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Bacevich’s war

The politics of personal tragedy
By ADAM REILLY  |  January 29, 2009


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.

The events that marked Bacevich’s college years — the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the 1969 Democratic convention, the Tet Offensive — shook the world-view of many of his peers. But not Bacevich’s. At West Point, he explained in an interview with the Phoenix this past month, “not necessarily the brave course of action, but the wise course of action, was not to think too deeply about politics. Because if you did, you could really complicate your life. If halfway through your senior year you decided, man, this war’s really stupid or immoral or whatever — what are you going to do?”

When he arrived in Vietnam to begin a one-year tour of duty in the summer of 1970, the Army seemed to be falling apart: “There were huge problems with discipline, with race, with rampant drug abuse,” Bacevich recalls. But his bedrock assumptions remained strong enough — and his political consciousness sufficiently unformed — that the experience left him “disoriented” rather than disillusioned, as was the case with his more radicalized generational counterparts. After coming home, then, he chose a military career. “I just didn’t have the guts at that point to say, ‘Hey, let’s do something different,’ ” he explains. This self-criticism seems too harsh, however. Bacevich and his wife had just had their first child. The Army offered to send him to graduate school at Princeton, and then set him up with a history post at West Point. And, of course, he’d just returned from Vietnam.

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Related: Trapped in Iraq, Reignite your rage, March to war, More more >
  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Andrew Bacevich, Iraq War, War and Conflict,  More more >
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Bacevich’s war
I want to express my appreciation for a wonderful article. I think you have captured the truth here. Thank you for taking the time to write it. classmate of Andrew Bacevich
By learner on 07/07/2007 at 2:56:40

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