CHAIN OF COMMAND

The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

By Seymour M. Hersh. HarperCollins. 394 pp. $25.95

Renowned (and sometimes reviled) for investigative feats extending back to My Lai, Seymour M. Hersh is a muckraker and proud of it. He picks up rocks to expose the ugly crawly things beneath, a specialty that most recently helped bring to light the prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

In Chain of Command, Hersh draws upon his Abu Ghraib stories along with others that first appeared in the New Yorker, all touching in one way or another on President Bush and his advisers' conduct of the global war on terror. He takes a dim view of the Bush administration, charging it with incompetence, dishonesty and recklessness.

Hersh directs most of his fire against Donald Rumsfeld and the senior civilian officials in the office of the secretary of defense. These are the people, he writes, who manipulate intelligence, wink at torture and assassination, and play fast and loose with the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld and key deputies such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone give the back of their hands to "Clintonized" generals whom they think display insufficient ardor, and wage war against foot-draggers at the State Department and the CIA with greater ferocity than they muster against Saddam Hussein or al Qaeda.

Hersh could have provided a major look at the post-Sept. 11 Pentagon, but Chain of Command is a missed opportunity -- an exercise in recycling that shoves previously published articles between hard covers in hopes of approximating a larger whole. The result amounts to little more than a miscellany -- a book without a spine.

Throughout, Hersh maintains a tone of high dudgeon and apparent shock. But only the reader who has managed to sleep through events since Sept. 11 -- or whose worldview has been shaped entirely by Fox News and the Weekly Standard -- will find much here that qualifies as especially startling.

Further detracting from the value of Chain of Command is Hersh's reliance on unidentified sources. However helpful blind quotations are in decoding the daily version of reality propagated by government officials, using them becomes increasingly problematic the further events slip into the past. Few hard facts embellish Hersh's account, but anonymous opinions abound: from former officials and military officers, from aides and advisers once reputedly close to Bush's inner circle, from "consultants" retained by government agencies -- all of them nameless. Hersh tries to make a virtue of necessity: "There is honor in their anonymity." In fact, their anonymity makes it impossible to assess motive, veracity or credibility.

Given the passage of time since much of this material first appeared, Hersh might have added depth and detail to his initial reporting, reducing its hearsay quotient. He has not. Nor has he situated his stories in a larger context. Apart from an angry conclusion that denounces President Bush for "terrorizing the nation" and declares that "the deepening American quagmire in Iraq will not end until there is a change of leadership in Washington," he offers little by way of analysis. In place of reflection, Hersh vents his outrage at those in authority whom he wants held accountable.

This is unfortunate, for despite Hersh's preference for the sensational rather than the substantive, Chain of Command contains the makings of what might have been an important book. The context of this book-that-might-have-been derives directly from the question that the chattering classes took up within days of Sept. 11 and have yet to resolve: How much had really changed about the way America would conduct itself in the world? For the Bush administration, many of whose leading members had long chafed at restrictions limiting the use of American power, the answer to that question was clear from the outset. What had changed? Everything.

When he announced in late September 2001 that the United States confronted an entirely "new kind of war," Rumsfeld declared that henceforth "no fixed rules" would govern decisions on when and how to employ U.S. forces. Ever since Sept. 11, Hersh writes, "President Bush and his top aides have seen themselves as engaged in a war against terrorism in which the old rules did not apply." Hersh does not return to this passing observation, but it cuts to the heart of the matter. Abandoning old rules meant chucking out old inhibitions -- about the need for allies and the sanctity of treaties, about the efficacy of force and the proper role of the armed services, about morality and the rule of law. In retracing the steps that culminated with Abu Ghraib, Chain of Command suggests the unhappy consequences that come from discarding traditional norms of statecraft and commonsense notions of prudence in favor of boldness and risk-taking fueled by ambition, ideology and unstinting confidence in the utility of military power.

As one of Hersh's shadowy sources observes, "Now we're going to be the bad guy, and being the bad guy works." Events have yet to demonstrate that it does. In the meantime, this imperfect book provides an oblique but timely reminder of why rules exist in the first place: to guard against the failings to which human beings with all their frailties and foibles are prone and for which, in public life, others -- 19- and 20-year-old soldiers -- are obliged to pay. *

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming "The New American Militarism."