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Good-bye, Professor Bacevich

BU scholar-soldier reflects on his military and academic careers

Andrew Bacevich, international relations expert, professor of international relations, Boston University

Andrew Bacevich will step down from the BU faculty on August 31. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

During his 16 years at BU, Andrew Bacevich has become one of the University’s most public faces. The half dozen books he wrote while here—on the role of the United States and that of the US military in the world—landed the former Army colonel on television shows such as The Colbert Report and PBS’s Moyers and Company, while making him a staple of newspaper op-ed pages. His from-the-get-go opposition to the war in Iraq became especially poignant when his son, First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich (CGS’01, COM’03), who had followed his father’s example by enlisting in the military, died in that conflict. His grieving father compared his son’s service with his own antiwar stance, writing, “As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.”

Bacevich, a Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations and history professor at the College of Arts & Sciences, turned 67 this month. He will retire as of August 31, but he won’t vanish completely. His MOOC on the Middle East will launch in the fall, requiring him to be available online to students. He’ll also continue his participation in a history department lecture series–study group in the coming academic year.

“My wife and I like living in New England, so we’re staying here. We aren’t going to Florida,” he says.

BU was Bacevich’s third academic tour of duty, following a 1970s stint at West Point, his alma mater, and one at Johns Hopkins in the 1990s. His 23 years in the Army before that included service in the Vietnam War. In an interview with BU Today, he reflects on his military and academic careers and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where ISIS, a militant Sunni group that even al-Qaeda has disowned, has taken swaths of the country from the Shiite Muslim government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

BU Today: Why did you decide to leave BU at this point in your career?

Bacevich: I have emphatically enjoyed my time on the faculty. I’m exceedingly grateful for the way the University has treated me and my family. I am not leaving with any complaints. But I increasingly feel that I’m losing my edge as a teacher.

How does a teacher measure that?

It’s more of a gut feel than anything else. I don’t feel as much energy and enthusiasm as I did 10 years ago. Students deserve your very best. I’m not sure that I’ve got my very best to offer anymore. Along with that, I increasingly want to write more. That’s what gives me satisfaction in life. To conjure up ideas and then to compose, to do the hard work of translating an idea or an insight into an argument and into readable prose, is something that I find to be a great challenge, but a source of considerable satisfaction. To a BU student, 67 seems very old, but if you’re 67, it doesn’t seem very old. We all have a limited time available, so I decided that for whatever time I do have left, I want to devote my energies to writing books and articles.

Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences, CAS

Bacevich, here teaching an international relations class, says his enthusiasm for the classroom has ebbed. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The military and academia seem to be utterly different cultures. What’s the difference between the two, and was it difficult straddling both?

The two are different, but in some respects quite similar. Academia is a profession that operates in an institutional setting. So does the military. When you’re part of the Army, you’re part of a very large institution that has its own culture, deeply ingrained, and so too at Boston University. It has a lot of history and culture, and in order to be successful and to contribute, you have to learn that institution.

There are high expectations of performance in both. I have always been impressed by the seriousness of my colleagues at BU, who are excellent teachers. They take their responsibilities to students very seriously. I’ve also been impressed by their serious commitment to scholarship. Many times, they’re studying things that, in some cases, I’m not capable of understanding. You can’t help but be impressed by the extent to which people are committed to their research agenda, and work hard at it. Not because they’re going to get rich, but because they think it’s important. When you’re in the military, there is that devotion to the larger purpose for which the profession exists.

The biggest difference is that as scholars, our search for truth is rooted in expectations of freedom to think what we want to think and say what we want to say. Those are freedoms that have to be exercised responsibly, and I think that they are. As an academic, I’ve come to appreciate what it means to be free. In the military, that kind of freedom simply doesn’t exist. There are expectations of discipline and subordination and conformity, and need to be. We don’t want an army in which every second lieutenant gets up in the morning and figures out the best way to fulfill the mission. We want them to adhere to a common template of how things need to get done so that they can work as members of a team.

I think there’s massive misunderstanding between the two worlds. Professional military officers tend to see academics as pointy-headed, airy-fairy impractical. I suspect that many academics tend to not appreciate the amount of intelligence that is found in the officer corps.

Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam War

In 1970, Army First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich (right), with Sergeant First Class James Wright, was serving in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bacevich

In the 1970s, there was definitely an antimilitary feel on campuses. It seems like that has abated now.

There’s no question that it’s different. I am recognized as someone who used to be in the Army. That has never been a source of any kind of objectionable behavior. I always felt that I have been treated with the greatest respect, and I have been very grateful for that. I think there has been a change in attitudes toward the military on campuses, among students, among faculty.

There’s a need to improve the level of understanding in both directions. I don’t think people understand how hard academics work. When a member of our faculty is not teaching or does not have some specific campus duty, that person can stay home and work. Who knows what they’re doing? From an outsider’s perspective—You only teach two courses? You’re only in the classroom for six hours a week? And then all you have to do is hold office hours?—it sounds like a job that is so undemanding, and that’s an inaccurate perception. We work hard, not necessarily in things that the average person can see or appreciate, but we work hard in our discipline.

The other thing that people on the outside don’t appreciate is the enforcement of standards to remain a member of this profession. What a gift tenure is. Lifelong employment, for God’s sake. But to gain tenure or further promotion, I have been struck by the seriousness of the evaluation that members of this profession have to undergo before making it over those gates. Quite frankly, it’s much more difficult to gain tenure at BU than it is to be promoted to lieutenant colonel in the US Army.

Your recent op-ed said President Obama ought to forge a working understanding with the Iranians to contain ISIS.

It appears that Iran and the United States are signaling to one another that there’s a willingness to talk, not necessarily to collaborate. Let’s explore if there’s a convergence of interests enough to collaborate.

I tend to think that most American observers overstate the amount of leverage that we have in that part of the world. My analogy is with Nixon in China, recognizing that the People’s Republic of China and the people of the United States had a common interest, a common adversary: the Soviet Union. That transformed the strategic landscape. I just wonder if that’s possible in regard to Iran. A guy like Nixon would not be sitting around talking about whether or not we should use drones or manned aircraft to bomb ISIS. That’s a lesser question. It’s not worthy of a grand strategist. It’s just too bad there doesn’t seem to be anyone in Washington whose thinking is on that scale.

Andrew Bacevich, Boston University Kilachand Honors College Symposium

Bacevich’s knowledge of history has made him one of the University’s most prominent commentators on global affairs. Photo by Vernon Doucette

What was your proudest accomplishment at BU and your biggest disappointment?

I was able to write books, so they have enabled me to be very productive. The work has been very rewarding, and I’m grateful for that.

Disappointment? I have come to, frankly, a recognizing of how limited our influence is as teachers on students. These young people who come to us—they’re all wonderful and bright and eager and ambitious, but they are influenced by so many different things, things that are far more powerful than a professor in the front of the room pontificating. I’ve learned to be modest in my expectations of my ability to shape the thinking of young people. I’ll give you one specific example.

I think that the notion of American isolation is utter and complete fiction. We’ve never been an isolationist country. I have repeatedly tried to make that argument, and I know that I have persuaded no one. Because the students, when they watch TV or when they get the mythic version of history that says we were completely isolationist until December 7, 1941, absorb those messages and reject mine.

Think of the interwar period [between the world wars], supposedly isolationism’s peak. US forces are occupying the Philippines. The US Navy is running gunboats up and down the major rivers of China. We’ve got a US Army regiment in the outskirts of Peking. We occupy Panama to guard the canal. During the 1920s, US Marines are running the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua. How does that qualify as isolationist?

Do you have another book in mind?

The working title is America’s War for the Greater Middle East. The book will make the case that all of our military adventures and misadventures in the Islamic world since 1980, when Jimmy Carter propagated the Carter Doctrine [that the Middle East was a vital US interest], should be seen as one war. Think about the Cold War: it consisted of many different episodes—the Korean War, Vietnam, intervention in Grenada, the Berlin airlift. If you step back, you see that they’re all part of this larger struggle called the Cold War. When we group all these episodes together, we learn certain important truths. And I want to do the same thing with our military effort in the Islamic world from 1980 down to the present. The Lebanon intervention that culminated with the Beirut bombing in 1983, the intervention in Somalia that culminated in the Mogadishu firefight in October 1993, the invasion of Iraq in 2003: all of these and other things need to be seen as part of a single, coherent narrative of this war for the greater Middle East. The goal has been to impose America’s will on the Islamic world, with the expectation that the adroit use of hard power will yield that outcome. The Cold War, most of us would say, ended successfully. I believe that the war for the greater Middle East is doomed to fail. From a policy perspective, there’s an urgent need to reflect on what this war has yielded, what lessons we can take from it.

I think the term “terrorism” is an excuse not to probe more deeply into the question of who is the adversary, what kind of threat does he represent, and what are we trying to achieve. One could argue that despite all the mistakes the United States made in the Cold War, there was this idea of containment of the Soviet Union. With one exception, there has not been a unifying idea with our war in the Middle East. The exception is in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, where the Bush administration set out to transform the region, using American military power, with the intent to democratize it. They imagined the Iraq War as the first step in this grandiose project. It was an arrogant idea, an implausible idea, and it failed. It failed when the liberation of Iraq created such a catastrophe that even today, they’re still grappling with it.

Is it fair to say that there’s an alternative, legitimate goal of our antiterrorist efforts—to keep ourselves safe from another 9/11?

I think it’s reasonable. The agencies are supposed to be keeping us safe, and they’re supposed to be doing it at a reasonable cost that tries to keep faith with the ideals that we represent. It’s not clear to me why invading Iraq or occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade is necessary to achieve that purpose.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

22 Comments on Good-bye, Professor Bacevich

  • Dean Virginia Sapiro on 06.23.2014 at 5:20 am

    Thank you, Andy Bacevich, for your devotion to the students of Boston University, your personal investment in your colleagues and this university, and your always lively mind and observations. Best wishes for the next chapter, literally and figuratively.

  • SG on 06.23.2014 at 7:56 am

    We are losing a remarkable colleague. It’s not easy to find someone who brings such grassroots experience to the IR classroom. The article made several good points. Losing a son in a war you do not believe in is a tragedy, much more than I can understand; may he rest in peace.

  • Annie Willcox on 06.23.2014 at 9:04 am

    Congratulations on your retirement Professor Bacevich. I took a class of yours in the spring of 2013, America Military Experience. It was your passion, your bluntness and your constant challenge to the class to engage in the world that has driven me to pursue a master international relations and ultimately a career. Our first class together I told you, you intimidated me. You did, which isn’t easy. But you lit a spark and a passion in me to make noise on the international stage, to apply common sense to it all. I wish you nothing but the best and I thank you for the wake up call you delivered on not only issues of international relations and war but the history and trend in our nation’s response. Good luck and god bless, and I truly do hope you continue to write because I will continue to read.

  • James Bartlett, Evergreen Student, BU on 06.23.2014 at 10:17 am

    Professor Bacevich, you were one of the best among a sterling field of teachers and thinkers I have encountered over the years at BU. Your often blunt and sometimes searing assessments, coupled with only the most challenging questions, forced us all to think more clearly and to seek a deeper understanding of the issues, always. You will be sorely missed. Thank you for everything, Jim Bartlett

  • Robert Oresick on 06.23.2014 at 1:18 pm

    Dear Prof. Bacevich. I first became aware of you through your son years ago when he was our student on a team at College of General Studies. You were kind enough to speak with our students and faculty at a World Affairs Forum and I began following your writings and talks on tv. Though never your student, I have found your ideas about the over militarization of American policy literally inspiring and sustaining. So many confusing bits and pieces of the news of American misadventures in Iraq in the past decades come into comprehensible focus in light of your perspective derived from the credibility of your military background and acute historical scholarship.

    While a shift of emphasis from teaching to writing may have occasioned your retirement at this tine, I am sure your edifying impact on the BU community and our American society will continue.

    I wish you a productive and satisfying retirement.

  • Ralph Cohen on 06.23.2014 at 11:34 pm

    If only there were more voices like yours, perhaps the country’s future would look more promising. Wisdom is in very short supply in our government and media. Your continued efforts are needed and welcome.

  • Anne DiNoto on 06.24.2014 at 11:35 am

    Congrats Professor Bacevich, I met you at a local book reading and am proud to be affiliated with BU because of people like you. I look forward to reading more of your writing!

  • CATHERINE RAE FORSZT on 06.25.2014 at 10:34 am

    Professor Bacevich- I shall look everywhere for your wisdom –THANK YOU
    How sad I am that I have only learned of you,your experience,your Grace,your knowledge,and your
    writing and teaching skills at this late stage of my life. However,I am thrilled and grateful that I saw
    You on BILL MOYERS on June 22,2014….oh, my goodness to think I might have missed you & that
    Show is scarey..On my I-pad early this am I read your bio & of your departure from teaching..I “get it”
    Thinking,with layers of evidence &historical facts has become obsolete..And I am on the verge of 88 yrs.

  • James Iffland on 06.25.2014 at 6:52 pm

    While I didn’t have the good fortune of being able to interact directly with Prof. Bacevich during his 16 years at BU, I have followed his writing in the press and his many appearances on television and radio. Prof. Bacevich has become a true public intellectual, speaking from the academy in ways that have the potential to affect important policy debates taking place in this country. His message is not a popular one among large segments of the the American public: a.) U.S. power in the world has limits; b.) “endless war” weakens the very foundations of our democracy. As someone with actual military experience, he has had the courage to tell all of the armchair warriors who have gotten us into the Iraq and Afghan wars that their grandiose schemes were not going to work, and they haven’t. (They have, of course, benefited the “bottom line” of many sectors of the military-industrial complex, to use President Eisenhower’s still timely term.) I look forward to Prof. Bacevich’s future displays of wisdom and plain old common sense as this country skates near the edge of yet another chapter in our national saga of “endless war.”

  • Peg Rice on 06.26.2014 at 5:07 pm

    Dear Mr. Bacevich,

    I recently saw you on Bill Moyers. Boy, was I blown away. You are right on the money. I feel your wisdom and knowledge could definitely be used as our next president. Please, please think about running. We’ve had too many bozos in the White House. Thank you.

  • Michael Bishop CDR, USN (ret) on 07.28.2014 at 10:18 am

    Your insights on the US military and foreign policy, based on your experience, are well thought out and well presented. Your views on the negative effect of a “standing army”on our democracy were understood by many of the founders. I look forward to reading more of your work. So much of humanity’s perpetual violence seems based on religious conflict. I hope to see some of your insights about this subject in writing in the future. Best of luck on your retirement.

  • Dorothy Conigliaro on 08.01.2014 at 5:48 pm

    I wish I had been a student of Andrew Bacevich, but I have learned much from his interviews. As a senior citizen, I have observed and been distressed by the very mistaken tactics of the US government. Mr. Bacevich is one of the few voices I have heard to speak such thoughts aloud. Thank you!

  • Gregory Graves on 09.17.2014 at 12:57 pm

    I applied to the MA program at BU, hoping to earn the opportunity to study under Dr. Bacevich. I was crestfallen, to say the least( I even cried), when I was informed that he would no longer be teaching. I have read almost all of his books and many of his op-eds. His opinions and arguments have played a major role in shaping mine( and inspiring me to pursue higher education). I am more than grateful to his service to this country, both militarily and scholarly. I can not thank you enough for all your efforts, you’re work has truly inspired me not only to be a better student but a better American. Enjoy your retirement.

    P.S.There is a Facebook page called Andrew Bacevich for President, I hope that you would consider running.

  • Nelson Ormsby on 10.16.2014 at 12:52 am


    Your clarion call for a much more engaged citizenry must not go unanswered. Rampant ahistorcism threatens both democracy at home as well as our misguided efforts to transport it by the end of a rifle to the four corners of the world. With my Oldest Son now serving as a 19Delta, I have become acutely aware of your well-placed concerns as to the disconnect between citizenship and service, as well as between policymakers and implementors who have come to embrace military action as the first and default choice of how to engage the US on the world stage. Your next work on the Middle East 1980 to present is thus eagerly awaited. Peace be with You and Yours, Sir.

  • Peggy Dennis on 12.08.2014 at 6:58 pm

    I recently learned of Andrew Bacevich and am reading “Washington Rules” and have been searching for an alternative to our present situation with regard to the Middle East. We keep making more and more enemies all the time. Prof. Bacevich is exploring our place in the world from a perspective which needs more attention.

  • Michael Gallagher on 04.05.2015 at 8:07 pm

    There is warmth that stirs the soul when reading an author who can clearly define an issue and support his views so compellingly. Those illuminating moments when you realize that you have been enlightened and educated are priceless and rare. I have read everything Andrew Bacevich has published and I hope that there is much more to come. Many thanks and Best wishes.

  • Steve on 06.10.2015 at 7:48 pm

    Andy was always a good guy, convicted, but very paranoid!

  • Robert Reckers on 06.10.2015 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you Professor Bacevich for your service, thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for speaking truth to power. ( I saw you on PBS News Hour 6-10-15 doing it again.) Thank You!
    Bob Reckers
    PS They named my town after a guy like you!

  • Kathleen Marotta on 06.11.2015 at 12:14 am

    That pbs interview this evening was hilarious, one of the most interesting segments of the NEWS HOUR I’ve ever seen. Judy handled the situation so deftly. The liberty of your sorting out of the muddled half-thinking of the commander was like a little really entertaining electrocution. Just your titles are amazing and delightful revelations.

    What a shame we no longer have media. They learned from Viet Nam not to cover protest, not to have a draft, and not to broadcast real news any more, particularly popular political and economic demonstrations by young people. All this should be persecuted as treason. Here in the plutarchy, that’s what passes for learning. A democracy can’t function buried alive in disinformation and Animal House-like GOP obliviousness, like perpetually date-rape-drugging the whole citizenry.

    Superb you’ll keep writing. Things begin to happen. The Dark Age may be temporary in the long run, I hope. I pray.

  • Mike Fiedler on 06.12.2015 at 2:31 pm

    I’ve never been prouder as a BU graduate after Col. Bacevich’s appearance on PBS News Hour opposite Leon Panetta and Michelle Flournoy who both fill me with dread as foreign policy advisors for Hillary Clinton. Bacevich talked facts (“with all due respect”) while the backstabber Panetta and stay-at-home mom warrior Flournoy sounded like junior Republicans, full of phony rhetoric for reinvolving our country in the world’s anus.

  • Charles Nordlinger on 09.15.2015 at 11:48 am

    Just hope you stay involved in public affairs, since you have the best mind since General James M. Gavin.

    I wish you would advise Senator Sanders in his campaign for the presidency.

  • Jim Quirk on 04.30.2016 at 10:05 am

    I just read an essay he wrote in Harper’s Magazine on American Emperium. He does a great job of weaving our country’s history into an historical quilt that shows questionable decision-making by our leaders. As he puts it:

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