Credit: Sheila Vemmer/Army Times

In the historic presidential election of 2008, then candidate Barack Obama distinguished himself from the other candidates in the Democratic primaries in part on the basis of his record of having publicly opposed the war in Iraq. After winning the election, President Obama, though attempting to make good on a campaign promise to withdraw American troops and hand over control of the military campaign to the Iraqi government, has escalated the American global war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, in a mid-term election season marked largely by its rancorous tone, it is sobering to note that opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have diminishing traction in the American imaginary. In this light, the following dialogue with Andrew Bacevich appears especially timely. Author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism, and, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, Bacevich is a celebrated veteran as well as a fierce and indefatigable critic of American militarism and imperial policies. A self-described “Catholic conservative” and an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bacevich is a social critic of note as much for his independence of thought as for his insistence on grounding his public remarks with a clear sense of moral principles and purpose.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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DKK: This is David Kim from the Social Science Research Council, and I am at Boston University, on April 2nd, 2010—Good Friday—for a conversation with Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations, for the next installation of Rites and Responsibilities. Professor Bacevich—may I call you Andrew?

AB: Please, yes.

DKK: As I mentioned in my invitation to you to participate in Rites and Responsibilities, the series is about questions of sovereignty, accountability, authority, and religion. In reading your remarks from various forums, including TomDispatch, among others, and given the array of your interests, I thought you were someone we very much needed in this discussion.

AB: I’m very pleased to participate.

DKK: I appreciate it. As a way to get us started, and to think a little bit about these different issues of sovereignty, religion, accountability, and authority, could you tell me a little bit about yourself? I know you grew up in the Midwest.

AB: Right.

DKK: And you’re from a military family?

AB: Well, no, I’m not. I mean, only in the sense that my parents both served in World War II. They served for the duration, as it were, but they were not career military people. My dad was actually briefly in the Army again during the Korean War, but that was simply because he had finished medical school in Chicago and he needed someplace to do an internship that would help put food on the table. And so he became a First Lieutenant Army doctor, but, again, just for one year. So, by no means am I from a military family, if that implies career military service. There’s nobody I know of in my background who fits that definition.

DKK: You have had several phases in your own career, but would you consider yourself someone who is, or was, a professional soldier?

AB: I would say that I was a professional soldier, though I don’t think I’m a professional soldier any longer, and I’ve tried to set aside that identity and go on to other things. I mean, from time to time I get referred to or introduced as “Colonel Bacevich,” and I don’t correct people, I’m not going to make a fuss about it, but I don’t call myself “Colonel Bacevich.” I used to be that, some time ago now. You know, I left the Army in 1992. I think that I’m now “Professor Bacevich,” and, frankly, I’m very happy to be Professor Bacevich.

DKK: Tell me a little bit about that transition from being “Colonel Bacevich” to becoming “Professor Bacevich.” I’ve read several profiles of you in which you talk about going to West Point, serving in Vietnam, and then remaining in the military. None of these phases of your life and career appeared to be particularly comfortable for you, at least in the portrayals that I’ve read.

AB: Well, I probably wasn’t entirely comfortable with the life that I was living. Although I would want to emphasize that a soldier’s life does provide many satisfactions: comradeship, a sense of purpose, and it can be a very stimulating environment. But the truth, I think, is that I was never really cut out for that life. And, in retrospect, I would say that the reason I lived that life for as long as I did—I was a serving officer for 23 years—quite frankly, I don’t think I had the courage to cut the umbilical cord and venture out into the big, wide world. I remember when I got to the fifth anniversary of my commissioning, which was the time when my initial obligation had ended, and I could have gotten out of the Army. At that time, my wife and I had had our first child, the economy was doing badly . . .

DKK: Now, what year is this?

AB: This is 1974.

DKK: Okay.

AB: Post-Vietnam. And the Army said, “Would you like to go to graduate school for two years, and we’ll foot the bill?”

DKK: Right.

AB: And it seemed like a great opportunity, so we basically kicked the can down the road. We got to the ten-year mark of service, and I actually went through the entire State Department Foreign Service Officer recruiting process, and the State Department said, “We’ll hire you.” This is roughly 1980, by which time we had three children, and they were going to hire me, but I would have had to take a pay cut! So my wife basically said, “We’re not gonna do that!” And by then we’re sort of marching our way up to twenty years of service, and at least some small pension as a consequence of that. But, in retrospect, I wish I’d had more guts to say, “This is not for me. I can do other things.” But I didn’t.

DKK: But backtrack a little bit. I’m thinking of you as a young man at West Point. The folks I know who’ve gone to West Point did so for a variety of reasons: sometimes out of family obligations . . .

AB: Yeah.

DKK: . . . many out of a sense of genuine service and obligation and duty. But there is a particular culture of character formation . . .

AB: Yes.

DKK: . . . that is prevalent at West Point.

AB: Yes, it’s a very strong process of socialization that I think really is the principle driver of the West Point experience. Its purpose is really not a particular “education”—that’s sort of ancillary, I think—but it is, rather, to force you into a mold.

DKK: Right. An education of a certain sort, in that sense.

AB: Yes, but it’s an education that really leans more towards training than real education. I mean, it’s not really about “free inquiry.” It’s not really about exploration. It’s about exposure to a body of knowledge, with the expectation that you will achieve, not mastery, but familiarity. And that body of knowledge, in my day, though I think it’s different today, was quite broad, but also leaned heavily towards math and science, as opposed to the liberal arts.

DKK: Can you talk a bit about the culture of the military? In terms, not just of the mastery of math and science, as you say, but also in regard, as I’m hearing you, to the policies of the American military and to the way it’s run. There appears to be, to use your language, a lack of critical reflection in the military. There is, as you say, a command structure there. Did you feel discomfort with that early on? Or is this something that, in the context of a process of deep socialization, was determinant of who you were as a young man?

AB: I’m not sure that I know, even at this point. One thing that I would say about my personal makeup—and I’ve only really come to appreciate this later in life—is that I value order, and that I am uncomfortable with disorder and uncertainty. And this can be manifest in very simple ways—you know, an orderly home, though I know you would not say that, looking at my office!

DKK: It looks quite tidy compared to my own!

AB: But one of the things that military life offered me, and that I think kept me in it, despite the fact that I wasn’t a good fit in many respects, was that it offered order and predictability and security—again, not to be dismissed when you’re a young guy with a growing family. And, so, all of those aspects of military life, I think, helped to draw me to it, or at least to keep me in it for a period of time. That said, from this distance, I would say that there are many other important aspects of what makes life within the officer corps what it is, and I would never want to imply that the values of duty, honor, and country are absent from that life, because they are there and they are important. But less positive, I think, is an implicit definition of success, or of personal fulfillment, which is tied to upward mobility.

DKK: Right.

AB: Again, I only say this in retrospect, and I know that many of the people I served with, I think, would probably disagree with me, but it became apparent to me over time that even when the officer corps spoke the language, and sincerely spoke the language, of duty, honor, and country, that, at the same time, it placed even greater value on the competition to get ahead—that to be a good soldier, to be seen to be a good soldier, was, in many respects, to be seen to be somebody who was going somewhere . . .

DKK: Right.

AB: . . . somebody who was making the promotion list, who was getting the plum assignment, who was getting opportunities, who was receiving awards and recognition. In that sense, it’s not really all that different, I think, from many other hierarchical organizations. But I think that within the officer corps, at least in my time, and maybe just in my part of the officer corps, the part in which I served, there was a great emphasis on that. And I think I conformed to that ethic in ways that I would say today that I regret, because it’s pernicious, and it’s not conducive to honesty. It’s actually conducive to dishonesty, because in many respects the way you get ahead is to be sensitive to which way the winds are blowing and to conform. And in that sense, it is an environment that is not at all conducive to critical thought and, I think, self-understanding. I’ll give you a specific example right now, which is one of the things that I’ve been writing a little bit about, and thinking about, and that is—I don’t want to make this sound too much like inside baseball here . . .

DKK: That’s okay.

AB: There has been an underappreciated, radical transformation in American military thought over the past four years, roughly. The implications of this change are monumental, and it is the very fact that there’s this tendency towards conformity within the officer corps, and an absence of critical thought, that I think creates barriers that prevent us from understanding the significance of what has happened.

Now, what has happened? Well, what has happened is that the officer corps in which I served, the officer corps that grew out of the Vietnam experience, and whose collective mindset was very much shaped in a negative way by Vietnam, determined after Vietnam that it would embrace rather fiercely a conception of warfare that would prevent us from ever getting stuck in another Vietnam. And that conception of warfare was one that insisted that the United States would fight short wars, producing decisive outcomes and preventing the alienation of the officer corps from the affections of the American people. In other words, no more counterinsurgency! That’s the Army in which I served in the 1970s—or, excuse me, in the 1980s and 1990s, for the most part—and that’s the Army that invaded Iraq in 2003. And in Iraq, of course, these expectations of short, decisive, economical wars were demolished. Indeed, the expectation was based on a false conception of what war is all about. But what was the reaction of the officer corps to that failure? The reaction was to rediscover counterinsurgency, and to make counterinsurgency the new American way of war, now ostensibly applied successfully in Iraq and at the moment being applied by General McChrystal in Afghanistan. And to somebody of my generation and my perspective, this was an astonishing development, because in essence we now have an officer corps that really doesn’t believe that war works.

If you listen to people like General Petraeus and General McChrystal, they say that there is no such thing as a military victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, that what we need to do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan really amounts to a project of armed nation-building, and that armed nation-building is now really the American way of war. That is the military response, as it were, to the problem posed by violent anti-Western jihadism. Well, let’s think about this a second: if indeed counter-insurgency, or armed nation-building, is the new American way of war, and if we are engaged in what the Pentagon calls a “long war” in order to deal with the problem of jihadism—well, how many other counterinsurgencies are we going to be required to undertake after Afghanistan? Where to next? Pakistan? Iran? Syria? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? I mean, it is a preposterous notion that this new American way of war—counterinsurgency or armed nation-building—can possibly offer a coherent response to the problem we’re facing. And yet, there’s this general acceptance that the idea is a good one, the implications of which condemn us, if we continue down this path, to permanent war!

To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).—ed.