Our wars: using the military to do Social Work with Guns

Summary: A wonder of the age is our continued confidence on people whose decisions proved wrong in the crucible of war, while those whose advice proved correct remain on the sidelines. It’s easy to distinguish the two groups by looking at their past work. Four years later this essay by Andrew Bacevich looks prophetic. That we continue to make the same mistakes shows that we are slow to learn. That Bacevich and his peers remain on the sidelines of US policy-making shows that we are stupid. Slow and stupid are two sins always punished, eventually.

Will Work For Change


  1. “Social Work with Guns”
  2. About the author
  3. For more information

Social Work with Guns“, Andrew Bacevich
London Review of Books, 17 December 2009
Reposted with the generous permission of the LRB and Andrew Bacevich

By escalating the war in Afghanistan – sending an additional 34,000 US reinforcements in order to ‘finish the job’ that President Bush began but left undone – Barack Obama has implicitly endorsed Bush’s conviction that war provides an antidote to violent anti-Western jihadism.

By extension, Obama is perpetuating the effort begun in 1980 to establish American dominion over the Middle East, hoping through the vigorous exercise of hard power to prolong the postwar Pax Americana. In ways that Obama himself may only dimly appreciate, his decision on Afghanistan affirms the pre-existing character of US foreign policy. But by advocating ‘counter-insurgency’, the McChrystal report also represents a tacit acknowledgment that a decades-long military reform project has definitively failed.

Understanding the contradiction at the heart of McChrystal’s report requires a quick survey of the way the United States managed to mire itself in its current predicament. It’s a tale of recurring miscalculation and disappointment followed by intensified military exertions yielding disappointment on a larger scale.

It began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter formulated his response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter Doctrine, promulgated just weeks after the Red Army entered Afghanistan, declared the Persian Gulf a vital US national security interest and committed the United States to using ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to secure that interest. To make the commitment credible, the Pentagon created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), an embryonic instrument of military intervention.

At the urging of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter also initiated a programme of covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation. Oblivious (or indifferent) to the potential consequences of destabilising Afghanistan, Brzezinski hoped to turn it into Russia’s Vietnam.

Limits Of Power


Under Ronald Reagan, the RDJTF matured into United States Central Command. Reagan increased the flow of weapons and support to the mujahedin, whom he hailed as ‘freedom fighters’ and compared to the Founding Fathers. He also experimented with recruiting other proxies, such as Israel and Iraq, though with little success. Giving Israel the green light to destroy the PLO led to the Lebanon debacle in 1982. Cynically supporting Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against the mullahs in Tehran led to pointless slaughter.

Each of these episodes opened a door through which US forces entered the region. In the hope of checking Lebanon’s slide towards disintegration, Reagan dispatched a contingent of Marines to Beirut; the mission ended in failure when a Shia suicide bomber killed 241 Americans on 23 October 1983. When in 1987 the Iran-Iraq War reached stalemate, threatening to disrupt the flow of Persian Gulf oil, US naval forces assumed responsibility for escorting tankers across the Gulf, managing among other things to shoot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all 290 people on board.

Washington Rules

… By 1989, when George H.W. Bush became president, the United States had developed robust capabilities for projecting power into the wider Middle East. Yet Central Command’s mission had become fuzzy. External threats to the Persian Gulf – symbolised by the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan – had vanished. Since the Soviets had acknowledged the failure of their Afghan adventure, Bush showed no interest in filling the vacuum left behind. As far as Washington was concerned, the struggle for Afghanistan was over. ‘We won,’ the CIA station chief in Islamabad cabled headquarters.

In this interval of confusion, Saddam Hussein rode to Washington’s rescue, giving new focus to Central Command’s mandate. Violating the terms of his tacit alliance with the United States, he seized Kuwait in August 1990. Bush opted for force on a massive scale. Assisted by a motley assemblage of allies, US forces handily ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The Bush administration congratulated itself on a historic victory. Wide-ranging political benefits seemed certain to ensue, the president speaking of the emergence of a ‘new world order’. Operation Desert Storm had removed any remaining constraints on the use of American power – ‘We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome,’ Bush proclaimed – and the United States had ascended to a position of unquestioned pre-eminence, ready and able to enforce its will against any adversary misguided enough to defy it.

The Persian Gulf, it seemed, had become an American lake.

Yet once again this proved illusory. Saddam survived and retained his hold on power, crushing the Shia uprising that Bush had encouraged and then betrayed. To enforce a policy of ‘dual containment’ of both Iran and Iraq, Central Command established permanent garrisons throughout the region. During the Clinton era, US forces rotated in and out of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nearby countries. US combat aircraft patrolled Iraqi air space. Periodically, in response to provocations, real or perceived, they attacked, typically targeting installations in Iraq, but also directing bombs and missiles as far afield as Sudan and Afghanistan.

The signature of the Clinton years was force employed promiscuously, but without any pretence of expecting decisive results. Yet Clinton’s critics on the right assailed him for being timid. Among those critics was Paul Wolfowitz who, writing in 2000, lamented ‘the Clinton administration’s tendency to temporise rather than go for the jugular’.

Short American Century

After 9/11, the Bush administration went for the jugular. Rather than prompting George W. Bush to re-examine the sorry record of US policy over the previous 20 years, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon inspired him to expand American ambitions and to redouble his expectations of what military power could achieve. In declaring a global war against terrorism, Bush went after not only the jihadists who had plotted to destroy the towers, but anyone else – Saddam Hussein in the forefront – who obstructed America’s vision for the Islamic world. This was the Pax Americana on steroids.

… In remarks made to US military personnel in October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld bluntly explained the administration’s logic. ‘We have two choices,’ the defence secretary said. ‘Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter. And you are the ones who will help achieve that goal.’

… The new American way of war did not require the participation or even the active support of Americans, merely their acquiescence. This was by design: excluding the people increased the latitude exercised by officials like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, confident in their ability to wield force effectively if allowed a free hand.

Breach Of Trust

… Cui bono? For defence contractors, ‘counter-insurgency experts’ and the various institutions that make up the national security state, GCOIN – justified as necessary to prevent another 9/11, enforce the Carter Doctrine and uphold the Pax Americana – promises to be the gift that never stops giving. Perpetual war now looms as a real prospect, carrying with it abundant opportunities for exercising power, reaping profit and satisfying personal ambition.

Lost along the way is the promise of ‘change’ that vaulted Barack Obama to the White House in the first place.


(2) About the author

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author most recently of Washington Rules: The American Path to Permanent War and the editor of the new book The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just out from Harvard University Press.

Bacevich graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Vietnam from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971. Later he held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.

Read his new book: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

For a links to some of his works see:

Recent articles by Bacevich:

Social Worker Voice

(3) For More Information

Other posts by Andrew Bacevich:

  1. Stop & reflect on this key moment in US history, October 2009
  2. Expanding War, Contracting Meaning, 12 November 2009
  3. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  4. Scoring the Global War on Terror – From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds, 22 February 2012

I Love Social Work



16 thoughts on “Our wars: using the military to do Social Work with Guns”

  1. Another strong post at FM. Very informative. Sweeping overview with strong analysis. Obama’s buy-in is one more confirmation that he came to the presidency with few well formed and well thought out ideas. Rather, he had an advertising slogan, “Change You Can Believe In” that misled a lot of us into thinking he would change our militaristic foreign policy, our national tax structure, the absence of reasonable banking and corporate regulation, government spying and the current wage structure.

    Inexperienced at policy and narcissistic politically, Obama has let the juggernaut speed on nearly unimpeded. Btw, another book that ties the security-industrial complex to corporate greed, is Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” well worth the read and, additionally, the viewing of her documentary of the same name.

    1. Marc,

      I agree on all points.

      About Obama – I believed his character was quite obvious early in the 2008 election. From February 2008:

      As these problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern. Barack Obama has amazing rhetorical gifts and the potential for greatness, but becomes President with his skills immature, his vision on major questions of public policy unformed, and no executive experience. His brief career and campaign of empty rhetoric — appealing to the best of America’s history and aspirations — tell us little about the course he will chart for America, or how he will respond to the terrible choices that lie in our future.

      He provides a frame into which his followers project their dreams — a virtual reality candidate. (Candidates’ white papers, like party platforms, have historically proved poor guides to their actions)

      This is our failing, not his. High office in America goes to those with both drive and hunger for fame and power. That Obama goes along with our childlike dreams says much about us, but nothing bad about him. However the election might result in weak leadership for our national government during tough times, unless he grows in office (which would be wonderful, but not something we can rely upon). (The other remaining candidates I consider more developed personally, but probably worse for us if they gain office)

    2. Fabius,

      What a brilliant analysis you made 5 years ago. I particularly like “This is our failing, not his.” We need to look in the mirror more. And control our impulses to blame others.

    3. In considering Obama’s lack of experience, qualifications and knowledge, I came to the idea that pre-election debates at all levels should be moderated and structured by groups of leading academics. It would not be perfect, but it would be good to force potential leaders to answer tough and substantive questions to prove they actually understand economics, warfare and strategy, international relations, constitutional law, basic science, and so on.

      From Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, we keep getting Presidents whose lack of knowledge in key areas empower the insiders and bureaucrats to silently push their agendas on the American people. Whether it is a local councilman or the POTUS, a representative does not need to be an expert on everything, but he needs to know enough to call bullshit on his advisers and not let them make policy.

      1. David,

        I’ll take the other side of that question. I do not believe our Presidents need to be more stuffed with facts. No matter how much they know, they do not have sufficient knowledge to make decisions in anything without consulting experts.

        Rather I think we need Presidents with knowledge of the political arts (e.g., Lincoln, FDR, LBJ) and awareness of themselves, America, and life. Carter was well-educated, but lacked broader awareness in these things.

        As for consulting academics, I believe they should be kept away from the Presidential selection process.

        “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
        — William Buckley on “Meet the Press” (1965)

    4. “Rather I think we need Presidents with knowledge of the political arts (e.g., Lincoln, FDR, LBJ) and awareness of themselves, America, and life.”

      I think that tends to come with the sort of classical education that our society currently eschews in favor of the menial “fact” based education I think you are referring to. If you just glance at what was produced by the Greeks, you start to see the essence of politics emerging, and you might just realize not everything is completely novel and you can actually learn from history. Its a well-roundedness that is no longer present in our concept of education, even at elite institutions such as Harvard.

      In any case my comment was more about preparation than anything, as the old maxim goes, victory lies in the preparation. We have people that aspire to lead us, yet fail to consider the myriad of ways in which they will be tested. They seem to feel entitled to leadership because they fit some mold or have a certain way with shallow words, but like Obama, when they are actually faced with the enormity of forces aligned against them, they crumble at their feet instead of use those forces to help protect the interest of the people as real leaders like Lincoln did.

      I want to see them tested in some way to prove their worth in the intellectual field before we give them any power and that was the heart of the proposal. Having the debates be moderated by a panel of intellectuals would at least structure the thing to show us they have some basic knowledge. I just don’t know how someone can decide between competing economic or foreign policy visions presented to them by advisers, if they don’t have some knowledge of strategy or economics in the first place. Obviously they need experts, but they should have a far greater knowledge of what it takes to run the country than the average joe on the street.

      1. David,

        “I think that tends to come with the sort of classical education that our society currently eschews in favor of the menial “fact” based education I think you are referring to.”

        I agree. But life experience is an essential element, and to a degree a substitute for academic education.

        Also, look at our two most recent transformative President. One was only mildly educated: Reagan. The other had a Yale BA and Harvard MBA — but is widely considered ignorant. I don’t know how that squares with your theory, except perhaps if you believe that education should create powerful Democratic presidents.

        These two guys have transformed the US to a degree unimaginable in 1980. They might wind up on Mt Rushmore. Or we might pick a new spot for the big leaders of the NewAmerica.

    5. “But life experience is an essential element, and to a degree a substitute for academic education.”

      Definitely, and a person can also educate and train themselves without really going through the standard academic course. In my case, I have an MA, but most of what I know comes through my own studies, as well as life experiences. Lincoln himself was a self-educated lawyer and many people have a wisdom that goes far beyond academics.

      Really my point is that we have to find someway to counter the spin and talking points that these guys feed us. We need to have some reference point to compare their ideas to and some baseline standard to decide if they are worthy. I’m open to any idea on this, I just want to shift the status quo to where they at least have to go through the motions of demonstrating in a more concrete way that they have what it takes to lead. Right now we have a popularity contest or even a kind of beauty pageant when it comes to debates at all levels of elections. While we as the American people need to do the hard work and ask tough questions of candidates, I think it would be useful for the default to be where they have to prove they understand what will be expected of them rather than to just not screw up on the campaign trail.

    6. Marc
      It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize an executive’s performance. Do you think *you* could have done a better job than Obama has? Do you think anyone could have? The institutions you mention are so entrenched in American society, politics, and economics, that I’m not sure if *any* one person, even in a position as the leader of the free world, could have changed things to the degree that many of us hoped for.
      Given the implicit failure of the several preceding Presidents to do the same, I wouldn’t conclude failure of leadership, but rather that these things are outside the control of a sitting President.

  2. More old News, unless you have been asleep or in willful denial for 35-40 yrs.
    At least Bacevich found his conscience after he left the employ of the USA Killing Machine from his privileged beginnings @ West Point; that alone is startling.

    Try this: “Internet launches fightback against state snoopers“, Financial Times, 23 August 2013 — Free registration required. Opening:

    Key architects of the internet have started to fight back against US and UK snooping programmes by drawing up an ambitious plan to defend traffic over the world wide web against mass surveillance. The Internet Engineering Task Force, a body that develops internet standards, has proposed a system in which all communication between websites and browsers would be shielded by encryption.
    In practical terms that would be akin to extending the sort of secure communications that banks and retailers like Amazon use to protect their customers across the world wide web.

    While the plan is at an early stage, it has the potential to transform a large part of the internet and make it more difficult for governments, companies and criminals to eavesdrop on people as they browse the web. At present, only a fraction of all websites – typically those that handle financial information – encrypt data when communicating with web browsers.

    Then cc: the NSA on all your emails: sapao@nsa.gov (I sent them a Link to this Post just in case they missed it.) Then finish it off with this short video of an example of what America once was capable of producing:

    Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement speaking on the Sproul Hall Steps, 2 December 1964


    1. Breton,

      Interesting material as always. Special thanks for the article about the The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

      The Berkeley Free Speech Movement is a fascinating example of generational politics. They agitated for the right to say “F**k* in public, and for greater rights of expression. Their generation went on to install controls on language more intrusive than anything seen in the free world, ever — building coercive mechanisms (formal and informal) to force changes in language to drive their ideological preferences. It will be interesting to see how history judges the Boomers.

  3. This post by Fabius Maximus reminds me of a comment on his website from about a year ago:

    I cringed when the old Tajik man told me; “I liked the Russians better than the Americans. The Russians built apartment blocks for us!”

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