities
of such terrorism?” Of course, security would be part of the answer, but
much more it would be whatever we could do to isolate such terrorists as
pariahs in their own society. This would be about being an exemplar, perhaps
things like Marshall Plans, possibly finding a way to expand education that
wouldn’t trample on culture, etc.
July 2010 was the deadliest month for the US military in Afghanistan, 66
deaths, a devastating month for Afghans, more than 270 civilians killed, 600
wounded. Rather than ask you what do you think needs to happen in
Afghanistan right now, let me ask a larger question — what exactly is the
threat that the US faces from these radical violent Islamists and what
strategy should the US pursue in order to deal with that threat?
Bacevich: That’s an excellent question. First of all, the threat is not Islam or
Fascism; the threat is not Nazi Germany in some sort of new guise.
Those sorts of notions that were frequently voiced after 9/11, and are still
voiced in the more militarized quarters of the right wing, are ludicrous.
Violent anti-Western Jihadism does pose a real threat, but the threat falls
well short of being existential.
The notion that we should take seriously the ambitions of Osama Bin Laden
to create a new caliphate, uniting the entire Islamic world under his control,
is preposterous. He’s no more likely to create a new caliphate than I am to
become the next pope in Rome. The threat ought to have been categorized, and
today should be categorized, as a form of international criminal conspiracy:
a kind of Mafia that derives a certain amount of its energy by perverting a
religious tradition. And the proper response to an international criminal
conspiracy is an international police effort.
Our approach — President Bush’s approach now continued in Afghanistan by
President Obama, which emphasizes invading, occupying and then trying to
transform countries — doesn’t work, costs way too much money, expends far
too many American lives, and at the end of the day probably serves more
than anything else to simply exacerbate the number of people who see us as
infidels and occupiers.
McNally: On the response side, you say treat it as a criminal conspiracy.
Countries who have done so, or even the instances where we have done so,
have found some success. What should we do in terms of prevention?
Bacevich: Here I suspect I may differ from you. You mentioned things like a
Marshall Plan. I’m pretty skeptical about our ability to mobilize resources
in ways that can engineer positive change in the Islamic world. My belief
would be that the people of the Islamic world are going to have to find
their own path to reconciling their religious traditions with the demands of
modernity. I don’t mean that we should turn our backs on this dilemma that
they are wrestling with. Let’s have exchange programs; let’s bring young
people from that part of the world to study in our universities; let’s
encourage cultural exchanges. But I don’t believe that in Afghanistan or
Iraq or Pakistan or Yemen, that a set of programs put together by the
federal government of the US can make anything more than a marginal
difference. My own view is that we need to let Islam be Islam. They are
going to have to sort out their own future.
What we need to do in the interim is to insulate ourselves from any violence
that the internal crisis in the Islamic world may give rise to. To my mind,
the most important thing to take from 9/11 is that our federal, state and
local agencies charged with defending us, failed. If you leave the front door
of your house wide open every night and sooner or later somebody comes
in and steals your family silver, well, certainly the crooks need to be
pursued and brought to justice, but shame on you for leaving your front door
open. In effect that was what the agencies responsible for aviation security
had done up until 9/11.*
McNally: I realize that some of the thoughts I had on 9/11 have shifted by
now. For one, the America that could afford a Marshall Plan after WWII is
not the one that we exist in right now.
Bacevich: I think that’s tremendously important. We don’t live in the world
that existed when the Marshall Plan was enacted. In 1947 we had the money
and we made the stuff that everybody else wanted to buy around the world.
We now live in a world in which the Chinese have the money and everybody
makes stuff that our never-ending appetite for consumption insists we need
to buy — despite the fact that it just makes us go deeper in debt.
McNally: You go much more into our hunger for consumption and our
ignorance of meaning in your previous book, Limits of Power, which I highly
To return to Petraeus for a moment: You point out that when he reflected on
Vietnam, he thought counterinsurgency had no future. He then he writes a
reformulation of counterinsurgency and it becomes the solution. What has
gone unnoticed or at least unspoken is that the whole notion of the surge is
based on the recognition that victory is impossible.
Bacevich: In the wake of Vietnam, the army in particular wanted to run away
from counterinsurgency as fast as it possibly could, and return to the
business of conventional war. Experiences in Desert Storm in 1991 and in the
second Iraq War in 2003 for a time seemed to show that the US military had
figured out how to gain a quick and decisive victory. That was an illusion
that the insurgencies in Iraq and now in Afghanistan have dispatched. The
counterinsurgency doctrine revised by Petraeus in effect declares that there
is no such thing as a military solution to conflicts like these, and certainly
there is no such thing as military victory. That may not seem odd to many
people, but the whole notion that victory is possible forms the basis of the
military profession’s claim to have a distinct professional existence.
McNally: — and value.
Bacevich: Because if we can’t count on the army to win the war quickly and
expeditiously, then why would we ever go to war in the first place?
McNally: Right. You need to say, “Wait a minute, we have to consider the
tools of soft power and other forms of engagement because military force has
enormous cost — and if it can’t ensure success…”
Bacevich: We’ve spent probably close to a trillion dollars on the Iraq war.**
Had we instead spent a trillion dollars elsewhere in the Islamic world
promoting education programs or economic development or women’s rights,
would we have gotten more for our money? Even a skeptic of soft power
like me would say, I have no doubt that we would have gotten more.
McNally: In an op-ed in the New York Times, Nick Kristof wrote that at the
cost of $1 million per soldier per year in Afghanistan, that same money
could open 20 schools.
Based on the fact that counterinsurgency recognizes the unlikelihood of
victory, I want you to respond to this statement by Obama: “The United
States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don’t quit.
The American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere and
together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of
Bacevich: I don’t know why he says things like that. My assumption is that
politicians always place politics at the heart of what they say and do, or
at least they’re surrounded by advisers who are acutely sensitive to the
We have a president who embraced counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,
and then proceeded preposterously to establish a deadline of the summer of
2011 to begin withdrawing US forces. The likelihood of being able to
successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency over a period of 18 months is
not very great. So the president I think, come December of 2011, when political
considerations will really be moving to center stage…
McNally: It won’t be Congress he’s worried about, but his own re-election.
Bacevich: Exactly right. How the heck he is going to deal with these “we
never quit”, “I know we will prevail” promises if the war is still going badly
at that point? I think the President’s going to be in a real fix.
McNally: Let me quote a July article you wrote called Non Believer, in which
you contrast George Bush and Barack Obama. You write:
“When Bush stands before his maker he will say without fear of
contradiction, ‘I did what I thought was right.’ On the other hand, when
called upon to account for his presidency, honesty will prevent Obama
from making a comparable claim. ‘The problems I inherited were
difficult ones,’ he will say. ‘None of the choices were good ones. Things
were complicated.’ The question demands to be asked, who is more
deserving of contempt: the commander in chief who sends young
Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely
believes, or the commander in chief who sends young Americans to
die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses
Bacevich: I think with the Afghanistan decision, the President was trying to
finesse a set of problems. At that point, I think he wanted to spend his
chips on certain domestic reform propositions: healthcare and economic
stimulus. My guess is that he or those around him decided that to take on
the Washington Rules would have been very difficult. Indeed it would have
My guess is that he decided that the more expedient course was to continue
to play along with the Washington Rules in Afghanistan, to make good on his
domestic reform plans, and then go back to the war. My belief is that it’s
going to be too late; that having become Obama’s war, it is not something
that he’s going to be able to easily back away from in 2011. Yet, if he
persists in fighting Obama’s war, then many of us who supported him for the
presidency in the first place are going to wonder if maybe our votes should
McNally: At this point let’s turn to the deeper question: we can’t expect
you to read the President’s mind, his advisers’ mind, or that of anyone who’s
been in power for the last 50 years — but what is it that keeps the Washington
Rules going despite the failure in Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union,
plus Iraq, Afghanistan, and all of the other adventures? Under Reagan, Bush
Sr. and Clinton, the use of force became more frequent and less controversial.
Who are they beholden to? What is the calculus that keeps them doing this
when it seems to have so much downside?
Bacevich: Well, there’s a downside for the country, but the Washington Rules
benefit Washington. They provide enormous profit for the military industrial
complex. Out of those profits come campaign contributions to members of
Congress, who are always worried about reelection. They justify the budget
of the Pentagon and the intelligence community; they provide a source of
prerogatives for institutions and for people; they allow ambitious military
officers and senior officials to believe that they are engaged in important
and historic events; and they create the rush that I think so many journalists
seek; nobody gets more excited about war than the press.
McNally: They love their pictures in a war zone.
Bacevich: The Washington Rules persist partly because we the people are
conditioned to think that there are no alternatives, and therefore we’ve
lost our ability to think critically. But more importantly, they persist because
they deliver a variety of goods to Washington itself.
McNally: Finally, if you could look back from from a decade in the future –
It’s 2020, did the US turn things around in this regard? And if your answer
is no, what were some of the consequences; if your answer is yes, how did we
Bacevich: My guess is that we will not have turned it around. The only way
that we will is if the American people become truly cognizant of the negative
effects of persisting in the Washington Rules. Effectively the volunteer
army means that most of us don’t really share in the service and sacrifice of
perpetual war. The fact that wars are funded through deficit spending means
that we don’t even feel them in our pocket book. If there is some further
economic calamity, or — and I obviously don’t want this to happen — if there
is some further 9/11 style calamity, perhaps that would jolt Americans
into a recognition that something is fundamentally amiss and something
needs to change. My guess, however, is that it’s not all that likely.
Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA
I99.5FM, New York (streaming at kpfk.org and wbai.org). He also advises
non-profits and foundations on communications. Visit terrencemcnally.net for
podcasts of all interviews and more.
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