Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. The following interview revolves around a recently released collection of his post 9/11 essays with the sobering title, Twilight of the American Century.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Note to Jesus Creed/Patheos readers: This book will no doubt make my favorite book list for 2019. The writing is elegant, refreshingly candid, and you will learn a ton. I took hundreds of notes. Also, note that the paperback is less than $20. For a book of such quality, and just under 500 pages, that is quite a steal!
Moore: You lead off this collection of essays with a verse from one of my favorite books of the Bible, the book of Lamentations. Why did you choose this particular verse?
Bacevich: I do not claim to be an exegete. But that particular verse, in my view, captures the essence of where the United States finds itself today. In some respects, the central theme of my writing over the past couple of decades has been decline. When the Cold War ended in 1989, we found ourselves at the very summit of global power and influence. In the 30 years since, we have squandered that position, largely through our own folly. I began by focusing on a post-Cold War penchant for misusing military power. I’ve concluded since that our failures have been much broader, encompassing matters related to political economy and culture.
Moore: The ancients Greeks liked to say, mathein pathein: to learn is to suffer. You mention your time in graduate school at Princeton as a time of when your own worldview was being “subverted.” Would you describe a bit about that formative time?
Bacevich: As a result of my upbringing — midwestern, Catholic, and conservative — I tended as a young person to accept orthodoxy. My army service reinforced this inclination. Graduate school at Princeton was my first immersion in an environment that invited me — obliged me, even — to consider alternative views. Many other such occasions followed in subsequent years. I am a slow learner, but over time my views have evolved.
Moore: You are balanced in your critiques of those on both the so-called left and right. I am curious if you have any ongoing conversations over American hubris with folks like David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, et al.
Bacevich: No, I don’t. My interaction with members of the commentariat have been minimal.
Moore: Whether it is Clinton or Cruz, you say that most of us are glad members of Church of America the Redeemer? Why does membership in that “church” so easily cross party lines?
Bacevich: Because it plays to a conceit that goes back to the founding of Anglo-America in the first years of the 17th Century: We are the “new Israel,” joined to God in a special covenant. Today that notion tends to get expressed in secular terms but it persists.
Moore: Throughout these essays you offer regular reminders to see our history as containing the good, the bad, and even the ugly. How can we be better citizens by honest engagement with the unsavory aspects of our country’s history?
Bacevich: We need to begin by accepting the fact that we are not God’s chosen instrument. God’s plans are his own. We may be particularly blessed and privileged members of humanity, but we are not exempt from the frailties that afflict others. We do not define the ultimate destiny of humankind. We are not the “indispensable nation.” It’s past time for us to get over that conceit.
Moore: This question is not predicated on the ancient sense of cynic, but on the more modern connotation of cynic: one who can spot the sick underbelly of a culture but is not especially hopeful about things changing. Do you have hope for our country? If so, why?
Bacevich: I have hope in the sense that as a people we have demonstrated a capacity to muddle through and to overcome adversity. It might be ugly, but we will get through this difficult period just as we have earlier ones.
Moore: What are a few things you would like readers of these essays to take away?
Bacevich: The historian’s role is to invite readers to “think otherwise.” I’d like the essays in “Twilight” to do just that.