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Book Review: The U.S. War Machine


The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril by Eugene Jarecki (New York: Free Press, 2008); 336 pages.

Many supporters of Barack Obama are disappointed that he has not reversed the war policies of his predecessor. He did his best to continue the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Afghanistan war rages far beyond what was seen under George W. Bush. Obama has also proved militaristic in operations in Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan, and in the sanctions against Iran. The attacks on civil liberties and human rights continue on the same path that Bush forged.

Obama gave indications early on that that would be his trajectory. He always promised to expand the Afghanistan war. He never vowed to cut and run from Iraq any faster than was established policy by the time Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement in late 2008. As a U.S. senator, he voted to legalize Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, foreshadowing his future sellouts as president on the civil-liberties front.

Yet the reason for the continuity of militarism transcends anything that can be found in Obama himself. The sad truth is that Bush’s two terms were never quite the aberration that they were widely characterized as being. His neoconservative advisors were particularly belligerent in some avenues of foreign-policy theory, but they never represented a hard break from American traditions going back several generations.

On the eve of the Iraq war, Bush partisans joyously pointed out that Bill Clinton too had waged war, just as unilaterally, in Serbia less than four years before. They insisted that most of Bush’s policies at home and abroad had plenty of precedent. They were right.

Throughout American history we see many precursors for U.S. warmaking. Ever since World War I, the United States has maintained an active role in global affairs, at the cost of many thousands of American lives and many domestic freedoms. Two decades earlier, the United States was internationally belligerent in the 1898 war with Spain. Long before that, American warmaking had plenty of opportunities to show itself in the century between the Constitution’s adoption and the dawn of the Progressive Era — an invasion of Canada, war with Mexico, and Abraham Lincoln’s war against the South drenched the nineteenth century in statism and blood.

Executive secrets and conspiracy in World War II

Yet much more recently than any of those antecedents to the modern war machine, a major shift took place. And that was World War II, the “Good War,” the last clear-cut and most widely celebrated military victory enjoyed by the United States, the one to which liberals unfavorably compare Bush’s adventures and conservatives invoke as precedents for their own preferred war policies. It was in World War II that the U.S. warfare state blossomed into its modern form.

How fitting, then, that it is the event that marks the chronological beginning of Eugene Jarecki’s narrative in his exciting and compelling book, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril. He sets up the story appropriately:

At first glance, George W. Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the wars each presided over might seem to have little in common. Roosevelt is widely seen as a national hero who oversaw a military, moral, and leadership triumph; Bush is the reverse on all counts. Yet there are parallels to how each president guided America into conflict and transformed the country’s foreign policy profile. Before there was “a new Pearl Harbor,” there was the original.

That is a refreshingly insightful point. And while the allied war effort and the war on terror are seen as very different animals, especially by liberals, Jarecki notes the important similarities. First, there is that question of Pearl Harbor. “If Roosevelt had a Richard Perle,” the author writes, “it would have to have been Commander Arthur McCollum.” McCollum, a top naval officer who favored U.S. entry into World War II, formulated a memo describing eight policies the Roosevelt administration could pursue that would encourage Japan to initiate war. Roosevelt’s officials “understood long before Pearl Harbor … that without such an attack, America could not be put on a war footing.” In addition to McCollum there was War Secretary Henry Stimson, who wrote in his diary on November 25, 1941, “[The] question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” Jarecki does not go so far as to completely adopt the revisionist line on Roosevelt’s possible foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, but he draws thoughtful attention to the major works — in particular, Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit (2000).

The immediate effect of the Pearl Harbor attack was U.S. entry into World War II, which introduced “increasing militarism into the nation’s daily life.” That cultural shift was actively advanced by Washington, which colluded with Hollywood and others to disseminate pro-war propaganda. The military encouraged Frank Capra to produce his Why We Fight series of films, which “cast America’s role in World War II in terms of the larger global conflict between freedom and slavery, light and dark, good and evil.”

The war also transformed American government from its essentially republican nature. While noting that Roosevelt had already expanded and abused presidential power with such antics as his New Deal court-packing scheme, Jarecki finds even greater aggrandizement of executive authority during the war, particularly in Executive Order 9066, which “resulted in the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, roughly 60 percent of whom were American-born citizens.” Perhaps even bolder was “the secrecy with which the now infamous Manhattan Project was implemented” — “nothing on FDR’s watch was more challenging to the separation of powers.”

Harry Truman took over America’s nuclear “arsenal of democracy” upon Roosevelt’s death, and won the distinction as the first and so far only political leader to launch nuclear weapons against civilians. The author cites numerous U.S. leaders who looked upon the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as unnecessary and immoral. He gives fair attention to various theories why Truman dropped the bombs if they were not necessary, and without giving a definitive answer he notes,

From a foreign policy perspective, the use of the bombs killed two birds with one stone — ending the war with Japan while firing the first shot in the Cold War against the Soviet Union…. [The] bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are an extreme case of the kind of self-perpetuating militarism feared by the framers.

So Truman ended World War II and began the Cold War with an apocalyptic bang. What’s more, he framed the beginnings of America’s conflict with the Soviet Union in ways that changed America. The domino theory that gained ground in his administration had lasting effects on U.S. diplomacy and anti-communist concerns at home. It became “the foundation of his argument for a new U.S. foreign policy” as the Truman doctrine was forged in response to the threat of communist influence in Turkey and Greece. The new policy represented

a sea change, the most significant expansion of American foreign policy since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Monroe had broadened America’s military mandate from self-defense to the defense of all free peoples in the western hemisphere. The Truman Doctrine went further, interpreting a threat to free people anywhere as a threat to America.

The late 1940s also featured a major rearrangement of power relations within the U.S. defense establishment. Authority shifted from the State Department to new authority centers in the Defense Department, the CIA, the National Security Council, and the newly created independent Air Force. Some of the changes were put in place by a Republican Congress determined to “reverse elements of FDR’s executive tilt.” Yet “while the State Department was surely weakened … — perhaps excessively — it would be hard to argue, sixty years later, that the effort to rein in the power of the executive has succeeded.”

Another failure of the Republicans to stem the imperialist tide came in the Eisenhower administration. While “departing from the traditional Republican isolationism” in his 1952 campaign, Eisenhower still represented a less-activist war policy than the two hyperinterventionist Democratic presidencies he followed. He feared that “in a determined effort to outproduce the Soviet Union, the United States had begun to spend a disproportionate amount on defense in comparison with other areas of its national life.” He was “repulsed by profligate spending on defense.” His withdrawal from Korea and introduction of the New Look policy showed a measure of restraint.” But it was also on Eisenhower’s watch that “the United States entered the era of covert activity,” with coups in Guatemala and Iran and a general expansion of CIA influence under its director, Allen Dulles.

Yet for most of the Cold War the CIA proved very limited in its supposed main activity, gathering intelligence:

It failed to predict the Soviet detonation of the atom bomb in 1949, the 1950 invasion of South Korea, popular uprisings in Eastern Europe during the 1950s, the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the 1979 Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, [and] the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The so-called “bomber gap” and “missile gap” and other Cold War frauds are also discussed in The American Way of War, and there is a bit of discussion of Vietnam and other hot conflicts, although they are not the focus. All in all, Jarecki very nicely explores the new principal role of covert war in U.S. policy along with the general solidification of the permanent warfare state and military-industrial complex during the Cold War and its immediate “peacetime” aftermath, preparing the reader for the next major era of U.S. militarism.

A war of terror at home and abroad

It will always be important to understand the specific ways the Bush administration stretched executive power and built up the warfare state in the years following 9/11. Yet his national security policies followed the logic of previous excursions and institutional orientations.

While the neocons were champions of the somewhat novel foreign-policy philosophy behind Iraqi regime change, the operation represented militarily something more in line with establishment designs. Even the military tactics of the Bush years demonstrate both the continuity with and retreat from the past. Shock and Awe, the opening bombing campaign in Iraq in 2003, signaled the beginning of

a fulfillment of Eisenhower’s fears of runaway American militarism. Yet, to its planners, the opening strike seemed a natural extension of America’s expanding foreign policy role since World War II and of the technological advances made possible by the American way of war…. Despite the defense secretary’s apparent collaboration … there is no evidence from Rumsfeld’s history that he was inclined toward the kind of Pax Americana the neocons advocate. To him, [Shock and Awe] more narrowly represented the fulfillment of a technological military ideal, one that had emerged over the decades of his military-industrial career.

To the extent the Iraq war has symbolized a break from previous traditions, it has often been establishment voices condemning its betrayal of the limits of U.S. power. “Ultimately, the Iraq War’s descent from a technocrat’s fantasy of transformational war into a quagmire … has vindicated those who opposed Rumsfeld’s approach in the first place: General Shineki, General Schwarzkopf … General Franks.” The Iraq War’s hubristic goals coupled with poor planning and execution “undermined the very strategic precepts [the war] was meant to demonstrate.”

Other elements of Bush’s war on terror are defined by their building on older U.S. practices while deviating in important ways from past experience. The very doctrine of preemptive war was not completely new, except in the overtness of it all, which “departed from [American] traditions so brazenly [and] makes yesterday’s aberration today’s standard operating procedure.” This tendency was further seen in the administration’s flouting of “vital checks on its conduct of office” in handling intelligence running up to the Iraq war, and in its gross attacks on the separation of powers and civil liberties, in each case building on past precedents to break new ground in presidential prerogative.

Bush’s NSA wiretapping program was “a far-reaching attack” on both congressional and judicial authority with only a few parallels in the past, and although “past administrations have asserted [executive privilege] from time to time, the Bush administration has done so with unprecedented vigor.” Bush’s “firing of eight U.S. attorneys” in 2006 “represented both a politically motivated purge [and] a preemptive attack on the judicial system” — and although the administration’s “scorn for certain judges is not an altogether new phenomenon,” wrote former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, “the breadth and intensity of rage currently being leveled at the judiciary may be unmatched in American history.”

On detention policy, although Bush is “not the first American president to [use an enemy-combatant doctrine], and although he was empowered by the precedents of Lincoln and Roosevelt, no administration has ever asserted more unilateral discretion over and to what extent the country will abide by the constitutional requirement to uphold the writ of habeas corpus.” In the whole discussion of a “balance” between liberty and executive-pursued security, the Bush administration leaned toward the latter, as is discussed in Jarecki’s fine treatment of the legal philosophy put forth by high Justice Department official John Yoo.

The Bush stance on national security — largely adopted by the Obama administration — raises two points that do not contradict one another but require nuance and balance to be understood in concert. First are the many ways the Bush years were not a retreat from past U.S. experience, the many ways that expansions of presidential power, deception, imperial muscle flexing, and a permanently influential defense establishment were entrenched American traditions for three generations before the planes hit the World Trade Center.

The second point is the key ways in which the Bush years built and expanded on past precedents and broke new ground. Although Bush was not the first imperial president, he was an important one in the history of the U.S. warfare state’s development. Jarecki tells this story very well, in exciting prose and with something of a fair mind given to both revisionist and official versions of U.S. diplomatic history. The American Way of War is a solid addition to the critical literature about U.S. wars and foreign policy since the 1940s.

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    Anthony Gregory is the author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and American Surveillance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). He is a former policy adviser for The Future of Freedom Foundation.