The Wisdom and Sanity of Andrew Bacevich

Book Review

By Michael F. Duggan

Andrew J. Bacevich, Twilight of the American Century, University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.

What do you call a rational man in an increasingly irrational time?  An anomaly?  An anachronism?  A voice in the wilderness?  A faint glimmer of hope? 

For those of us who devour each new article or book by the prolific Andrew J. Bacevich, his latest book Twilight of the American Century—a collection of his post-9/11 articles and essays (2001-2017)—is not only a welcome addition to the oeuvre but something of an event.  In these abnormal times, Bacevich, a former army colonel who describes himself as a traditional conservative, is nothing short of a bomb-thrower against the the Washington Consensus.  Likewise the ominous title of the present collection does not look out of place among the apocalyptic titles of a New Left history professor (Alfred W. McCoy/In the Shadows of the American Century), an apostate New York Times journalist flirting with bottom-up Marxism (Chris Hedges/America the Farewell Tour), and an economics professor from Brandeis (Robert Kuttner/Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism). 

The new book was worth the wait.    

A collection by an author with broad, deep, and nuanced historical understanding, Twilight of the American Century lends powerful insight over a wide territory of issues, events, and personalities.  The brevity of these topical pieces makes it possible to pick up the book at any point or to jump ahead to areas of special interest to the reader.  Bacevich, a generalist with depth and a distinctive voice, offers what is without a doubt the freshest and most sensible take on foreign policy and military affairs today.

In terms of outlook, Professor Bacevich harkens back to a time when “conservatism” meant Burkean gradualism—a cautious and moderate outlook advocating terraced progress over the jolts and whipsaw of radical change and destabilizing shifts in policy.  This perspective is based on a realistic understanding of human nature, that people are flawed and that traditions, the law, strong government, and the balancing of power are necessary to accommodate—to contain and balance—the impulses of a largely irrational animal and what Peter Viereck called its “Satanic ego.”  

As regards policy, traditional (read “true”) conservatism is fairly non-ideological.  It holds that rapid fundamental change results in instability and eventually violence.  Those who have studied utopian projects or events like the Terror of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or the Cultural Revolution realize that this perspective might be on to something.  Traditional conservatives like Viereck, believe that a nation should keep those policies that work while progressing gradually in areas in need of reform.  They also embrace progressive initiatives when they appear to be working or when a more conservative approach is insufficient (Viereck supported the New Deal).  The question is whether or not gradualistic change is even possible in a time of great division in popular politics and lockstep conformity and conventionalism among the members of the Washington elite. 

From his shorter works as well as books like The Limits of Power, Washington Rules, and America’s War for the Greater Middle East (to name a few) one gets two opposite impressions about Bacevich and his perspective.  The first is that he never abandoned conservatism, it abandoned him and became something very different—a bellicose radicalism of the right—that is odious to true conservatives.  The second is more personal, that, like a hero from the Greek tragic tradition, he realized in midlife that what he believed to be true was wrong.  At the beginning of his brutally honest and introspective introduction to the present book, he writes:

“Everyone makes mistakes.  Among mine was choosing at age seventeen to attend the United States Military Academy, an ill-advised decision made with little appreciation for any longer-term implications that might ensue.  My excuse?  I was young and foolish.”

The implication of such a stark admission is that when one errs so profoundly, so early in life, it puts everything that follows on a mistaken trajectory.  While this seems to be tragic in the classical sense (and is certainly “tragic” in more common usage as a synonym for catastrophic), it also appears to be what has made Bacevich the powerful critic he has become: to the wise, truth comes out of the realization of error.  His previous “erroneous” life gives him a template of uncritical assumptions against which to judge the insights hard bought through experience and independent learning after he arrived at his epiphany, his moment of peripetia.  The “mistake” (more like an object lesson of harsh self-criticism) and the realizing of it with clarity of vision and disillusioned historical understanding made him the superb critic he has become (and to be frank, his career as an army combat officer gives him certain “street creds” that cannot be easily dismissed and which he could not have earned elsewhere).  It seems unlikely that Bacevich would have happened on his current perspective as just another academic.  

One can only speculate about whether or not he makes the truth of his early “error” out to be more tragic than it really is.  A more charitable reading is that this admission casts him as the hero in a Popperian success story of one who has taken the correct lessons from his experience.  One can hardly imagine a more fruitful intellectual rising from a midlife crisis.  It is also difficult to imagine how he would have arrived at his depth as a mature commentator via a more traditional academic route.  But I draw close to psychologizing my subject.

In order to be a commentator of the first rank, a writer must know human nature—its attributes as a paragon among animals, its foolishness, its willfulness, its murderous irrationality—and must have judgment and a sense of circumspect that comes from historical understanding.  You must know when to criticize and when to forgive, lest you become mean.  Twain was a great commentator because he forgives foibles while telling the truth.  Mencken is sometimes mean because he does not always distinguish between forgivable failing or weakness and fault and excuses himself from his spot-on criticism of others. 

An emeritus professor at Boston University, Bacevich knows history as well as any contemporary public intellectual and much better than most.  His historical understanding far exceeds that of the neocon/lib critics and policymakers of the Washington foreign policy Blob.  He carries off his criticism so effectively, not by a lightness of touch, but by frank honesty.  It is apparent from the first line of the book that he holds himself to the same standards and one senses that he is his own toughest critic—his introduction is self-critical to the point of open confession.  Bacevich is tough, but he is one of those rare people who is able to keep himself unblinkingly honest by not exempting himself from the world’s imperfections. 

He dominates polemics then, not by raising his voice, but by reason and clear vision, sequences of surprising observations and interpretations that expose historical mythologies, false narratives, and mistaken perceptions, with an articulate and nuanced, if at times dour voice.  Frank to the point of bluntness, he calls things by their proper name and has what Hemingway called “the most essential gift for a good writer… a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector” the importance of which goes double if the writer is a historian.  In less salty language, and in a time where so many commentators tend to defend questionable positions, Bacevich’s articles are a tonic because he simply tells the truth. 

In his review of Frank Costigliola’s The Kennan Diaries, he seems to flirt with meanness and overkill, but perhaps I am being oversensitive.  Like many geniuses—assuming that he is one—Kennan was a neurotic and eccentric, and it is all-too easy to enumerate his many obvious quirks (if we judge great artists, thinkers, and leaders by their foibles and failures, one can only wonder how Mozart, Beethoven, Byron, van Gogh, Churchill, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway would fare; even the Bard would not escape whipping if we judge him by Henry VIII).  As a shameless Kennan partisan who tends to rationalize his personal flaws, perhaps I am just reacting as one whose ox is being gored.  I am not saying that Bacevich gets any of the facts wrong, only that the interpretation lacks charity.  

This outlining of Kennan’s shortcomings also struck me as ironic and perhaps counterproductive in that Bacevich is arguably the closest living analog or successor to Mr. X. as a commentator on policy, both in terms of a realistic outlook and in the role of historian as a Cassandra who is likely to be right and unlikely to be heeded by the powers that be.  Both fill the role(s) of the conservative as moderate, liberal-minded realist, historian as tough critic, and critic as honest broker in times desperately in need of correction.  As regards temperament, there are notable differences between the two: Bacevich strikes one as a stoical Augustinian Catholic where Kennan, at least in his diaries, comes across as a Presbyterian kvetch and perhaps a clinical depressive.  Like Kennan too, Bacevich is right about many—perhaps most—things, but not about everything; perfection is too much to ask of any commentator and we should never seek out spotless heroes.  The grounded historical realism and clear-sighted adumbrate of both men is immune to the seduction of bubbles a la mode, the conventionalist clichés of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

The book is structured into four parts: Part 1. Poseurs and Prophets, Part 2. History and Myth, Part 3. War and Empire, and Part 4. Politics and Culture.  The first part is made up of book reviews and thumbnail character studies.  If you have any sacred cows among the chapter titles or in the index, you may find your loyalty strongly tested and if you have anything like an open mind, there is a reasonable chance that your faith will be destroyed.  Charlatans and bona fide villains as well as mere scoundrels and cranks including the likes of David Brooks, Tom Clancy, Tommy Franks, Robert Kagan, Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Schlesinger, Paul Wolfowitz, Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, and, yes, George Kennan, all take their lumps and are stripped of their new clothes for all to see.  Throughout the rest of the book there is a broad cast of characters that receive a similar treatment.  

This is not to say that Bacevich does not sing the praises of his own chosen few including Randolph Bourne, Mary and Daniel Beard, Christopher Lasch, C. Wright Mills, Reinhold Niebuhr, and William Appleman Williams, but here too is he completely frank and provides a full list of favorites up front in his introduction (his inclusion of the humorless, misanthrope, Henry Adams—another Kennan-like prophet, historian, and WASPy whiner—is a little perplexing).   

Where to begin?  Bacevich’s essays are widely ranging and yet embody a consistent outlook.  Certain themes overlap or repeat themselves in other guises.  He has a Twain-like antipathy for frauds, fakes, and charlatans and is adept at laying bare their folly (minus Twain’s punchlines and folksy persona).  The problem with our time is that these people have dominated and their outlooks have become an unquestioned orthodoxy among their followers and in policy circles in spite of a record of catastrophe that promises more of the same.  To read Bacevich’s criticism is to realize that things have gone beyond an establishment wedded to an ideology of mistaken beliefs and into the realm of group psychosis.  One comes away with the feeling that the establishment of our time has become a delusional cult beyond the reaches of reason and perhaps sanity.  Hume reminds us, that “reason is the slave of the passions” and it is striking to read powerful arguments that are unlikely to change anything.  If anything, Bacevich’s circumspect, clarity of vision, common sense, and impressive historical fluency seem to disprove the observation attributed to Desiderius Erasmus that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”  More likely, in a kingdom of the blind, a clear-sighted person will be ignored or burned as a heretic if caught.

Are there any criticisms of Bacevich himself?  Sure.  For instance, one wonders if, like a gifted prosecutor, at times he makes the truth out to be clearer than it may really be.  In this sense his brilliant Washington Rules is a powerful historical polemic rather than a purely interpretive survey (like Robert Dalleck’s The Lost Peace, which covers much of the same period).  Thus it is fair to regard him as a polemicist as well as an interpretive historian (again, this is not to suggest that he is wrong).  Also, given the imminent threat posed by the unfolding environmental crises, I found myself hoping that he would wade further into topics related to climate change—the emerging Anthropocene (i.e. issues of population, human-generated carbon dioxide, loss of habitat/biodiversity, soil depletion, the plastics crisis, etc.)—and wondering how he might respond to commentators like John Gray, Elizabeth Kolbert, Jed Purdy, Roy Scranton, Edward O. Wilson, and Malthus himself. 

The only other criticism is that Bacevich is so prolific that one laments not finding his most recent articles among the pages of the present collection.  This is what is known as a First World complaint.

Unlike a singular monograph, there is no one moral to this collection but a legion of lessons: that events do not occur in a vacuum—that events like Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 9/11, and the numerous U.S. wars in the Near East all had notable pedigrees of error—and that bad policy in the present will continue to send ripples far into the future; that the stated reasons for policy are never the only ones and often not the real ones; that some of the smartest people believe the dumbest things and that just because you are smart doesn’t necessarily mean that you are sensible or even sane; that the majority opinion of experts is often wrong; that bad arguments sometimes resonate broadly and masquerade as good ones and that without a nuanced understanding of history it is impossible to distinguish between them.  If there is a single lesson from this book it is that the United States has made a number of wrong turns over the past decades that have put it on a perilous course on which it continues today with even greater speed.  Thus the title. 

In short, Bacevich, along with Barlett and Steele, and a number of other commentators on foreign policy, economics, and the environment, is one of the contemporary critics whose honesty and rigor can be trusted.  As a matter of principle, we should always read critically and with an open mind, but in my experience, here is an author whose analysis can be taken as earnest, sensible, and insightful.  He is also a writer of the first order.

My recommendation is that if you have even the slightest feeling that things are amiss in American foreign affairs, or if you are simply earnest about testing the validity of your own beliefs, whatever they are, you should read this book.  If you think that everything is fine with the nation and its policy course, then you should buy it today and read it cover to cover.  After all, there is nothing more dangerous than an uncritical true believer and we arrive at wisdom by correcting our mistaken beliefs in light of more powerful arguments to the contrary.