After two years of mysterious conjecture about what is really behind the adventurism of the Bush administration, we are now suddenly inundated with a series of excellent and revealing books about this curiously radical group of American men and women who, in such very odd and threatening ways, “govern” us.

And of all the books so far, James Mann’s work on “the Vulcans”—while not as charmingly salacious, politically angry, and gut-personal as the Bob Woodward, Paul O’Neill, and Richard Clarke books—is a particularly valuable contribution, perhaps one that will come to stand as The Best and the Brightest of the Iraq War. Its value lies not only in the consummate fairness of the author’s judgments (sometimes too fair, actually) but in the fact that Mann roves back in history meticulously and conscientiously to pull out the skeletons of these new foreign-policy ideologies of the Bush team and examine their DNA.

Contrary to what most observers have thought, these ideas did not come out of nowhere; in fact, they were buried to most Americans, but they were busily germinating just underneath the topsoil of the country’s leadership classes. (As the evocative Pablo Neruda once noted, “Everything that is buried is not dead.”) The author establishes this to such a successful extent that, after reading this book, one can see, really for the first time, how utterly inevitable were the outcomes of the Vulcans’ thinking. For, beginning in the 1970s and particularly with the commencement of Reagan’s traditionally conservative presidency in 1981, this group of thinkers and doers was forming an “epochal change, the flowering of a new view of America’s status and role in the world.”Indeed, at the end of this very readable book, Mann, who is a highly respected former foreign correspondent with the Los Angeles Times and an author and specialist on China, and whose two-year tenure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington allowed him to write this book, makes it completely clear what he has to say.

“There was no question that the Vulcans’ venture into Iraq grew out of their previous 35 years of thinking about America’s role in the world. It represented a final step in the transfer of ideas that the Vulcans had formed during the cold war into a post-cold war world—the ideas that the United States should emphasize military strength, should spread its ideals and should not accommodate other centers of power.” Hidden within the general picture that the Cold War ended in 1989 and a new, still unformed post-Cold War world started, “there lay another, entirely different historical narrative, one that began in the two decades before 1989 and continued for at least 15 years afterward. It was the story of the pursuit of unrivaled American power, the story of the rise of the Vulcans.”

Curiously enough, the supposed author of these policies—President George W. Bush—is barely mentioned in this book. He is the man who isn’t there and, obviously in the author’s opinion, the man who didn’t really have much to do with the thinking behind all that he let loose on the world. “He could not have made decisions if the Vulcans had not laid out the choices,” Mann writes in the foreword. “He could not have formulated policy without the words and ideas they brought to him.” (So much for the “War President!”)

Curiously, too, almost none of the neoconservatives who back up the Vulcans served in the armed forces—most avidly sought out deferments, with Vice President Dick Cheney getting five of them because, as he said later, “I had other priorities.” Yet their policies are unidimensionally devoted to using military force, at almost every turn and with very few of the old rules and principles to hold them back. Here, too, they stand in sharpest contrast to the American establishment that came out of World War II. Almost all the leaders of that establishment were military men, some of them true heroes, and their contribution to their generation and to their country was to establish great peaceful institutions spanning the world that uniquely combined the political, the economic, and the social with the military only secondary in their plans. Rise of the Vulcans revolves around six major players in the Bush War Party: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage, and Paul Wolfowitz. Mann structures the book, very effectively, by taking the six—Bush’s “war cabinet”—and tracing backwards to their inspiration and formation. He is particularly effective in tying together all the hitherto unclear biographical profiles of the players—the way their careers, ideas and, indeed, obsessions crossed and crisscrossed from the late ’70s onward. The genealogical/ideological line gets a little confusing because not all of them are neoconservatives of that peculiarly radical and pugnacious cabal that dominated the Iraq War’s planning (those are more second-level people like Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and Elliott Abrams). Powell and Armitage, indeed, are anti-neocon, while Rice is more of an intellectual mentor to the president. Yet, Mann brings it all together and, because he is such a meticulous researcher, it all adds up.

Mann gathers his subjects under this new (and, frankly, confusing) moniker of “Vulcan.” It seems that a statue of that particular Roman god of fire and metalworking overlooked Condoleezza Rice’s birthplace in Birmingham, Alabama, and somewhere along the way she and her colleagues adopted the term as a proof of their “tough-as-nailness.” There are many things one could say about this book, but what I found to be the most compelling storyline of Rise of the Vulcans is the degree to which some of these six, and especially all the others in the War Party around them, are consummate “irregulars” at heart, in thinking and in action. One sees, swimming deeper into the tides within this book, how people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld in particular were always seeking to work around the system and to do things in an irregular manner and with a special forces or guerrilla/militiaman mentality. All along the way, they knew best—in fact, only they knew how to do things, whether it was the intelligence that was wrong or the analysis of the Soviet Union or the half-wars of the 1990s.

In 1976, they were the members of the now-famous “Team B,” which went around the deterrence/containment policy toward the Soviet Union articulated by Henry Kissinger, among others, and issued a scathing report to the Pentagon urging all-out economic war, backed by overwhelming military strength, against the Russians. Mann reveals the secretive actions of members of the Vulcans during the ’80s when, as part of a highly classified Reagan administration program, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and a few others would be sent out across the country to three different locations in preparation for the possibility of a nuclear attack.

“Each team had to be prepared to proclaim a new American ‘president’ and to assume command of the country,” Mann writes. “Then, if the Soviet Union was somehow to locate one of the teams and hit it with a nuclear weapon, a second team could take over and, if necessary, the third.” The problem was that this program was “extralegal and extraconstitutional and that it established a process for designating a new American president that is nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law … ”

It goes on and on. Before the ’91 war with Iraq, Cheney and Wolfowitz immediately began developing their own war plan “without telling Powell or anyone else on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” It wasn’t very far to the Office of Special Plans under the fanatical neoconservative and Likud supporter Douglas Feith, just under Rumsfeld at the Pentagon—that irregular office, too, was designed to bypass regular intelligence to pull together exactly what the War Party wanted and needed to realize their overweening obsession of attacking Iraq in order to reconfigure the Middle East, supposedly for America’s and Israel’s benefit.

In short, this coterie now running the nation is a group of special teams, of special plans, of plans A and B, of clandestine meetings and, at every turn of the road, of going around the system, often deceptively and disdainfully, and instead setting in place alternative, parallel systems to facilitate their movements but also to show their derision for the “regulars” of the institutions. While not making any moral comparisons, this kind of restructuring with parallel groups is exactly what Hitler did with the German military and the S.S. and what Milosevic did with the Yugoslav National Army and his militia groups. The act has an ancient lineage, one far from traditional America.

All of this presaged what then came to be the irregular quality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: the Special Forces, not congressionally controlled like the Army, led the way in both wars; the military contractors, with hardly any oversight at all, now comprise the second largest “army” in Iraq, with 20,000 contracting/fighting men, armed to the teeth and with no governmental controls. Decades of American checks and balances (indeed, the very guts of the American system), have been tremendously endangered by the Vulcans, and in some cases thrown out entirely. James Mann’s book, as valuable as it is, will not in the end, however, be another Best and Brightest, if only because David Halberstam wrote his classic book long after the Vietnam War, when he could see fully what a tragedy it had been. Mann’s book comes right in the middle of this newest exercise in reckless American utopianism. Yet, one can already cull from this fine prose the realization that just about everything this group, particularly the neocons among the Vulcans, thought and did was wrong. Bitter critics of American intelligence in the ’70s and ’80s, they have corrupted the intelligence gathering profession immeasurably more than anyone before them; cold militarists at heart, they turned out to be men and women incapable of making the most minimal sense of ruling Iraq; prideful of their new (“neo”) philosophical and ideological truths, they obviously had not the slightest understanding of what creates a culture and a people; and arrogant believers in a modern American superiority above all and for all time, they have only made America look foolish and inept in the eyes of the world.Maybe in the end Vulcans is an appropriate name after all. For Vulcan was a destructive god, not the god of justice but the god of volcanoes and conflagrations. Because he was such a dangerous deity, Vulcan’s temples were properly located outside the cities—another aspect of “irregularity.” Apparently, too, the Washington Vulcans did not know that Vulcan was ultimately thrown off Mount Olympus by Zeus because he was so ugly.

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Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated international columnist for Universal Press Syndicate and the author of Guerrilla Prince, The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.