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First a Soldier: CAS Prof. Andrew Bacevich

Part two: A straight talker rethinks war

First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich (right) and Sergeant First Class James Wright in 1970 in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bacevich

Click here to read part one of First a Soldier.

On a blustery, overcast January afternoon, Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations, is standing in front of about 60 students in his Ideas in American Foreign Policy course. He doesn’t stay there for long, soon wading in between the rows of desks, asking questions about militias in colonial America.

Although the 59-year-old Bacevich retired from the Army after more than two decades of service, his pacing among the rows of students and his close-cropped silver hair echo a military career that began in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1970. His questions and explanations are direct, but he also mixes in some fairly unmilitary banter, lacing his speech with words like grandpappy and occasionally slipping into an impression of President Bush. Near the end of the class discussion, Bacevich stops beside a student and quietly asks him if he has enlisted yet. When the student says no, Bacevich feigns shock.

“Don’t you think you should?” he asks, incredulous, as the student reddens and giggles ripple through the classroom. “President Bush says the war in Iraq is the decisive conflict of the 21st century,” he booms. “Aren’t we called upon to somehow help the president out?”

Bacevich notes that in World War II, 12 million Americans were in uniform, including his father, which he compares with Bush’s recently ordered surge of 21,500 troops to Iraq. “World War II was the most important war of the 20th century,” he says. “So, if Iraq is the most important war of this century, shouldn’t we kick in maybe two or three million?”

He then delivers his bottom line: unlike Americans from colonial times through the first half of the 20th century, he says, “we no longer feel that an obligation to serve is part of what it means to be a citizen.”

It’s a point Bacevich has made in many an article about the post-Vietnam relationship between America’s civilian and military societies. Later, he expands on its implications for American foreign policy.

“The problems are twofold,” he says. First, because the all-volunteer military is a professional army “no longer rooted in the American people,” politicians are more able to use that military without the people’s express consent and support.

And second, he continues, “when politicians send this professional military off on a misguided war and get themselves into deep trouble, they’re unable to tap the sinews of American military power, which really lie with the people.”

From duty to questioning duty

This discouraging analysis of the role of the military comes from someone with deep military roots, someone who grew up “absolutely subscribing” to the idea that America was a nation of exceptional moral standing, whose use of force was always on the side of righteousness.

Bacevich was born in 1947 in Normal, Ill., where his father was attending college under the G.I. Bill. In 1961, he left for a Catholic boarding school. From there he went to West Point, where his classmates knew him as “Skip,” a die-hard Cubs fan, a rugby player, and poetry magazine editor, singled out in the academy’s 1969 yearbook for his “craggy good looks and equally craggy good humor.”

As a young lieutenant commanding an armored cavalry platoon in Vietnam, Bacevich says, he remained politically unaware. “I knew that the war was essentially a lost cause, but I really didn’t have much of a feel for how we had gotten in there and what the consequences of the war were for American society,” he explains. “I think, in some respects, I consciously wanted to keep that at some remove so I could just pay attention to my duties.”

The reckoning came after the war, when Bacevich read about the French experience in East Asia and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in history at Princeton, working on the latter while teaching American history at West Point.

“I was very slow to develop an awareness of how complex and conflicted the world really was,” he says. For example, he admits to embarrassment at having had no real grasp of the civil rights movement as it unfolded in the 1950s and 1960s. “I didn’t understand what all these people were out there marching about,” Bacevich says. “I mean, I was just kind of inert when it came to that central political issue of our time.”

But he remains conflicted about the impact of the Vietnam era, which he sees as a turning point in American culture, when freedom began to be redefined — from the left, as unfettered self-indulgence and moral relativism, and from the right, as conspicuous consumption. Indeed, it’s Bacevich’s ability to think through complex matters that colleagues most often cite when discussing his thinking and writing. “He is able to take a difficult military or political situation, lay it out in precise terms, and come to a decision,” says Bob Ivany, a retired major general and current president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, who attended West Point with Bacevich.

Steve Lagerfeld, editor of the nonpartisan Wilson Quarterly, describes Bacevich as “a first-class thinker, a true original.” In 2005, Bacevich contributed an article to Lagerfeld’s journal arguing that President Jimmy Carter initiated a new era of American foreign policy that made control of the Persian Gulf and its oil a paramount objective of American foreign policy. Reverberations of that interventionist stance, Bacevich writes, include 9/11 and the conflict in Iraq.

Yet, the same article declares that this Carter Doctrine was formulated only after the failure of Carter’s prescient “crisis of confidence speech,” in which he called for achieving energy independence by restricting oil imports, investing in alternative energy sources, and promoting public transportation and some lifestyle sacrifices by the American public.

“Jimmy Carter had learned a hard lesson,” Bacevich writes. “It was not the prospect of making do with less that sustained American-style liberal democracy, but the promise of more. That abundance depended on assured access to cheap oil — and lots of it.”

“Andy’s a straight-talking guy, and he’s not afraid to let his scholarship go where it goes, rather than being a proponent of any political paradigm,” says Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Bacevich sits on the institute’s board of advisors.

Nevertheless, hardly anyone who knows Bacevich would call him a maverick, even those who disagree with him on Iraq, such as Eliot Cohen, director of the strategic studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “He’s original,” says Cohen, who is much more supportive of the war’s democracy-promoting mission. “He’s highly independent, but he is not random. He has some very powerful core convictions and a core identity.”

Strangers to ourselves

To Bacevich, a willingness to confront the moral failings of those people, institutions, and nations with which you most closely identify doesn’t endanger your allegiance to them; it deepens it.

Patriotism and responsible citizenship, in Bacevich’s opinion, should not shun the tough questions, but invite them. This is why, in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, he wrote critically of the eagerly anticipated Iraq Study Group Report released in December, which he termed a “gambit” allowing Americans to delegate their own deep questioning of America’s global ambitions to “Beltway luminaries.” The group’s “implicit message to Americans,” he writes, “is this: we’ll handle things — now go back to holiday shopping.”

The tough questions, Bacevich insists, encompass the war in Iraq, but go well beyond. For instance, he says later in an interview, “We Americans know that we value freedom above all. But what is the true meaning of freedom? Is it possible that freedom really has become an excuse for conspicuous consumption and radical individualism?”

And second, “whatever the American way of life has come to be, is it sustainable? And here you get into all kinds of questions of economics, and resources, and the environment, and who the hell’s going to pay the bills 20 years from now, 50 years from now.”

“I have come to believe,” he says, “that perhaps the greatest failing to which American political leaders are prone, and perhaps to which we as a people are prone, is an inability to see ourselves as we really are.”

This article appears in the spring 2007 edition of Bostonia.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.