U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Andrew Bacevich and an American ‘Agape’

Andrew Bacevich has been among the most persistent and perceptive critics of recent American history. A couple of weeks ago, he wrote a piece at tomdispatch that marked a kind of turning point in his assessment of the American troubles. In light of a series of reports, polls, and essays about the American wars of the last decade, Bacevich concluded, tentatively, that America has begun to awake from a martial stupor. What follows is one part of my argument regarding Bacevich’s significance. His thought seems to place him among critics such as William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, J. William Fulbright, and, even, George Kennan. Yet, I think the fact that Bacevich is Catholic complicates mattes a bit because he takes his religion seriously in matters of politics but not as seriously as someone such as Stanley Hauerwas. I am curious what others think.
Over time the war on terror became a strange amalgam of two traditions: an American penchant for hand-wringing when things go bad and an impulse to look for redemption in failure. Among the many critics who attempted to untangle these traditions, the best was perhaps Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich had credentials and the arguments similar to many other critics of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saw them as part of larger ideological problem as well as a patchwork of policies and assumptions about the world since 1945. But to my mind, Bacevich has had a few things going for him: he had been a soldier, and so could see both sides of the deification of “our troops;” he became a scholar, and thus sought critical distance from events (for example, he has used to great effect Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought in picking apart an American theology of nationalism); he is Catholic, and has made clear that like Stanley Hauerwas he takes seriously the requirements of faith and the restrictions imposed by dogma; and finally he is a father who has suffered for American civil religion—he lost a son in Iraq.

This combination made Bacevich a particularly astute and acute critic of recent American civil religion. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and has become well-regarded as a public intellectual whose recent books include Washington Rules (2010), The Limits of Power (2008) and The New American Militarism (2005). His moral accounting of recent American wars stand as Bacevich’s contribution to the deluge of critical appraisals of post-war and, more specifically, Bush-era delusions of grandeur. But Bacevich is also a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the U.S. Army, for which he served a year in Vietnam and, as a colonel, in the Gulf War. In a revealing comment regarding his training at West Point, Bacevich explained that a significant problem with the popular adulation of the military is that as an institution the military is not an expression of democracy but it’s opposite. The point is “to socialize you to the primacy of duty, while not encouraging you to assess critically whether the duty makes any sense,” Bacevich observed. “One is devoted to one’s country above devotion to anything else other than your family: country above the notion of humanity; country above the notion of what’s right or wrong or true or beautiful.” When a nation’s civil religion becomes increasingly defined and incarnated by war, the consequences are dire.[1]

Andrew Bacevich and his wife personally experienced those consequences in the most tragic way when they lost their son Andrew Bacevich, Jr., who was killed in the Sunni triangle north of Bagdad on Mother’s Day 2007. A few weeks later, on May 21, his family buried him in a cemetery in Walpole, Massachusetts. Thousands of people lined the streets of the town to witness the funeral procession—a gesture that “profoundly moved” the Bacevichs. Andrew Jr.’s death was the first casualty of the Iraq War for Walpole. Andrew Sr. supported his son’s decision to enlist in the military, but continued to write critically about the war and President Bush’s prosecution of it.

Was this a disjunction? Bacevich ruminated on it, especially after receiving two messages contending “that my son’s death came as direct result of my antiwar writings.” Bacevich reasoned that such a charge, while seemingly vile, forced him to consider “what exactly is a father’s duty when his son is sent into harm’s way?” He answered that like his son’s service to the nation as a soldier, he, as a critic of the war in which his son fought, was doing his duty as well. But both father and son saw the tragedy of war: for Bacevich he lost his son to the war he opposed and lost hope that speaking out against war would make a difference. Bacevich remarked ruefully, “Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless. Don’t believe it.” The cost of the war was in fact the point, he argued. It was about money—money to buy influence, money spent on the war that sank the economy, and money that was given to the family of a fallen soldier to pay them for the sacrifice they made for the nation. “I know my so did his best to serve our country,” Bacevich concluded. “Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing. In this way, I failed him.”[2]

Bacevich’s profound sense of loss came in the two areas that matter most: the personal and the mythical. He lost his son to a war that had done a great deal to undermine the mythical nature of the nation he loves. Through his work, Bacevich has expressed his agape for America—his love for the nation that has been hard-earned through suffering and extensive reflection. He is not merely a cold-water critic, dousing the hopes of Americans—he chose not to dash the wishes of his son when he wanted to serve his nation. He wrote in Limits of Power, “ironically Iraq may yet prove to be the source of our salvation. For the United States, the ongoing war makes plain the imperative of putting America’s house in order. Iraq has revealed the futility of counting on military power to sustain our habits of profligacy. The day of reckoning approaches. Expending the lives of more American soldiers in hopes of deferring that day is profoundly wrong.”[3]

Can Bacevich find something in the fact that he was right?

[1] Wendy Murray, “U.S. delusions: An army man changes his mind,” The Christian Century Magazine, August 11, 2009, accessed at:

[2] Andrew Bacevich, “I Lost My Son to a War I oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty,” Washington Post, May 27, 2007).

[3] Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 12-13.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great post, Ray. I don’t have much to offer other than praise for Bacevich’s work. Just last night I read two recent articles he wrote:

    One a review of a book on Eisenhower’s dealings with the Suez Crisis in 1956 (from the London Review of Books):


    And the other an analysis of the centrality of Albert Wohlstetter’s thought in the shaping of the Bush Doctrine (from the New Left Review–a surprising place for Bacevich to publish, I think):


    I love how he concludes the LRB essay:

    Of greater importance was the impact of the episode on America’s role in the Middle East. The United States, Nichols writes approvingly, ‘was taking over from the British’. In January 1957, a new Eisenhower Doctrine promised assistance to Middle Eastern nations threatened by communism. That assistance included, if necessary, ‘the employment of the armed forces of the United States to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations’. The next year American soldiers and marines were splashing ashore in Lebanon. This first US military intervention in the region was brief and bloodless. Not so with the many that were to come after it. ‘Eisenhower’s historic contribution following the Suez crisis,’ Nichols concludes, ‘was the commitment of the United States to maintaining the stability and security of the Middle East.’ What stability? What security? What historic contribution?

  2. “Andrew Bacevich has been among the most persistent and perceptive critics of recent American history.”

    Is there a difference between being a critic of recent history and being a critic of recent politics? I ask because this description brings to my mind the old question of how to draw the line between “history” and “current events.”

  3. Wonderful post, Ray!

    I first encountered Bacevich when I was active in Historians Against the War. We hosted a panel discussion in NYC…I think it was in conjunction with the big demonstrations during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004. The topic was whether the war policies of the Bush Administration represented more of a continuity or a break from the policies of his predecessors. Bacevich argued powerfully and effectively that the continuities were more significant than the discontinuities. In a distinguished panel (I wish I could remember off the top of my head who else was on it), Bacevich was the most impressive.

    One other thing that should be pointed out about Bacevich: he both is and considers himself to be a conservative. This makes his voice rather different (and rather more unusual) than those of the left-of-center critics of American foreign policy, in whose company he in other ways belongs, that you list above. Although my own politics are very much on the left, there’s a side to me that feels, in light of the state of American conservatism these days, there’s something particularly precious about probing, intelligent, and rigorous critiques from the right.

  4. Varad: I think you’ve made yet another interesting point. The column of Bacevich’s that I link to in this post is certainly more contemporary affairs than history, but what both Andrew and Ben write about in their comments highlights what Bacevich has brought to contemporary history. My post was more about the latter, but I should have made that clearer.

    When writing for this or any blog (I suspect) that line between contemporary affairs and contemporary history can get blurry. I keep thinking about a comment Leo Ribuffo made on facebook about bloggers, including the ones at USIH, who seem more inclined toward being intellectuals than being historians when writing posts. I think he also has a point. Though I am probably more guilty of that than others here at USIH because I came to the blog thinking I might discuss contemporary issues within a historical context.

    I am consistently impressed by the historiographical approach my colleagues here take to their different topics.

    On the topic of Bacevich, as both Andrew and Ben point out, his conservatism is worthy of more study. Bacevich was a contributor to First Things for a while and tore apart Clinton-era foreign policy. He seemed to be the in-house foreign policy expert at First Things in the 1990s. A fruitful time for him, I imagine, as he transitioned from military service to prolific author. All to say, I will read on and try to integrate my views on Bacevich within different intellectual circles.

    Thanks to you all for your comments.

  5. Ray: Thanks for the thoughtful answer to my question. I think you, and Ben and Andrew, do a good job explicating how Bacevich’s historical background informs his analysis of contemporary policy debates. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about him beyond his name; it was news to me he served in the military or comes out of conservative circles. At the beginning of your post I started thinking that maybe he’s someone in the mold of Juan Cole, i.e., a historian who uses his academic credentials as a perch to comment on contemporary US policy. But after reading through and then the comments, it strikes me that that comparison is not the most apposite one.

  6. Andrew Bacevich had as much influence on my understanding of US foreign policy during the last decade as any other writer. I agree that Bacevich’s consciously Christian religious outlook is important in shaping his views. That comes out particularly in his appreciation of the limitations of human efforts to shape events to our liking through the use of military power. And in his understanding of the frailty of even genuinely good intentions when it comes to wars. He co-edited a book with Eliot Cohen on “War Over Kosovo,” which took a hard look at the lessons of the Kosovo War. I wish the advocates of intervention in Libya had taken those lessons more seriously.

    Like Andrew Hartman, I was particularly impressed with Bacevich’s analysis of how neoconservative thinking on preventive war grew out of first-strike theories of nuclear war strategists. I saw Bacevich on his book tour for “The New American Militarism,” and I mentioned how much sense that portion of his argument made to me. He commented that hardly anyone had mentioned that aspect of the book, which surprised me. Because the continuity he identified is a strong one.

    But I would question how much his own background as a military officer and even as the father of a soldier who died in Iraq have contributed to his credibility as a critic of US military and foreign policies. For one thing, it seems to me that he’s careful not to claim any special insight into his field of history from having been a career military officer. He really seems to want to be judged on his arguments, one of which is that idolization of the military is a highly problematic attitude. Even in his moving Memorial Day essay on mourning his son, its purpose was asking the general public to think realistically about who are soldiers are, instead of seeing them through some highly ideological or religious prism.

    At best, his military background and the loss of his son may lead some of his opponents to be marginally more respectful in attacking him. Though, as the cruel and ugly messages you mentioned illustrate, not all of them have even that much restraint.

  7. Interesting post and comments.

    On the question of whether having served in the military gives critics of US foreign and military policies extra credibility: probably, esp. when, as in Bacevich’s case, they’ve seen active duty in war zones (whether it should give them extra credibility is a separate question).

    Being a West Point graduate, though, does not, standing alone, necessarily do much for a critic’s credibility one way or another. John Mearsheimer, who displays an arguably odd disconnect between his theoretical and his policy writings, is a West Point graduate, but I doubt a great many people know that and I don’t think he makes a point of emphasizing it himself (though I’m not sure).

  8. P.s. For the record, I am sympathetic to a lot of Bacevich’s criticisms, though I have read only an occasional one of his articles, not the books.

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