Bidding farewell to the American century
Like Cicero in the Roman Republic, there are always a handful of chroniclers who can see and articulate clearly the social, cultural, and political realities of empires in terminal decline. They call out the bankruptcy of an inept and corrupt ruling class, blinded by hubris, as well as a populace that has checked out of civic life and is entranced by bread and circus spectacles. In his trilogy Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Chambers Johnson does a masterful job of showing how and why we are disintegrating. So does Andrew Bacevich, who, in his newest book of essays, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, writes about the debacles that have beset the American empire since the Vietnam War, a conflict he fought in as a young army officer. Bacevich warns that Americans’ inability to be self-critical, to dissect and understand the litany of disasters that have followed on the heels of Vietnam, including decades of fruitless warfare in the Middle East, will have terrible consequences for us and much of the rest of the globe.
Andrew Bacevich is a retired army colonel and Emeritus Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. He is the cofounder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and the author of numerous books, including The New American Militarism, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, and After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
Chris Hedges: At the end of any empire, there are always a handful of chroniclers who, like Cicero in the ancient Roman Republic, see clearly the looming disintegration of empire. They call out the bankruptcy of an inept and corrupt ruling class blinded by hubris, as well as a populace that has checked out of civic life and is entranced by the bread and circus of spectacles. Chambers Johnson in his trilogy on American empire: Blowback; The Sorrows of Empire; and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic does a masterful job of showing how and why we are disintegrating.
So does Andrew Bacevich, who in his newest book of essays, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, writes about the debacles that have beset the American empire since the Vietnam War, a conflict he fought in as a young Army officer. He warns that our inability to be self-critical, to dissect and understand the litany of disasters that have followed on the heels of Vietnam, including the 20 years of fruitless warfare in the Middle East, will have terrible consequences for us and much of the rest of the globe.
Joining me to discuss his new book is Andrew Bacevich, the president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. A West Point graduate and retired Army colonel. He is also professor emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University. His other books include The New American Militarism; The Limits of Power; America’s War for the Greater Middle East; and After The Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.
Andrew, I want to begin with what you call the Church of America the Redeemer. You say this is a virtual congregation, albeit one possessing many of the attributes of a more traditional religion. The church has its own holy scripture, authenticated on July 4, 1776 at a gathering of 56 prophets, and it has its own saints, prominent among them, the good Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the sacred text – Not the bad Thomas Jefferson, who owned and impregnated enslaved people – Talk about the Church of America the Redeemer, and what happens when you don’t pay fealty to that church?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, if you don’t pay fealty to it, I think you probably get ignored and end up being somewhat frustrated, which would be, I think, the way I would describe myself with regard to my writing efforts. But what’s the Church of the Redeemer? Well, I guess the essay itself is another way of approaching and commenting on the notion of American exceptionalism, which rests on a conviction that we are, indeed, the chosen people, the new chosen people, and as the new chosen people, that we have a divinely inspired mission. And the mission is to transform the world in our own image. This, I think, is something that, in many respects, we can trace back to the founding of the republic, even to the colonial era. I think it is something that really achieved maturity beginning in 1945 and has persisted down to the present moment despite the accumulation of evidence that says that we’re not exceptional, and that the prophets that we look to in many respects have feet of clay.
Chris Hedges: I mean, 1945, you could argue that after World War II, of course, in many ways, at least for some parts of the world, and particularly Europe, America was the redeemer. And yet, since Vietnam, this kind of rhetoric is at complete odds with the reality of how we project power and what we do in the world. And I want you just to address that disconnect between the language we use to describe ourselves to ourselves and what’s actually happening.
Andrew Bacevich: What a great question, and I can’t give you a satisfactory answer. The persistence of myth when facts and reality contradict the myth is a bit of a puzzle. You’ve put your finger, I think, on the key point, and that is that even if at the end of World War II, and arguably for the next couple of decades, it would be at least plausible to be patting ourselves on the back as the savior of the world, that notion has become implausible since Vietnam. There was an effort to revive it in the aftermath of 9/11 when George W. Bush embarked upon his great crusade, the one that we called global war on terrorism. Certainly the expectations that informed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 traced their origin back to the claims made at the end of World War II and early in the Cold War. But we saw in Iraq that the facts simply demolished those expectations.
So you put your finger on the main question, I think: why does the myth persist? Again, I don’t have a very good answer, although I think that, to some degree, it persists because those who wield power in the United States, whether we’re talking political power, economic power, those who wield power have an interest in sustaining the myth. Because as long as the myth persists, so does their elevated status.
Chris Hedges: Well, if their reference point is Vietnam or the 20-year debacle in the Middle East, the myth itself implodes. And so, in a way, it has to be anchored in the past, because it’s impossible to anchor it in the present.
Andrew Bacevich: But in a way it doesn’t implode. I mean, it ought to implode.
Chris Hedges: Right.
Andrew Bacevich: Let’s talk about the Afghanistan War. Longest war in our country’s history – Not the biggest, by any means, if we look at the number of Americans and other than Americans killed, wounded. The most expensive, I think, arguably, in terms of dollar cost. 20-year effort, ends in abject failure. And one might say, well, obviously, clearly then the nation is going to step back and reflect deeply on the cause and consequences of this failure. But as you know and I know, that didn’t happen. I mean, it is astonishing how quickly both our political elites in Washington and the country more broadly have turned aside from Afghanistan. And now today, as you and I speak, we’re all gung-ho to wage a proxy war, underline a proxy war in Ukraine, as if the debacle of Afghanistan, the parallel debacle of Iraq, never happened.
Chris Hedges: Well, there was a story, I can’t remember if it was Churchill or somebody went to Paris after World War II, and the French were talking about lessons of the war, and it was all about World War I, which of course they won. But it has something of that kind of utter denial of reality because reality is just so unpalatable. And I wonder if that’s a feature of all late empires, where no one’s held accountable, there’s no self reflection, and it’s a collective self-delusion. Does that characterize… I think you could argue it characterizes any late empire.
Andrew Bacevich: Yeah, I’m not a student of comparative empires, but if we take the little I know of a couple of cases, one would be France. France, in the wake of World War II, determined to cling to its empire in Indochina and in Algeria, an effort that came nowhere near to succeeding and simply exacted great costs, both of France and of these former colonial territories. That was an empire that didn’t learn, that was an empire that didn’t read the writings on the wall.
I think you can say the same thing about the Brits. Certainly, in the wake of World War II, British leaders recognized that the pre-war British Empire was unsustainable, but they exerted themselves to try to maintain a privileged status. And that didn’t work. And I think here the most illustrative case is the Suez crisis of 1956, when the Brits tried to reassert control of the Suez Canal, and more broadly were attempting to reassert indirect control of Egypt, and I suppose more broadly of the Middle East. And of course that flopped terribly. So yeah, it’s not just us. I think you probably can make a case that empires cling to the past even when the signs clearly indicate that there’s no way to resuscitate the past.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask you a question as a historian. You quote the great historian, Carl Becker, “For all practical purposes, history is for us, and for the time being, what we know it to be.” And then you go on and say, “The study of the past may reveal truths, Becker allowed, but those truths are contingent, incomplete, invalid only for the time being. Put another way, historical perspectives conceived in what Becker termed the ‘specious present’ have a sell-by date.” Can you explain that idea?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, and that’s not the past that Americans want to conjure up. We want to be able to pick the parts of the past that are relevant. I think, absolutely, the classic example of this is the run-up to World War II, the narrative that everybody knows: the failed effort to appease Hitler, American reluctance to intervene in the European war, once it began, on behalf of Great Britain. These are the shake-your-finger lessons that have persisted since then down to the present moment.
Another way, I think, of saying that is that our prevailing notions of history are exceedingly narrow and exceedingly selective. And basically the process of selection is one that aims to reassure ourselves. To reassure ourselves that the myths that we believe in can be sustained. That disappointments, whether it’s the disappointment of the Vietnam War, whether it’s the disappointment of the Afghanistan war, that those are mere merely passing moments, and that if we exert ourselves, if we try hard enough, if we send our soldiers off to enough wars, that we can somehow turn this thing around. I think that’s very much what’s going on with regard to the US proxy participation in the Ukraine War, that, by God, if we can defeat Russia, then we’ll be back on top. We’ll be number one. Let the Chinese see what we’ve done to the Russians, and then let’s see what they say at that time. But it all involves this… Recognize the truths, the realities that I want to and ignore the ones that I find inconvenient.
Chris Hedges: You write that the process of formulating new history to supplant the old is organic rather than contrived – And this is the point I found really interesting – It comes from the bottom up, not the top down. What do you mean by that?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think I was suggesting what it ought to be. It ought to be organic, that we ought to recognize voices that, perhaps, have been ignored or taken less than seriously. I think here an example is the 1619 Project, although it cuts both ways. I’m a critic of the 1619 Project. I think that the effort to – And people will accuse me of being unfair to the supporters of that project – But I think the notion of contriving a new narrative of American history that basically revolves around the African American experience goes too far. That doesn’t say that it’s wrong. I think it’s not wrong. And I think the positive aspect of the 1619 Project – And it’s achieving great success in that regard – Is that it does belatedly provide due acknowledgement of the place of Black Americans in our history, going all the way back to the founding of Anglo America in the early part of the 17th century.
So Black Americans are no longer a footnote. They’re no longer the people we say, well, we credit them for the creation of jazz. Or, wasn’t Jackie Robinson a wonderful guy? That they now become integral to the larger narrative. I guess my problem is that integral to the narrative should not mean taking over the narrative, that there is another story. And I think a proper appreciation of history would certainly acknowledge the role of African Americans since the founding of Anglo America. But also, we have to keep all the white guys in, and all the white women, and all the ethnic groups, and everybody else. It’s a complex story and we shouldn’t try to oversimplify it.
Chris Hedges: Well, I don’t want to get into a debate on the 1619 Project. However, it’s not just about Blacks or African Americans, it’s about the institution of slavery as a social and an economic force and the reverberations of that institution, which white historians have sought to erase.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I’ll disagree with you a little bit. I don’t think they’ve sought to – Well, they tried to erase it until sometime in the 20th century, then I think it was acknowledged, but it tended to be treated as a peripheral issue. And the 1619 – Maybe I’m wrong – The 1619 Project says, no, it’s not peripheral, it’s central. And frankly, I’m willing to acknowledge central. I’m not willing to acknowledge dominant.
Chris Hedges: Well, but it took until the ’50s till you got historians like Kenneth Stamp, Leon Litwack –
Andrew Bacevich: John Whit Franklin.
Chris Hedges: And then you had W. E. B. Du Bois, of course, but Du Bois was kind of pushed out of that narrative.
I want to talk about this, of what you call the present American moment. And you raised this question about, when it’s clear that a war is a mistake – We know from the Afghan papers that the policy makers and the military leaders understood that they were never going to quote-unquote, “win,” in Afghanistan. The same thing that they understood, we know, from the Vietnam War through the Pentagon Papers. But you ask why those in power insist on its perpetuation regardless of the costs and consequences. And that’s a question I want you to try and answer.
Andrew Bacevich: It’s because they’re in power. They want to remain in power. And if George W. Bush had gone on national TV circa what, 2004, 2005, he went on TV and said, I got a great idea. It’s called the surge, and we’re going to persist. If he’d gone on TV and said, boy, we screwed up. This is a disaster, and I’m responsible for this disaster. Well, this would’ve been an act of great courage on his part, but it would’ve been quite surprising, because President George W. Bush, like every other president down to and including President Biden, sought power, achieved power, and will cling to power as long as possible. Not because they’re evil people, but because that’s the way politics works. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much dishonesty that permeates our politics, because the perceived penalties of honesty are unacceptable.
Chris Hedges: But why does Obama perpetuate it? He didn’t start it. It wasn’t his war.
Andrew Bacevich: Well [laughs], we’d have to ask him, I guess, but I think my answer is that we see frequent references to the president of the United States as the most powerful person on the planet. I think that’s wildly misleading. Whoever is US president actually wields pretty limited power. You and I could make a pretty long list of the things that presidents can’t do, might want to do but are unable to do because they are constrained. Constrained by circumstance globally, constrained by other nations, but they’re also constrained by circumstances at home.
And I think President Obama, who I hold in high regard, was an acutely intelligent politician who understood the constraints that he labored under and, to a large degree, accepted them. Now, we might regret that. We might say, God, I wish Obama had pushed harder to bring about the kind of change that he seemed to want. But I think that, at the end of the day, whether ’cause he was being advised or whether this was his own thinking, he conformed, he went along, he accepted the constraints. And I think that’s a reality of American politics. I suppose it’s a reality of politics wherever you are.
Chris Hedges: You draw parallels between the Vietnam War and Iraq. I’m just going to run through them quickly and then have you comment. You say both were avoidable, both turned out to be superfluous. Both were costly distractions. In each instance, political leaders in Washington and senior commanders in the field collaborated in committing grievous blunders. Thanks to that incompetence, both devolved into self-inflicted quagmires. Both conflicts left behind a poisonous legacy of unrest, rancor, and bitterness – Although perhaps more so Vietnam. And finally, with both political and military elites alike, preferring simply to move on, neither war has received a proper accounting. To what extent has that inability to learn the lessons of Vietnam contributed to the debacles that we have repeated since Vietnam?
Andrew Bacevich: I think to a very great extent. Now, I wouldn’t have said that, I think, 20 or 25 years ago. My own appreciation of Vietnam has substantially evolved, so that several of those items that you ticked off reflect the position I have more or less recently come to. When I was a serving soldier, very much accepting the framework of the Cold War as the proper lens to examine and think about international politics, it was possible to conclude that the Vietnam War was necessary. If you took seriously what turns out to be bogus, but if you took seriously the notion that there was this thing called monolithic communism that posed a threat to the well-being of the United States and of our allies, then you can make the case that it was necessary for the US to employ US forces to try to prevent the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam.
From where we are today, all of that is utterly bogus, and really makes you want to weep. I mean, that our leaders fell for such a load of crap, sold it to the American people, who bought it. We’re conscious of the anti-war movement. Okay, let’s be conscious of the number of American soldiers who were told to go fight in Southeast Asia and said, yes sir, yes sir, and followed orders. 58,000 people were killed, and we’re just talking the Americans. The number of Vietnamese killed, of course, was orders of magnitude greater, and for what? For nothing.
I’m meandering here, but I guess my point is that sometimes, at least for somebody like me, it takes a while to come to a proper understanding of the event and to put it in a historical context that is, if not entirely true, at least closer to the truth than what back in the day we were getting from Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and Dean Ruskin and William Westmoreland. But sometimes it takes a while to figure all that out.
Chris Hedges: Well, but those who do figure it out at the time – And I think this really represents your marginalization – Those who do figure it out in the moment and decry it are pushed to the margins.
Andrew Bacevich: I think that’s true. I think that’s true. The power of the establishment, the influence of the establishment, the power of those myths that we referred to a little while ago, makes it very difficult to advance an alternative point of view and have it be embraced and accepted. And I think we have seen that over and over and over again with the most pernicious results.
Chris Hedges: Well, you have a media that won’t disseminate it. We’re getting to the end, and I just want to read a passage you write towards the end of the book, “I am by temperament a conservative, and a traditionalist wary of revolutionary movements that more often than not end up being hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than pursuing high ideals. Yet, even I am prepared to admit that the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Incremental change will not suffice. The challenge of the moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to irresponsibility.” Can you explain what you mean by all that?
Andrew Bacevich: [Laughs] I mean, I guess the pertinent question is what does this radicalism look like?
Chris Hedges: Well, exactly.
Andrew Bacevich: What does this radical –
Chris Hedges: Yeah, there you go.
Andrew Bacevich: I’m not sure I know, Chris. It took me a while to reach the conclusion that incremental change just isn’t going to hack it. I think that probably it was the Trump period that brought me to that conclusion. I’ve never believed that Trump himself is as important as the many in the mainstream media seem to want to pretend. But I think that the Trump moment, this nationalist populist reaction from the right signals that the republic is in serious danger. And I don’t know that incrementalism – Joe Biden is an incrementalist – I don’t know that incrementalist offers a sufficient response to what we experienced when Trump was riding high. But I don’t have the six-point plan that is going to move the country back in a better direction. I wish I did, but I don’t.
Chris Hedges: Well, doesn’t it look something like FDR, the New Deal?
Andrew Bacevich: Well… I don’t know. I mean, yes in the sense that’s, in my estimation, I think in many people’s estimation, he was far and away the most effective reformer of the 20th century down to the present moment. And that he himself was not a radical. In many respects he was a reformer. He had to reform the system in order to save the system. And he did that with not perfect skill, but very considerable skill. On the other hand, Chris, it’s not 1933. We are not the nation that we were in 1933 – 1933 being the year that the New Deal began. And so, as much as I admire what Roosevelt accomplished, and I genuinely do, I’m not sure that the New Deal actually serves as a proper blueprint.
Chris Hedges: Well, because we’re post-industrial –
Andrew Bacevich: Primarily in the realm –
Chris Hedges: We’re a post-industrial society. That would be a big difference.
Andrew Bacevich: That’s one big difference, I think. And also, the New Deal was designed to benefit white people.
Chris Hedges: Well, yes.
Andrew Bacevich: It was a predominantly white society, and Roosevelt treated African Americans as an afterthought. They were not excluded from the benefits of the New Deal, but certainly African Americans – Or, we say African Americans, or Brown Americans, or Native Americans, or Asian Americans, their interest did not figure in a large way in Roosevelt’s agenda. And today, a reform program would have to be far more inclusive, I think, than was the New Deal.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Andrew Bacevich, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, Darian Jones, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.