In a polarized American culture, few voices transcend the dichotomies of Left and Right. Professor Andrew Bacevich is one voice that both parties listen to, and while his critique of American policy pulls no punches, his service to his country and patriotism is above reproach. In this interview, Dr. Bacevich discusses American exceptionalism, foreign policy, the irony of American history, and the place of war in U.S. culture.
The Other Journal (TOJ): I would like to start our interview with a question that might help us understand our current situation militarily. Specifically, I would like to start off where you began your military career, the Vietnam War. From the Vietnam conflict through the end of the Cold War and into the present day conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, how have military strategies and rationales for going to war and using military force evolved?
Andrew Bacevich (AB): After Vietnam, both the officer corps and members of the national security elite devoted themselves to “reinventing” war, hoping thereby to overturn the impression left by Vietnam that war didn’t work, that force was not an effective instrument for advancing political purposes. By the time of Operation Desert Storm, this effort had apparently succeeded. U.S. forces had seemingly acquired the ability to achieve decisions quickly and economically.
Subsequent events, however, especially in Iraq, showed that this was an illusion. Today, the officer corps has all but abandoned the notion that war can produce decision. It has instead embraced counterinsurgency, in effect, armed nation-building. But even in the best of circumstances, counterinsurgency does not produce anything that resembles what we used to think of as victory.
TOJ: You’ve suggested that you are not a pacifist, that you think we should be safe, and that you therefore think we need a capable military. In your view, how should national security be reimagined in a less hubristic, more realistic, sustainable way? And what are some tangible steps toward such a national security policy?
AB: Yes, of course. I believe that peace is an illusion. It has never existed and is unlikely to ever exist. So our government has a responsibility to provide for our defense—the U.S. Constitution says this explicitly. But defense doesn’t require us to remake the planet or even the Greater Middle East. An effective national security policy is one that is modest in its ambitions and expectations.
The American people need to expand their understanding of civic responsibility to include national defense. As part of the backlash induced by the Vietnam War, we agreed to contract out national defense to the so-called All Volunteer Force—what the founders would have described as a “standing army.” What few people appreciated at the time is that the standing army belongs to Washington, not to us. So Washington uses that army as it sees fit, with the people having remarkably little say in the matter. If we want to reclaim ownership of that army, we need to make it a people’s army.
TOJ: One primary assumption about our national identity that leavens how we conduct our national security is American exceptionalism. Can you talk a bit about this belief, including any new features or emphases to this exceptionalism post 9/11?
AB: Americans have always believed that we are a chosen people with a special responsibility to history. That belief has expressed itself in different ways at different times, the most recent being George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. This conviction is a dangerous illusion, but it is hard-wired into our collective consciousness.
The new emphasis was President Bush’s insistence that we were called upon to democratize the Islamic world, while also called to wipe tyranny from the face of the earth. Of course, those claims died in the sands of Iraq.
TOJ: The economic losses households are taking with their real estate and bank investments are very much abstracted from our military operations overseas. We make very few correlations between what’s happening “over there” and our domestic recession. To ask a very basic question, then, what are the costs of war, both financially and in terms of the psychological or relational costs of war? As a student of history, what effect do you think our current strategy of militarism has on our psyches?
AB: No one really knows the financial costs and no one in our government wants us to know. Nominally, we spend $700 billion per year on “defense”—that’s roughly as much as the rest of the planet combined. The Iraq War has probably cost about one trillion dollars to date. Equipment replacement and veteran costs will drive that number much higher, of course.
The effect on our psyche puzzles me. Americans have all but accepted perpetual war as the new norm. They are numb to its significance.
TOJ: So how is this numbness new compared to, say, the Vietnam War era or World War II?
AB: It’s quite different. Americans in World War II didn’t see war as perpetual—their aim was to win as quickly as possible in order to return things to normal. Many Americans during the Vietnam War feared that war might be becoming perpetual—and they protested mightily against that prospect.
TOJ: In The Limits of Power, you mention that war during the ’80s and ’90s was remarketed as “more precise, more discriminating, and potentially more humane.” How is such an illusion preserved by the U.S. government, and how are U.S. citizens complicit in this illusion?1
AB: The vision of war as precise, discriminating, and humane grew out of the way people in Washington chose to interpret events such as Operation Desert Storm and the 1999 Kosovo War. The whole thing was bogus, as we learned to our sadness in Iraq and continue to learn in Afghanistan. Why did so many people fall for this bogus vision? I believe that a cheerleading media provides at least a partial explanation.
TOJ: To shift our conversation a bit, you often draw on Reinhold Niebuhr in your work; when did you first start to read his work, and how has Niebuhr’s view of history influenced you as a historian?
AB: I picked up a copy of The Irony of American History perhaps fifteen years ago. I use it in a course I teach at Boston University, which means that I keep coming back to it. I’ve come to believe that it’s the most important critique ever written on U.S. foreign policy. If Americans were to read just one book in order to understand why we do what we do in the world, Irony is that book.2
TOJ: In your introduction to Irony, you say that Niebuhr’s words were uncomfortable because he asks much of the citizenry.3 What does it mean to be a good citizen? And what’s the relationship between supporting the troops and critically engaging foreign policy as a U.S. citizen?
AB: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. We are all called to find the role that’s appropriate to us as individuals. For some, being a good citizen might imply running for public office. For others, it may imply activism or community service. For many, it might mean simply being a good neighbor. But it ought to involve more than being simply a consumer.
To my mind, the highest form of supporting the troops is to keep them from being misused and exploited. And that means avoiding unnecessary or misguided wars.
TOJ: Niehbuhr noted that increased affluence was used an emollient for the internal, domestic contradictions in our way of life. Almost sixty years after Irony, what contradictions do you find central for our society now in a more globalized, digitalized world?
AB: I personally think that globalization and information technology are not transforming the international order to the extent suggested by all the hype. One thing that is changing, however, is this: the feasibility of solving our domestic problems by pursuing further expansion abroad is shrinking. What Niebuhr referred to as “quantitative solutions” are no longer solutions. The pursuit of more has become self-defeating—for Americans, the chief products of that pursuit are more debt, more war, and more damage to the environment. So we need to look to qualitative solutions—revising the American way of life so as to restore a sense of harmony and balance.
TOJ: President Obama has said that his favorite theologian is Niebuhr. Have you noticed a change in tone and action within this administration, or at least some hints they are heeding Niebuhrian truths contra the Bush administration?
AB: There’s been some change in tone—actually the tone had already begun to change under the previous administration. There has been far less substantive change, however, than Obama promised.
TOJ: Finally, is there a moral responsibility that historians such as yourself, theologians such as Niebuhr, and others in the academy have in resisting the fantasy that we in the United States can “force history to do our bidding?” What role does the academy have in maturing U.S. citizenry?
AB: I can only speak for myself here. Educators educate: we do our best to identify and articulate truths and to offer them to others for consideration. Whether our fellow citizens take us up on the offer is not ours to decide.
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1. Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 127.
2. See Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,  2008).
3. See Andrew Bacevich, “Introduction,” in Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,  2008).