Old Glory

This collection of essays constitutes a how-to manual for people who sense something deeply wrong with the current bipartisan consensus on American power, but can’t quite articulate what it is. Bacevich, a Boston University professor and frequent Commonweal contributor, calls this book “a dissenter’s guide to the American Century,” and that’s quite apt. One of the leading standard-bearers for a certain pessimistic strain of Burkean conservatism, Bacevich is broadly skeptical of our political parties’ embrace of mass consumerism, the national security state, and America as a “world leader.” Having spent most of the past decade and a half following William F. Buckley’s famous pledge to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop,’” Bacevich warns that this book does not aim to “prop up American self-esteem.” That’s for sure.

The ten essays in this collection (two of them by Bacevich himself) are loosely structured around Time and Life founder Henry Luce’s idea of the “American Century,” expounded in a February 1941 essay of the same name. On the eve of World War II, Luce argued that America in the twentieth century should be “the Good Samaritan of the world,” the “powerhouse from which ideals spread,” “lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.” America should and would lead the world—not just economically and militarily, but morally too.

This book’s essential response to Luce’s vision of American exceptionalism is to insist that America isn’t really all that special. In fact, not all of Bacevich’s contributors believe there was such a thing as the American Century—Walter LaFeber argues convincingly that American power and influence was never as great as you learned in grade school. But they do agree with Bacevich that if there ever was an American Century, “that moment has definitively passed”—brought low by errors these essays attribute variously to imperial overreach and the mass slaughter of brown people in foreign countries (Nikhil Paul Singh), consumerism and debt (Emily S. Rosenberg, Eugene McCarraher, and Bacevich himself), globalization (Akira Iriye and Jeffry A. Frieden), and, of course, the Bush administration and its neoconservative embrace of unilateralism (almost everyone, especially Bacevich and David M. Kennedy).

Unfortunately, for a book targeting Luce’s midcentury assertion of American exceptionalism, most of the essayists deal unconvincingly with the problems that confronted the America of that era. (Kennedy’s essay, which explains how World War II shaped our way of war, and advocates emulating the leaders of that era today, is an important exception.) In Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, this nation faced two regimes unmatched in their ability to inflict mass cruelty on humankind. With the world’s democracies in retreat, and America mired in a seemingly endless recession, many people believed that some form of authoritarianism would eventually prevail, and not liberal democracy. Luce’s American Century has to be understood in light of that fact. The central problem of the twentieth century—industrialized totalitarian evil—cannot be ignored in any analysis of the role the United States has played internationally since the middle of the century.

Despite this central historical reality, Bacevich is disdainful of the “so-called Good War,” charging those who celebrate it with “the careful selection and arrangement of facts, with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths excluded, suppressed, or simply ignored.” He rightly notes the huge role the Soviets played in beating Hitler’s Germany, the massive civilian casualties inflicted by the allies’ aerial bombing campaigns, the widespread postwar amnesty for Nazi rocket scientists, and America’s general indifference to and failure to stop the wholesale slaughter of European Jewry. These are powerful rhetorical points. Yet when the dust settles, it is Bacevich’s own revisionism—which too often seems to place the allies’ moral failings in moral equivalence with their enemies’—that ignores uncomfortable truths.

Most Americans see World War II as the “Good War” because, on balance, it was. By almost any test, it was legitimate. America was attacked and faced a serious, perhaps existential threat; Congress voted to declare war; and the American public supported the war effort. It’s impossible to envision how the world would be a better place today if America had chosen to remain uninvolved. Politics is always about choosing the lesser evil, and we can and should argue about the morality of individual tactics—aerial bombing, amnesty for rocket scientists, and the like. But the allies’ moral failings can’t possibly outweigh the moral calamity that would have resulted from Hitler’s regime ruling Europe and Tojo’s Japan dominating eastern Asia.

The Short American Century leads readers into other dead ends. Bacevich mistakenly tries to dismiss Pearl Harbor—and the September 11 attacks—by suggesting that Japan, and by implication Osama bin Laden, were provoked by American policy. Yet the grievances of those who attacked the United States are only one part of any moral analysis of the U.S. response in each instance. Bacevich and other contributors spend a great deal of time cataloguing the Bush administration’s foreign-policy mistakes. For instance, the hubristic Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the neocon-led group that pushed for the invasion of Iraq, makes an appearance in most of these essays. Yet Bacevich and the others draw far too straight a line between Bush’s misadventures and the rest of recent U.S. foreign policy, including that of Barack Obama. They would do well to note David Kennedy’s reminder that Truman and Roosevelt “asked only that the world be made safe for democracy, not that the entire world forcibly be made democratic.” It’s an important distinction, and one that this volume too often elides.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot that’s convincing in this book’s “postmortem”—gloomily so. Bacevich notes quite rightly that America has been unable to predict the outcome of many of its policies, unable to control the course of the wars it starts or even its own economy, unable to pay for just about anything, unable to respond effectively to national and international crises, and “unable to comprehend what God intends or the human heart desires, with little to indicate that the information age...the impact of globalization...or the forces of corporate capitalism...will provide answers.” Faced with these colossal failures, Bacevich argues, Americans should reel in their expectations and seek “self-knowledge” and “self-understanding.” In short, we’d do well to realize we’re not all that great.

Fair enough. But although Bacevich and his collaborators present a compelling indictment of American culture and politics, they don’t offer much in the way of solutions. Sure, “be more humble” is usually good advice. But it’s hard to reconcile personal humility with the desire to change what you think is wrong in your country and your world. The pessimist-conservative can stand athwart history and yell stop, confident that change will only make things worse. Liberals, however, have to wrestle with the—yes, sometimes naïve—desire to make things better. We see consumerism and call for ad-free public television programming. We see environmental depredation and call for carbon taxes. We see unilateral war and call for more international security cooperation. Our answers may sometimes be wrong, but they express a faith—largely absent in Bacevich’s book—in man’s ability to improve his lot. For a liberal like me, it’s easy to see that Andrew Bacevich is right about many of the problems America faces. The trouble is figuring out how to fix them.

Liberals—diehard relativists that we are!—also like to ask, “compared with what?” Along these lines it is worth noting that European social democracies, which many American liberals would like this country to emulate, also have trouble winning wars, protecting the environment, and predicting the future. (And surely no government can tell us what the Almighty intends or reveal the secrets of the human heart.) Yet Europe is also a place with more social mobility, fewer disastrous foreign wars, and more respect for human rights than the United States. It is a place where people do not die for lack of health insurance. These are qualities to admire, and their existence abroad serves as proof that they are achievable.

In the end it is worth saying that America, despite Bacevich’s protestations, is in fact unique. We are the most diverse society on the face of the earth. Three years ago, we elected as president a man who would have found it difficult to vote in much of this country just a few decades earlier. Progress is real, and people working together toward a common goal can achieve it. America often makes mistakes—even catastrophic ones. But the misguided ambition, widespread greed, and breathtaking incompetence that gave us things like the Iraq war and the global financial crisis don’t mean America should give up on “Yes we can.” The mystery of God’s will and the unpredictability of the future should not keep us from trying to do the right thing.

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Nick Baumann is senior enterprise editor at The Huffington Post.

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