America's Empire and Endless Wars Are Destroying the World, and Ruining Our Great Country
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Andrew Bacevich speaks with a fairly unique mix of experience, authority, passion and wisdom in questioning our nation’s priorities: specifically our willingness to place so much of our national identity, wealth, attention, moral practice, and finally the life and blood of many thousands of our citizens and millions of those of other countries in the hands of our military. A professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich served twenty-three years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of colonel. He lost his son in Iraq. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. He is the author of several books, including The New American Militarism; The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism; and his newest, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.
McNally: Your book, Washington Rules, opens with a moment that you offer as a turning point: could you share that experience?
Bacevich: The moment occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was still in the army at the time. I’d spent a considerable time serving in Germany with my family, but this was the first time we visited Berlin. I wanted to visit the Brandenburg Gate, because for me, it had been for decades this quintessential symbol of international politics in our time. Late on a rainy, very cold winter night, we approached the Gate from the old East Berlin side and found young men huddled between its columns peddling bits and pieces of Soviet military gear: buttons, hats, parts of uniforms. I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet tank corps, which broke about two weeks later. It was all junk, and the men, who clearly were off-duty Russian soldiers, looked anything but ten feet tall.
At that moment – I’m not going to say my worldview was suddenly transformed – but certain seeds of doubt were planted. I began to wonder if I had misperceived the “other” that I was now confronting for the first time. As I considered that possibility, I began to entertain the possibility that I had misperceived many other things, and so began an intellectual journey that has continued now for about 20 years.
McNally: You set forth on a process of inquiry and self-education to learn what had been obscured to you in the past. You began this process while you were still in the military?
Bacevich: Well, I left the army maybe two years later, and that’s when the questions began to come fast and furious. I came to realize – and it’s not some startling insight – that when you exist inside of an institution, particularly an institution that has an all-encompassing role such as a religious order or the military, it’s very difficult to view that institution critically. It’s very difficult even to understand some of the assumptions that define the institution’s view of truth. It’s only when you’re able to stand apart from the institution, that critical thought becomes possible. When I left the army in 1992, the process of seeking to identify and to answer first order questions really began.
McNally: What do you mean by first order questions?
Bacevich: A couple of the first order questions that have preoccupied me: What exactly drives US policy? What makes us do what we do with regard to the rest of the world?
As a young boy growing up and as a serving officer, I generally accepted the official view that we did what we did because it was necessary to respond to external threat: that our policy in a sense was defensive and reactive. I subsequently came to believe that’s not true. We do what we do largely in response to domestic, political, economic and ideological imperatives, and the motive for US policy emerges from within; it does not come from without.