Eight days after 9/11, National Public Radio broadcast a commentary by Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran, former Army colonel, and professor of international relations at Boston University. Bacevich lamented America’s post–Cold War path, condemning the triumphalism and “arrogance” he saw in our forays into Somalia and Kosovo. He also implied that the United States bore some responsibility for 9/11, since we “failed to recognize the determination and conviction of those who clung to a view of history’s purpose altogether different than our own.”
The US should respond to the attacks by tracking down and punishing those responsible, he said. What we shouldn’t do is overreach, by making 9/11 the start of a crusade against evil or terrorism. And when we have brought Osama bin Laden and his minions to justice, we should resist the urge to congratulate ourselves or conclude that God is on our side.
Given the context, this was a stunning assessment. Even more striking, in retrospect, is how presciently Bacevich anticipated future missteps, from the “Mission Accomplished” stunt to the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war.
Bacevich wasn’t an unknown quantity at this point: he’d written for National Review and the Wall Street Journal, for example. But after September 11, his byline started appearing with increasing frequency in newspapers and journals of all ideological stripes. And his arguments seemed to be borne out, again and again.
The scope of his analysis increased as well. In the mid 1990s, Bacevich had criticized Bill Clinton’s Balkan forays; a decade later, in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford, 2005), he folded them into an all-encompassing critique. (In 2002, Harvard University Press published Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy.) Some claim Bacevich’s arguments have sharpened; others think he’s been remarkably consistent. But his perspective — that of a disaffected patriot and self-identified conservative who analyzes current events with an academic’s depth and a veteran’s moral authority — has been invaluable, especially given the marked leftward leanings of most Iraq War critics.
Then, this past month, Bacevich received devastating news: his son, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, a 27-year-old BU alum, was killed in Iraq. After struggling with the story — how big a part should the views of Bacevich Sr. play? — the media have moved on. (The Herald made these views a footnote; the Globe made them a focal point.)
Bacevich’s challenge remains, however. Beyond coping with his son’s death, he must also deal with the implications of his loss for his role as a public intellectual. Many will conclude that Bacevich’s criticisms now carry extra moral weight. But others, including staunch Iraq War supporters and some in the media, may try to force him into the Cindy Sheehan template — to cast him, first and foremost, as a grieving parent. Given Bacevich’s track record, this would be a serious mistake.
The politics of disorientation
Bacevich, who still has the gruff-but-affable mien of a Midwestern serviceman, traversed tremendous intellectual distance to become the thinker he is today. His upbringing hardly fostered sharp criticism of the American status quo: he grew up in Indiana, the child of two World War II veterans (his mother was an Army nurse, his father served in the Coast Guard and later the Army Reserve), and went from parochial school to a Catholic boys’ boarding school to West Point.