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Books: Why we're at war all the time

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Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich (Metropolitan Books, 250 pages, $25).

The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's by Tom Engelhardt (Haymarket Books, 269 pages $16.95).

It's almost hard to imagine these days, but until the Japanese forced America's hand by attacking Pearl Harbor, a large majority of Americans wanted no part of another foreign war. And they certainly didn't want to pay for a large, permanent military establishment. To Americans in those more modest times, all those uniforms, and all that marching and strutting around seemed, well, silly, and so terribly European — and look where all the big talk and cool uniforms had gotten Europe between 1914 and 1918. As I said, it's hard today to imagine that those attitudes were ever the consensus American view, although historically, resistance to over-militarization is a long U.S. tradition going back to Pres. Washington's Farewell Address in which he warned against "foreign entanglements."

These days, many Americans simply assume that our role as cops of the world, featuring the most dominant military force ever known as well as 1,000 foreign military bases, is part of the natural order of things. What happened to so thoroughly change American attitudes and policy? Two things: The Cold War led to excessive empire-building, or at least led to many more arms and bases than were ever needed to contain the Soviet Union; and post-WW2 prosperity that gave us money to burn on those "foreign entanglements." More to the point, however, what is the change toward global military engagement doing to our country's well-being, considering that the military consumes over half of America's research dollars, and drains enormous chunks of our treasury every year?

Those kinds of questions are addressed in two recent books, Washington Rules by Army colonel turned academic, Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power; and The American Way of War by editor/journalist Tom Engelhardt.

The books couldn't be more different in approach. Engelhardt's is a collection of long, revised posts from his tomdispatch.com blog, and were originally commentaries about the Iraq and Afghan wars; while Bacevich presents a unified series of arguments (luckily, Bacevich's writing isn't wonky at all and, in fact, makes for a very good read).

Bacevich essentially takes a long look at the Washington consensus on "national security" — the "Washington rules" — and why it has to change. Engelhardt's book focuses more on how that national security consensus is being carried out today, while documenting the U.S.'s continuing commitment to widespread military bases and military "solutions" to foreign policy problems. Engelhardt's emphasis is more immediate, while Bacevich provides the background for how we got to our present state of uneasy empire-keeping.

The major tenets of American military policy have been in place for around 60 years and center around the idea that the world should be organized to suit American principles and economic interests, even if that means going to war overseas. Bacevich is unsparing in his critique of what the policy is doing to America's economy and image around the world. According to the author, our national security policy has ballooned so far beyond any rational need, it is condemning our nation to "insolvency and perpetual war," despite the fact that there is no longer a huge, well-armed enemy to be found since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Engelhardt points to America's dwindling worldwide reputation, and how that has been directly caused by our seeming willingness to send troops anywhere on earth at the drop of a hat. The author reports on vast increases in civilian deaths, what the military calls "collateral damage," and demonstrates that they have gradually turned our nation from an international "good guy" in much of the world's eyes into the bully on the world's block.

Both authors argue that our ongoing faith in military power to force others to accommodate America's wants and needs (including cheap oil, most of all) has become self-destructive and increasingly unaffordable. Neither writer, however, is optimistic about big changes occurring in our "national security" attitudes anytime soon. Bacevich writes that the Washington rules may have come to full flower with the Bush administration's doctrine of preventive war, but no one should get their hopes up for a change under Obama. "We should be grateful to [Obama]," says Bacevich, "for making one thing unmistakably clear: to imagine that Washington will ever tolerate second thoughts about the Washington rules is to engage in willful self-deception. Washington itself has too much to lose." It's not the kind of "pretty truth" many want out of books, but Bacevich is probably right, so there you have it.

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